An Interview with Youssef Rakha

a bilingual writer of fiction and non-fiction, a photographer and a chronicler of Cairo, Egypt.


I first learned of Youssef Rakha in the summer of 2013. I was in Cairo at the time and the army had recently overthrown president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's first democratically elected leader since the revolution of 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them angry at what they saw as the increasingly authoritarian and Islamist nature of Morsi's rule, had taken to the streets to demand his resignation. The New York Times published an op-ed written by Youssef in which he described the army's actions as painful but necessary. I was staying just down the street from Tahrir Square where supporters of the army had gathered. Many were openly calling for the slaughter of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who had occupied two squares in Cairo, al-Nahda and Rabaa. The army eventually moved in and killed upwards of 1000 people.

(Youssef addresses these events in the interview and a link to the NY Times piece can be found there)

When I returned to Cairo in 2015 Youssef's name popped up again. I learned that he was a well respected novelist and I found several of his articles online. Each one was thoughtful and providing of a perspective that couldn't be confined to the rigid categories of common discourse (e.g. left vs. right, pro-military vs anti-coup etc). Long story short, we eventually connected via social media and he kindly agreed to an interview.

All photographs were taken by Youssef in Cairo.


I was just rereading your article in the LA Review of Books, ‘ISIS, Hollywood,Islam. There’s a lot there to unpack, but perhaps we can start with something you wrote near the end; “No one is seriously confronting the dismal failure of the Arab Spring as a democratic experiment, or what that failure implies for the way the world works.” What do you believe it implies for the way the world works?

It may be that this is a historical truism, but I suppose I was thinking of the fact that you cannot actively aspire to political freedom anywhere in the world today without also endorsing some unfree system of control. It’s paradoxical. What “revolution” implies in practise is almost always something completely reactionary: the rise of political Islam, say, or greater integration into the dictatorship of global finance and hence greater willingness to accept the crimes – economic and political – of the reigning world order. More fundamentally, however, in the Arab world what the downfall of repressive postcolonial regimes has meant is either (sectarian) civil war or an immediate reinstatement of the status quo ante. I could never have seen this with such clarity in 2010, and so I feel it is a lesson learned from the Arab Spring: any talk of democratic transformation needs to first address questions of cultural evolution – secularism, and economic power – individual sovereignty. Otherwise people will bulk-vote for their sect or tribe, votes will be bought and elections will become meaningless. That seems glaringly obvious, and it’s how an essentially undemocratic force like political Islam can win elections. But more importantly if you think that by “peacefully demonstrating” on the streets for a few days or a few months you can divest a ruling class, especially a tyrannical or a criminal ruling class of economic and political powers that it takes for granted – well, then you’re just being silly, aren’t you. You’re also likely to be contributing to your country collapsing into violence and chaos. Thinking of Syria in particular, I’ve come to feel that ninety-nine percent of the discourse of revolution – democracy, equality, freedom – is either criminally irresponsible or criminally disingenuous.

But if we’re truly willing to learn from the failure of the Arab Spring, I think what it can teach us is that the liberal worldview – human rights, universal principles, people power – is not a very realistic or useful one, that if anything it provides a civilised cover for all kinds of lies and injustices. And it makes it easy to blame all kinds of horrors not on their beneficiaries and instigators – the arms traders, for example – but on the presumed inferiority of the people who suffer them: vast swathes of humanity whose only ostensible fault is that they do not have the same value system. This is not to absolve the tyrants of their tyranny or the fanatics of their fanaticism, but it’s important not to confuse such failures and faults with what liberalism has to say about them. Of course the lesson that the liberal worldview and its attendant discourses is not or is no longer useful was further demonstrated by Brexit and the Trump win, which reflect a disaffection within the imperial mainland, as it were, very similar to that of the colonies.

 

 

In 'Voltaire's Bastards' John Ralston Saul argues that “the pinning down and splitting up of language into feudal states” (e.g. economists and their highly specialized jargon) have made it impossible for individuals to participate in society. We lack the language (and therefore ideas) to discuss our current predicament and imagine an alternative future. Perhaps this is partly explains the appeal of someone like Trump.

What does individual sovereignty mean to you in a world largely organized by the dictates of the market place, where our notion of individualism seems superficial?

