Book review

Fiction doesn’t have to be perfect to be indispensable.

The Republic of False Truths,” the newly translated novel by bestselling Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany (“The Yacoubian Building”), provides a good example. Its behind-the-scenes account of Egypt’s 2011 Tahrir Square uprisings is occasionally creaky, with overly contrived cliffhanger chapter endings and a few overly sentimental touches. But it goes places that no nonfiction account could.

With its focus on family divisions, government intrigue and military abuses of power, it provides startling contexts for the struggles that made headlines 10 years ago. Its multiple points of view and I-am-a-camera techniques lend those events a wraparound immediacy. If over the past decade you’ve wondered why the pro-democracy movement in Egypt ultimately gained so little traction, Al Aswany gives you a sweeping, nuanced picture of why. He took part in the Tahrir Square protests, so his characters’ eyewitness accounts are rooted in his own firsthand experience.

The fact that the book exists at all is a surprise. No Egyptian publisher would touch it, so a Lebanese publisher brought it out in 2018. The novel and Al Aswany’s outspoken journalism got him in hot water with the Egyptian authorities and prompted him to go into exile. He now lives in Brooklyn.

Blending family drama, social satire and political commentary, “The Republic of False Truths” takes readers from Cairo’s swankiest quarters to its grittiest slums. Its cast includes Muslims and Copts, military bigwigs and rebellious students, ordinary bystanders and media celebrities. It pits young against old, husband against wife, and parents against children, as marriages and families are split apart by politics. While it’s clear which way Al Aswany’s sympathies lean, his sharp observations of ordinary human foibles and hypocrisies make the novel much more than a topical-events seminar or diatribe.

The book’s dozen-odd narrative threads resist useful summary, but key players include a general who believes the protesters are “a bunch of treacherous conspirators whose goal is to bring the country down”; a charlatan sheikh who preaches “the joys of obedience” and insists that “Islam forbids us to demonstrate or go on strike”; a wealthy, dandyish Copt landlord who declares, “Our Lord sent us hashish as a blessing, so we can put up with the stupidity of other people”; and a female newscaster who cannily and comically exploits the pieties of Islam and her own feminine allure to climb her way to the top.

The protesters’ early sense of victory after President Hosni Mubarak steps down from power is short-lived. They may have idealism on their side, but that’s no match for the misinformation campaigns and violence mounted against them.

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Corruption is rife. The Egyptian military, eager to hang onto the prerevolutionary status quo, engages in brutally repressive tactics while taking care not to leave any record of their atrocities (graphically depicted by Al Aswany). On a separate front, a newly established government propaganda channel cynically pushes the notion that the protests have been “funded and planned by the CIA with the participation of Israel’s Mossad.” That outwardly pious female newscaster has no problem cooking up conspiracy theories of her own.

The book makes it clear that Islam is a protean force in Egyptian society, capable of becoming whatever its adherents want to make of it. For one idealistic character, it’s about “general humane principles — justice, equality, freedom.” For others, it excuses the murder, torture and repression of anyone not on board with authoritarianism.

Some characters succumb to defeatism. “The one thing that’s certain,” says an erstwhile reform crusader who’s given up all hope, “is that nothing in Egypt will ever change.” Others — including that hash-smoking Copt landlord — hang on to their newfound integrity and principles. (In his case, he even cuts down his hash intake so as to work more effectively for the pro-democracy cause.)

Those fighting for an Egypt that will be “new, just, and free of corruption” can be plaintively earnest, in both their aspirations and their regrets. “I wish sometimes that I could be in harmony with society, not in conflict with it,” one young woman laments early in the novel.

By the book’s final pages, however, that same young woman has a different take on the battles she’s been through, especially after the messages broadcast by that pro-government propaganda network successfully penetrate the minds of the greater Egyptian populace.

“The Egyptians live in the Republic of False Truths,” she writes despairingly to her lover and fellow protester. “They live in a mass of lies that they treat as if they were true. … They love the dictator’s stick and don’t understand any other kind of treatment.”

Al Aswany, in interviews, has been more sanguine about the prospects for freedom and human rights in Egypt — but not by much. This novel, in S.R. Fellows’ highly readable translation, gives you a comprehensive picture of what the challenges are.

By Alaa Al Aswany, translated by S.R. Fellows, Knopf, 416 pp., $28.95

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