17 - 23 February 2000
Issue No. 469
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Journalist, short-story writer, historian, political analyst, activist par excellence -- whatever the context, there is no room for doubt: his is an irreverent intellect
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Rebel with a causeProfile by Fatemah Farag
There is something about Salah Eissa that defies easy classification. A prominent leftist, much of what he has said and written, particularly in recent years, would strike envy into the heart of even the most orthodox of liberals. Yet his politics can by no means be described as tame or non-confrontational. The time he spent as an influential member of the editorial board and columnist at Al-Ahali, the mouthpiece of the leftist Tagammu Party, is still widely considered that paper's most 'militant' period. And he is also an outstanding orator, famous for his ability to arouse the passions of a crowd. As a leading spokesperson for the journalists during the Press Syndicate's battle against the repressive Law 93, his speeches had an almost magical power to instil resolve and unity of purpose into the hearts of hundreds of journalists who, only moments before, had seemed hopelessly divided.
Yet even in the heat of debate, there lurked a further paradox: the fiery rhetoric was, more often than not, the result of a process of cold calculation. A rebel, certainly; a radical, in many ways; yet Eissa is also a hardened pragmatist, who knows the value of accommodation and compromise.
Recently, he stunned friends and foes alike by turning his critical wrath on those who had thought they were on the same side as him in the debate over 'normalisation'. Though he remains an unwavering opponent of the normalisation of relations between the Arabs and Israel, Eissa's ire was roused by what he felt was the intolerant hysteria that had come to dominate both the discourse and the political activities of many members of his camp. In particular, he was incensed at the lazy and dishonest way in which anti-normalisation campaigners would accuse those who disagreed with them of 'treason'.
Likewise, Eissa, the Marxist, has been a vocal and ardent defender of the human and political rights of Islamists. And of late, his name has come to be closely identified with the attempt to establish a consensus among opposition forces and civil society organisations on a platform for political reform. Through this process, Eissa hopes that liberals, Marxists, Nasserists and Islamists can all be brought to agree on a single set of democratic rules by which the political game should be played.
Yet surely, in doing so, he runs the risk of trying to please everybody and ending up pleasing no one? "Some people just don't understand," he replies, with a twinge of exasperation. "Change is very difficult to bring about. There is a responsibility that goes with any such attempt, which should never be taken lightly."
The point is well made. But still, it does little to explain the enigma. In the hope of providing more insight into his character, Salah Eissa resorts to labels. "To understand me, you first have to understand the '60s generation. I can only be understood within that context."
Eissa grew up in a period of political turbulence and social upheaval. A child at the time of the 1952 Revolution, he barely caught the tail-end of the dynamism and vitality characteristic of the country's political life before the revolution, but had grown and reached political awareness under the revolutionary regime. Eissa found himself in the kind of paradoxical situation which was to recur throughout his life -- simultaneously enamoured of, and at odds with, the aspirations and goals of the populist but authoritarian regime.
He belonged, too, to the generation that was crushed by the 1967 defeat, only to be caught up once again in the momentum generated by the popular uprisings which began in 1968. Eissa stood up to be counted. He also stood back -- sometimes through no choice of his own -- and watched as the ideals for which he and his fellow activists had given much of their lives were drowned out by the aggressive implementation of a 'free market' economy, and sidelined by the state's official policy of reconciliation with Israel.
All of that is Salah Eissa. But simply to list the causes he has fought for, the movements to which he has belonged and the times through which he has lived is, in part, to miss the point. After all, this is a man who has constantly distinguished himself, even within the ranks of those with whom he most closely identified, as a rebel. He is a truly free intellect, unwilling to accept the hegemony of anyone's ideas -- even the ideas of those opposition factions with which he is most commonly associated. Hence, he is a man few people can agree upon.
Unanimous in their admiration for his intellect, his integrity, his skill as a public speaker, friends, colleagues and observers seldom agree in their judgment of his political action 'on the ground'. Yet perhaps it is this renegade nature which has saved him from the bitterness and depression into which so many other members of his generation have fallen.
No sooner am I settled in his office, a comfortable well-lit room crammed with papers and books, than he launches into an emphatic discourse on -- what else but politics?
