Ali Fahmi: Oracle of the island
Whether the moment is humdrum or historic, he manages to gauge the social inclination
Profile by Aziza Sami
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"In democratic countries the law is respected and highly effective. Our case is different: this is a despotic state with an artillery of laws which it knows how to circumvent and manipulate"
In the old residential district of Manial -- the quieter of the main two Nile islands -- Ali Fahmi's small flat seems to be an isolated entity, separate from but at the same time part and parcel of its surroundings. And in this sense it reflects the man who inhabits it.
The seventy-something year old sociologist, who has lived here for most of his life, has in fact only just finished a new series of renovations. In Manial he was born and in Manial he intends to stay, having disdained not only emigration but the tendency -- rife among many of his generation of professionals -- to seek a livelihood in the cash-strapped Gulf states. Likewise he has rejected the international circuit of UN and comparable organisations.
He is rooted in his environment, physically and intellectually, and his almost uncanny insights into what moves society -- a topic with which he has been preoccupied by virtue of his education as a lawyer and his training as a criminologist and social researcher -- are as unconventional as they are original. Tall and handsome still, Fahmi reclines in his armchair, relaxed as he speaks, a man who determines his own schedule, since, as he insists, he has been "retired" for the greater part of the past 30 years.
And as he goes on ceiling fans whir, imbuing the mild temperature with an unnecessary chill. Intensely coloured walls add to this sense of coolness. Soft drinks stand on a table to one side, challenging Fahmi's offers of "excellent Turkish coffee, if you like".
Following graduation from the Egyptian University's Faculty of Law in 1958, Fahmi was one of the earliest academic researchers to be appointed at the then nascent National Centre for Social Studies and Criminology. Since falling out with the administration in 1974, however, "they haven't made much use of me". The result is that his time has been divided between independent research and working as an advisor to the Arab League's social departments and council of interior ministers.
In his work, he has demonstrated expertise on aspects related to the " sociology as well as the philosophy of law". The focus of his interest remains with social movement, the legal aspects of which his work tends to emphasise. He has dealt, for example, with the philosophy of penal law under a range of disparate systems -- from Sharia (Islamic law) to the Soviet regime. And this combination of legal know-how and broad sociological perspective, with an outlook at once engaged and detached, gives him a unique standing among his generation of scholars.
Yet no grand epithets are affixed to his name, no PhDs -- despite long stints of PhD research in France and England. Nor does he care: his individualistic, non- conformist, vision is born of a personal reading of popular and historical heritage, a persistent and lengthy effort the outcome of which is a belief in the decidedly secular and cosmopolitan nature of Egyptian culture, a far cry from currently prevalent theories on the overriding religiosity of Egyptians, which makes Egypt, according to some, among the foremost candidates for an Islamic state. With typical calm, Fahmi begs to differ.
Though not a dogmatic socialist, what is more, he believes in dialectical materialism as an analytical tool necessary for understanding Egyptian society -- "all of my work is based on it" -- a fact confirmed by his exhaustive reading of the hawliyat, "a form of yearly historical account that developed only in Egypt, from 1100 AD to the time of Al-Jabarti, 1800 or thereabouts". Ibn Iyas and Al-Maqrizi, too, "presented an astounding account of what they lived and saw"; reading them was like adding "1,400 years to my own life".
Despite being a "leftist by inclination", he displays typically unequivocal disdain for the opportunism of "communist partisan affiliations in Egypt" -- a disdain no less intense than what he feels for the Islamists, "because I just don't believe that religion should be a political party's vehicle of representation". Despite its piety, he says, "Egyptian society has had a strong secular streak, and there was a time, before the 1952 Revolution, when voters would choose a Coptic candidate over a Muslim; you must have heard time and time again of when Makram Ebeid had a sweeping victory over his Muslim rival."
Fahmi is sceptical about the current "drive" to democracy, however, brushing aside the initiatives of both the state and the opposition as "manoeuvres". His conviction is that the catalyst for change, when it does come, will come not from familiar forces but, more dangerously, he believes, from an altogether different, un-politicised force: the dispossessed and the disadvantaged "There are in Egypt some 10-15 million unemployed. This is a time bomb that the government, parliament and opposition will go on ignoring until it explodes in their face -- and then the outcome will be grave indeed."
Fahmi points to "disparities in class and standards of living, which have become very flagrant, much more so, in fact, than in the pre-1952 Revolution era of King Farouk. You can see the result in the high rates of crime and suicide." In delineating the danger inherent in ignoring economic conditions, he charts the demographic map of Cairo: "Cairo is surrounded by very poor slum areas, from Al-Tibbin south of Helwan to Al-Kom Al-Akhdar and Haykstep in the north, and from Giza in the east to end of Imbaba in the west; like a bracelet on a wrist. Only a single street divides all of these areas from centres of affluence in the city -- like Mohandessin, Zamalek, Garden City..." When pressures become too strong, he predicts, "sporadic uprisings of extreme violence occur. It happened under El-Sadat, and could happen again, just as it has throughout Egyptian history. Traditionally, Egyptians would never rise against their Muslim ruler, but, specifically as a result of economic duress, eruptions nonetheless repeatedly occurred."
Fahmi is preoccupied with what he calls "the silent majority of the Egyptian people, who have become remarkably distant from social-political participation" no longer "giving their opinion on public matters, or matters of government". He points to the ironic fact that "it was under the British occupation that political participation reached its zenith." In the period between 13 November 1918 and 9 March 1919, some 1.5-2.5 million signatures were collected in petitions demanding the elimination of the British protectorate, which was enforced in 1914, and the drafting of an independent constitution. This means that, 80 years ago, Egyptians were moving in the direction of spontaneous political participation. Now we must ask ourselves what happened -- how do we regain the silent majority?"
