Fighting with optimism

In the second of a two-part series on Egyptian women writers, Julie Tomlin discovers how activist Sahar Elmougy is faring in post-Mubarak’s Egypt, and the source of her persistent optimism.

What will emerge from Egypt’s literary scene now that the stifling 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak’s has ended?

If the writer Sahar Elmougy’s experience is anything to go by, its writers are struggling to find their bearings in the post-Mubarak Egypt and are coming to terms with the fact that revolutions are not good times for getting any writing done.

With two novels and two collections of short stories to her name, Elmougy says she has found it difficult to do much more than some poetry and the odd short story since the uprising began on 25 January 2011.

“I am completely overwhelmed,” admits Elmougy, whose last novel Noon won the Cavafiz prize in 2007. “When it comes to writing anything of any length, it’s really difficult to produce something at the moment, because your whole worldview is changing. It’s being shaken and is not in place yet.

“I’ve had a writing project since last year and I can hardly get my brain together to work on it. But it’s not just me. All the writers I know are finding it extremely difficult to write at this moment.”

Elmougy, who now describes herself as a “part time activist”, was about to go on a protest against the military trials in Cairo when we spoke. There have been at least 12,000 held since February. A number of prominent activists and bloggers including Alaa Abd El-Fattah have been detained in the widening crackdown.

“It’s not like the 18 days of revolution when nobody did anything apart from being a full time revolutionary, but at the same time with all the foolishness and stupidity of the military council, we feel we really have to go, we really have to be there. I keep telling myself, ‘I will only live one revolution in my lifetime’,” she says.

Elmougy also devotes her time to writing a regular newspaper column for the Egyptian independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, and digital activism, believing that “being present on the internet in a community of people who are dreaming the revolution” is very important.

She is also focusing on the need for optimism, particularly when so many abuses associated with the Mubarak regime are still going on. It’s all part of a psychological war being waged by the regime, she believes.

“What they are doing at the moment is definitely aimed at bringing morale down, to tell you this is the best we can offer, you have to take it or leave it. A lot of people feel confused, sometimes despair. Just being optimistic is part of the struggle,” says Elmougy.

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