Today's date:
Summer 2009

Obama Is No Better Than Bush

Nawal el Saadawi, 77, an Egyptian medical doctor and psychiatrist as well as a novelist and playwright, has condemned domestic violence and, in particular, female genital mutilation in her works. Her books include the novel, The Fall of the Imam, and the autobiography, A Daughter of Isis. Saadawi was imprisoned by Anwar Sadat in 1981 and was released after his assassination. In May, Saadawi delivered the PEN World Voices Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in New York, where she spoke with NPQ contributing editor Michael Skafidas.

NPQ | Do you see a big difference between George Bush and Barack Obama?

Nawal el Saadawi | I followed closely the Obama campaign, and I am telling you now: Look at how the system changes the person. Obama has changed already, and he will change more and more to compromise again and again with the system. The system corrupts people, like it is corrupting Obama.

George Bush was worse than Obama. But Obama is no good also. Obama is a pragmatic, capitalist, patriarchal figure, and he flatters the church. He is 100 percent pro-Israel. Israel is always a test for an American president.

Despite what he said in the campaign, now he doesn't want to punish the people who tortured and violated the American Constitution, who were against international law and the norms of human rights.

Obama wants to let them off the hook through the hypocrisy "we have to go forward." So we forgive the powerful, the criminal, and we leave the victim as the only one punished.

It reminds me of when I was released from (former Egyptian President) Anwar Sadat's prisons. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, the current president, told me, "Well, now forget about the past." I said, "No!" We have to evaluate the past. Criminals of the past should be held accountable. Bush and his administration should be accountable for torture.

NPQ | Obama's focus now is on Afghanistan and Pakistan, trying to stop the Taliban from hosting terrorists who would attack the United States, and though more pragmatic and less ideological in his aims than Bush, trying to hold the line against the oppression of women's rights. Is there any hope there?

Saadawi | I know they are killing and oppressing women in the name of Islam in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan—and Egypt. My name has been on the death lists of the fundamentalists for years. But I don't separate between religious fundamentalism and neocolonial capitalism. If I want to fight the people who are throwing acid in the faces of women in Afghanistan, I have to first fight the father—the neocolonial capitalist—not the son—the religious fundamentalist movement.

The Pakistanis or the Afghans or the Iraqis or the Palestinians or the Egyptians will never be liberated by a foreign power. They have to liberate themselves. The Afghan and Pakistani people have to liberate themselves from al-Qaida. Leave them to handle it themselves.

What makes people so sure that Americans are good enough to liberate the Afghans from the sharia? Someone told me the other day, "If there is an election in Egypt or in Pakistan, people will elect the Islamic groups."

Wrong. They will elect the Islamic groups only because they don't want the Americans who the Islamic groups are fighting. If the Americans leave, the people will never elect the religious fanatic groups. It's common sense.

NPQ | Following the publication of your novel The Fall of the Imam, in 1988, you started receiving death threats. Yet, your books remain highly popular. What is going on?

Saadawi | Of course it is the case. I am very popular in Egypt and in the Arab world in general. I have 47 books written in Arabic and distributed in homes across the Arab world. My publisher in Cairo reprinted all 47 books in 2006 despite the threats he received from the authorities.

The police told him, "Burn her books and her plays. Why do you publish her?" and he said, "I publish her because people read her!"

I cannot teach in Egypt anymore. I live and work with difficulty, because the authorities try to isolate me, but they have failed because I always challenge them.

When I presented my name as a candidate against Mubarak in the presidential election in 2005, the village people around the area that I was born in Egypt came together and decided to organize meetings for me to speak about my program against Mubarak. The poor people collected money to sponsor those meetings.

Then the police, of course, went to them one by one, to their homes in the villages and in Cairo, and threatened them. They threatened the people who were employed by the government, the teachers and the clerks, telling them they would be fired. They threatened the peasants, telling them that they'd put them in prison. They were very clear about it: "If you organize any more meetings for Nawal Saadawi, you will never see the sun again."

So, yes, I've lived in fear of death and punishment. But look who's threatening me: not the people in my village or my countless readers in Cairo. It's the government. It's both Mubarak, who doesn't like democracy, and the Muslim Brothers, who don't like women's rights. It's the elite, not the masses.

The masses in Egypt do not like repression. They don't like fanaticism. They are very tolerant. In my own village, there are Christians and Muslims who long have lived together and still are living together.