Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Sayed Yassin

The death of Egyptian scholar Al-Sayed Yassin has deprived the country of one of its leading intellectual figures, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

The Egyptian scholar Al-Sayed Yassin passed away a few weeks ago. He was a towering figure, one of the few Egyptian scholars who can claim to have both an intellectual and an institutional legacy. He also transformed the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies into a well-respected institution and one of the best of its kind in the world.

The Centre was not Yassin’s own creation, however. It was Al-Ahram’s celebrated chief editor, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who felt after the 1967 War that Egypt needed greater expertise on Israel and therefore decided to set up a research centre. Yassin, who chaired the centre after 1975 for nearly two decades, transformed it into something much more impressive, giving it three major emphases: The Egyptian state and society, Middle Eastern geopolitics and the Arab and Israeli societies, and the international system. He also raised generations of scholars, with many of the leading experts in Egyptian academia and some public figures being his former pupils.

Building a scientific institution is never an easy task. But it was further complicated by the hostility of the regime led by former president Anwar Al-Sadat towards the intellectual community. As a student, I often heard Al-Sadat railing at “the council of the wise” that issued recommendations that did not take into account his intuitions. I am now told that Yassin had to resist constant pressure and intrigues to close this centre that was associated with Heikal’s name.

Yassin proved to be a subtle reader of the Egyptian state, and he mastered the skills of politics. He knew when to adapt and when to fight, and he knew when and how to build networks. As a result, he not only prevented the demise of the centre, but also developed it. By 1990, it was one of the state’s main interlocutors, and it provided the country’s leadership with advice and assessments during the Iraq-Kuwait crisis. Today, many leading experts from the centre advise the Egyptian government and other institutions on topics related to international affairs, regional issues, Political Islam and others.

The centre has been visited by almost all prominent Arab academics, and its network is impressive. It has a unique knowledge of local and regional issues.

As an intellectual, Al-Sayed Yassin played at least three different roles. First of all, he belonged to the list of the “happy few” who constitute the memory of the state, its mind, and its counsellors. They have witnessed so many episodes, known so many persons, engaged in so many battles that they know how the state works and what it can and cannot do. Their discourse, oral and written, has been a permanent reminder of the state’s role in authoritarian modernisation and rationalisation. They know exactly what this means, and they have constantly told the public that without modernisation, authoritarianism has no target, no future, and no rationale.

I have known three people belonging to this elite list of advisers. They were very different from each other and focussed on different issues, but they were all critical of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, though they had deep admiration for him as a man. They all despised Al-Sadat, though in different ways. On former president Hosni Mubarak, they disagreed. They could be the staunchest defenders of the state, and they could also be its fiercest critics behind closed doors. Last but not least, they were never suspected of personal enrichment: They relied on their incomes from their jobs, as did Al-Sayed Yassin, to earn their livings. They all accepted this situation, and they were all restless and brilliant minds that did not know what taking a respite means.

Secondly, Yassin laid the theoretical foundations for many of the Arab social sciences. He contributed to the development of the sociology of law, for example, and to that of the strategic school of social-scientific thinking. This was achieved by different means: He introduced concepts developed in western academia into Arabic terminology, as well as various theories. He more often than not used post-modern methodology to cast doubts on western paradigms, claiming that they were ill-suited to studying the Arab world and advancing many arguments to sustain his assessment.

It was never clear to me if he also questioned the philosophical and epistemological traditions and schools from which these theories came, or whether he thought the Western social sciences did not abide by these schools themselves. His argumentation was sometimes convincing and sometimes weak on this point.

One narrative ploy he frequently used could help us to understand his purpose. The methodological introductions he wrote often said that the Western theory on such-and-such a topic was developed by such-and-such a scholar, and that this theory was unaware that it was a prisoner of Western biases, assumptions and perspectives until Third World scholars had decisively criticised it. Now the main paradigm says so and so, he wrote. This story was sometimes accurate, and sometimes fanciful. But it always meant that we, as Third World scholars, can and must play a role as Western academic production has political implications that could be dangerous for our region. We should counter it by discussing this production and proposing our own, which could also help the political leadership of our own countries. This was a way of saying to that leadership that “you need us”.

Thirdly, Yassin was a cosmopolitan intellectual and a prominent member of a globalised academia. He had many Western and Asian friends and supporters, and he actively participated in hundreds of meetings, conferences and debates. After doing so, he would return home and publish in Al-Ahram an account of the event, a survey of the books written by the main participants, and an account for the cultivated reader of what was going on in international academia.

His knowledge was immense, and he kept on developing it until his dying day. The diversity of the topics he dealt with and the subtlety and accuracy of his presentations of them are staggering. He could discuss Political Islam, strategic thinking, globalisation, democracy, the interaction between ideology and technology, the development of Japanese society and of the Iranian leadership, the Egyptian Revolution, the notion of development and so on, all with the same ease. He was also able to provide useful background.

His favourite format was the long articles he published in the daily Al-Ahram. This had many advantages and many drawbacks: It enabled him to emphasise his main assertions, and accurate concision was one of his strong points. But it also prevented him from discussing implications or possible objections.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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