Amin Howeidi: Learning from the revolution
In the twilight years of the Nasser regime, the late president appointed a three-member committee composed of Sami Sharaf, Gamal Abdel-Nasser's secretary information; Shaarawi Gomaa, minister of interior; and Amin Howeidi. Their mission was to deal with the then ousted minister of defence, Abdel-Hakim Amer -- who was blamed for Egypt's defeat during the six-day war. Howeidi busied himself with rebuilding the nation's battered defences. He laid the foundation of the October 1973 victory. After a fallout with Anwar El-Sadat, Howeidi consecrated his life to writing -- he produced over 50 volumes and hundreds of political commentaries in the press and journals. Nation-building is his favourite activity. "Nations, like houses, cannot be built on sand," Howeidi is fond of saying. He is concerned, though, with the pace of change in the country. "The world is moving fast, while we continue to crawl."
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah
'Democracy is not manufactured, democracy is constructed brick by brick. Britain is a democracy, yet it does not have a written constitution. Israel, too, has no written constitution. And we fuss over constitutional amendments'|
photos: Mohamed Wassim
Former defence minister and General Intelligence chief Amin Howeidi is a master of revelations. His eloquence and sturdy nature are apparent in the strength of his convictions and in the manner in which he conveys them. He looks you straight in the eye and speaks his mind.
Howeidi's hero is Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and unequivocally so. "He changed the course of the country's history. He understood what democracy is. He loved the common man". Howeidi, though, has in mind a radically different concept of democracy than the much-touted Western-style democracy -- a system he derides. "I have no time for the antics of the ballot box -- vote-buying, vote-rigging, the whole farcical lot."
He smiled, with a telltale little tightening of the lips and raised eyebrows. We had spent two afternoons in his study at his villa in Heliopolis where he explained to me what the democracy he describes in his book is all about. "Social democracy, social rights. I am interested in the voters' interests. The voter is not a number to be bought by some filthy rich businessman, some tycoon who cares for nothing but making heaps of money, for lining his pockets with the sweat and labour of the poor and powerless."
"Nasser cared for the peasant, the barefoot Egyptian toiling in the fields. Today everyone wears shoes. Do you understand what it means that before the revolution most people walked around barefoot? The youngsters of today cannot fathom the misery and destitution of those days," he grimaced acrimoniously, his face for a moment contorted, yet his gaze unruffled as if frozen in time.
He pinches his lips together in condescending rejection of all that threatened his two life principles: the goals of the 23 July Revolution and an abiding love and respect for his immediate family -- not necessarily in that order.
Howeidi's piercing eyes and the paleness of his skin only enhanced the seriousness with which he uttered his ideas and recounted his memories. His tone was unmistakably warm and approving when he spoke fondly of his mentor. He was clearly attracted to Nasser for the same reason that many others were -- his intensely human and charismatic nature.
Howeidi believes in the revolution and its cause. He exudes something of the certainty in which the revolution's leaders assured us of the essential imperative of their motives. Nasser's photographs are everywhere hanging on the walls of his study, perched on his desk -- precious souvenirs of a bygone age. Then he erupts into an acerbic litany of complaints about the shortcomings of contemporary Egypt. Comparisons were drawn with the ideal epoch.
"I am a firm believer in the social democracy of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. If any ask why, I can always give a convincing answer." "I despise the cynics," he says unequivocally. I was reminded that Thomas Carlyle stated that sarcasm was the language of the devil.
"The most pressing concern of 2007 is the question of democracy, or to be more precise democratisation," he stresses. "Democracy cannot be imported piecemeal from the West. Each country has its peculiar nature and circumstances," he explains. This ethos was the kernel of the revolutionary political entity.
He paused to catch his breath and stared blankly at Nasser's portrait. It was very brief, but it spoke worlds.
"I am not interested in the past. Please, I do not want to talk about the past. I am only interested in the present," he looked unabashedly with admiration at his guru. It was a heart-wrenching interregnum. "You know he was barely 50 when he passed away. We were very fortunate to have him as leader. "The man was special, and that is an understatement". He was inexpressibly happy to speak about him. "He was not the least interested in the trappings of power."
Howeidi does not like to dwell too much on the past. He sounds unbearably nostalgic at times, but he is careful to explain why Nasser mattered so much. "Heath, education and social welfare for the disadvantaged. Democracy, social democracy not the individualistic democracy of the privileged and powerful," his eyes fastened on Nasser again in the same leech-like manner. He consoles himself by remembering.
We were sitting in his study. "Would you like some freshly squeezed orange juice?" Such disarmingly frank remarks are typical of his affable style. We sip the juice in silence. Then suddenly it is as if the floodgates opened. "True democracy does not revolve around the amendment of written constitutions. True democracy is not about legalistic semantics and verbose or hair- splitting harangues and bombastic debates in parliament, the so-called People's Assembly," he crackled.
"Democracy is not manufactured, democracy is constructed brick by brick". One could hear no dryness in his voice. "Britain is a democracy, yet it does not have a written constitution. Israel, too, has no written constitution. And we fuss over constitutional amendments."
Another stare of a minute or so duration. So, is there a way to avoid all of the unhappy endings by finding true democracy? "What we worked at so hard cannot be undone. People are fed up with economic deregulation and privatisation, they equate these measures with corruption and neo-colonialism. Mark my words, things will come a full circle."
Howeidi has faith in a dynamic democratic future. "True democracy is about meeting the basic needs of the masses. That is what I understand social justice to be. That is how Nasser saw it. He laid the foundations of true democracy. He was a true democrat."
