Fawzi Habashi: A prisoner for all seasons
Born into a simple, middle-class family in Minya, Fawzi Habashi was already on the secret service wanted lists before graduating from Fouad I (Cairo) University in 1946. One of the country's better known civil engineers, he has since been imprisoned on charges of communism 11 times, most recently in 1987, when he was arrested on a plane headed for Cyprus. Habashi's valuable memoir, Muataqal kol Al-Usour (The political detainee of all ages), is a comprehensive record not only of the Egyptian communist movement but of the political history of a country since the days of the British occupation.
A cousin to one of 20th-century Egypt's most encyclopaedic intellects, Louis Awad (also known, after Averroes, the second teacher following Aristotle, as the tenth teacher), Fawzi Habashi was active in the national liberation struggle long before he became part of the communist movement. On his way to university from the neighbourhood of Shubra, where he shared a flat with Awad, he would graffiti the walls of the Qolali Tunnel with anti-British slogans. Later he was caught distributing leaflets on Amir Street, not far from where he lived in Shubra, and taken in by the authorities. "It was," he says, "when my name first entered the black list. To this day it hasn't been crossed out." Nor, according to Habashi himself, should it be: the man is among the few who continue to believe in freedom, justice and equity. He reads recent developments in the light of "how right we were", and refuses to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union signalled the end of history and the eternal reign of capitalism. History brought him too much suffering for that to be the end of it, after all. And he believes in too many people -- including Awad, his wife and the mathematician- thinker Abdel-Azim Anis -- to whom the end of history would be anathema even now. In short, Habashi is a fighter, as determined as he is capable of self-sacrifice. He makes a perfect role model for the activist.
Habashi's house in Hadayeq Al-Qobba, Cairo, is a modest functional place located on a street named Al-Khandaq (meaning 'the trench'), perhaps a reference to its use by the forces of the British Empire but equally, and more significantly in the present context, an evocative reference to the way Habashi and his wife and fellow activist Thuraya Rashed lived for much of their life. The house is light in both senses of the word -- not for a minute does it invoke isolation or burial -- but on numerous occasions, indeed, it worked as an underground lair. The most interesting of these is perhaps the morning of the couple's marriage on 12 November 1937, known in Arabic as the sabahiya -- normally an occasion for a festive family gathering. During their engagement -- they were both very young at the time -- the couple had confessed to each other that they were both members of underground communist organisations, two different if affiliated organisations that required the utmost secrecy and loyalty of their members. That day, 13 November, Rashed's organisation was due to meet; and, in spite of the bride's protestations, the leaders insisted that their meeting should be held in the house of the newly married couple, because the authorities could never suspect a political meeting to be taking place in a house where a sabahiya was taking place. Habashi woke up to find the house full of activists and, after an initial complaint or two, left in silence while the meeting took place. The image of perplexed family members who didn't have a clue what was going on has stayed with him. Already his marital abode was turned into khandaq, and not even by the man of the house. Later, the main balcony served as a life-saving mechanism for Habashi and his wife. Upon reaching the house on any given day, he would look up at the balcony where, if Rashed had not hung up a white sheet to dry, it meant the house was not safe to step into that afternoon or evening -- the secret service or their affiliates were there, waiting for Habashi to come home so they could arrest him. With the sheet up, he says with a wry if life- affirming smile, he could climb the stairs in safety. It was one of numerous precautions.
