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‘The Way Out’

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I prefer to see what happened as a great fire, which many shared in starting, some out of negligence and stupidity, some out of revenge, some of out greed and some out of inattention. Everyone thought his own actions explained the fire’s outbreak, but the truth, God knows, is they all joined in starting it… And what matters is that they started it, and the army came to power claiming to put it out.

I underlined this passage, earlier this summer, in Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s novel Bab El Khoroug, (‘The Way Out’). Choukri Fishere is a former Egyptian diplomat, a professor of political science and the author of several previous novels. He published Bab El Khoroug in instalments in the Egyptian newspaper El Tahrir last year. The novel, set in the year 2020, looks back on a military takeover, a complete breakdown of government and security, the rise of an unlikely dictator and the massacres he oversees, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, and yet another military coup.

Not all the details are plausible and not all the scenarios correspond to anything we’ve seen. But the human, political and geostrategic elements are all familiar. By now, the only major plot point that doesn’t have a real-world parallel is the regional war that forms the book’s backdrop.

The narrator, a translator in the president’s office, regularly finds himself in the vicinity of great men and great events, without having any foresight or influence. He spends his life bemoaning the futility of his official duties, all the while clinging to them. It is a sharp portrait of a certain kind of middle-class Egyptian as inevitable bureaucrat, so mesmerised by power as to be made powerless by it. (Though the final cliffhanger finds him taking a redemptive stance, ready to be branded either a hero or a traitor by history.)

Choukri Fishere knows how the Egyptian state works, or doesn’t. There are the senior police officers who understand security reform to mean ‘getting the Interior Ministry back on its feet’. There are the attempts at reform that cannot overcome the inertia of the state bureaucracy and its ’empire of failure’. There is the ruthless paternalism of the general who ends up running the country:

People aren’t prepared to pay the price of what they ask for, whether they know it or not. So our duty is not to fulfil their demands, for their own good – while pretending to be working on fulfilling to their demands, to keep them from feeling frustrated.

And then there is this, which I read shortly after at least 500 Egyptians had been murdered in a single day while many of their fellow citizens shrugged or said they deserved it:

As the victims increased so did our commitment to the success of our enterprise and to the justice of our position, and going back became even more impossible. And thus, step by step, we walked into a river of blood, and then waded in it.

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