Talaat El-Sadat: A man for the season
Interview by Sahar El-Bahr
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'I am no longer afraid of being harassed, arrested or even killed. I have already told my two teenage children that if something were to happen to me, they should go directly to Tala where we have land and a house, live a simple life cultivating vegetables and fruits'
People's Assembly member Talaat El-Sadat, a nephew of late President Anwar El-Sadat, is among the most outspoken critics of present-day government policies. He is the only member of the El-Sadat family involved in political life -- a career he started while in his mid-40s. Talaat graduated from Cairo University's Faculty of Law in 1985; a lawyer before the Court of Cassation, he is now a legal consultant for several local and international companies. Recently on the news, a clash with MP Ahmed Ezz -- said to be close to President Hosni Mubarak -- which escalated to unprecedented levels, saw Talaat taking off and threatening his opponent with a shoe during a session at the People's Assembly. Talaat had publicly questioned Ezz on the means by which someone as young as he could amass fortunes estimated at LE40 billion. Despite Talaat's unapologetic assertion that he had indeed raised his shoe at Ezz, a large number of MPs claimed to the press that he had not. The string of events does not end here. Mere days prior to Al-Ahram Weekly going to press, the investigation file into the shoe matter was suddenly and unexpectedly closed, even as Talaat remained insistent that more of his shoes would be raised at all the politicians he sees as "corrupt".
Talaat El-Sadat's love for his uncle, President Anwar El-Sadat, is evident in the number of pictures of the latter adorning his downtown office walls.
A politician by intuition, Talaat proves instantly ready to discuss his present clash with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) as represented, most recently, by Ahmed Ezz -- which turns out to be a quarter of a century old, originating with President El-Sadat's assassination in 1981: "The investigation into the assassination of my uncle was an absurd process, undertaken on completely illogical premises -- most of the perpetrators were never tried. The officer who provided Khaled El-Eslamboully -- the man who pulled the trigger -- with ammunition was only a witness; he disappeared right after giving testimony." Along with others, Talaat called for trying the presidential guard, many of whose leaders, as he notes wryly, were later promoted. Does he have evidence indicting the people in question, though? He will only reveal it before an international investigation committee, he says. Since 1981, together with his father -- the late president's brother Essmat -- Talaat has clashed with the government on issues of arms violations and arms dealers, whom he says receive enormous commissions on their illegal trade. "It seems our voices were a little too loud," he says. "We had to be silenced." No later than 1982, he recounts, Essmat El-Sadat was arrested on alleged charges of profiteering from his family link with the late head of state. "Our money was placed in custody of the prosecutor, and we were jailed for eight months and 13 days, during which time the press followed the orders of the authorities and drummed it into people's heads that we were thieves. The effects of such slander were dire; we still suffer from them. Of course, it was all fabricated to cover up El-Sadat's assassination. My father, you understand, was not only El-Sadat's brother but his close friend -- with access to plenty of insider information. Blinded by grief, he wanted an eye for an eye." It was, he goes on, not altogether unlike what the mamalik (warrior slaves) did to the families of the king once he died...
The case proved non-conclusive, however, and the El-Sadats' demand for legal vindication has since been filed away. Early this year, however, Talaat by calling for an international committee to reinvestigate the assassination of President El-Sadat in an interview he gave to a widely circulated independent newspaper. The Muslim Brother militants who were convicted, he insists, are innocent; and the real culprits have lived in freedom. The considerable stir this has created, Talaat insists, is well deserved: "I don't believe my uncle is any less important than Rafik Al-Hariri. If the international community is so keen on the truth pertaining to his assassination, they should be equally keen on that pertaining to my uncle's." Afraid of the consequences, he says, other family members have blocked any practical measures: "They are scared of a ruthless reaction on the part of the authorities. And I have to respect their will." Already a semi-official newspaper has published a series of one- and two-page articles slandering and libeling Talaat by opening up the 1982 court case; and it is Talaat's conviction that Ezz is behind this -- indeed he is currently negotiating the purchase of the newspaper in question. Instituted in 1983, the Committee for Commemorating El-Sadat was discontinued 10 years ago following Essmat's death. Talaat complains that it has not been permitted to put up pictures of the late presidents in public since. Having resumed commemorating El-Sadat, however, Talaat received some 5,000 people in last year's ceremony. That said, Talaat's request to set up an NGO in El-Sadat's name was rejected; nor did he have the shadow of a doubt that attempts to set up a political party embodying El-Sadat's policies would meet the same fate. In 1996, instead, he joined the "liberal, polyglot" Al-Ahrar Party, heading the Ideological Committee there until he was promoted to the position of deputy president.
