Khaled Al-Khamissi is the author of the bestseller Taxi in which he threads together conversations with Cairo’s taxi drivers, celebrating Egyptian popular culture while also delivering a bitterly honest critique of Egyptian society. In October 2009, Al-Khamissi published his second novel, Noah’s Arch. He is also a film director, producer and writer, and writes a weekly column for the daily newspaper, Al Shorouk.
In this interview, Mr. Khamissi spoke about the plight of the majority of poor Egyptians and their limited role in the uprising. “What happened [in Egypt]…was mainly a middle-class and upper middle-class movement,” he said. “The 60 percent of the population living under the line of poverty, they are till now waiting, seeing what happens.”
He also discussed the role of Egypt’s military in handling the transition. “They are doing the transition very badly,” Mr. Khamissi said of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been running the country since former President Hosni Mubarak’s demise. Even though the government will change, a new constitution will be adopted, and a new parliament elected, Mr. Khamissi said that not enough has been done to address the main concerns of the Egyptian population: social justice, education, and corruption.
Though he acknowledges that deep and lasting change in Egypt is still a distant dream, Mr. Khamissi is still optimistic. “I think that this process of citizenship and individuality will develop gradually over the next years, and finally, years from now, yes, this uprising will make a change for the political regime and for the economic regime and for real social justice.”
Mr. Khamissi also expressed his and others’ personal sense of obligation to contribute to the transition process. “I think everyone I know in the cultural world in Egypt feels this responsibility, feel they have to make an effort today," he said. "I wanted mainly to work on my novel, but it was impossible for me not to make a status every week, and the status is not enough, then I am on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on social media to have contact with hundreds or thousands of people every day. This is our role, all of us think. It's a must to do now."
The interview was conducted on November 15, 2011 by Eli Williams, Research Assistant, International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Eli Williams (EW): I am here with Khaled al-Khamissi, Egyptian author of the well-known work Taxi, as well as a journalist, film director, and producer. Mr. Khamisi, thank you for joining us here at the Global Observatory and giving us a few thoughts on the youth and cultural perspective of events happening in Egypt right now.
In your well-known work Taxi, you focus on a portion of the population that was very marginalized under the Mubarak government. Do you expect this to change? Does this caste of Egyptian society seem to have more agency now in the emerging political system? Do you see this caste of Egyptian society seem to have any more say now in the emerging political system than it did before?
Khaled al-Khamissi (KK): I spoke about mainly poor people in Egypt. Poor people in Egypt are approximately 60 percent of the population, and we have maybe 20 percent surviving, and 10 percent with some oxygen in their lungs, and 10 percent rich. If you speak about these 60 percent of the population, they are living under the line of poverty. Their roles in the uprising that happened this year, I can tell you that that they were not mainly involved with what happened. What happened, it was mainly a middle-class and upper middle-class movement, and the poor people, between brackets poor, the 60 percent of the population living under the line of poverty, they are till now waiting, seeing what happens.
With their wisdom, they are not very confident with anything. They are here to see what will happen. I can say that a big percentage are really happy that Mubarak left, but what is happening till now is nothing new. The regime is still the same, and we are all feeling the same, and the 60 percent of the population are waiting for real change, for real social justice, and this is not the case till now.
EW: Do you expect that to change in the future? Do you see that the emerging system, there's hope for them to have more of a say in how the society changes and progresses now?
KK: If we are speaking about what's happening now, no, nothing will happen for the 60 percent living under the line of poverty. But we cannot see what's happening now as the major facts of the sociological change. We have to see a little bit, macro.
Yes, I am very optimistic about what will happen in the next five to ten years, because what's happening this year, it's a beginning of a real change in the psychology of the Egyptian population, in the mood of the Egyptian population. The Egyptian population today—a big percentage of them, these 10-15 million in the streets of Egypt during the end of January and February, feel that they have the power to change, to make a change, they have the power to make a difference in their lives and in the political life. I think that this process of citizenship and individuality will develop gradually over the next years and finally, years from now, yes, this uprising will make a change for the political regime and for the economic regime and for real social justice. But this is a very long target from now; what's happening now is very far from what I am saying.
EW: There have been increased reports of protestors clashing with the military forces. Can you comment on the militaries performance in handling the transition so far, and what are the prospects for the future with the upcoming elections?
