Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Assem El-Kersh

Look ahead in anger

Assem El-Kersh asks the celebrated screenwriter Wahid Hamid what he expects of the next 10 years

The author of the political film hit Terrorism and Kebab, perhaps Egypt's most successful screenwriter, is hard-pressed to furnish a script for the next 10 years in the life of the nation. Once an energetic young visionary flitting from one place to the next, Wahid Hamid is now palpably quiet: an elderly gentleman at his daily table in the all-but-empty corridor adjoining the restaurants of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, bathed in light.

Click to view caption
Fighting corruption and fanaticism topped Hamid's agenda for film writing. Among the many films he scripted were (from top) Al-Irhab wel-Kebab, Damm Al-Ghazal and Toyour Al-Dhalam

He seems more eager to talk about the past than the future. But appearances can be deceiving and so is Hamid's small voice. Ten minutes into the conversation it is clear his head is still boiling over with ideas, his sense of civic duty -- and the connection between the role of the intellectual and the life of the country, to his mind -- are as present and as keenly honed as ever. So much so that, at the outset, Hamid issues a disclaimer to the effect that his predictions for the future will not be positive or pleasant.

It is not a question of predisposition, he says: "But judging by what has come to pass in the course of one's conscious life -- because of course childhood and the early years are to be counted outside one's conscious life, since at this stage one is unable to form a credible opinion or vision, let alone one based on a proper methodology benefiting from experience of the past -- judging by what has come to pass, I am pessimistic. We are very good at making promises and launching high-sounding projects. We have sensible studies and methodical plans and everything, but we never carry anything through; and when we do anything, we carry out part of the plan and not all of it, so the entire project fails.

"Hence," Hamid toys with his ballpoint as he warms to his theme, "our backwardness. I'll give you a recent and to my mind very obvious example of what I mean: President Hosni Mubarak's electoral programme for the present term, has it been implemented?" Hamid refuses to argue over particulars, but he has a bigger picture at the back of his head. "Forget the official facts and figures. The truth is that none of it has been carried out." Figures may reflect an increase in job opportunities, for example, but the job opportunities they refer to may well be, if not fictitious, then "disastrous" to society as a whole:

"It is possible to introduce the tuk-tuk to certain parts of the city and claim that, by providing people with the opportunity to drive it, you are implementing the president's programme. What you are actually doing is afflicting the country with an urban disaster, contributing to the slum mentality that dominates every aspect of life. Employment means qualification, it means rules and regulations. Employment cannot be compatible with the randomness of the shantytown, and tuk-tuk drivers are a good example of how the term 'employment' might actually be abused. So let me ask you one more time, which part of the president's electoral programme has actually been implemented since he started his term?"

Hamid is briefly interrupted by the waiter, one of many who know him personally at the Grand Hyatt. While he insists, with undemonstrative generosity, that everyone present should have at least a drink, this wizened social critic suddenly assumes the look of a post-millennial oracle: a man, as he puts it, "who will not live to see much of the future you are here to discuss", but whose very age gives him a sharp perspective on years to come.

Born in 1944, Hamid is not as old as he makes himself out to be, and his statements about the past are as relevant as any to the future. Throughout the conversation he will not make explicit predictions, but it is now possible to interpret his musings (many of which he restricts to the last 30 years or so) as the pronouncements of a seer, speaking -- as all seers do -- through some complex system of signs. Whether inadvertently or not, perhaps his evident despair is actually a list of warnings and recommendations in disguise.

"You might be surprised or you might laugh out loud," Hamid goes on once the waiter is gone, fiddling with a stack of papers this time, "but I saw an official with my own eyes, an official in the social sector, appear on television with a completely straight face to declare," in response to questions about unemployment, "that he does not personally consider beggars to be unemployed. 'The beggar,' that official said, 'has a job.' How can you talk to someone like that about increasing job opportunities?"

Randomness, "the slum mentality", the failure to implement (as opposed to come up with) plans are the signals Hamid seems to register: they are ailments, he insists, not only of the government but, more importantly, of the people; and they will continue to prevent visions of progress from coming true. Yet just as his words begin to evoke a brave new world of social anarchy and cultural despair, Hamid says something that radically alters the mood of the conversation, revealing more of where the negative impulse stems from:

"We are not a desolate country, this is not a lost cause. We are a country with a wealth of minds in every field of endeavour -- economics, politics, medicine, whatever -- and whose knowledge of their respective fields is as deep and comprehensive and innovative as any. The problem is that the true economists who know about things and have the evidence to prove it and are capable of actually improving things are routinely silenced or trivialised or marginalised, even accused of treason.

