Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Memoirs of the Middle East

The veteran French journalist and diplomat Eric Rouleau has published his long-awaited memoirs, writes David Tresilian

Abdel-Nasser
Abdel-Nasser
Al-Ahram Weekly

Born in Cairo in 1926, the French journalist and diplomat Eric Rouleau left Egypt in December 1951, just a few months before the July 1952 Revolution, in order to try his hand as a journalist in Paris. According to the account he gives in Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient (The Middle East behind the Scenes), his new volume of memoirs, the situation in Egypt was becoming intolerable, and, threatened with “being charged with both Zionism and Communism and unemployed and without resources,” he decided to leave the country.
“The police authorities did not oppose my departure, but they would only give me a ‘one-way’ visa, a visa ‘aller sans retour’, and so in December 1951 I left with feelings of sadness at having to leave my country and of joy at being able to go to France, my father’s favourite country, where a new life awaited me that would turn out to be surprising in more than one regard.”
As it turned out, Egypt’s loss was France’s gain, since Rouleau, already an accomplished journalist – his book contains a memorable account of an interview with Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, before the latter’s assassination in 1949 – went on to become the senior Middle East correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde in the 1960s and 1970s, where he established new standards of professionalism in reporting on Middle Eastern affairs.
Fluent in Arabic, his native tongue, as well as in French and English, Rouleau was able to establish warm relations with many of the Middle Eastern and Arab leaders of the time, all the while providing readers of Le Monde with unparalleled reporting on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs. His Jewish origins – Rouleau was born Elie Raffoul – may have meant that he had a special interest in Israeli affairs, and a thread that runs through Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient is the relationship between Israel and the Arab world.
Speaking to the Weekly in July 2002, Rouleau remembered the interviews he conducted with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the last of which took place in 1970 just months before Nasser died. These interviews, along with others conducted with the leading political figures of the time, among them former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, and the Israelis Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon, are described in Rouleau’s memoirs, which contain penetrating comments on such men’s characters. Taken as a whole, the book is a fascinating first-hand account of Middle Eastern affairs from 1952 to 2010 by one of the region’s best-known observers.
Rouleau begins by remembering Egypt in the 1950s and early 1960s under the rule of president Nasser. Some 12 years after leaving the country, he found himself returning to conduct an interview with Nasser for Le Monde at the invitation of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, at the time the editor of Al-Ahram, possibly because Rouleau, almost alone among western journalists, seemed sympathetic towards the aims of the July 1952 Revolution, even if this was far from being true of Le Monde.
“My relative sympathy for Nasser’s Egypt broke with the frank hostility of almost all the [western] press towards the ‘dictator’ in Cairo,” he writes. “My own newspaper was not alone in comparing the Egyptian president to Hitler or Stalin, accusing him simultaneously or by turns of being a fascist, a communist, or, even worse, an agent of the Kremlin… However, I thought it entirely legitimate that Nasser should support the Algerian revolution and that he should want to build the Aswan High Dam in order to extend and rationalise the irrigation of a largely desert country and increase that country’s energy production in order to develop its industry.”
Rouleau was less sympathetic towards the political character of the Nasser regime, particularly its treatment of opponents, and he warned Heikal that what he wrote for Le Monde would seek accurately to represent that character. When he met Nasser some days later, Nasser calmly said that he had decided “to free all political prisoners before the end of the year,” an announcement that was duly relayed in the columns of Le Monde.
“Why did Nasser announce this decision to a visiting foreign journalist… [and why] did he want to address himself to western opinion, which on the whole had no sympathy for him,” Rouleau asks, suggesting that the closure of the internment camps was part of a self-critical move on the part of a regime keen to reposition itself after the collapse of the union with Syria in 1961 and the Baathist coup in Iraq a little later.
Meanwhile, what struck Rouleau most on his first visit to his native country since being forced to leave it some 12 years before was the changed atmosphere of Cairo, now firmly in the hands of its Egyptian population, and the position of Egypt as the centre of Arab nationalism. “A walk through the centre of the city was enough to show me that the European minorities, the khawagat, once virtually the only people found in the business districts, had disappeared” in favour of the native population, people who under the former regime would have been subjected to police controls or worse had they gone into them.
The bars and restaurants of the city’s hotels had become centres for debate on Arab politics, with “political refugees of every stripe, together with former or future leaders, mixing with various Egyptian intellectuals.” These men “were all more or less Nasserists, in that they thought that Arab unity, whatever its form or content might be, would help them realise their aspirations.” They included former officials of the freshly ousted Iraqi regime, Jalal Talabani, at the time living in exile as a member of the Kurdish nationalist movement (and half a century later president of Iraq), and Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan opposition movement, later assassinated in Paris.
Seven years later, Rouleau was accorded a second interview with Nasser, this time in the changed circumstances of the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the Six Day War and during the War of Attrition with Israel. In January 1970, he writes, “I received a call from the presidency telling me that Gamal Abdel-Nasser would receive me the next day. The head of state rarely gave interviews to journalists, letting his friend Heikal answer their questions instead, and the invitation accorded to me was unprecedented as far as I knew.” Arriving at the presidential palace, Rouleau found Nasser apparently in good health and ready to share confidences. “He asked me not to record the conversation and not to take notes… in order that he could ‘speak openly’ and without restriction.”
