Gamil Matar: A movable disposition
There are prerequisites for moving ahead and one of them is critical thinking
Profile by Aziza Sami
Click to view caption|
"It is an affliction we cannot escape: when we want to talk of the future, we must always mention the past."|
photos: Randa Shaath
Framed by the doorway of his office at the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research (ACDFR), Gamil Matar appeared to be a remarkably open person. Stepping unceremoniously towards the photographer and me, he addressed us unexpectedly by our first names, his mellow features breaking into an affable smile.
The lounge adjoining the offices of the centre was fast filling with young people, mostly graduate students who come to make use of this private think tank for a range of research projects on economic, political or social aspects of development. They use the centre's facilities, or else consult directly with experts like Matar, himself a scholar, widely respected as an analyst of regional and international affairs. This very morning, in fact, a leading newspaper columnist had quoted his prognosis of the situation in Iraq. (Like many commentators, he is less than optimistic about the ability of Arab regimes to effectively negotiate the regional realities borne by the American occupation of Iraq).
In common with the lounge and everything else in the place, Matar's desk is devoid of clutter. The walls are off-white: combined with the fragrance wafting through the room, they have an uplifting effect. He folds his arms -- a gesture at once suggestive of a child listening attentively and an adult readying himself to speak.
His writings on regional and international affairs over the span of three decades have dealt with issues as diverse as Latin American politics, regional conflicts in Asia, and, that most perennial of all confrontations, the Arab-Israeli conflict. He combines political analysis with an insight into the psychological aspects that often motivate leaders, and nations, to act as they do.
His regular political commentary aside, his 48-year-long career spanning diplomacy, academia and now independent research has taught him only one thing: not to theorise too much, especially in those departments where you have acquired first-hand experience. You must keep your mind open to things as they evolve, he insists, never stay hung up on things as they should be.
Matar's frequently reiterated designation as nationalist or pan-Arabist should therefore count for little, he implies. Undoubtedly he belongs to that generation of Arab intellectuals who witnessed the dissolution of the myth of Arab unity over the last three decades -- a process that went hand in hand with the Arab regimes negotiating their intractable conflict with Israel and conceding a world order dictated by Washington -- but he has no sympathy for labels. True, that he believes that Egypt is strong when it operates in its regional Arab context, and that its periods of isolation, when they do happen, are also symptomatic of its moments of weakness. But he has reservations as well, over the parochialism which characterises Arab politics, the personalised style of rule which has detracted so much from the potential to act as a unified bloc.
He will discredit a categorisation on principle, he explains, irrespective of its relation to the truth -- a tendency apparently all the more pronounced when the label in question concerns his own person.
"I hate such containers -- this caging, it stifles me. Once you are placed in an ideological straightjacket, how can you read, write or argue freely? When others see things differently than you do, then are you supposed to tell them they are wrong?"
Born in 1937 to a father who was "an administrator's administrator" -- a reference to his decidedly middle-class orientation and his being a career civil servant -- Matar studied politics at Cairo University before joining the foreign ministry in 1957. The job took him to India, China, Italy, Chile, Argentina. But he was to give up his post exactly 11 years later, in the wake of the 1967 defeat. He could no longer with a clear conscience serve as a diplomat, he told the then foreign minister Mahmoud Riyad in his written resignation: "Simply put, I experienced the 1967 war as a massive disillusion. I'd acted, as a diplomat, on the conviction that I represented a political system that was respected and had leverage. 1967 put an end to all that. It showed that many of the problems I had encountered in the diplomatic corps were not isolated instances, but symptomatic of a greater flaw -- it was the problem of a whole regime."
Matar left for Montreal, Canada, on a PhD scholarship at McGill University -- one of the most difficult experiences of his life, involving the transition from diplomacy to full-time research -- an arduous task, he says. One significant encounter entailed collaborating with Michael Brecher, his professor and mentor, on that portion of his book Decision-making in Israel concerning the role of Egypt in the 1967 war. Their friendship has continued notwithstanding Brecher's "avowed Zionism". Matar's own thesis dealt with "conflict resolution in the Egyptian village". He managed to complete it, but the doctorate was never presented for discussion. "I felt I didn't want to teach. Academic life was not for me."
