Obituary Amin Howeidi (1921-2009) Vexed, not villainous
Down the road from the Heliopolis Hospital is a well-hidden three-storey villa where Amin Howeidi, former minister of defence and chief of Egyptian General Intelligence, lived. The last time I met him he received me in his study.
"True democracy does not revolve around the amendment of written constitutions. True democracy is not about legalistic semantics and verbose or earsplitting harangues and bombastic debates in parliament, the so-called People's Assembly," he said.
Howeidi's hero was Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Commissioned by Nasser to investigate the causes of the June 1967 defeat, and reorganise the demoralised armed forces, he was also asked to revamp the chaotic security apparatus. "The Egyptian army was ill-prepared for battle, and its capabilities underutilised. Troops had to be trained with some target in mind. Information regarding the Israeli military plans was woefully lacking. Moreover, the state didn't have full control over the army. Worse, the tactical withdrawal of the Egyptian army from Sinai was a faux pax."
Howeidi presided over some of the most daring operations that dealt Israel a series of fearful blows including masterminding the Al-Haffar (the oil rig) incident in which an Israeli oil rig destined for occupied Sinai was exploded on the orders of Howeidi off the Senegalese coast, West Africa. He caught no less than 53 Israeli spies. Howeidi, nonetheless, unreservedly paid homage to Nasser.
"Nasser changed the course of the country's history," he continued. "He understood what democracy is. He loved the common man."
A minute or so of silence lapsed before he uttered another word.
"True democracy is about meeting the basic needs of the masses. This 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 would look you straight in the eye as he spoke his mind.
"I have no time for the antics of the ballot box -- vote buying, vote-rigging, the whole farcical lot." Howeidi belonged to a world that has all but disappeared. "Votes are not cast in bundles to be bought by some filthy rich businessman, some tycoon who cares for nothing but making heaps of money, 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. 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."
Photographs of Nasser were everywhere, hanging on the walls of his study, perched on his desk, souvenirs of a bygone age.
"Everyone focuses on how to protect the ballot box, not the voter. The issue at point here is who the voter actually is. What does the voter do for a living? What is the standard of living of the voter? Is the voter illiterate? These are pertinent questions. If the voter is so poor that he will resort to selling a kidney to make ends meet, will he not sell his vote to the highest bidder?"
My heart is heavy as I recall my last encounter with Howeidi -- a man who for a long time called the shots in Egypt. My mother had just passed away and he reminded me of an Egypt fossilised in my memory as a land of sacrifice and devotion to sacred causes. "Democracy is not manufactured, democracy is constructed brick by brick," was one of his more memorable statements. "Heath, education and social welfare for the disadvantaged. I speak of social democracy, not the individualistic democracy of the privileged and powerful."
Howeidi was handpicked by Nasser, and appointed war minister and director of General Intelligence 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.
"Amer committed suicide," Howeidi disclosed unequivocally. "He was not assassinated." There was much speculation that Howeidi was one of the leading men in Nasser's regime who had a hand in the demise of Amer, a charge that Howeidi vehemently denied.
Howeidi accepted his post "with much pride". In his later years he refused to go incognito. He regularly appeared on television shows. He was also a family man, despite his passion for politics. He lavished great affection on his son Hisham and daughter Maha.
Howeidi was bold, at times obtrusive. There was something relentlessly secure about him.
"The revolution was not faultless," he conceded. However, he decried the senseless denunciation of the revolution.
"I have no time for such myopic idiots. Their vain attempts to distort history are despicable."
He was among a group of close Nasser associates that suffered under the administration of Anwar El-Sadat. At best they were denounced, at worst derided as the scum of the earth, accused of authoritarianism, ideological bankruptcy and corruption. They were Nasser's yes-men. Howeidi countered such accusations in no uncertain terms.
"What we had before the revolution was sham democracy. It was a farcical disgrace."
According to Howeidi it is a platitude that Sadat's foreign policy was his undoing. Sadat, he stressed, was surrounded by headless fools and money-grabbing henchmen. "And the infitah [open door] policy was disastrous. Its legacy, baleful."
Howeidi was not unaware of some of the anomalies of the 1952 Revolution.
"We were not saints. We committed mistakes. We were labouring under exceptionally difficult circumstances. We had set ourselves a difficult task. The imperial powers were determined to thwart our efforts."
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 said.
Towards the end of his life, Howeidi refused to be written off as a cynical old man. He was intensely interested in the present. A prolific writer, he penned over 50 volumes and hundreds of political commentaries which appeared in the press and specialised journals. His castigations of pundits and politicians made enemies over the years. He could not have cared less.
Howeidi was an Egyptian nationalist and a pan- Arabist. He served as Egypt's ambassador in Baghdad between 1963 and 1965, critical years for Iraq. His experience there cemented his reputation as the man who Nasser dispatched to resolve intractable problems.
In 1963 the Arab Socialist Baath Party, led by Abdel-Salam Mohamed Arif, launched a successful coup in Iraq. The US promptly recognised the new Baathist regime. Later Arif overthrew his own political set-up and created a new, non-Baathist, pro-Nasserist government. Howeidi's mission in Iraq was accomplished.
Howeidi was a Nasserist, but one vehemently opposed to the creation of a Nasserist party. He was a pragmatist, a liberal politically, and yet he joined forces with leftists to form the centre-left Tagammu Party.
Howeidi's hallmark was integrity. He spoke out courageously against Sadat's policies in the 1970s and was incarcerated for his trouble.
"Under Sadat the evolution veered towards the right. He operated from the false premise." Such disarmingly frank remarks were typical of Howeidi's candid style.
With his death at the age of 88 the Arab world has lost one of its shrewdest strategists. In spite of his military background, he insisted that a civilian and not a military man should head the Ministry of Defence.
"The region will never be stable unless the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved," he insisted.
I suppose I smiled, as I tend to do when embarrassed. Was there a way to avoid all of the unhappy endings to Arab aspirations by finding true democracy?
For the first time he did not look through me, but at me. His knuckles were drained white by the force with which he was gripping his best-selling book Lost Opportunities. Then he hastily put the book away. No more was said.