Though it remains "scientifically difficult to predict what will happen in the next five years", it is nonetheless "very clear what the government needs to do". He recommends, first, "diffusing the unemployment time-bomb", then, with radical measures, "quickly forging an early retirement scheme for a large portion of government employees, in order to keep just the required few, on high salaries, and providing employment for young graduates in the 'new cities' -- something we have been calling for for a long time".
On the political level, "the government must act quickly to bring about total constitutional reform, with a parliamentary republic in which the president reigns but does not rule and the head of the majority party as prime minister. We also need to have elections with judicial supervision from A to Z, and no involvement whatsoever from the Ministry of Interior". Fahmi stresses the need to "return to the 1950 law for criminal procedures, which stipulates that the authority investigating a case must remain distinct from the prosecuting authority. The government is still resorting to the pretext that there are not enough judges rather than providing independent judges for investigation."
In negotiating the path to democracy, law questions assume centre stage: "In democratic countries the law is respected and highly effective, our case is different: this is a despotic state with an artillery of laws which it knows how to circumvent and manipulate. The Egyptian state since 1952 has become very adept at playing the legalistic game."
Ironically, however, "criminal security is weak compared to political security." But what about the by now proverbial political apathy of Egyptians, which they themselves often poke fun at? "It's always been a defence mechanism, one that I actually admire. Egyptians have learned to perfect the art of turning in on themselves, concentrating on apparently trivial, mundane issues like family as opposed to democracy or political reform. Then there is the eternal art of the joke, political jokes especially, which are often extremely astute -- very biting. The Egyptian political joke has always summarised a world view reflecting an apparent desire to maintain distance from political power, from the central authority, and poke fun at it from afar." He pauses. "What seems ominous, though is that even these jokes have substantially decreased in number."
Part of the problem with the post-1952, "military regime", he goes on, is that it "totally distrusted all that came before it -- in the way of parties, of parliament or constitution". Pessimistically, he predicts, "the stranglehold will not end any time soon, because the military will never give up. They have ruled Egypt since the dawn of history: since the time of the Pharaohs, and through the Fatimids, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans. It was only under the Khedive Ismail in the 19th century that the Egyptian system, for a while at least, managed to rid itself of the army's overriding influence on politics.
"In line with what happened before, there may well be an uprising in the near future. Willy-nilly, though, the ruler, the central authority in Egypt, remains very important in engineering change. The government and Mubarak personally must try to really listen to the voices demanding change, if at least from within the younger ranks of the National Democratic Party. It should stop making promises that will not be kept."
Such an outlook has its roots in Fahmi's upbringing. His father, a judge, died when he was very young; and it is his mother who seems to have made the greatest impact on the growth of his mind: "To me she seemed a great human being, because she was so well-educated, so broad-minded and enlightened. In the house where we lived we had Coptic, Palestinian and Jewish neighbours, families with which our ties were very close and very warm." He pauses again. "This, by the way, has always been the mosaic that constituted Egyptian society, which again, I stress, has been very open to and welcoming of a diversity that incorporates, but also, necessarily, overrides the purely religious".
In the wake of the renovations -- the apartment was teeming with workers until a few days ago -- Fahmi is in the process of re-arranging his library of some 14,000 books. He lives with his wife and younger son; his elder son and daughter are both married, and they often visit with their grandchildren, but always with prior notice, a self-imposed restriction resulting from their awareness of their father's need for time to himself.
He works in the morning, ordering everything he needs by phone, curtailing his movement to concentrate on reading and writing. He almost never watches television, although he has appeared on it "more than a thousand times", solicited time and again by the presenters to appear again on their programmes despite expressing his often unsavoury views on state and society. He reads for eight hours a day, sometimes deliberately re-reading those books that "break your head and keep you intellectually alert because of the concentration they require" -- Gamal Hamdan's Al-Qahira, for example. As expected of someone who perceives himself "apart from the existing establishment", he has "a very negative opinion of our armchair intellectuals -- and, if you will allow me, journalists".
He eats frugally, usually once a day, taking his main meal late at night, in small gatherings with friends, where food and drink become the centre of "important discussions" mixing an often profligate humour with philosophical views on life and politics.
A clever cook, with some 30 cookbooks in his possession, he can put forth for hours on the sociology of cuisine. He is adept at concocting vegetable soup, fish, sautéed vegetables, sundry Middle Eastern salads, not to mention such coastal Egyptian delicacies as shrimp molokhia. As an honorary member of the Egyptian Chefs'Association he has lectured at the French Cultural Centre on Egyptian cuisine, which, he says, "is vegetarian-based and not at all indulgent". His staple breakfast is made up of bread in combination with the Egyptian medley of spices known as doqqa and olive oil. He has maintained his weight at what it was when he was in his teens even though he rarely exercises. "I don't worry that I don't because I've hated the very idea of sports since school days, because of the way they forced it down upon us."
A sentiment typical of his strong ego, this: he professes an intractable sense of his personal and professional worth. "If I fell terminally ill," he pronounces, "I would absolutely commit suicide -- in a most nihilistic way." Despite his achievements, he has received none of the coveted state prizes. For a man who seems to pride himself on being "not really part of the establishment", this might in itself be a kind of gratification.
What does he have yet to achieve, though? "I have at least 400 studies which were either never published or published a very long time ago. I think, if the Arab League will fund them, they might make a nice three- or four-volume set." As to recognition from the state, on the other hand, "I don't want any prizes from the government", he asserts.
"I am my own prize."