This Nasser did for the next two-and-a-half hours, explaining that he was willing to make peace with Israel and to bring about complete normalisation in relations in exchange for agreement on the Occupied Territories and on the status of the Palestinian refugees. “I began to complain,” Rouleau writes, “this time more forcefully, about not being allowed to take notes, when Nasser, smiling, took me by the arm and led me into an adjoining room full of the kind of cumbersome recording machines used at the time. Speaking to one of the officers on duty, Nasser told him to give me the recording of the interview, something which I have kept to this day.”
Following the death of Nasser some months later, Rouleau was eventually invited to interview the new Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, and in his memoirs he includes some intriguing observations on al-Sadat’s achievements and character. “Icon of peace or arch-traitor,” Rouleau asks at the beginning of the chapter of his book entitled “Denasserisation”, adding that “when I first met him at the beginning of the 1960s he was neither the one nor the other.” During the early Nasser years, al-Sadat “had been given minor tasks, first as press censor and then as editor of Al-Gumhuriyya, one of the organs of the regime, which he used to flatter the president.”
Al-Sadat’s election as president following Nasser’s death in October 1970 was “greeted with indifference, amazement or consternation by his compatriots… The cliques in power thought that [they would be] supporting a man who, identified as a disciple of Nasser, would symbolise continuity and would be easy to control since he was without ambition, lacked charisma and had no support within the apparatus of the state.” Such a man, they may have thought, could be easily replaced when the need arose – “a fatal error, as they soon found out.”
Al-Sadat quickly moved to neutralise his former supporters, who learned that they were dealing with “a man who did not at all resemble the one they thought they knew.” In May 1971, he arrested seven members of the government, all leading figures in the ruling party, thereby “getting rid of his rivals – the men who had humiliated him for years – while at the same time destroying the infrastructure of the Nasser regime.” What came next is well known, with Egypt radically changing course in both domestic policies and international relations. The socialism of the Nasser period was jettisoned in favour of the introduction of a free-market system, the alliance with the USSR was abruptly terminated, and, following Egyptian victory in the October War, a peace treaty was signed with Israel.
Rouleau describes the new atmosphere that reigned in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world following the 1967 defeat. “The leftist and nationalist forces – the Nasserists, the Baathists, the socialists and the communists – were judged responsible for the military disaster and the weakness of the political system, and the disappearance of secularist currents from the political scene left the way open to Political Islam… A new spectacle began to draw my attention: the number of people attending mosques became so great that the faithful were not able to find room within them but had to pray in the streets outside.”
Al-Sadat seems to have capitalised on this new atmosphere, and, jettisoning the “scientific socialism” associated with the Nasser regime, began “to emphasise faith in God, without ccwhich science was destined to fail, together with a ‘village ethic’, family values, and the role of a national father figure. Egypt, in the discourse of the new regime, would now be a ‘huge village’ whose inhabitants would live in harmony with their ‘ancestral traditions’.” These discursive changes were accompanied by a new set of negotiations with Israel, overseen by the United States, and here Rouleau thinks that al-Sadat was outmaneuvered.
In a chapter entitled “Lost Illusions”, Rouleau writes that “the Egyptian head of state was convinced that the US had the power to impose a just solution on Israel… and he thought that president Carter in particular held the keys to a solution to the conflict. This is exactly what he told me in an interview in April 1977, published in Le Monde. Was he naïve, or was he simply ignorant of Zionist thinking?” The negotiations showed themselves to be unequal from the start, Rouleau writes, with the Israeli side refusing to negotiate the status of the Occupied Territories or the question of the Palestinian refugees. While al-Sadat was able to extract the concession that negotiation on the West Bank and Golan Heights would begin at a later date, he had to abandon hopes of a comprehensive peace.
“I don’t want Egypt to be quarantined off from the Arab world and isolated from its environment for having concluded a separate peace with Israel,” al-Sadat said, quoted here, “without in the least perturbing the Israeli prime minister. Had he not realised that this was exactly what Begin wanted… [who], by neutralising the Egyptian enemy, had been able to guarantee future Israeli expansionism?”  
In the 1980s, Rouleau’s career took a new turn with his appointment first as French ambassador to Tunisia and then, some years later, as the country’s ambassador to Turkey. However, while no longer reporting on a daily basis Rouleau still seems to have closely followed Middle Eastern affairs, with the last chapters of his book recording his thoughts on the Oslo Accords and, in its final chapter, the possible future of Israel.
Israeli policy today, Rouleau writes at the end of his book, is designed to “accelerate the colonisation of [the West Bank], making the creation of a Palestinian state impossible.” That being so, “the statements made by US president Barack Obama have had something astonishing about them. In a speech in Cairo in 2009, Obama called the Israeli occupation intolerable and called for a freeze on colonisation and a return to the 1967 borders. In May 2011, he said he understood the frustration of the Palestinians.” Yet, at every turn Obama has had to eat his words as a result of Israeli intransigence, “humiliated by being forced to surrender when faced with the double-dealing of Israel’s prime minister.”

Eric Rouleau, Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient, Paris: Fayard, pp433, 2012

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