Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 July 1999
Issue No. 437
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

July was always a month rich in revolution. Two recent books shed new light on key actors in the making of modern Egypt

The missing bust
Awraq Youssef Seddiq (The Papers of Youssef Seddiq), ed. Abdel-Azim Ramadan, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp308

The limits of allegiance
Shahadati lil-Ajyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp271

Playing the British at their own game
Fayed -- The Unauthorised Biography, Tom Bower. Macmillan, 1998. pp496

Discrepancies of doctrine
Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F A Meinardus, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp344 + 24 b/w photographs

From Ottomans to Officers
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 vols.), volume 2, Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. M W Daly, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp464

Functionalising religion
Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt, Gregory Starrett, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998. pp308

Recovered memories
Zaman al-nisaa wal zhakira al-badila (Women's Time and Alternative Memory), eds. Hoda El-Sadda, Somaya Ramadan and Omayma Abu Bakr, Cairo: Dar Al-Kutub, 1998. pp382

The illusion of the journey
Travellers in Egypt, eds. Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1998. pp318

Soon to appear, Stokely Carmichael's memoirs are themselves a part of history. Al-Ahram Weekly previews the manuscript and talks to the co-author
Rendezvous with history
Michael Thelwell helped Stokely Carmichael write his death-bed memoirs. Visiting Cairo recently, Gamal Nkrumah sounded him out on the political legacy of the Black Power movement
At a glance:

* Tahawulat A'isha (A'isha's Transformations), Abdel-Wahab El-Bayyati, Beirut: Dar Al-Kunouz Al-Adabiya

* Qissas Bihagm Rahat Al-Yadd (Stories the Size of the Palm of the Hand), Yasunari Kawabata, tr. Kamel Youssef Hussein, Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat

* Al-Wusoul illa'l-Bidaya fi'l-Fann wa fi'l-Haya (Arriving at the Beginning in Art and Life), Adli Rizkallah, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation

* Al-Mantiq Al-Ishraqi 'ind Shihabeddin Al-Sahrawardi (The Illumination of Logic in Shihabeddin Al-Sahrawardi), Mahmoud Mohamed Ali, Cairo: Dar Misr Al-Arabiya

* Al-Kutub: Wugahit Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), a monthly review, Cairo: Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publications

Al-Hilal, a monthly magazine, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, July 1999

* Ibdaa' (Creativity), a monthly magazine, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, June 1999

* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), a monthly magazine, Cairo: Progressive Nationalist Unionist Party Publication, June 1999




Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

The limits of allegiance

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

Helmi El-Said Shahadati lil-Ajyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp271

On the back cover of this book, the author, Helmi El-Said prints what looks like an abbreviated curriculum vitae, listing the many important positions he has held and which correspond to those periods of his life he chose to deal with when pressed to write his memoirs. "I hesitated a lot before writing these memoirs," he states in his introduction, "and I wouldn't have done it had it not been for the demands of a number of personalities whose judgment I deeply value, and to whose incessant pleas that I record my testimony for the coming generations I could not help but give in."

El-Said goes on to make two further points of particular significance. First, "I have observed an important principle in everything I've written, that is, I have not addressed any subject in which I was not directly involved... and for every incident I describe, I record only what I saw with my own eyes." Secondly, he adds, "the positions that I have occupied gave me the opportunity to observe the unfolding of a great many events in the most precise detail, including information that I believe is being published for the first time." The only criterion of credibility, then, is El-Said's first-hand experience of the historical events he recounts. Moreover, the reader is promised information to which he has never before had access. The possibility of bias, or of any overlap with information already available in the vast body of existing texts dealing with the same historical period, are thus both conveniently dismissed at the outset.

(r-l): Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Haidar Pasha, Mohamed Naguib and Abdel Hakim Amer
But even within these unduly restrictive parametres, El-Said's testimony falls short of what it promises. Not only is his message rather simplistic -- Nasser was an ingenious, benevolent leader whose efforts and those of his collaborators are beyond reproach; the Revolution was a dream come true and its consequences, at least during Nasser's time, were never anything but beneficial to Egypt. but the actual substance of the book -- El-Said's raw, unmediated version of the story of the Revolution, too loosely and too briefly recounted -- is far too meagre to be able to fulfil its professed purpose. One need not disagree with the many claims El-Said makes, to realise that they are inadequately presented.

What he says about the March 1954 crisis is a case in point. The drama which El-Said recounts, as if he were delivering a witness statement in court, is hardly illuminating or new. In the RCC headquarters, Nasser expresses his resentment of the idea that the army should give up power; other Free Officers express their support for Nasser; Khaled Mohieddin arrives; the Free Officers, led by Abdel-Hakim Amer, respectfully point out to Mohieddin that his position will cause "a division in the country"; Mohieddin walks out of the meeting... El-Said does not even mention Mohieddin's political stance, the historical events that had formed it, or the fact that the head of the nascent republic, Mohamed Naguib, believed that the Free Officers, who had promised to hand over power to a fully-fledged constitutional government as soon as the Revolution had succeeded in its aims, should now keep their word. "These are the facts of what is called the March crisis as I observed them at close quarters, regardless of all that has been written and circulated stories, accusations, arguments by commentators the extent of whose imagination only God knows, and who offer no demonstrable evidence for what they say."

A military engineer, El-Said had spent the early part of his career teaching at the Military School of Administrative Affairs, where he first met Nasser, a fellow teacher, who was to provide him with a life-long, idolised role model. (Nasser's virtues, which range from his willingness to lend El-Said his private car, to the "profound and penetrating theories" which he proposed for the future of Egypt, are reiterated, mantra-like, on every other page of the book). Discussions of El-Said's subsequent role in the press bureau of the RCC and, particularly, his important position in the Vanguard of the Socialists Organisation (VSO), the secret division of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union (ASU), the all-embracing official body which developed out of the RCC and was intended to replace the political parties and absorb all "national elements", while certainly not providing any new information which had not been published previously, reveal El-Said's invariably unquestioning acceptance of all the edicts of the new regime.

His zealous defence of the VSO's practices, for example, amounts to an unconditional apologia for the regime: "First of all I must clarify the fact that this organisation was not secret, all that was secret were the names of its members... Secrecy was necessary for the protection of members of the organisation when it was first established, in order that it might become the epitome of belonging and benevolence, [by] adopting many of the people's problems and working to make the upper echelons of power aware of them." Helmi El-Said's failure to take the slightest account of the arguments that have been made against the VSO is just one more source of disappointment for the reader.

Almost all the topics which occupy the rest of the book -- El-Said's involvement in various military and civil affairs during Nasser's time, his positions as chairman of the Engineers' Union (1966-1967) and minister of the High Dam (1970-1971), his participation in the ministers' collective resignation, their indictment and imprisonment during President Anwar El-Sadat's 15 May 1971 Corrective Revolution -- are all treated in the same manner.

A staunch Nasserist, El-Said naturally glosses over painful memories of political internment and military defeat (the 1967 war is hardly mentioned), failing to provide an adequate political-historical analysis of the period. The book will perhaps endure as a passionately subjective testament of a man overwhelmed by his loyalty to an admittedly noble cause, but whether or not it truly enriches the many ongoing debates about the Revolution -- that remains for the coming generations to judge.

   Top of page
Front Page