"How about some coffee? he suddenly asks. Then, before I have time to answer, he is off again: the subject simply will not let him go. "The main issue facing Egypt today is how to become a democratic country. That is why I have been calling on both civil society and political parties to agree on a very clear and very basic minimum agenda so as to form a united front which could give birth to an independent movement. The slogan I have proposed in this context is that of a 'Parliamentary Republic'."
photos: Randa Shaath
He sits back before elucidating further. "I believe the current situation achieves stability; however, beneath the surface calm, there is a treacherous anger. Egyptians no longer believe that change can be brought about within democracy. This has resulted in a fascist atmosphere. The intellectuals have become extremely vicious, full of suspicion."
He is extremely frustrated with the present state of the Egyptian intelligentsia or political elite. Solidarity is possible in the face of an external threat, he believes; but with nothing to do and no one to confront, petty infighting is inevitable. "That is what being in a state of siege does to you."
The coffee arrives, and political reflection is put aside in favour of more relaxed reminiscences. Eissa crosses his long legs and adjusts his glasses. He was born in 1939 to a "rural bourgeois family in Bishla", a village in the Delta. The family worked in agriculture, took small contracting jobs and were noted for their keen interest in education. One branch of the family moved to Cairo when Eissa was nine. Those were formative and memorable years -- "very important years in the formation of my consciousness. They were years of democratic movement and uprising. The student movement was calling for the abolition of the 1936 [Anglo-Egyptian] Treaty. I had an uncle who was a member of Misr Al-Fatah [Young Egypt Party], and my father had strong Wafdist sentiments. The opposition papers at the time used very violent language. All of these factors instilled in me strong feelings of national belonging."
Misfortune within the family also played a part in shaping the man Eissa was to become. "In 1949, my family lost all their property. I can still remember many sad scenes related to that event -- such as the piano that belonged to my uncle's wife, which had to be sold, or the terror that would descend on us when the tax collectors came and we all had to rush to hide our livestock so that it would not be taken."
These traumatic events affected different members of the family in different ways. "For my brother, the issue became the need to restore the glory of the family. As for me, it made me more aware of poverty, and more compassionate towards the poor."
It was a compassion fed by strong religious sentiment. "I got my feeling for religion from my mother. She was illiterate and would depend on me to read to her from religious books that were sold on the streets." These feelings took on a more organised form when Eissa became, in his own words, "a sort of member of the Muslim brotherhood". That was in the early '50s. "They had a community centre with a ping-pong table. It helped that my uncle was also the head of the centre. And a friend of his at the centre needed someone to read to him, and so I took on the job. At first, I could not understand what I was reading. Then my uncle's friend would explain it to me. It was a very useful experience, and through it I acquired a great interest in the language."
Eissa thought he wanted to be a fiction writer, but other people had other plans. "My father wanted me to become an engineer. In the end, I entered the Higher Institute of Social Work -- a very good choice, because I could study all the things I was interested in. Every year, I was top of my class."
The Muslim Brotherhood chapter was brought to an abrupt close early in 1954, when Nasser instigated his crack-down on the group. "I was 15, and so I was too young to be a suspect. They stored many documents at my house. These were to prove very useful."
At that time, of course, Eissa's sympathies were with the outlawed group, and he was very much opposed to Nasser. It was not a grudge he was to keep for long, however. "The regime's concerns began to impress me. There was the Bandung Conference [for Afro-Asian solidarity] and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. My nationalist sentiments shifted towards the regime. During the Tripartite Aggression [by Britain, France and Israel] in 1956, I returned to my village and organised a conference calling on people to join the popular resistance."
This event saw the birth of an excellent orator. "There were about 7,000 people there, and I gave a speech. It was the first time I had addressed such a large group and it was a very useful experience: it gave me great confidence and courage in facing the masses."
That same year, Eissa set up a village library. People brought in books, which he was to keep after the library eventually closed. "All my life I have stumbled into valuable collections," he chuckles, looking fondly at his rows of books.
He stares wistfully out of his eighth-storey window. "My concern for the Palestinian cause began as a child. In 1948, many Palestinian refugees came to Egypt and there were many settled in my village. They would go from house to house begging. My mother was very sympathetic to them, but I also had an uncle who was very aggressive. I remember one day he screamed at one of the refugees, an old man, who had come to ask for food. The man walked away, then stopped and looked back at us. I can still remember the look in his eyes."