I think that’s one aspect of Voltaire’s bastardisation, yes. But I think maybe the idea that everyone can be equal in this direct, mathematical way was doomed from the start. It could be that the liberal ideology in this broad sense is more of a legitimate child of Voltaire’s. In our times equality has taken the form of compulsive (self)labelling, among other things: you exist not as a human being but as the representative of a race, culture, religion, sexuality, whatever. And once again what you represent becomes more important than who you individually are. There is a paper by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition”, that beautifully describes this process, which is bad not only because it makes tribal/sectarian conflicts and divisions look like civilised exchanges but also because it empties whatever identity you happen to have inherited of substance. It reduces the collective “you” to a dress code or a dietary restriction. It isolates and prevents you from evolving. It forces you to fossilise.

In a sense, of course, all this can be traced back to the Enlightenment. Replace the Patriarch with a completely un-empathic, wantonly unjust and ever more inaccessible force called Science,reduce value to material and eventually monetary worth, let “market forces”make life difficult for all but a fraction of society/humanity – take sovereignty away from both the individual and the community, in other words –and what do you end up with but an insane backfiring of identities? Identity backfires in the form of prepackaged social categories, but it also backfires as populism, fanaticism, war.

More narrowly I think that being present in a place like Egypt at this point in time – and being present as neither an anthropologist who will sooner or later leave nor an undifferentiated expression of identity unaware of the world around it; being present, in other words, as a fully implicated subject– makes it possible to see liberalism’s discontents with as much clarity as nationalism’s or fundamentalism’s. That’s why it can be terribly frustrating to try to talk about these things without being appropriated by some political agenda, called fascist by liberals or reactionary by leftists. In one apolitical Egyptian’s mind, the global order can become not a set of beliefs and discourses but a way to understand how the vast majority of people in the Arab world must remain sectarian and dependent and why there is little to be done.

 

 

Shortly after the American election you tweeted, “Hope my American friends can turnaway while I dance over the mutilated corpse of liberalism”. Is liberalism dead? And if so why are you dancing on its corpse?

I don’t think liberalism is dead. It seems to me that it’s time the world started to think past “democracy”, which is looking more and more like a procedure emptied of substance. But I doubt we’ll see anything like the end of liberalism before the ice caps melt. In the broader sense you and I have been using the term, though, it’s important to say that Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Sisi, even Putin are still products of liberalism, even if they’re also its avowed archenemies. Of course in the tweet you cite I was thinking of the other end of the liberal spectrum: the “multicultural”, left-wing, essentially Foucaultian position which in its concern for Muslim minorities in the West and its enthusiasm for the Arab Spring had privileged political Islam to a truly infuriating extent. I guess I have something of an axe to grind with this position, and so its defeat in the election was an occasion to gloat. But it’s only symptomatic; you might want to read this article, written long before. It is also worth quoting my next tweet that day, which lists the discursive types representing the position in question: “Sectarian apologists, PC fascists, HR clowns, closet jihadis, democratarians…”

In the end I think we have to confront this paradox: how practises and discourses which in the liberal West look like rights, freedoms or ways to embrace difference are actually, in their own contexts, the worst forms of oppression, coercion and denial of the other imaginable.

All of which brings to mind the liberal obsession with democracy: how hollow it rings in the Arab context, and how the Trump win has reinforced its hollowness. Democracy is a wonderful thing, of course, but Westerners need to think about the fact that it’s also what Iraq looks like fourteen years after “liberation” and what Libya has become post-Gaddafi; that’s democracy. It’s not so hard, from Cairo, to see even what’s happening in Syria as democracy’s dreaded advent. In the Arab context, democracy has not unreasonably become synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism, the associated fanatical excesses and terrorist activities and the breakdown of state structures. So before they get self-righteously apoplectic and start regurgitating “humanity”, and before they can be so absolutely, smugly sure of their ideas about what is politically good for the Arab world, I think Westerners and Arabs who parrot them should make an effort to recognise how prone to sectarianism and war these countries remain, compared to the European or American models being held up to them, and what an impossibly delicate balance it takes to keep them functioning at all.

Consider an event like the one reported on here: self-appointed arbiters wagging their fingers at “the authoritarian turn” of their peers simply because those peers have not objected to the army stepping in, very arguably to prevent civil war. You might lose your way in the details of the report but in the end that’s basically what’s going on. The discussion comes down to some bourgeois Foucault-wannabe taking a down-to-earth, lifelong dissident like Sonallah Ibrahim to task for not defending those who would execute them both without a moment’s hesitation. Or – another example – high-profile Arabs who always promote national independence and rule of law drafting a statement in which they beseech President Obama to intervene to (presumably extra-judicially) release star activists sent to jail by Egyptian courts of law. Of course those people just happen to be the same star activists’ family and friends, right?