"The first time I was arrested," Habashi recalls, "I was a student at the Minya Secondary School, where I'd moved to study from the village of Sharouna," from whence Awad too hails, "and became involved in the national liberation struggle." Among the students of that school was Field-Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, head of the military and Nasser's second in command and many respects besides, who didn't fall out of grace and die until the defeat of 1967. Then he details the arrests, inevitably followed by detention, that followed: under King Farouk, he was arrested in May 1948, released three years later, "the day [the Wafd prime minister Mustafa] El-Nahhas Pasha came to power"; in 1954, under the Free Officers, he witnessed the well publicised tragedy of the well-known late communist leader Shohdi Attia El-Shafie, who was beaten to death in political detention, which prompted a widespread response from, among others, Field-Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, who declared a few moments of silence in mourning for "the martyr"; a major campaign against communists occurred on New Year's Eve in 1958, and during the course of 1959, Habashi remembers, he shared the same cell with Awad and others; in 1975, following Anwar El-Sadat's "corrective revolution", he was imprisoned again; and in Mubarak's time he has been arrested three times in 1981 and 1986 as well as 1987. On the latter occasion, he remembers, Awad was on the list once again, and was reportedly spared thanks to the intervention of the country's best known first lady, Jihan El-Sadat. In total he was imprisoned for 10 years, a time during which he shared the humiliation, sometimes torture and hard labour, with some of the country's most prominent intellectuals. Besides Awad he remembers, the legendary vernacular poet Fouad Haddad, novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the present-day Director of the Al-Ahram Centre of Political and Strategic Studies Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the latter a very young man at this point. Memories and anecdotes abound, and the sense of place -- Habashi witnessed the British detention camp of Hakestep, the well-documented Wahat Detention Camp, in the heart of the Western Desert, as well as any number of Cairo prisons, sharing his life with common criminals as well as, often, Muslim Brotherhood activists -- the mortal enemies of communists in Egyptian political life. Such experiences make for a wealth of information.
He remembers being in the company of former chairman of the board of Al-Ahram and well-known political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal -- during Sadat's time -- and the latter, a staunch Nasserist, not knowing how to deal with the common run of grassroots communists, who knew the dogma by heart but never understood much in the way of politics or psychology: "There was this poor, helpless guy who never stopped weeping. Anyway, Heikal had this small transistor radio which he sometimes used. Now he was quietly listening to Lizst. And here comes our pauper friend, looks wide-eyed at Heikal and blurts out, 'who's this you're listening to?' So Heikal told him, and his eyes got all the wider for hearing a name he could never recognise in a million years. 'What's this,' he yelled, 'you're rotten bourgeoisie!' At this point the communists had sunk so low that Heikal, observing them, said, 'I was convinced that communism could rule in Egypt. Now I know that not even in 50 years could these people come to power.' Sad but true, at this point...' Habashi also remembers Awad's persistent incredulity: "He just couldn't get it through his head that he was actually in political detention." And of the widely respected Anis, he speaks in reverent tones, insisting that it was partly Anis's own determination that kept him going: "I agree with his present-day views. I didn't write my memoirs to reassess all that happened in the past, I'm not so interested in that. I'm interested rather in the future. It is absolutely necessary that justice should reign, together with national liberation and true democracy. I was writing in the hope of seeing the day when the constitution has been modified to explicitly stress the rights of all citizens to complete freedom of creed and expression. And this is practically Anis's view: he doesn't stress the past. I shared a cell with Anis at the Gabal Al-Tor Detention Camp," Habashi remembers, "and from that time on a strong friendship connected the two of us. He too had spent a long time in the king's political prisons. What he says in his memoirs, which I too say in mine, is that we feel no regret whatsoever, if things were to happen again in exactly the same way we would choose the same path. 'Today, as I approach the age of 80,' he wrote, 'I regret nothing, for my sole concern throughout my life was to defend the poor and the victims of injustice, and to fight for the independence of Egypt.' As far as I'm concerned, this is extremely well put. I couldn't have put it better myself. It is identical to what I feel...'
Memories abound. When their youngest daughter was 14 months old -- and it is at this point that Rashed enters the conversation -- Habashi was already in prison when the authorities came to arrest his wife. She asked the officer if she could take her son along. "And you know what he said," Rashed recounts, "he said, quite politely I have to admit, 'Madam, you are going into the unknown. I think your daughter is much better off left here with relatives or neighbours. You do not know where you're going, so it's better not to take her with you.' It was five years before I could lay eyes on her again." Together with secret service people periodically searching the house -- "They would rifle through the books," Habashi remembers, "taking away whatever took their fancy. I can't believe how many books the government's robbed me of over the years" -- this would prove to be a recurrent event: leaving the children with friends and loved ones while they went off to be imprisoned, the both of them. Habashi insists that the results were positive: all three grew up to be political activists fighting for the same causes. "And this," he says, with the same wry yet life-affirming smile, "is all I ever wanted -- for my children to resume the struggle -- to the end."
By Samir Sobhi