Rifaat El-Said: Which way will he bend next?
Profile by Aziza Sami
It is a little after 8am and Rifaat El-Said, head of the left-wing opposition Al-Tagammu Party, is already in his office. The secretary places a press release on his desk issued by Kifaya, several of whose members have been critical of El-Said. They charge that he, and his party, are pandering to the political regime by refusing to adopt explicit positions over matters Kifaya deems central, among them the rejection of Gamal Mubarak succeeding his father as president and the issue of whether or not to participate in September's presidential elections. Participation, argues Kifaya, lends a semblance of democracy to what is, given the restrictions on candidacy, unequal campaigning opportunities and the possibility of vote rigging, an essentially undemocratic process that has been tailored to consolidate President Mubarak's rule.
They are not issues that unduly perturb El-Said who, since Al-Tagammu was founded in 1976 -- before he became head of the party in 2003 El-Said served as secretary-general -- has shown himself adept at the manoeuverings necessary to co- exist with the regime. Now, though, he is accused of striking a deal with the very government his party is supposed to oppose, under which the party's 'historic' leader and founder, 83-year- old Khaled Mohieddin, will run in the elections and lose while Al-Tagammu will emerge with a few more parliamentary seats and a consolidated position within the system.
So will Al-Tagammu push for Mohieddin to enter the elections?
El-Said smiles: "We will still see. We will not place our leader in an unsuitable or humiliating position. We will not enter the elections unless we are given enough time to campaign, in the media and across the country. And this does not mean two weeks."
In the unlikely event of Mohieddin winning, adds El-Said, he would occupy the post for only one year during which a truly democratic constitution would be drawn up and then fresh elections held.*
El-Said's differences with Kifaya have been mostly, he says, about "the coordination of slogans
"They insist on raising slogans like 'no to succession, no to the extension of President Mubarak's rule'. They speak of a ruling dynasty and insist on making personalised attacks."
He moves from his chair behind the desk to the more comfortable armchair facing it before continuing.
"Why this insistence on the question of inheritance? Is it not now obvious that there is no longer the remotest chance of the president's son acceding?"
He holds up one of the day's independent papers and reads out its banner: "'The secret expenses of the presidential palaces'. Of what significance is such a topic? This is yellow journalism. As a party we absolutely refuse to be a part of that."
Wednesday's edition of Al-Ahali, the weekly newspaper issued by Al-Tagammu for the past 24 years, takes, in contrast, and as is often the case, its banner from the title of El-Said's front-page article. "A presidential decree ordering the immediate cessation of hypocritical campaigns is needed," the headline states pedantically. This was in reference to the restrictions currently countered by opposition candidates in campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections, in the state-owned media, as well as on the street, by means of posters or banners.
Does he not feel that Al-Ahali, despite its often critical stands, appears muted in comparison with newer publications now capturing the readers' attention, among them Al-Arabi, issued by the Nasserist Party, and the independent Al-Dustour, Al-Fagr and Al-Masri Al-Yom ?
"I tell you again, this is yellow journalism. I do not care one bit about increasing circulation if it means stooping this low. Do you want us to be like Al-Naba' [an independent weekly newspaper] that sells solely because it publishes scandal?"
But haven't new publications raised the level of political criticism directed at the regime and broached subjects for long considered taboo, not least the longevity of President Mubarak's rule, the role of democracy and the possible rotation of political power?
"Again," he asserts, "the issue is not to attack persons by name. What is at stake is democracy, and changing the mindset currently in place. We need to lay ground rules for a fair contest."
El-Said had woken up at five, arriving at his office early enough to get a head start on his schedule for the day. He had walked for 40 minutes on a treadmill as he listened to the BBC news, a habit he has kept up, he says, ever since receiving a blow to the nape of the neck at Alexandria's Al-Hadara Prison in 1961. He had been imprisoned following one of Gamal Abdel-Nasser's major crackdowns on communists.
On the wall facing the desk hangs a photograph of El-Said in black and white, taken in 1956, when he was 24 years of age, and again incarcerated, this time at the infamous Oasis prison camp. The photograph, taken by the prison authorities, captures the hollow look so often seen in individuals held captive.
He keeps two books in his library that attack him, neither of which he says he has read. "There's a third one which I didn't buy. You can tell what they're all about by the title of one of them, written by Salama Kayla, a Syrian. It's called Rifaat El-Said and Day to Day Communism. The writer criticises me for having departed from Marxist principles. But I ask you, is there not room, even in the interpretation of the Qur'an itself, for evolution, for change governed by the circumstances of history?"
He doesn't remember the titles of the two other books and asks me to note the fact. "Make sure you include this in the interview," he insists, "that I don't remember what the titles are".
Though apparently unfamiliar with the details of the criticisms contained in the three volumes he is willing to concede that substantial compromises were made when Al-Tagammu was founded, some of which entailed abandoning what had become leftist political orthodoxy.
"President Sadat launched the multi-party system by first establishing platforms, which ultimately became political parties, and it was he who chose Khaled Mohieddin to establish Al-Tagammu -- as members of the Free Officers who led the 1952 Revolution they had a long-standing relationship," recalls Said. Sadat set a number of conditions the left-wing party was required to meet.
"We could not label ourselves a working class party, or organise strikes. Sadat also insisted that our charter recognise Islamic Shari'a as the main source of legislation.