When he returned to Egypt in 1970 he contributed to founding the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an absorbing task. Five years later he was to resign again: under President Sadat the centre was required to engage less in research and more in advising the young on how to emigrate to Europe -- a transposition that troubled his conscience even more than did diplomacy under Nasser.
For 12 years starting in 1975 Matar assumed a string of positions at the Arab League: director of the Department of Coordination, director of the Arab Fund for Technical Assistance to African Countries and, for seven years, deputy chairman of the General Department for Palestinian Affairs. It was here that he had first-hand experience of the unilateralism permeating Arab politics; his stint at the League also coincided with a critical period during which, following Camp David, Egypt was ostracised -- not to be accepted back into the Arab community until the death of Sadat. The experience provided him with numerous and far-reaching insights.
"The Arabs function as a tribe." he says "The idea of difference or individuality always constitutes a problem -- they end up fighting among themselves but cannot bear to stand alone. They cannot live away from each other. And it all reflects their degree of political development. Arab countries still do not have the democratic institutions or decision-making processes needed to transcend the tribe mentality. Even the Arab citizen identifies himself, not as a citizen, but as an Arab, a Muslim -- and even the latter categorisation, for example, is subdivided into more specific clan loyalties: moderates, salafi s [fundamentalists] etc, etc..."
In 1988 -- he had been disillusioned frequently enough -- Matar finally founded his own research centre, one of the earliest independent think tanks in the country. "The idea was to start a forward-looking endeavour, relatively free of dogma and ideological restrictions," an idea the centre has steadfastly sought to carry through since then.
In these offices some of the most important issues are daily probed and prodded, turned over and around, dissected. They range from Egyptian economic policy to social-security policy in the Arab world, from female participation in parliamentary politics to water problems, the Middle East arms race and the role Egypt is expected to play in the region by 2020. Matar's own contributions have involved collaborating with political science professor Alieddin Hilal on topics like Arab League and UN reforms and the Arab regional order. Since 1988 many students have found the centre an indispensable stepping-stone to a career in the diplomatic corps; one remarkable aspect of the work of the ACDFR is the emphasis it places on supporting women, to whom it devotes several of its departments and offers many opportunities.
Such work reflects Matar's outlook on public issues and his own life course alike: his detachment is borne by critical thinking which, though unfailingly acute, is never bitter; his faultfinding capabilities tempered with humour and good will.
He published his first non-academic book in 2002, an autobiographical record of events he witnessed as a diplomat entitled My Story with Diplomacy. A personal document rife with description and anecdote, flitting unceasingly from one place or time to another, it appeared with the prestigious Dar Al-Hilal. The book, whose protagonists remain strategically nameless, summarises Matar's extensive experience in the Foreign Ministry under Nasser, and amounts to a scathing critique of army officers turned diplomats. "Civilians," Matar recalls, "were generally viewed as traitors -- because we didn't share their military background." This attitude became all the more offensive coupled with practices that "totally violated ethics and protocol".
Reviews of the book took issue with the anonymity of the characters, perceiving it as an impediment to historical documentation. But Matar insists that he could not have done otherwise: "Many of the ambassadors in question had children who in their turn joined the diplomatic corps and excelled as professionals and individuals. The benefit in naming names does not justify defaming them and their families."
Nor is the book devoid of admiration for ambassadors who invested their post with personal merits like education, culture or joie de vivre. Matar mentions the late Hassan Ragab, ambassador to China, who was later to establish the celebrated Papyrus Institute, and Ismail Kamel, a connoisseur of Indian culture who, in New Delhi, would spend hours with Jawaherlal Nehru divulging the intricacies of Sanskrit.
