In search of a leader
Nehad Selaiha is carried back to 1919 in quest of leader models
The recent death of Khalid Gamal Abdel Nasser, the son of Egypt's second president after the 1952 military coup, has triggered a spate of articles that, put together, constitute a disturbing phenomenon. Instead of the usual obituaries listing the achievements of the deceased and dwelling on his merits, we were suddenly drowned in waves of shallow sentimentalism and romantic nostalgia about the good old days when the father of the deceased ruled the country with an iron hand. With the exception of one or two pieces, the whole verbal eulogistic eruption on that occasion was directed at the father.
Nasser's simple way of life and financial probity -- virtues that did not unfortunately extend to those around him -- were praised, and justly so, one might add. But though his pursuit of social justice was sincere enough, as these articles emphasized, one could not but remember that it did not prevent the exchange of the old aristocracy with a new, military one, in terms of political influence, financial power and social sway, if not of capital and property, and, more damagingly still, did not stop him channeling a substantial part of the funds made available by the nationalization of private businesses and property into the ill-judged, long war in Yemen, driven to this by heady dreams of revolutionary, pan-Arab leadership, rather than use it to build a solid infrastructure for his country's fast-growing population. However, granted that a measure of social justice was achieved in Nasser's reign, does this morally justify its cost in terms of political suppression?
Forgetting, or willfully ignoring the many crimes committed in that benevolent dictator's reign of terror -- the scores of political dissidents, including prominent artists and intellectuals, tortured in his state prisons and mad houses and murdered there, or released after a spell, having been physically maimed or morally disfigured for life -- the contrivers of these articles represented the big attendance at his son's funeral, which can be easily explained in many obvious ways, not least among them the family's vast web of connections, or the Egyptians' deep-seated respectful awe in the presence of death, as an overwhelming popular thirst on the part of the masses for Nasser's kind of tyrannical leadership, thus knocking the bottom out of the 25 January uprising and making a mockery of its basic demand for freedom and democracy. "Oh for a leader like your father" was a dominant, recurrent note in these articles. But while it is true that none of the many presidential candidates lined up for the next elections, the first after the revolution, has a spark of Nasser's overwhelming charisma, commanding presence and disarming passion, it is also true that only a mad person, or one stricken with total amnesia would want a return of his rule by fear.
In this context, Ahmed Ism'il's quasi- documentary Hikayat El-Nas fi Thawret 19 (Tales of People in the 1919 Uprising) seems like a timely dramatic reflection on the issue of leadership and an urgent reminder of the kind of national leaders we should be nostalgic about at present. Rather than juxtapose the current revolution with that of 23 July, 1952, as some columnists have repeatedly done, Isma'il goes further back in history, to the beginning of the rise of national consciousness and the struggle for liberation. Mustafa Kamel (1874-1908)), Mohamed Farid (1868 1919) and Saad Zaghloul (1859- 1927) are proposed as leader models. But while the histories of the first two are briefly surveyed in a strictly documentary manner, through projections of old photos and memorable phrases, the history of the last, most unpromising material indeed for a popular hero up until 1919, is given dramatic focus for a purpose.
Zaghloul was a well-to-do, ambitious lawyer, twice ex-minister (of education from 1906-1908 and of Justice from 1910-1912) and vice president of the Legislative Assembly as from 1913 -- a man closely associated with the upper classes, close to Princess Nazli Fazl, married to the daughter of Egyptian prime minister Mustafa Pasha Famhi, regarded with favour by Lord Cromer, then the effective British ruler of Egypt, on account of that marriage, and with no earthly concern but for his political career and personal advancement. His somewhat sudden transformation into a recklessly self-sacrificing, uncompromising patriot and za'im al-umma (national leader), as he was called by the masses, is imaginatively dwelt on and dramatically rendered in a serious of fictional encounters between him and Mohamed Farid, who, in 1919, was dying in exile in Berlin, and whom Zaghloul never met in actual fact. The upshot of this is the suggestion that, rather than anything else, it was the people themselves and their former true leaders who helped change Zaghloul into what he became and pointed him to the right path.
Indeed, the whole show centers on the people, their memories, hopes and little, daily, heroic struggles against oppression. The large cast -- led by national theatre star Salwa Mohamed Ali and taking turns at narrating factual history, impersonating real and fictional figures in sundry imagined situations and re-enacting scenes from history, sometimes in song and dance -- always foregrounds the people, be they peasants, civil servants, students, workers, shopkeepers, café owners, or even beggars, as the primum mobile in any revolution, its steering force and sole guarantee against deviation. They alone can make their true leaders and keep them alive in their memory when they go, as they eventually must. Leaders may come and go, the show argues; the people, however, are here for all time.
This message, coded in most aspects of Hikayat, was particularly pronounced in the predominant presence of Sayed Darwish's popular ditties about peasants, workers, Nubians and other oppressed groups in Egyptian society. These, together with the famous patriotic songs he composed around the 1919 uprising, all beautifully sung by Mohamed Mohsin, with occasional accompaniment by the cast, were used not only to shade and colour the show emotionally, or as links between the scenes, but also as material to dramatize certain situations. At the end of the show, Isma'il carries the juxtaposition of the 1919 uprising and that of 25 January to a climax that forces you to critically compare the two and powerfully embodies a warning against the forces of darkness that threaten to engulf the latter. Sinking the temporal barriers between the two uprisings and identifying the protestors of yesterday with those of the here and now, he stages the 1919 demonstrations with the actors in modern dress, defiantly shouting slogans that can only have resonance in the present. When Salwa Mohamed Ali, hoisting a banner sporting Saad Zaghloul's name, shouts: 'No one will force us to wear the veil', she is clearly addressing her words not to the enlightened religious scholars of Zaghloul's day, but to the Salafis of today. Her cry is at once a timely reminder of the liberal nature of the earlier revolution, a bitter, ironical comment on the religious bigotry of the present compared to the past and a powerful protest against the current attempts of the Islamic movement to hijack 25 January.
Those who still mourn Gamal Abdel-Nasser and nostalgically look back to his reign, telling us he was a model leader, will do well to remember what kind of short shrift the Muslim Brothers received at his hands. Were Nasser to come back today, wouldn't he make a quick end of them again? While some secularists may desire this, I, for one, though a brainwashed Nasserite till the age of 20, would not wish it. The repression they have suffered since Nasser's days is as abhorrent to me as the repression they would have us suffer under their prospective rule. I left the theatre confirmed in my belief that, rather than an 'inspired', 'charismatic' leader, be he secular, like Nasser, or clerical, like Khomeini, what we need are real, civil, democratic institutions. Thank God there is no one around like Nasser anymore.