Skip to content

The Individual versus Officialdom in Egyptian Prose Fiction since the 1952 Revolution: Summary of Doctoral Dissertation – Dr. Yona (Yoni) Sheffer

June 20, 2014


The Individual versus Officialdom in Egyptian Prose Fiction since the 1952 Revolution: Summary of Doctoral Dissertation

By Yona (Yoni) Sheffer

RIMA Literary Papers, Volume 1 (2014), Number 1 (June 2014)

This dissertation deals with confrontations between individuals (common people, intellectuals and public figures) and officialdom (the regime and its representatives) as depicted in Egyptian novels written from the “Free Officers” revolution in 1952 to the last years of Mubārak’s presidency. This subject is dealt with in the works of Egyptian writers of all generations, but is especially prominent in the works of writers of the “Generation of the Sixties”.[1]

The dissertation examines the various characters involved in these confrontations, its background, its progress, its outcomes and its impacts on individuals as well as on those who hold positions of authority. In the course of surveying the confrontations’ impact, the dissertation examines what happens to an individual who is oppressed by those in power, whether he surrenders to their oppression or continues to challenge them in spite of his suffering.  In general, the dissertation examines whether individuals are able to prevail over those in power, and whether their victory is always complete.

The corpus of the dissertation consists of thirteen novels and novellas written during the years 1957-2006, by eight authors, from Nagib Mahfuz (1911-2006), who started writing before the revolution, to ‘Alaa’ al-Aswani (1957- ), who gained his publicity mainly in the beginning of the 21st century. The novels are realistic, but some of them can be read as allegoric regarding the reality in Egypt during the time in which they were written. Methodologically, the dissertation does not discuss each author or work separately; rather, it creates a synthesis between the literary works.

In works by authors of the “Generation of the Sixties” there are common motifs regarding those who hold positions of authority, first and foremost striving to create a police state in the manner of Orwell’s “1984” (which serves as an important source of inspiration for those authors).

Officials in state security apparatuses are depicted as cruel and sadistic persons, who enjoy torturing their victims in order to alter their personalities. The world views of characters who hold positions of authority, their aspirations and their visions reveal some more traits, including opportunism (i.e., switching loyalties), hatred for the “other” and a desire to cause irreversible damage to the state in the service of foreign interests (as in “Al-Ghitani’s Quarters” by Gamal al-Ghitani (1945- )).

In addition, there are characters who even consider themselves as God in miniature in the sense of their ability to rule over the fates of those who are subjected to them.

In contrast to the negative characters of those who hold positions of authority, the individuals who confront them are generally positive characters. They have two types of hopes and aspirations: most of them have hopes and aspirations concerning the general welfare (regarding democracy, freedom and social justice), while few of them wish to realize personal wishes (regarding social status and money).

Most of them oppose the regime before the confrontation takes place, either by words or by deeds. Some of them belong to specific ideological currents, usually leftists. Although they oppose the regime, their common denominator is loyalty to the state.

The confrontations examined in the dissertation are organized according to the background of each confrontation or its type:

  1. Confrontations initiated by individuals, either out of ideological reasons, or out of personal reasons or even by mistake (when an individual unintentionally causes the authorities to suspect that he is collaborating with dissidents).
  2. Confrontations initiated by those who hold positions of authority, either against the background of previous political activities of individuals, or because they consider everyone who does not support them as opposing them. Furthermore, from their point of view, everyone is guilty of something, and all they have to do is to prove it.
  3. Confrontations in which actions of the officialdom cause individuals to take revenge on those who have harmed them. Such actions can be threatening the individual’s life, or compromising his manhood (mainly by torturing).
  4. Cases in which an individual or a group is determined to challenge the officialdom but withdraw at the last moment. The causes of such withdrawal are either fear of the authorities or a desire to leave things as they are, without changing them.

The main conclusion rising from this dissertation is that in spite of the evident gap in the balance of power between the individual and the officialdom, in a literary confrontation, maltreatment of the individual sometime returns to the officialdom as a boomerang. An official who is being cruel to a person, might find his own death as a result, either by the person whom he harmed or by his relatives.

Another conclusion is that officialdom makes a distinction between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the regime. From its point of view, it’s not enough for a person to be a patriot willing to sacrifice his life for the homeland. The officialdom regards even such a person as an enemy as long as he does not declare in public that he supports the regime. Furthermore, in some cases the officialdom gives preference to its own interests over the state’s interests, and shows obsession for maltreating those who are suspected as dissidents even when the state is on the verge of a defeat in the battlefield against the real enemy. Hence it follows that the real threat for the sake of the state comes from a despotic regime.

When a large group unites in order to stand against the officialdom, it has a chance to defeat it. However, the conclusion which rises from “al-Ghitani’s Quarters” is that in order to defeat the regime it’s not enough to unite against it, but supernatural powers are also needed. The need for supernatural powers for winning over oppressing officialdom demonstrates the impossibility to defeat the officialdom either by individuals or by groups. Defeating it is possible only in legends, in a world where super heroes abide, not in the real world.

The works examined in this dissertation demonstrate the writers’ different approaches to the impacts of a confrontation between the individuals and the officialdom, on the regime in particular and on the state in general. Sun’allah Ibrahim (1937-), al-Ghitani and al-Aswani, for example, reveal in their works a concept, according to which methods of oppression used by the regime against people who are not involved in politics can urge those people to rise against it and even to endanger its whole existence, as happened in reality In Egypt in January 2011.


      [1]The authors who belong to this generation have excelled in expressing the disillusionment from the failure of the Free officers Revolution to fulfill its promises, as well as in describing the corruption and oppression exerted by the Nasserite regime over its opposers, especially against the background of the defeat in the 1967 war. Those authors (such as Gamal al-Ghitani, Idwar al-Kharrat, Sun’allah Ibrahim, Magid Tubya and others), were inspired by new Western literary techniques which served them in adapting the plots to the socio-political reality in Egypt of the 1960’s. In short, they have challenged the regime while challenging the existing literary conventions.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: