A Curious Encounter: Tawfiq al-Hakim and Roger Garaudy

I discovered this story accidentally. It is entirely built on artefacts found in a second-hand book that I bought in Place de la République, in Paris, during the last days of the fading Nuit Débout movement.

The French translation of selected Tawfiq al-Hakim’s plays, published in 1960 in the collection “Foreign Masters”, first caught my eye by the perfect design of its book cover.


Then, my curiosity was picked by the book itself, wondering about when Tawfiq al-Hakim became recognised in France as “a Foreign Master” of the Arabic theatre. For one euro, the beautiful yellow cover book was mine. It appeared that by 1960s al-Hakim had reached a wide recognition not only in France, but in the entire Francophone world. “Some opinions” compiled at the back cover of the book contain an incredible amount of praises to al-Hakim from six different magazines, such as the Belgium Nord-Éclair and Libre Belgique, the Swiss La Tribune de la Genève and Gazette de Lausanne, and a mysterious organism U.F.O.L.E.A which appeared to be the acronym for the French Union of Secular Works of Artistic Education. They all praised al-Hakim as “the biggest playwright of the modern Orient” and “the master of Arab theatre of the present times”. It’s worth noting that several reviewers considered it important to stress that Tawfiq al-Hakim was “the secular voice of the Arab world”.



But the story does not end here. Tucked inside the book I found an old boarding pass of the United Arab Airlines to Cairo, under the name of a certain Garaudy.


Further, on the front-page of the book there was a handwritten dedication to Roger Garaudy, dated 1969 and signed by Tawfiq al-Hakim himself “.. to the thinker of present times, Roger Garaudy, with my admiration. El-Hakim 1969”. This suggests that Garaudy was reading al-Hakim’s book while on his way to Cairo, where he might have met the playwright and asked him to sign the book. Unfortunately, his boarding pass is undated, and we are unable to find out whether Tawfiq al-Hakim had offered the book to Garaudy, or if Garaudy had bought the book first and then got it signed at his demand. In any case, Garaudy has not finished reading the book, as indicated by the fact that its pages from the number 105 are left uncut.


Who was that mysterious Roger Garaudy whom al-Hakim considered as “the thinker of present times”? A quick search on the Internet gives the impression of a highly controversial figure. A former French Resistance fighter, he was a prominent Communist author and philosopher, whose fascination with the Middle East and the subsequent engagement with the Palestinian cause has lead him to convert to Islam in 1982. Apparently, he took the Palestinian issue extremely seriously, going as far as to claim that Holocaust had never happened – the view for which he was tried and convicted in 1998 in Paris.


Given that al-Hakim was received in France as “the voice of secularism” in the Arab world, it’s probably not his book that conducted Garaudy to the straight path of Islam some years later.




Woman is a Simple Puzzle

One thing has always intrigued me while reading or listening to stories about Sayyid Qutb: that is, the boundless curiosity in his sexual life. There is a widespread opinion that Qutb’s mysterious private life is somehow responsible for his turn to Islamism.

In otherwise serious and academic biographies of Qutb, one could spot some by-the-way statements as “Sayyid Qutb probably died without even having had sexual relationships”. The current minister of Culture in Egypt has a more elaborated opinion on this subject. In a talk-show screened sometime ago on the Egyptian TV, he explained:

“He lived a full life. You will be surprised, but in his youth he was drinking and getting drunk. He knew women and girls. But he didn’t establish any full relationship with any woman. I’ve also read that when he was in the United States, a woman was pushed onto him and she discovered that he was not into this. And this made a big wound in his life. Also, he was ugly. And this, I think, was another problem for him, on the psychological level”.

Qutb was not into sex, the minister said. Surely, he was more interested in the fate of the humanity standing on the brink of a precipice, as he stated in the opening line of his infamous “Milestones”.

Young woman on edge of the cliff towards the moon

Why this dashing curiosity in Qutb’s sexual life, I wondered. One reason for this might be the fact that he never married. But was his bachelor life-style so exceptional in comparison with other writers of his time? It seems that the choice not to marry was rather a rule than an exception in Qutb’s literary circles. The prominent poet and literary critic ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad, for example, never married, and openly expressed his contempt to women for whom he saw no other role than housework. The playwright Tawfik al-Hakim, labeled “the enemy of woman”, married in secret when he was about fifty, and only after his bride agreed to fifteen conditions of marriage listed in their contract. These included the interdiction to accompany him in public events, to fully take care of the house, and to stay silent in her room when the playwright was receiving the whiffs of inspiration. Following the romantic image of a genius writer, intellectuals of Qutb’s time seemed to despise the family life, and preferred to float above the boring lives of their mundane folks.


