The writer Mahmoud Othman talks about his sci-fi novel Revolution 2053, which, in more ways than one, prophesied the events of the revolution of 2011.
I’ve dreamt of being a writer since I was a kid, but my parents convinced me that it was just a hobby and that I should have a real profession. So I became an architect. First I worked as a plant manager for three years, producing “luxury motor cruisers,” yachts. Then I left that and started exporting cement. I was the first exporter of cement in the Egyptian market. Because there was no infrastructure to export it, I started to manufacture the belts that move the cement along the factory line.
From 1995 to 2009, I worked on a novel that dreamt of a revolution that was to come. The backdrop of the story was the situation of Egyptians and how they faced a kind of collective hopelessness. They felt they were all alone in the world. There was a great fear to take action, too. The message was that unless we stopped this progression toward suicide, we would be finished. In a way, I was putting out warnings about specific things that I hoped would not actually come true in Egypt.
The central hero of the novel is a successful, upper-middle-class Egyptian engineer. At a certain point, he has to choose between his own ethics and advancing his business. He is asked to turn a blind eye to certain non-ethical actions — like many Egyptian businessmen, he faces the prospect of having to collaborate with an Israeli firm.
As he’s going through this dilemma, we encounter another character, referred to as “the stranger.” He is a stranger in the sense that he is different from others. He doesn’t even use mobile phones! He’s a photographer with the power to see the future through his images. For each image he takes, he would make a short film about the future of the location depicted in the picture. When he was a child, for example, he had a vision of his family suffering in a car accident. And it came true.
The stranger begins to put all of his visions on a website which is called, appropriately, enlightment.com. It becomes the most popular website in Egypt. Of course, everyone wants to know who created it. The security police pursue him and they eventually arrest him and put him in jail.
Meanwhile, the main character — the engineer — loses his job. He starts to develop a plan to change Egypt. One day, he visits the stranger’s apartment. He takes the stranger’s black box, which is like his hard drive of ideas and visions, and sets out to change the miserable situation in Egypt. It takes him from 2026 to 2053 to do this. He didn’t necessarily set out to start a revolution, he just wanted to change society…
Throughout this time, he’s followed by the police. He develops activist methodologies, figuring out how to avoid getting his phone traced, as he works to develop Egypt without relying on the government or the system or even a central leader. In his vision, groups of people would work together in clusters, communicating through the internet. They wouldn’t even have to know one another’s names. Each cluster would have total freedom to adopt their own techniques.
Still, the hero was not actively involved in politics until the year of the parliamentary elections. This was the year 2053, and the opposition would be kicked out of the parliament. At the same time, there is an attempt to reform the constitution so that the son of the president could become president. This president had served seven successive terms and now hopes to pass it on to his son. I didn’t use names, but of course I was speaking of Gamal Mubarak. In the book, Gamal Mubarak is already in power, and he is plotting how he would pass on the presidency to his son. At the same time, one of the anti-regime activists gets killed — this is, you must remember, long before Khaled Said.
So 2053 is the year of the death of the activist, the falsification of the votes, and the planned constitutional reform to secure the president’s legacy, which, as you now know, all happened in 2010. Bit by bit, everyone discovers that the pyramid is upside down and we must right it. The people must be free of the slavery to which they have been wed. Eventually, what you could call the moment of stoppage comes, when all chaos begins and the people revolt. When the revolution begins, strangely, the engineer wants to stop it — maybe because he knows many will die — but he cannot stop what he initiated twenty years ago. It is now out of his control.
I published a first version of the book in 2007, with a run of 2,000 copies. It was self-published: no press could risk publishing something so directly about the president. At the end of the book, I included the main character’s email address, email@example.com. The protagonist calls for readers to write to him if they want to know what would happen even deeper into the future.
I was only waiting for a single email. I said that if I received one email, that would convince me that I was not alone. I ended up receiving hundreds, and responded to each one. No one was giving me praise for the novel in their letters. Everyone wrote about themselves — how they saw the future, how they plan to act. No one commented on the literary nature of the book!
When I reread the novel after the events of January 25, I was amazed by the similarities. I cried for three or four hours. I was thinking this change would take thirty or forty years; my kids might see it if we were lucky. But that I would see it so soon… I couldn’t believe it. I think that God has given me a certain privilege and maybe I don’t deserve it.
I am planning to publish another book very soon — I cannot claim to be the writer. I am narrating what I learned from the eleven days I slept in Tahrir Square. The start day of the book is Friday the 28th of January and the end date is the day Mubarak stepped down. I will be known as the narrator only, because I am not the writer of this revolution.