"Some of these people are even members of the ruling party and they keep quiet in order to preserve their own interests. But the truth cannot be hidden for long."

Once again Hamid is interrupted, this time by the hotel manager who has brought along a friend, one of the screenwriter's numerous fans -- eager to make the acquaintance of a well-known figure. And once again, undemonstratively, Hamid is humble and generous with his time. The stack of papers on the table, as he now explains, is in fact a new script which, as one can gather from the way he has left it lying there, he will resume working on when both fans and journalists are gone.

Hamid writes longhand, so he explains after the hotel manager and his companion have stepped away: "I don't have a relationship with computers. I like writing this way, to face the challenge of getting things done without having to cross out."

The present script turns out to be a minor project, however; Hamid's major undertaking at this point is his upcoming television drama on the Muslim Brothers -- an audiovisual document on the birth, growth and future of one of Egypt's most significant political forces, already controversial. Perhaps this will be Hamid's definitive statement not only on political Islam but also on Egyptian political life and modern Egyptian history.

"I think the Brothers will remain the way they are," neither legal nor exactly invisible, "a thorn in the back of the nation that you can not remove. First of all, in order for them to exist in the first place -- and this is true throughout their history -- the Muslim Brothers must strike against all the other political parties and powers, attempt to break them up or otherwise harm them in any way possible; that is how they came into politics in the first place.

"Most of the founding members of the Brotherhood were former members of the Wafd Party, and you could say the Wafd was robbed of them by this ideology. They were mostly young men as well. But whether they will become a legal political party is an open question, because regardless of the government position it is not clear whether the Brothers themselves should want to be a party. The late Hassan El-Banna [the founder of the Brotherhood] was staunchly against parties, almost to the point of prohibiting them by religious law. For my part I am against a political party with a religious agenda -- and no, I don't think the Brothers will emerge as a powerful political force."

Hamid feels the ruling National Democratic Party will definitely remain in power till 2020, "for the simple reason that it is the party that commands money and power". He does not feel that it will have any significant competition in the next 10 years, even if a coalition of opposition parties emerges on the scene.

"In Egypt change does not start from the base of the pyramid but only from its head, and under the present circumstances the only thing we can expect by way of radical change is a bitter choice: a coup. You and I spend a lot of time with people, so you must have noticed that the prevalent tone of the people these days is to say, 'Let's hope for the army.' And I am one of those who hate military rule.

"But however bad it gets, military rule -- provided it is properly regulated -- is much, much better than the rule of the corrupt."

Unexpectedly for a social critic of such determination, though perhaps more plausibly than we tend to think, Hamid does not perceive the Islamisation of society -- "a blundering process" -- as a meaningful development.

"My belief is that the Islamic tide," he says, "is a Zionist conspiracy against Arab Muslims, and why Arab Muslims? Because they are the force with which Israel is surrounded. Sedition is the surest way to gain the upper hand in a potential conflict. Sedition," he repeats. "And the worst kind of sedition is that which divides people from within. Sedition between two different Muslim sects, Sunnis and Shias, is one thing; but sedition within a single sect is remarkable in a different way.

"Now it is a well-known premise, and one to whose validity the greatest Muslim authorities will readily testify, that religion is not something you can add to or subtract from. A religious creed is a given set of rules that cannot be changed. And the reason for this is quite simple: if you give someone the authority to introduce no rules, you cannot guarantee that they will not also eliminate rules, you cannot guarantee that they will turn the entire religion into something altogether different. For religion to work it has to remain constant.

"Now you get someone who tells you that niqab is required," Hamid says, his voice reaching a new crescendo, "when it is already established that niqab is not required. To which someone else will promptly say no. And then maybe a third party will make other suggestions still. That is how you get sedition within a single sect. And it can only be explained in terms of a conspiracy from outside the community."

Quiet again now that he has made his point, Hamid agrees that there exists among many Arab Muslims today "an absence of reason", and as he expands on the latter point, it sounds as if he is crystallising the very essence of the question most crucial to the future:

"Social circumstances in Egypt encourage this: poverty and despair. People look at their lives and they think to themselves, 'If we cannot have this world, we had better make sure that we will have the next.' Until these circumstances change, we remain vulnerable to such conspiracies."

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