Egypt mourns Ismail Sabri Abdullah
Ismail Sabri Abdullah, deputy president of the left-wing opposition party Al-Tagammu (the national Progressive Unionist Party) died last Monday following a long and brave battle with cancer. Abdullah, an internationally acclaimed developmental economist, obtained his Ph.D. in economics from the Sorbonne in Paris in the late 1940s, and was a founding member of the Egyptian Communist Party of the period. He was frequently imprisoned for his socialist advocacy, but jail never deterred him as he believed it was the fate of Third World committed intellectuals to "know both prison and power." In the 1950s he was appointed economic adviser to Nasser, but was arrested twice during that decade, the second time in January 1958, when he spent six years in concentration camps. In the early 1970s he became minister of planning under Sadat, and was again arrested during Sadat's clampdown on opposition in September 1981. He was until his death chairman of the Third World Forum.
Ismail Sabri Abdullah was born in Minya on 25 December 1925, and died in Cairo on 6 November 2006.
Ismail Sabri Abdullah: Mapping the Arab future
Profile by David Tresilian
Published in the Ahram Weekly on 4 July 1991
When Ismail Sabri Abdullah walked onto the stage to collect his State Merit Prize for social sciences from President Mubarak, it may have well reaffirmed one of his most deeply rooted beliefs about the fate of committed intellectuals in the third World "knowing both prison and power".
A political activist of the left, economic adviser to Nasser and Minister of Planning under Sadat, Ismail Sabri Abdullah has also witnessed hardship. Employed by two presidents, he was also imprisoned by both. Now he is the Chairman of the Third World forum, and a leading member of the left-wing opposition party. He is one of Egypt's most distinguished developmental economists.
Dr Ismail Sabri Abdullah radiates certainty and purpose. And his purpose has not changed since he first became politically conscious while a law student at Cairo University in the late 1940s. He started to understand then, he says, "the economics of imperialism, what was behind the presence of the British army in Egypt material interests and money." And his career as a "politician, a revolutionary and a socialist" was predicted on his urgent desire to effect Third World liberation and development.
Abdullah's early decisions shaped his subsequent career and led him from positions of power and influence (as head of the Institute of National Planning under Nasser, and Minister of Planning under Sadat), to prison for his outspoken opinions when the political climate changed. But, he says, although opportunities for expression changed, his objectives to study international power structures and work for improvement in the lives of the poeples of Egypt, the Arab and the Third World have remained consistent.
"Being a minister has been an accident in my life," he says, but working for national and Third World development and renewal are constants. And he points out that the need for grater political and economic consciousness among the people of the developing world is today greater than ever, as the relationship between the industrialised and Third World collapses into a crisis of debt and mutual recrimination.
In Egypt, he says, the crisis is at once particularly acute and typical of the wider problems facing Third World countries.
"We know some very basic fact: you cannot continue with 40 per cent of the population living beneath the poverty line, and social inequalities standing at an unprecedented level. You cannot enter the modern technological world with over half of the population illiterate.
How can you make people work hard and give them a future? You have to educate them and motivate them, give them a fair share of the fruits of development and a say in the policies of the country."
Abdullah's work, therefore, for the United Nations, the United nations University (UNU), the Third World Forum (of which he is a founding member and chairman), and the South Commission, is united by an urgent desire to translate the fruits of thought and study into direct proposals for action.
Born in 1925 in Minya in Upper Egypt, Abdullah's formative years were spent in Paris at the Sorbonne, where he sat at the feet of Jean-Paul Sartre and was an Egyptian member of the French Communist Party.
There is something deliberate about all of his decisions, suggesting that he had his life planned from a very early age. He chose Paris, because "the important thing in the late forties was not only to free our country, but to acquire the knowledge to do so."
A similar deliberation informed his decision to return to Egypt, despite the offer of further opportunities in France, and he made what he calls "a very deliberate and rational choice to become a revolutionary militant in Egypt," a choice which landed him in prison for a good portion of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
On the subject of his imprisonment Abdullah's considerable wit and charm is much in evidence, as well as his never-failing determination.
"There is nothing surprising about being imprisoned," he insists. "It is the fate of the intellectual in the developing world to know both prison and power." And Abdullah has found himself in jail four times for his views, once, briefly, under King Farouk, "twice under Nasser, and the fourth time by order of Sadat. I was his minister and his prisoner," he says cheerfully.
"I analysed the situation like this. You are put in prison why? To pity yourself. If you pity yourself, you will become weak. But if you don't care and take it easily you will be stronger than your jailer."
Every area of his life has been slotted into his overall sense of political vocation. Of his marriage he says that he "delayed it for almost three years to be sure my wife knew of my intentions." He was pragmatic enough to sit in President Sadat's cabinet, even though Sadat's aims were not ultimately his own. "people can agree on concrete action starting from very different ideological positions," he notes.
Now he is the elder statesman of political radicals, a leading member of Al-Tagammu, (the national Progressive Unionist Party), and serves on various international development bodies, as well as acting as a consultant to the UN. His manner is uncompromising and deliberate, and his logic supported by copious figures and illustrations. A pen is always in his hand, and as he talks he constructs distinctions and categories in the form of lines and boxes on the page in front of him. Bored and uncomfortable when talking about himself, his face becomes suddenly animated as he discusses the prospects for Arab unity and the future of the region. When young he must have been a very handsome man.
"It is clear", he wrote in his report on Arab Futures, "that unless Third World countries get together and try to shape a future... the dynamics of the world system will determine the shape of that future for them." It is Ismail Sabri Abdullah's vocation to ensure that this enforced choice does not come to pass.
Links to interviews with and articles by Ismail Sabri Abdullah in the Ahram Weekly
'It did not fail'
A world without borders
Peace among masters
List of publications by Ismail Sabri Abdullah