KK: If I can say what SCAF [Supreme Council of Armed Forces] did till now, they are doing very bad. They are doing the transition period very badly. They are not really professionals in politics, and they are trying their best to emerge a system the same, like the Mubarak system, the same foreign politics, the same economic politics, the same regime finally, with three main changes.
First, a president twice for four years, and he will go away, in the summer. Second, a new constitution. Third, parliament elections without corruption. Naturally, this is not enough at all for a change. The main problem was social justice; the main problem was the education system was totally in decline; corruption was very high; no jobs, etc. We had huge problems in society, and what's happening in the transition now is nothing to do with facing the main political and social and economic problems in Egypt. But they are trying to make a goal that has nothing to do with the goal of the Egyptian revolution.
EW: Often the picture that is painted is one of the intelligentsia being at odds with a more traditional, religious segment of society, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. What are your predictions for the future of Egyptian society, particularly in light of the fact that the formerly-banned Muslim Brotherhood is now able to participate in the political process?
KK: I think, personally, that the Army, after February, after the beginning of the transition period after Mubarak, they wanted to emerge a system totally related to the main foreign politics and economic politics. To do this, they needed a political power that can be a link between the Army and the Egyptian population. And they thought they had to make contact with political powers in Egypt, and they had to make deals with them.
At that time, they made, in my point of view for sure, a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, that the Muslim Brotherhood can be their hand, their bridge, their contact with the Egyptian population, to pass messages. These messages finally will totally promote the counter revolution, the counter demands of freedom and social justice. If I can summarize the demands, it was mainly these two things: freedom and social justice. Both are not at all taken seriously by the SCAF, and neither by the political powers in Egypt.
The political powers were totally weak, and they can accept, make deals, for some acceptance or for some political interest. At that time the Muslim Brotherhood made a deal with the Army, and the deal began by the Army choosing Tariq Al-Bishri as the person who’ll be the president of the committee to make the constitutional changes. Tariq Al-Bishri is a person totally related to the Islamist ideas, and from that time we have a promotion of the image of the Muslim Brotherhood in the media. At the time, they are promoting plenty of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas by the media. By that time, Saudi Arabia and the conservative thrones, they were totally afraid of an uprising in their countries, promoted these Islamist powers everywhere in the Arab world, in Egypt. For that purpose, the Muslim Brotherhood took huge steps forward during the last months.
With the relations between Egypt and the United States: the relations between these two countries were very close relations. The say of the White House in the Mubarak regime was a great say. The Army, I think personally, they had the green card from the White House, from Washington, that this deed of Muslim Brotherhood, it is okay for them. We faced real promoting of all the conservative ideas, nothing to do with freedom, which is what we asked for, what we want to take in the revolution and also the same for social justice.
Social justice for this capitalist world we are living in now is very far from what’s happening everywhere, in France, Italy, UK, United States of America. This word we are using, for how many years now, how many decades, richer are more rich, poor are more poor. This cliché phrase, it’s a cliché but it is a reality, and this reality is promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and by the Army. I think personally, that the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States of America, as the relation between Washington and Cairo, are together. They accept totally to promote the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, as conservative ideas and ideas not related to freedom, neither to social justice.
EW: In conclusion, I’d like to get your thoughts on what you see is the role for yourself, or other cultural or literary figures in post-Mubarak Egypt.
KK: I think literature, culture, has a huge role in Egypt and in the world now. We are facing huge problems everywhere: ecological problems in the world, financial crisis in the world, the refusal of the Egyptian population of this regime that rules Egypt for thirty years, forty years now. Then we are facing a crisis, and during this crisis I think that culture, literary persons have a huge role to make.
I think everyone I know in the cultural world in Egypt feels this responsibility, feel they have to make an effort today. What's happened the last year, we are making this role, we are in the events, to speak with people, to have a real dialog in the streets, in the squares, in the media. Personally, if I speak about myself, I am working today as a columnist in Egypt. I didn't really want to write in media this year. I wanted mainly to work on my novel, but it was impossible for me not to make a status every week, and the status is not enough, then I am on Facebook, and on Twitter and on social media to have contact with hundreds or thousands of people every day. This is our role, all of us think, it's a must to do now. We are in a transition period, it will take years, the struggle is there. It will take a long time, and I think culture has a huge role to make the next years.
EW: Thank you very much Mr. Al-Khamissi, we appreciate your thoughts.