More generally I feel the tendency to hold the ballot box literally sacred when it is obviously failing to perform its function is absurd. Surely people realise that democratic procedure is a means to political representation and/or participation, not an end in itself, and if conditions are such that the ballots have turned into a way for undemocratic forces to take control… But the liberal insistence on procedure – and the reflexive aversion to any military involvement in politics, however necessary in context – turns out to be a little fundamentalist in itself. I mean, imagine that a force like the MB comes to power in a country like Egypt and then decides to do away with elections altogether, or to impose theological conditions on the way elections will henceforth be held, or to turn the country into an ISIS province subject to ISIS law, would it be appropriate for the army to step in then – assuming the army hasn’t already been coopted – or would that still be an unacceptable concession to “authoritarianism” and an unjustified attack on “civilians”? And what if the ballot box is actively contributing to the collapse of the state apparatus – which is precisely what happened in Algeria in the nineties, by the way – do we still object to the army keeping the peace?

In the end liberals can wag their fingers all they want, it remains infinitely less moral to endorse an Algerian/Syrian scenario than to betray democratic procedure, especially when it is in the service not just of undemocratic but of fascist ends.

 

 

Well let’s take this opportunity to discuss political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and what you see as Western support for both, whether tacit or direct. Back in July of 2013 you wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times titled 'Egypt Shows How Political Islam Is at Odds With Democracy’. This was not long after the army, under the direction of General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected government, one that was lead by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to describing the reasons you saw this as painful but necessary, you stated the Army had no desire to govern directly. About a month after you wrote this article the army massacred as many as 1000 pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and Sisi remains in power till this day. People and organizations of all political stripes have since been the victims of state repression. Can you walk me through some of this? Why is that political Islam, whether in Syria of Egypt, has largely come to dominate organized opposition to Arab regimes? What do you see as the danger of political Islam and how has it been privileged by the Western left? Perhaps you can also discuss the legitimacy of state violence and the continuation of military rule in Egypt.

So it evidently needs to be said again: the overthrow of the MB was a popular and “revolutionary” demand carried out by the army, which is the only party with enough power and authority to implement such decisions. In Egypt there could have been no Arab Spring in the first place without military intervention in favour of the protests; this is a crucial fact often omitted from sympathetic accounts of the January Revolution. Nobody had objected to the army removing Mubarak or presiding over Islamist-dominated elections, so how was Morsi’s ouster any different? (30 June–1 July 2013 incidentally had infinitely more popular support than 25 January–11 February 2011.)I mean, if Morsi’s ouster is a coup d’etat then why isn’t Mubarak’s? And what do people mean when they describe a political development as a coup d’etat anyway, given that “coup d’etat” has been the status quo since 1952? Activists claim there is no difference between religious and military despotism but,however fair that sounds, it is simply not true. Religious despotism would include a probably even more absolute version of the military despotism we have now, along with all kinds of social, intellectual and cultural despotism as well. Military despotism can become part of religious despotism, not vice versa.

Of course “Egypt’s first civil democratically elected president” is just Arab Spring propaganda. If the 2012 election was a “free” presidential election then so was the 2005 election that enabled Mubarak to overstay his welcome for a fourth term, and even the 2014 election that brought Sisi to power: none of these were tampered with, but none escaped the financial and security conditions of the time in which they took place.

I had believed, perhaps naively but not I think implausibly, that after Morsi’s ouster Sisi would rest content with remaining commander of the army, declare that he wasn’t running for the presidency and so silence the sycophants and let a slightly more meaningful presidential election take place. I was of course mistaken!

The Nahda-Rabaa protests are their own story. I have no idea why so many people had to be killed even if some protesters did fire at the police. And the truth is that nothing has advanced the MB-Islamist-Arab Spring agenda of making a sincere and popular move to oust the MB look like an army-engineered political manoeuvre more than those killings. Still, you have to understand, this was no spontaneous, freedom-loving, peaceful sit-in of “revolutionary forces” who could claim the moral high ground with any degree of credibility. No, this was an organised, militia-like, jihadi-dominated urban disruption designed to antagonise society and instigate (official) violence at home while exporting the lie that here were freedom fighters persecuted by Pinochet (through staging injuries and parading orphanage children in shrouds as “martyrs on demand”, among other things). Everyone – activists, liberals and leftists who rail against the massacre today– had openly pleaded with the interim government to end the protests, which were terrorising residents and passers by and (through violent groups in Sinai and elsewhere) openly threatening national security. Frankly I fail to see how Rabaa can ever stand for anything remotely noble or humane. Which is not to absolve the police of unnecessary bloodshed, although – perhaps understandably?– it’s no more likely for those responsible to be taken to court than it is for George W or Netanyahu to be tried for war crimes.

