A Man Apart
By Ibrahim El-Issawi
With the departure of Ismail Sabri Abdullah, Egypt and the Arab nation have lost a man of rare qualities, whose like is not often seen. He was a brilliant scholar, an encyclopedic intellectual, a rounded thinker, a tough fighter for his beliefs, and a most decent and honourable human being.
In Economics, the discipline in which he was trained and in which he obtained a doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris in 1951, Abdullah was a major influence on generations of Egyptian, Arab and Third World development economists, whom he guided and introduced into international circles and to other economists engaging with issues of development and national liberation in the Third World. His expertise in this field placed him at the heart of attempts by progressive economists and politicians to break the vicious circle of dependent development in the developing world, and to seek an alternative to the reproduction of an outmoded model of capitalist development that was in danger of being applied blindly, and at a heavy cost, to the newly-independent countries of the South.
In the 1970s, he was selected as one of 24 world experts to join the United Nations Economic and Social Council's Committee on World Development. And in the 1980s he was one of 22 experts from Africa, Asia and Latin America selected to sit on the South Commission, chaired by the former President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere. The South Commission was set up upon the recommendation of a summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in the mid-1980s, when it was becoming clear that the 1980s were to become a "lost decade" for economic development in the Global South. It was charged with investigating the reasons behind this failure, and at the end of the decade it produced a famous report, The Challenge to the South (Oxford University Press, 1990).
In the mid-1970s, Abdullah was one of the 20 economists who formed the Arab League's committee to formulate a pan-Arab economic policy strategy. And in the 1980s he was elected President of the Rome-based Society for International Development, an international network of individuals and organisations promoting social justice and democratic participation in the countries of the North and the South. Indeed, the list of development committees and international organisations in which Abdullah participated, or chaired, is too long to be cited in an obituary. The above-mentioned will have to suffice in giving an idea of how he utilised his expertise in the service of his ideals.
In Egypt, Abdullah was the leading influence on generations of Egyptian development economists who were trained in, and worked for, the institution that will remain permanently linked to his name -- The National Institute of Planning. This he chaired for eight years until late president Anwar Sadat, who had made Abdullah minister of planning between 1971 and 1975, a post he held jointly with that of chairman of the planning institute, sought to punish him in 1977 by banishing him from the Institute to a local administration office. Abdullah fought this decision in the courts, but by the time he finally won the case he had decided to work as an independent consultant for the numerous national, pan- Arab and international agencies in need of his expertise.
I first met Ismail Sabri Abdullah at the Institute of National Planning in the early 1970s, following my return from Oxford after completing a PhD in economics. Both at that time and later when he was no longer minister, we worked closely together on the many committees of the Institute, and I was stunned at the combination of erudition, managerial skills and human decency that earned him the love and respect of the staff.
In 1976, Professor Gwdah Abdel-Khaliq of the Department of Economics at Cairo University and myself wanted to initiate an annual conference for Egyptian economists to discuss questions relevant to our national economy. When we approached the then head of the Egyptian Society of Political Economy and Jurisprudence, Dr Gamal Al-Ateifi, he advised us to discuss the idea with Abdullah, who was a member of the Executive Board of the Society. Later, when the annual conference had been set up, Abdullah became Secretary- General of it, and these conferences were followed by a series of annual events during which Egyptian economists debated many of the crucial aspects of the economic future of Egypt that were being reshaped in the wake of Sadat's 1975 "Open Door" policy.
While preparing for the first conference in March 1976, I learned a great deal from Abdullah, and most importantly I learned how to deal with those who hold opposite views to your own, how to engage in an enriching dialogue with your adversaries, and how to mobilise such diversity in the service of the event we were then organising.
If Abdullah was a true democrat when it came to organising public events of this sort, he was also a staunch fighter for his beliefs and principles, which he literally fought for with his life. As a political prisoner in the 1950s and 1960s, his endurance of torture was indeed legendary, and it remains the talk of all those who were imprisoned with him. In 1975, and after he quitted his ministerial post, he dedicated much of his time and effort to conceptualizing and building a wide alliance of the left in the form of the Tagammu Party, which led the opposition to Sadat's "Open Door" policies and to his separate peace agreement with Israel.
Abdullah was punished for this role, first in 1977 when he was banished from the Institute he had spent so much of his life building up and developing, and then in September 1981, when he was arrested during Sadat's infamous clampdown on the opposition shortly before he was assassinated in October of the same year.
As an independent development expert and consultant, Ismail Sabri Abdullah founded numerous research projects and institutions throughout the 1980s and 1990s, all of which were managed and coordinated from his modest Third World Forum office in Cairo. Of these projects two were closest to his heart. The first was the Arab Alternative Futures Project (1981- 1985), which he coordinated for the United Nations University in Tokyo, and which produced a total of 15 books on different aspects of the challenges to Arab development. I contributed a book to this project on measuring dependency in the Arab countries.
The second was the Egypt 2020 Project, begun in 1997 and coordinated by Abdullah and Dr Ibrahim Saad El-Din, for which I was honoured by being chosen lead researcher. Thus far, this project has produced some 24 publications. If I have any regrets about the project, it is only that its final research publication, dedicated to an analysis of Egyptian economic policies over the past 30 years and the social consequences of those policies, was not finished earlier. This research, which could not be completed sooner for reasons that go beyond the scope of this obituary, also proposes an alternative development model for Egypt. It was only finished when Abdullah was in hospital during the final stages of his illness, and I very much regret that he will not now be able to write the introduction to it.
It was a great honour for me to have worked with this extraordinary man for over three decades, and I was fortunate enough to have traveled with him to events all over the world. His fluency in both French and English, together with his refined taste in dress and in cuisine, often misled those who saw him only briefly at international gatherings. They could not have known from such encounters the true nature of this most refined and elegant of men.
While it is true that Abdullah was steeped in western culture and in truly cosmopolitan manners and customs, he was primarily a proud Sa'idi (an Upper Egyptian), and he had a legendary determination and an extraordinary erudition in Arabic culture, both modern and classical. Indeed, Abdullah's eloquence in Arabic and his knowledge of the canonical literature and of the Qur'an was a primary source of his pride, and it was a source of inspiration for all those who knew and worked with him.
May he rest in peace and be rewarded for everything he has given Egypt and the Arab nation, as well as for his dedication to the cause of the poor and deprived the world over.
Ismail Sabri Abdullah born in Minya, Upper Egypt, on 25 December 1925; died in Cairo on 6 November 2006; he is survived by his wife, poet and writer Gulpérie Efflatoun.