In 1958, several of Eissa's colleagues were arrested. "When I asked why, they told me they were communists," he recalls. The incident prompted a new phase in his relentless programme of self-education. "That year, I also discovered the remnants of a small communist group, Communist Unity. Among the members were several prominent '60s intellectuals, such as [poets] Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, Sayed Higab and [critic] Sabri Hafez."
Having joined the group, Eissa had ample opportunity to embark on the systematic study of Marxist thought. "A priority of the organisation was to educate its members. At that time, Marxist books were hard to come by. Whenever possible, we would try to get hold of smuggled copies. Then I came across a small library in Mounira. For some reason, there was a very good collection of Marxist books there." For many months the dedicated Eissa spent all his spare time in the library, painstakingly copying the texts by hand.
Eissa soon became disenchanted with the organisation. "I discovered that there were only a handful of members. Of course, one shouldn't be too harsh -- after all these were frightening times. I would sit at the coffee shop and discuss politics with my friends, and then move on to a cell meeting, where I would sit with the same people, and discuss the same things."
That was where the conflict began. "What we wanted to achieve was much bigger than us. It was at this point, too, that I began to realise the importance of democracy. Although we very rightly called for the democratisation of the political system, our own behaviour was hardly democratic. For example, we called on the regime to allow the formation of 'progressive parties'. We didn't realise that through this very slogan -- the exclusion it implied -- we were sharing in Abdel-Nasser's dictatorship. Because I pointed out things like this, I was called a 'liberal'. In leftist circles, that is a serious accusation."
So Eissa moved on -- to the ruling Arab Socialist Union, where he felt politically 'uncomfortable', and to a job writing articles on history and politics for the evening paper Al-Missa, as well as working as a correspondent for Al-Horriya, an Arab nationalist newspaper published in Lebanon.
"In May 1966, I wrote a series of articles on the Revolution. Before long I was visited by the police. Then the beatings started, and eventually the remains of the communist group were arrested. The security forces accused us of conspiring with the Arab nationalists." Eissa was tortured for 15 days, then spent a month in solitary confinement, followed by 16 months of 'regular detention'. He was eventually released on the eve of the 1967 defeat.
"I was the only person to be fired from my job," he laughs before adding: "It was the first of five or six times. Anyway, for a whole year I was unable to find work. Then Lutfi El-Kholi got me a special dispensation from [then Interior Minister] Sha'rawi Gomaa, and I was allowed to write for Al-Tali'a [the left wing journal issued by Al-Ahram], but without signing my name. What could I do? I was married and had a baby girl. Everything was in the government's hands. [Poet and critic] Farouk Khurshid also helped me by letting me write radio programmes without divulging my name."
They were hard times and they left their mark on the young man, inspiring in him a deep-rooted fear which he found difficult to shake off. It took nothing less than the student and worker uprising of February 1968 to restore his courage to act. "I went to the Radio Building to find that the programme I was working on would not be aired. On my way back, my bus was stopped in Bab Al-Louq by throngs of demonstrators. Those young people really shook me. I was scared. And then I heard a young man chanting, 'Down with every coward!' And I thought: 'They're talking about me!' So I got out and joined the crowds."
The result was three years' imprisonment, though "the torture was much less than before."
Today Eissa can tell such stories and laugh at them, but at the time, for himself and for many others, the discrepancy between their hopes and the realities forced on them proved a bitter pill to swallow. "The Naksa [1967 defeat] had a great effect on our generation, which has lasted to this day. We felt that we had sacrificed our freedom and our material needs -- even the simplest things like matches that actually light -- in the belief that we would achieve glory for our nation in the battle with Israel. We thought the government was so big, and suddenly we discovered that it was in fact very small. I was very depressed, and that depression was a great part of what propelled me into the 1968 demonstrations."
It seems to have been a recurrent theme in his life: things appear large on the horizon, only to turn out at close quarters to be tiny. But there were also ideals -- and people -- which were to prove enduringly significant. "I remember meeting the Palestinian resistance fighter Mazen Abu Ghazaleh one night at El-Abnoudi's house. He told us: 'Studying is not important! I must go there [to the Occupied Territories].' He was truly beautiful. It was the last time I ever saw him. Later, we heard he blew himself up in a suicide operation in Palestine. He and many others were inspiring models. They helped us reclaim ourselves."