I don’t know to what extent the West can be said to support political Islam. Certainly the West has been more than happy to essentialise “Islamic” identity along the same lines and to see Islamists as the legitimate representatives of Muslims at large, whether positively (by endorsing “moderates” in the hope of protecting itself against “radicals”) or negatively (by suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists). And, thanks to Islamist propaganda effectively stimulating humanitarian and left-wing pleasure spots – the West, at least the liberal West has largely adopted the MB narrative of events since 2013. Having seen their Washington-led governments do all they’ve done since 2001 (not to mention older crimes), having presided over the complete destruction of Syria and Libya since 2011, sectarian apologists, PC fascists, HR clowns, closet jihadis and democratarians both Western and Westernised still had the nerve to lecture me on military dictatorship and the killing of “innocent civilians”! In the end we mustn’t forget how the US helped to create political Islam (notably in Afghanistan during the Cold War, with help from Mubarak among other Arab leaders), how it has consistently supported Saudi Arabia, the principal founder of Wahhabism in both its terrorist and apolitical varieties, and how together with Iran it has completely sectarianised the Levant.

None of which is to deny that Sisi’s regime(while far from being a military junta or a usurper of power) has been more repressive than Mubarak’s. Riding on post-MB conservatism and xenophobia, it has let the police get away with all manner of atrocities while practically eliminating civil society, making activism impossible and reaffirming the centrality of religion in the worst ways. All of which strikes me as long-term preparation for political Islam to rise again, and again: a way to ensure that the opposition will remain exclusively sectarian and theological. Besides which I want to make it very clear that, since 2014, I’ve found Sisi’s combination of Nasserist megalomania and beggar-mentality capitalism both ugly and dangerous, and I don’t feel the police-state and extrajudicial measures he has introduce dare in any way necessary or desirable. Then again, since I do not work in intelligence, I must also humbly concede that I might be mistaken. I was mistaken about the man wanting to be president but, more importantly, back in January 2011 when I excitedly participated in the mass protests that were to bring down Mubarak, I was even more mistaken about the will of Egyptian movers and shakers to see real change. This applies not only to “enlightened” older figures within the bureaucracy who had called for reform but also to the younger, web-savvy “revolutionaries” who decided to take such calls to the street. Neither group really wanted change.

Change does not mean making the transition from a military- to a politician-dominated power structure (and so giving the political process the kind of procedural legitimacy required by the West). If the Islamists remained in a position to dominate the ballots, such procedural legitimacy could result in a state apparatus that retains all the horrors of the status quo while adding to them the horrors of Wahhabism, providing all manner of jihadis, salafis and fundamentalists with political cover indefinitely. What change means is breaking the president-patriarch paradigm and normalising not only political but cultural, social and religious multiplicity. And the truth is that not enough people in Egypt want these things for them to be on the cards. For me this has been the principal, devastating lesson of the Arab Spring.

What a sizeable number of people do want, whether or not they are fully aware of the implications, is to let “democracy” become a stepping stone to an airtight totalitarian theocracy that is dangerous, yes, at least more dangerous than “military dictatorship”, for many reasons: (1) because, to a far greater extent and with far more ease, it will reinforce and legitimise society’s existing premodern impulses (misogyny, sectarianism, violence and despotism); (2) because, unlike a military-man president, it can make fundamental, irreversible changes to the state structure to eliminate what secularism or equality there is and make it impossible to reintroduce them; and, most importantly, (3) because judging by the MB’s year in power, it is likely to antagonise bureaucrats, reduce the scope of rule of law (by breaking the state’s monopoly on force, for example) and disastrously destabilise security.

This leaves us with your most relevant question: why is the opposition Islamist? I’d say political Islam is the latest in a string of more or less disastrous formulations of identity in reaction to colonialism. I’d say it has as much to do with feelings of inferiority and impotence in the face of the West as anything, and the pre–1989 idea of socialist-communist resistance being absorbed into a more atavistic, sectarian hatred, and Islam being historically a religion of conquest. It doesn’t have half as much to do with economic and educational decline as pundits and political scientists like to suggest.

 

 

In Syria too opposition to the Assad regime has been largely dominated by fundamentalist groups. You mentioned earlier in our conversation that much of the discourse of revolution in Syria is criminally disingenuous &irresponsible. Can you tell me what you meant by that?

