On the other side are the likes of Asmaa Zanaty, a teacher who can’t believe her colleagues turn away students too poor to pay. Her beloved, Mazen, a workers’ representative, says the problem is not the teachers but the whole rotten system. Their letters span the revolution, taking in both the false dawn when Mubarak stepped down and the security forces’ massacres of protesters. Many Egyptians, egged on by the old regime, blamed the revolutionaries for stirring up chaos. Asmaa gets the last, depressing word: “The majority of Egyptians are happy to be oppressed. They consent to corruption and have become a part of it.”
If this novel ever has a sequel, the author himself might be a character. He supported the uprising against Mubarak and has been sued for insulting Egypt’s current strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (probably an inspiration for General Alwany). But in between Mr Aswany praised Mr Sisi, then a general, for toppling Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. As others have, Mr Aswany hints that, before its election victory, the Islamist group had colluded with the army. Many Egyptians think Morsi then tried to entrench the Brotherhood in power; Mr Sisi’s coup against him was quite popular.
But Egypt is now back where it started, with a Mubarak-like figure in charge. Might Egyptians have found more legitimate ways to counter Morsi and hang on to democracy? Thousands did take to the streets to protest against him (a movement itself backed by the army and Gulf dictators who hoped democracy would fail). Morsi did not budge. To lots of Egyptians, a coup may have seemed the only option. Perhaps that sequel should be called “The Republic of False Choices”.