Matar appreciates such qualities because he enjoys life's more refined pleasures himself. He will, however, shy away from cocktail parties and high-profile functions, a tendency that has resulted in his not being as well-known to the television-viewing public as those peers with whom he started out in the early 1970s; he very rarely makes an appearance in the media. And he finds Egypt's elite circles irksome: he pinpoints the "self-perpetuating tendency to exclude the young", with whom his sympathies always lie, as one of the more troubling aspects of the country's social and political foreground; it is a tendency, he adds, that pervades intellectual and academic spheres as well as the media.
"The problem is that the same figures are replicated everywhere. The same individuals, many already well into their 70s, dominate the country's think tanks, its NGOs and academic life. As if they're the last generation to populate it."
Such intellectual and social monopolies, for Matar, are the mirror image of a political system that has become so rigid it leaves no room for change -- with the result that the country's most vital interests are not administered in a viable way.
From the vantage point of a former diplomat, for instance, he charges Egyptian foreign policy with "an erosion of institutions": "Look at the Sudan. Things have been exploding over there for years, but where are we? There is not a single apparatus holding the Sudan portfolio, no vision for crisis management there. And this despite the fact that the Sudan has always been crucial to Egyptian national security, an important item on the task lists of the irrigation department and the intelligence agency alike.
The same can be said of the Arab world portfolio, which has become a more or less whimsical subject: let's attack Arab countries, or exert pressure on them, so that Washington or Tel Aviv will be pleased -- or let's not. We have no policy on the Arab world." Such failures cannot be blamed on circumstances, Matar adds, nor global pressures: "It's a question of faulty administration... Just look at the way Asian countries administer their interests and you will see what I mean -- they too have problems."
His discourse is admirably unselfconscious, aware of the diversity that humanity exhibits, and cautious of any form of absolutism; repeatedly he insists that one should never be partial to one's society, religion or nationality to the exclusion of others, an attribute of mind to which his long stints abroad no doubt contributed. He is convinced that "ours is not so a wonderful culture as to be fanatical about -- there are others just as valid -- nor is it a bad culture, compared to others".
He finds the Arab fascination with past glories likewise "almost pathological" as a discourse: it undermines religious self- expression, politics and even social attitudes. "This obsession with the past has become a national cult. You see people constantly talking about who they were, what they achiev ed, how they excell ed. Frankly, I don't see this happening in other societies. But in Arab-Islamic society, it prevails. We have a long history, a heavy hand pressing us down."
Even he, and his own centre, he concedes, have not totally escaped this affliction, "You find that when we want to talk of the future, we must always mention the past."
But it is his perspective on the future that counts however, and in this context he identifies the lack of channels through which public needs and demands could bring about change as being the main problem. "In a centralised country like ours," he says, "it is still up to the regime, those in power, to make a decision to break out of the present impasse. You can see there are no channels for popular self-expression; even demonstrations, when they do happen at all, are pretty meagre."
The students were still there when we came out of the room. Only after talking to Matar do you fully understand their significance to his life. He resumes friendships with most of them long after they cease to have a professional connection with the centre. He will spend hours conversing with them: "trivial things", he confesses, "absolute gossip"; there is nothing he enjoys more. His son and two daughters could hardly conceal anything from him as they grew up, so well did he understand them: "I could tell, from the look of their eyes, what they were thinking." He always treated them as peers, leaving the discipline to their mother. He has never felt old: each time a phase of his life seemed to be drawing to a close, he could always think up a convincing enough reason to move in a new direction. The true motivation behind this might have less to do with his commitment to intellectual principles, he admits, than an innate desire to avoid "petrifaction", a state he has learned to identify with the status quo. He must keep moving to preserve his youth; and his life can feel like a ceaseless journey...
The Shooting Club is within walking distance from his home. He will often spend the morning there, perusing the Arabic and international press at a table by the track, completely absorbed. By 11am he will have consumed his staple diet -- Al-Ahram, Al-Hayat and The International Herald Tribune. Only in reading, and the writing that follows, does he find a destination: a state in which he is completely liberated, where he can transcend the constraints of time, space and identity.