Syria is a textbook case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. It’s symptomatic of mainstream/liberal blindness that– while the good guy-bad guy division is very clear in people’s minds – nobody seems to see that, even if a secular, democratic revolution were to win the war this minute, it would still take another fifty years at least for things to begin to look anything like what they were before 2011 (all the faults included!) That is of course assuming there is enough (international) money and good will to disband and deport non-Syrian jihadis, rebuild the country and reanimate the dead economy. And even then what do you do about the dead? The millions on millions forced out of their homes? The architecture and the archeology destroyed? Besides which one is also compelled to ask, All this for what, exactly? All this so that some essentially sectarian pro-American force can take over from the Russian-supported mafia in charge while Westerners playact “revolution”?

I think Syria is important for what it says about the Arab Spring: (1) that when you try to dislodge an anti-West, old-school dictatorship like the Assads’ (or Gaddafi’s) – as opposed to a pro-West pseudo-dictatorship like Mubarak’s (or Ben Ali’s) – you fall into the trap of armed conflict and end up with an open-ended civil war; (2) that in a state of political fluidity, instead of “freedom” and “equality” and all those right-sounding liberal things, what Arab societies wedged between Saudi and Iranian spheres of influence will automatically produce is fundamentalism; (3) that beyond a certain degree of armed conflict there can no longer be a moral high ground, because violence not only defeats the purpose of “revolution” but also makes it indistinguishable from the counterrevolution; and (4) that there really is no hope for the Arab countries at the level of governance, change must start in the culture and the mind before it can be politically translated.

But for me Syria is even more important for demonstrating how, under global liberalism, the freedom fighter becomes just as implicated in the horror as the oppressor. In very obvious ways – by embracing armed conflict and actively sectarianising the issue, for example – it seems tome the freedom fighter too has created the present picture: millions dead and displaced, some of the region’s greatest historical sites irreparably damaged and a once very secure, very peaceful and very affordable country turned into an arena for the dirtiest, ugliest intra-Muslim sectarian war in modern history. People who are committed to overthrowing the Assad regime – like Arab Spring heroes everywhere – are not as interested in the reality or meaning of daily life as they are in maintaining the liberal rhetoric of freedom and equality even though they are fully aware that what these terms translate to is Islamic fundamentalism. Ruling classes will fight to the death to maintain their privileges, and given democracy’s track record in the region can you really be sure that things will improve once these criminals are gone? Anyway they too have sectarian affiliations, so declaring the jihad helps no one.

But perhaps in the end none of this really matters. In Syria as elsewhere, perhaps all that the debate comes down to is whether or not you believe that religion should have a place in governance. For at least two centuries in the Middle East and north Africa excluding the Gulf, the position on this has been “undecided”. Now what the liberals have been fighting for, in practice, is changing this position to “yes”. As I’ve said, I do not work in intelligence and I might be mistaken about all kinds of things, but if I know anything at all about life here I know I don’t want that to happen.

 

 

Civil war, fanaticism, melting ice caps, Donald Trump, neoliberalism, failed revolutions, populism; this is all enough to make anyone’s head spin and be left feeling helpless and fearful. What can any one individual do amidst all of the turmoil?

This is perhaps the most important question, and of course it’s the hardest one to think about. Human life probably always felt fraught and insecure, but I don’t think man-made armageddon was ever quite so conceivable as it is now; and it seems to me the original “liberal” dream of a humanity that transcends racial and religious divisions is farther than ever before from being realised, whether because that dream originated, ironically, within the racist and religious paradigm of European imperialism or because it is simply not a tenable premise. As the descendent of colonial subjects I am of course tempted to blame all the bad things on the West, but I also realise that what the West means, in practise – science, technology, neoliberalism – is where humanity has arrived, it’s the cutting edge of human civilisation regardless of heritage or skin colour, which means not just that we’re all implicated but also that we all have a duty to acknowledge the discontents of the civilisation we live under. Simply realising that despite inequalities and the imbalance of power everyone is in more or less the same position, maybe this is something we can all “do” as individuals. But for me dealing with the turmoil has always been about making sense of the world, trying to step back from a scene that I’ve been part of and look as hard and as dispassionately as I can at what’s there, what’s been and what will be there, trying to have no interest in the matter beyond what holds together as truth, because while we might not be capable of objectivity I think we can at least recognise and communicate a genuine interest in the truth rather than in the propagation of some kind of lie or another. So as an individual what I do is – I allow myself to be emotionally affected by issues that do not personally concern me, I think about those issues as if they did personally concern me, I arrive at some kind of conclusion – and then I write fiction about it…

Youssef runs a wonderful site called The Sultan's Seal which features photographs, poems, essays and fiction. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter

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