"After the death of the party president," Talaat recounts, "I was nominated for his position and in 2002 the general conference legally elected me president of Al-Ahrar Party." Still, last April a judicial ruling enabled Talaat from legally assuming his position. This is why he ran for the last parliamentary elections, representing Al-Menoufiya Governorate which, though the birthplace of the late president, is an NDP stronghold, along with his brother Mohamed Anwar -- the latter named after the late president -- and in an unprecedented feat both brothers won independent seats in parliament. "El-Sadat was MP for the constituency of Tala in 1963, and the people of Al-Menoufiya trust his policies, which I adopt. Now the general conviction there is that El-Sadat's nephews are honest and sincere, and they love and serve the people as well as their late uncle." It was, in effect, a revolution against the NDP, in whom, he says, people have lost trust: "Rather than a public party, it is turning into a repulsive official apparatus that has been dealing crushing blows to other parties. In parliament today, we have either this hideous government body or the banned Muslim Brothers." Talaat finds it painful to witness such "demise of the NDP", a party that was born at the hands of El-Sadat in his own home as a teenager in Tala. When he decided to run for the last presidential elections, the official selection committee excluded him -- an act he attributes to a range of conspiracies on the part of the regime, including fomenting discord within Al-Ahrar Party. Given the chance, however, he believes "the name of El-Sadat will beat that of Mubarak any day". During the El-Sadat era, he says, "there was a future. People could dream of the future. Today Egypt has an external debt of $30 billion, an internal debt of LE700 billion and LE60 billion budget deficit. This means that every Egyptian, even a newborn, is a few hundred thousand Egyptian pounds in debt."
The situation as he sees it is bleak -- "political, economic and cultural prostitution", as he puts it: massive, astonishingly visible corruption, with national industries sold at a tenth of their value and tycoons robbing the nation with impunity. Gamal Mubarak, Talaat goes on, is at the centre of a scenario that will place him in his father's position: "All that he says about not wanting to be the next president is nonsense. Lately, he travelled to the US and spoke on behalf of Egyptians -- an occasion on which he did not respect the mentality of Egyptians and crossed all the red lines. He is neither honest with his people nor committed to them." Until 2000, Talaat confesses, he had been purposely hypocritical, only to realise that there would be no hope if the truth were not told: "I am no longer afraid of being harassed, arrested or even killed. I have already told my two teenage children that if something were to happen to me, they should go directly to Tala where we have land and a house, live a simple life cultivating vegetables and fruits, baking their own bread and raising poultry." He has no wealth, he says; whether legal or illegal, the authorities would have slandered him: "They've already carried out every possible investigation." But it is his unhappy relations with other members of the late president's family that disturb him: Gamal El-Sadat, the president's son, recently accused him of exploiting his father's name in the media, demanding that he use the name Talaat Ahmed Essmat instead. Talaat replied that it is Gamal who owns companies and is keen on appeasing the authorities to protect his business: "It does not honour me to have a cousin who is a follower of the authorities with Gamal Mubarak as a friend. He is only entitled to talking about El-Sadat by virtue of being his son; he has no right to talk of El-Sadat as the late president and leader of all the Egyptians." Before the last 2005 parliamentary elections, he recounts, Gamal had been called on to represent Tala but, fearful, he waited for the consent of the authorities before running -- and that was delayed. This is somewhat excusable in the light of the fact that the late president died leaving nothing of value to his children; they need to protect themselves.
None of which makes him any less passionate about the future: "Women should follow the example of their predecessors of 1919, who played an active revolutionary role. Nowadays, women even discourage men from rebelling or saying no to violations and corruption, because they are keen on their livelihoods and if they lose their men they will become the bread winners. If women become positive, maybe things will change."