However, this newfound passion for action did not get the chance to grow, before it was interrupted by another arrest. "Nayef Hawatmeh [leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and [Al-Tali'a chief editor Lutfi] El-Kholi intervened on my behalf this time, but Abdel-Nasser said, 'He will not be released as long as I am alive.' I said to myself, 'This man is in good health'. So I resigned myself to a long stay in prison."
The fruit of those days of confinement was a book on the Orabi Revolution, as well as a new interest in fiction, which culminated in a collection of stories entitled Generals Without Soldiers. "I was very concerned with the idea of oppression. Whether I was a communist or a Muslim Brother or whatever, I had an incredible hatred of oppression." Eissa was released sooner than he expected, yet the reason gave him no cause for rejoicing. "I was very, very sad when Nasser died. No matter what, he was a nationalist, anti-imperialist leader who carried out great reforms."
It is a contradiction only those involved could fully understand. "The important thing is to be fair to your enemies. I don't accept the way people think when they claim their enemies have no good qualities at all."
Out of prison, Eissa eventually joined the daily Al-Gomhouriya. At the same time, his orator's skills were in demand thanks to the rise of a new and vibrant student movement. And indeed, not even journalism could repress his rebellious nature. "I was fired from Al-Gomhouriya because I signed the Tawfiq El-Hakim document, and went to work at a leftist magazine called Al-Kateb. In 1974, I wrote that while Egypt was going to start a programme of economic liberalisation, politically nothing would change. [Editor] Youssef El-Siba'i took me to task and there was a rowdy debate. And then... I was arrested again!"
One night, in 1977, following the Bread Riots, Eissa was listening to the radio. He knew there would be a round of arrests. "That night they came banging on my door. I decided not to open it. They woke my neighbour up. It seems she thought I was away, and told them so. Afterwards, I spent 10 months in hiding, but I was caught in the end. This time, however, all I got was a few months."
Then came Camp David, which Eissa describes as the second major trauma of his life. "The issues that had concerned us were no longer on the agenda. We felt we had to work towards building up a new generation." Hence his work at Dar Al-Fata Al-Arabi publishing house. Eissa immersed himself in the project of retelling the Arabs' modern political history in fictional form directed to children, an attempt to preserve what he saw as a waning heritage.
In 1981, he played a key role in organising popular opposition to Israel's participation for the first time in the Cairo International Book Fair. The work of the Committee for the Defence of National Culture was so successful that to this date Israel has not sought to repeat the experience. "I was arrested again, but it was well worth the effort."
In 1982, Eissa joined the staff of Al-Ahali. "I came up with the idea of starting a dialogue with other papers, in an attempt to help readers see what needed to be criticised." Many party members criticised the way Al-Ahali was run. "Parties have their own calculations and interests, and it is true that Al-Ahali no longer represented the Tagammu's positions," admits Eissa. He, along with his wife Amina El-Naqqash, Al-Ahali's chief editor Hussein Abdel-Razek and his wife Farida El-Naqqash (sister to Amina) effectively ran the paper; their enemies in Tagammu and outside it dubbed them the gang of four. "We were very successful, but we were the source of too many problems." Eissa eventually left both the paper and the party.
Since 1975, his activities as writer and editor had been paralleled by his growing involvement in the Journalists' Syndicate. These efforts paid off in 1989, when he was elected to the Syndicate Council. He is proud of having masterminded the only Egyptian magazine ever devoted to journalists, Al-Sahafiyyun, and of his role as organiser of the First General Conference for Journalists.
Yet despite all his activities, Eissa is still best known for his writing. His style is sharp, witty and to the point: "I try and write the way I talk. That is how I discovered satire."
And so today, Salah Eissa sits behind his desk, sending off articles, organising meetings and writing books. He will not give in to adversity. "Despite all the changes around me, I have remained consistent. I believe we did everything we could. We assumed our responsibilities and we confronted very great challenges. I have had to trim my dreams, yes. But give them up: never."