"Sadat was clever at political intimidation and would raise the spectre that we were Marxists, atheists and Soviet stooges whenever we objected to what he wanted. We accepted his conditions, otherwise we would not have been allowed to exist at all. If you call that pragmatism, so be it."
And did this pragmatism extend to undermining another function traditionally undertaken by the Egyptian left, the principled promotion of secularism? El-Said thinks not, and argues that, if anything, things worked in the reverse direction.
"The opposite is actually true," he asserts. "Al-Tagammu has been able to mitigate this ongoing orientation to the right. We were able to do so by filling the vacuum that had existed between the centre and the left, rallying pan-Arabists, Marxists, Nasserists, Wafdists, liberal Islamists and, most importantly, Copts. We are still the only party explicitly opposed to the establishment of a state built on religious grounds. We are the only party battling for sectarian unity. If Al-Tagammu did not exist what would the political scene look like?"
There has, he admits, been "a lowering of the ceiling of expectations of society as a whole under Mubarak". And as a consequence Tagammu's "demands as a left-wing party have also been 'lowered' in a sense.
"Given ongoing economic liberalisation how can we talk about realising a socialist society as we did under Nasser? The most we can do is to call for the public sector to be retained. We are bound to act according to the realities we face."
El-Said, who obtained a PhD from the University of Leipzig, wrote his thesis on the history of the Egyptian Communist Party. He has since produced 59 books, including an autobiography, many of them characterised by a dogmatism that seems curiously at odds with the realism he has adopted in his party's political activities.
Antagonism towards political Islam in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, marks much of his output. He devotes a weekly column in Al-Ahali, under the title 'A page from Egypt's history' to debunking the Muslim Brotherhood's supposedly subversive role. He coined the term muta'aslimin, which defies translation into a single word and carries a multitude of negative connotations including the cynical use of religion to attain political power, to better describe his position.
Given the undeniable presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, both on the Egyptian street and within the political arena, don't such constant attacks smack of the same intolerance he denounces among religious fundamentalists?
"They, the Islamist militants, are the reason for my confinement," he answers. "They are the reason for the armed bodyguard who stands at my door night and day, without whom I cannot move. Why shouldn't I devote any time I have on my hands to attacking them?"
El-Said has had armed bodyguards since Farag Foda, another outspoken secularist, who was assassinated 12 years ago by a militant Islamist group. That the Muslim Brotherhood was not directly implicated in the incident is of little consequence to El-Said, who traces the source of all strands of extremist thought back to Sayed Qutb, the prominent Brotherhood thinker and theorist.
There are many that argue that El-Said's endless campaign to discredit Islamists plays into the hands of the regime which, as it once persecuted communists, now persecutes the Muslim Brotherhood in order to consolidate its own hold on power.
Again, they are charges El-Said denies.
"There can be no understanding with such groups," he insists. "Their very thinking is against progress, democracy and reform. Now let me warn -- the Brotherhood is now allying with the Americans. We are facing a very grave situation."
Hanging by the desk are a jacket and tie for later in the day when El-Said will attend a meeting of the Shura Council, his membership of which testifies to his ability to build bridges with the government his party opposes. Appointment to the Shura Council is made at the highest political level and membership not readily conferred on those out of favour.
Speaking off the record El-Said recounts endless anecdotes of personal conversations with the pillars of the current regime. During Sadat's years, he recalls, El-Said and Al-Tagammu would be the subject of virulent attacks by the late Moussa Sabri, editor of the national daily Al-Akhbar "in the morning, and then we would go out for a meal together at night".
He views his evolving relationship with the security apparatus with irony. From being a suspect, a member of the Communist Party and on several occasions a prisoner, he has become, today, a person "in need of protection".
He accepts the imposition of armed protection as a simple fact of life. "There's no more going out, strolling on the pavements, looking at the newspapers laid out by the vendors. I can't even pass by Madbouli's bookshop, right round the corner from this office, and argue with Haj Madbouli like I used to. My daughter has to even buy my clothes and when they don't fit they have to be altered."
Has he ever asked for the protection to be lifted?
There is a suggestion of impatience in his voice.
"It's not in my hands. Every time I ask for the guards to be lifted some catastrophe, like the attacks in Al-Azhar, happens. This is what the security authorities say, that whenever things appear normal it is the calm before the storm and something bad will happen."
So does he accept this logic of a perennial state of emergency demanding never-ending protection?
He gives a characteristic shrug.
As one of the post-1952 era's longest political survivors, he takes a long term view of developments. "The repression and lack of freedom under Nasser, despite our empathy with his socialist ideals, was enormous," he says.
The current political system is "a closed one, a nexus of political and economic power and, if you are not a part of it, then it's very hard for you to have any mobility".
Should there be true democratic reform he will again engage fully in the situation though he is under no illusions that real change lies just around the corner.
"They lie, they never stop lying." He pauses. "But again one must have hope."
And what will his role be in the future?
He smiles again. "Is there still a future do you think?"
* Days after this interview the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Yom (25 June) quoted Mohieddin as saying that being elected for a transitional one-year phase was "ridiculous, nor should it be suggested to me... the presidential term is six years". In response to a question asking him to clarify the discrepancy between the two statements El-Said answered: "It is not true that Mohieddin said that." Asked if Al-Masri Al-Yom had misquoted Mohieddin he said: "Well, he might have said so, in order not to reveal that there will be any concession on his part."