Howeidi was handpicked by Nasser to be appointed defence and national security minister at a particularly difficult period in the country's history. He assumed his position soon after the 1967 defeat and the mysterious death of Abdel-Hakim Amer -- Nasser's one time charismatic right hand man. "It was an honour and a privilege, and I accepted my post with much pride."
Howeidi is bold and at times even obtrusive. There is something rather aggressively secure about him. He was once a man who called the shots, and it shows. He is far from being camera- shy, and he refuses to go incognito. He regularly appears on television shows. "My health sometimes fails me," the octogenarian shrugs in exasperation.
"The revolution was not faultless," he reluctantly concedes. However, Howeidi decries the senseless denunciation of the revolution that some pundits today excel at. He is highly critical of the satanic orgies they now divine behind every revolutionary move. "I have no time for such myopic idiots. They do not understand what they are talking about, or if they do then they have sinister motives. I prefer to believe that I have a deeper sense of history."
A minute's silence. He was among a group of close Nasser associates that suffered greatly under the Anwar El-Sadat administration. They were denounced and were considered at best ignorant of the obloquy they were inviting. At worst, they were derided as the scum of the earth -- those that institutionalised authoritarianism, ideological bankruptcy and corruption. They were Nasser's yes-men.
"Disgraceful. Their vain attempts to distort history are despicable. Today the children and grandchildren of landless peasants are enrolled at universities that were founded by the revolution. Moreover, they aspire to own cars and apartments as their inalienable right. Their peasant forefathers dared not dream of such luxuries."
Howeidi understood the purpose of the revolution. That is perhaps why Nasser promoted him at a difficult moment. His main political imperative is to prove that the revolution ushered in an age of true democracy -- what he describes as "social democracy".
Among the goals of the revolution was to end the monopoly of capital over the pre-revolution puppet governments. "What we had before the revolution was sham democracy. It was a farcical disgrace," he thumped his fist on his desk for emphasis.
There flashed a tiny, albeit blinding light in Howeidi's eyes, something singularly like a spark of defiance.
All this gave him a growing reputation. So what about George Orwell's portrayal of the corrupting nature of power? There was a clear suggestion in the sharp look sideways that Howeidi was irritated by the question. "We were not saints. We committed mistakes. We were labouring under exceptionally difficult circumstances. We had set ourselves a most difficult task. The imperialist powers were determined to thwart our efforts."
Perhaps in its saner moments, the revolutionary regime knew that some of the anomalies were ill- considered? "Why perplex yourself with questions, now, when it can scarcely matter," he chided. The most trying test was in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 defeat. "That was when I was called upon to fulfil one of the revolution's principal goals -- the building of a powerful national army," he brimmed proudly.
At that crucial moment, the regime seemed to have lost the courage of its wavering convictions. At that crucial historical juncture there was no room for an abdication of responsibility.
Nasser's domestic excesses were reviled in some quarters. "These robust souls who vehemently malign the late president," he said sardonically, "are ignorant of the facts." But, in his book, that doesn't mean that the revolution was always right.
He refuses to be categorised as a cynical old man. He is intensely interested in the present. "I hate to talk about the past," he repeated.
What about the cult of the personality? As far as Howeidi is concerned the revolution was no "messianic cult" as some contemporary commentators claim. He is impatient with such critics.
Again, he extolled the virtues of the revolution. However, Howeidi is unfit for the disagreeable role of pessimist. "I spoke out against Sadat's policies in the 1970s. I was constantly at loggerheads with the powers that be," he muses.
According to Howeidi, it is a platitude that Sadat's foreign policy was his undoing. Sadat was surrounded by mindless fools and money- grubbing henchmen. "And, the infitah policy was disastrous. Its legacy baleful."
Howeidi denounces the excesses of the Sadat era in grotesque detail. He was incarcerated under the Sadat regime. "The worst thing about being imprisoned is coming up with things to think about," Howeidi muses.
Under Sadat, the revolution veered towards the right. He operated from a false premise. That was the tragedy, as far as Howeidi was concerned. It took him a long time to wait before spilling the beans. "It is all in my book. I jotted down everything. I do not like to speak about my personal experiences," he growled.
His knuckles were drained white by the force with which he was gripping his book, Lost Opportunities, a book that was banned for many years. Then he hastily put the book away. No more was said.
For the first time he did not look through me, but at me. Howeidi was one-time ambassador to Morocco and Iraq. "I treasure my experience in Arab countries." He explained that the revolution gave a meaningful purpose to the then nascent concept of Arab unity and Afro-Asian solidarity. Cairo was at the centre of the Arab nationalist and the non-aligned movement. "Nasser's Egypt was a beacon."
Howeidi is a family man. He lavishes great affection on his son Hisham and daughter Maha. "My wife used to assist me," he muses fondly of her. Maha, a professor of biology at Cairo's Ain Shams University chimed in. "I read the papers, I understand what my father says, but I am no politician." Hisham, an engineer, has a similar outlook. "My children, and grandchildren understand the significance of the revolution."
His raw castigation of pundits and politicians has earned him some enemies. He couldn't care less. Pundits use the past in an attempt to misconstrue the present or to signal some kind of change. "Yet looking back, it is sometimes salubrious."
Evening crept on. "I was always preoccupied with the concerns of my country, the concerns of the Arab world."
His generation made the first step to chart a course independent of Egypt's colonial legacy, and seemingly failed. But there are many Hishams and Mahas, and the project to incorporate Egypt into the neo-colonial agenda is far from complete. It is uplifting to feel the aura of that first, golden era of Egypt's struggle to find its place in the sun.