Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Salah Eissa (1939-2017) ‘Born to oppose’

 Salah Eissa (1939-2017) ‘Born to oppose’
Salah Eissa (1939-2017) ‘Born to oppose’

The overcrowded funeral service of journalist, novelist and historian Salah Eissa, who passed away at Maadi’s Military Hospital on 25 December at the age of 78, reflected the shifts he made in his life and career.

Considering his long history as a leftist opposition figure, nearly all leaders of opposition parties, leftist, Arab nationalist and liberals, were present to offer condolences to Salah Eissa’s family. As former editor-in-chief of Al-Qahera newspaper, published by the Ministry of Culture since 1995, and a strong supporter of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, top officials and pro-government writers were also present.

One thing that never changed in Eissa’s long and rich history, whether as opponent or supporter of the regime, was his unwavering defence of freedom of the press and fighting for laws that gave journalists protection and prevented their imprisonment in publication-related offences.

Born on 14 October 1939 in a small village near the city of Mit Ghamr in Daqahleya governorate, Eissa also had a clear bias in support of the majority of Egypt’s poor peasants and workers. Being a Marxist at a young age repeatedly put him into trouble with the regime of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He was arrested the first time in 1966, a practice that was repeated at least six more times, in 1968, 1972, 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1981.

Like many leftists of his generation, Eissa had a love-hate relationship with Nasser. He supported Nasser’s support for the poor and the social mobility that he initiated through free education, land reform laws and launching many new industries. However, he suffered under Nasser’s totalitarian style of ruling the country and suppressing any opposition which, in Eissa’s view, was the key reason behind the stunning defeat in the 1967 War against Israel.

With former president Anwar Al-Sadat in office, Eissa strongly opposed both his political views, shifting Egypt’s alliances from the former Soviet Union to the United States and signing a peace treaty with Israel, as well as his open-door economic policies that clearly favoured the new, rising capitalist class in Egypt in the late 1970s. That probably explained why he was arrested several times under Sadat who had a reputation as a staunch leftist opponent.

Eissa started his career in journalism in 1972, one year after Sadat became president. However, his leftist views made his stay at the state-owned Al-Gomhoureya newspaper rather short; he was fired three years later. He had to wait until Sadat allowed the establishment of opposition political parties in 1977, publishing their own newspapers. Eissa immediately joined the leftist Tagammu Party when it was first created and was a key writer in its newspaper, Al-Ahaly.

His writing style that combined simplicity with a witty sense of sarcasm made him one of the most widely read writers in the newspaper which had a large circulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was known for his weekly column at Al-Ahaly, titled Al-Ahbariya, a name he came up with by combining the Arabic letters of the most widely-read three pro-government newspapers at that time: Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhoureya.

In the column, he pointed out many false items or others full of hypocrisy and praising the regime in the three newspapers.

Sadat’s patience with Eissa’s writings, and the opposition parties he created, was short lived. Besides arresting Eissa over allegations that he supported the so-called “bread revolt” on 17 January 1977, in which millions of Egyptians protested against the removal of state subsidies on basic goods, the writer was also arrested for writing sharp articles criticising what he described as Sadat’s unilateral Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sadat ordered the arrest of over 3,000 opponents and shut down all opposition newspapers, all on one day, 5 September, 1981. Eissa was among the top of the list. One month later, on 6 October 1981, Sadat was assassinated by radical Islamist members of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya while attending an annual military parade marking Egypt’s defeat of Israel in the 6 October 1973 War.

Eissa was released from prison a few months later by then president Hosni Mubarak and returned to his job as managing editor of Al-Ahaly. Sitting at a simple, metal desk, all those who visited Eissa noted the quote he loved from the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky and that was written on a piece of paper hanging behind him: “I was born to oppose.”

Eissa helped many young journalists at the beginning of their career, and his key advice to them was to reflect the feelings and many problems facing the majority of Egypt’s poor. Besides journalism, Eissa also had a passion for history, picking up on figures whom he felt were ignored or misrepresented. In over 20 books, he reminded Egyptians of unknown parts of their history through figures fighting against injustice, British colonisation and demanding a free, independent country.

However, in 1995, Eissa shocked many of his fans, friends and colleagues when he suddenly decided to accept the job of editor-in-chief of Al-Qahera newspaper, first published by former culture minister Farouk Hosni. Accepting a government-paid job was very unlike the rebel Eissa, and led to charges of “selling the cause” which certainly bothered the prominent writer.

Yet, Eissa saw matters differently. He argued that Egypt, while facing the growing influence of political Islamist groups and terrorist organisations that allowed the killing of intellectuals such as Farag Foda or attempted to kill Noble laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz because of their secular views, needed publications that promoted openness and enlightenment. However, critics noted that Eissa carried out a shift that was not unknown among similar opponents when they grew older — a feeling that they had a long history of suffering behind them that left them poor and constantly threatened with imprisonment.

Eissa left Al-Ahaly but never lost his passion, sarcastic style of writing, and his commitment to freedom of the press. He was a member of the Press Syndicate’s board several terms, and always stood by his colleagues who faced imprisonment over publication offences. He also drafted several press laws that stressed the need for access to information and providing protection to reporters, mainly through abolishing laws that allowed the imprisonment of journalists.

After the 25 January 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak, Eissa strongly opposed the rising Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, when Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi became president in June 2012, he was immediately removed from his position as editor-in-chief of Al-Qahera. However, Morsi hardly spent one year as president, and has been held in prison since his removal in another popular revolt backed by the army on 3 July 2013.

Eissa came back to fame right after Morsi’s removal, appointed secretary-general of the Supreme Press Council that approved appointment of editors of state-owned newspapers and administered their resources. He took part in drafting new press laws that he was hoping would fulfil his long-standing demand to abolish the punishment of imprisonment for journalists convicted of libel and slander. No doubt, the last article Eissa wrote in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm a week before he passed away was devoted to questioning why the government was late in publishing such laws, despite many failed promises.

When Eissa’s health deteriorated, friends asked the government to allow his treatment at Maadi Military Hospital run by the Armed Forces, a request that was immediately met. However, he stayed in hospital just a few days before his death, leaving behind thousands of articles, many books, and struggles and shifts that he will always be remembered for.

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