At a time when Egypt is unravelling, with no light at the end of the tunnel, no sense of political direction, no real leadership, and no consensus on what to do next; when one faction has monopolised power and excluded everyone else; when we have a constitution that divides rather than unites; I found myself thinking of Mustafa Kamel, this young man who just over a century ago spoke of his love for his country in those unforgettable words: “My land, if I were to be taken away from it, to live in a world of immortality, I will — in the midst of immortality — yearn to go back to it.”
Kamel, who took the case of Egypt’s independence from British occupation to international forums when he was only 21, had a friend in France, Juliette Adams, a renowned author and publisher of the bimonthly political publication La Nouvelle Revue.
Adams’s book England in Egypt is available in Arabic through a translation by Mustafa Kamel’s brother, Ali. In that book, Adams describes her first meeting with Mustafa Kamel, who was to become a regular contributor to her magazine.
Kamel, who obtained a law degree from Toulouse College in April 1894, was a co-founder of Al-Hizb Al-Watani (the National Party) and a tireless critic of British occupation. In a trip to France in 1895, he presented a statement “to the speaker of the French parliament” on behalf of the Egyptian people. Along with the statement, he attached a work of art: a painting showing all the nations that France helped gain independence, countries such as the United States, Belgium, Italy and Serbia. Egypt was shown in the same painting, but it was shackled with British chains.
Seeking to gain French sympathy to the Egyptian cause, Kamel delivered a political speech in Toulouse in July 1985. From Toulouse, he wrote the first of many letters to Adams. The letter goes thus:
Toulouse, 12 September 1985
I am still young, but I have big dreams. I wish to rouse in old Egypt the spirit of a young Egypt. They say that my country doesn’t exist, and I say that it exists and I feel its existence in the immense love I have for it in my heart, a love that overshadows any other form of love, and I am determined to give all my power, to sacrifice my youth for it, and to dedicate my life to my country.
I am 21 years old, and a year ago I got a law degree from Toulouse. It is my intention to write, give lectures, and spread around those feelings of enthusiasm and dedication I have for my dear country. I have been told, more than once, that my quest is impossible, but I feel my soul drawn in this direction. So help me, Madame. Your patriotism empowers you to understand my words, support my aim and help me.
Please accept my greetings and respect
In her book, Adams recalls that first encounter:
In our first meeting, a young man came to me. I thought he wasn’t a day older than 18. So I said to him, with a smile, “why haven’t you been honest about your age. You are not yet 21.” He said, “I am 21, Madam, and then some.”
After we chatted for a while, I came to the conclusion that his young mind was more mature than his age suggests... I thought long and hard about the chances of him becoming, as he says, “an orator for Egypt”. The mission, I thought, was both impossible and doable. And yet it would have been easy to dismiss this young man as delusional.
Since that day, Adams became Kamel’s mentor in French politics, and regularly published his essays in her influential publication.
I created opportunities for him in the world of the French press, and he used these opportunities skilfully to advance his cause. His diligence enabled him to promote his ideas in other countries, even in England. And that was at a time when the English thought they had extinguished every Egyptian patriotic movement, destroyed all civil opposition, and ended all hope for the independence of the land of the Pharaohs.
The story of Mustafa Kamel is just as unlikely as it is true. A man with little experience in politics, with immense compassion in his heart, with infinite determination to work hard for his cause, single-handedly put in motion the nationalist movement that gave Egypt back its independence nearly half a century later.
It seems sometimes that the doors are closed, that all hope is gone, that it is no longer worth trying. But if we try, if we go that extra mile, like Mustafa Kamel once did, miracles can happen.