Tawfik al-Hakim chatting with a beautiful woman whom he would never marry

But there is another possible reason for their bachelor life-style: maybe there were no women to marry for those effendi writers. The first generation of modern-educated Egyptians did not have their female counterpart, as one captivating book explained. In the first half of the twentieth century, female education was a rare thing, and effendi writers upon their graduation found themselves lonely as a cloud wandering in the male-dominated world. Roughly, they had a choice between Westernised high-class girls, whom they saw as morally corrupted and not authentic enough, and peasant women, whom they considered as too authentic and lacking education. One of the rare examples of married writers of that time, Taha Hussein, didn’t seem to care about these limitations, and happily married a foreigner. Ahmad Amin, another married intellectual, narrates in his memoirs that finding a wife was not an easy task, it was indeed “a torture”.

Torture might be not the right word to describe the sentimental tribulations narrated by Sayyid Qutb in his romantic novel Thorns – as well as to describe my experience of reading it – but it’s the first one that comes to my mind. Written in 1947, Thorns marks a break from Qutb’s previous convictions about love and women, informed by his youthful love dreams and books. In the 1930s, he had written a series of articles entitled “Woman is a Simple Puzzle”, in which he invited writers of his time to stop representing women in their novels as a mysterious and incomprehensible beings. Some thirteen years later, when he was writing Thorns, Qutb discovered that the puzzle was not so easy to solve.


The advertisement of Qutb’s novel Thorns, published in al-Risala

In Thorns, Qutb narrates an anxiety-ridden love affair between a young clerk Sami, who learns about women only from books, and a girl named Samira, who has a tempting bosom. The story opens with their engagement scene in which Samira announces to the clerk that she had a love affair with a young officer. Torn between the impulse to preserve his dignity and his feelings of love, a tortious and detailed description of Sami’s inner anxieties unfolds. The whole relationship with the girl is a rollercoaster, in which Samy’s decision to marry Samira is constantly overthrown by his suspicions of her still being enamoured with her former lover. We see Sami changing his mind on a daily basis, when Samira, exhausted by this war of nerves, pulls back. (It’s also the war of nerves for the reader). In creating the character of this exceptionally indecisive man, Qutb uses some details of his personal life, which makes the readers believe that Sami is actually Sayyid Qutb himself. In fact, this is what Naguib Mahfouz affirmed in his rave review of the novel.


More importantly, in this novel Qutb gives a hint of a type of a woman that an effendi writer was about to marry. Apart of being blessed with a tempting bosom, we learn that she reads books, but only those that Sami provides her with. She reads them to please him, because “she knows his opinion about women who don’t read”. Sami, on his part, is conscious that by encouraging Samira to read, he’s turning her into a “complex and complicated woman”, who will be eternally alienated from her unsophisticated family members. She also plays a piano, creating tunes that captivate the young man. Despite of all this, Samira – at the height of her doubts on her suitability to marry Sami – suggests him to take her as a servant, because “she’s good in arranging the house”. Books, piano, household, former lover, engagement ring, tempting bosom, all this creates a puzzle that Sami – or Sayyid Qutb – is unable to solve. This novel makes it clear that problems Qutb might have faced in issues of love were rather psychological, than sexual, and that they most probably were shared by most of effendi writers of his generation. However, all these reflections are no more than hot air, when Egypt has a minister of Culture, who with the help of his rare insight into sexual problems of intellectuals of the 1950s – and maybe of all of us!! – can solve any puzzle for you.


The execution of Sayyid Qutb on the night of the 29th August in 1966 was met with silence in Egypt’s literary circles. Almost none of Egyptian writers has publicly objected the execution of someone who two decades ago was an important figure in Cairo’s intellectual circles. This could be certainly explained by the climate of fear that marked Egypt of the 1960s, making it costly to stand up for someone accused of the conspiracy against the State. But this could be also due to the fact that a whole new generation of writers came to dominate the literary scene to whom Qutb was no more than an Islamist. For those who happened to know him personally, he was probably a lost cause after he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s.

An exception to that was Mahmoud Abu al Wafa, a renowned poet and a long time friend of Sayyid Qutb. They met in the Apollo Society, founded by Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi in the 1930s to serve as a forum for Egypt’s romantics, and stayed friends since then. They stayed friends even after they both abandoned romantic disposition and started calling for a revolution in Egyptian literary field.  In the late 1940s, Abu al Wafa followed Qutb in the latter’s supervised journals The Arab World and The New Thought, and 1954 joined Qutb’s edited ephemeral The Journal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their friendship had also led Qutb to write an introduction to Abu al Wafa’s diwan entitled Religious Hymns (Anashid Diniyya), in its 1953 edition. After Qutb was released from prison in 1964, and before he was re-arrested some months later, Abu al Wafa kept visiting Qutb in his home in Helwan (where he was spotted by the Qutb’s future brother-in-law.

Abul Wafa Sayyid.Fin

After the execution of Sayyid Qutb, Abu al Wafa composed a poem in his honour named “Sayyid”.

يا سيدأ كان عندي            أعز من اصطفيـــه

يا طاهر الطرفيــــن           من  أمـــــــــه لأبيـــــه

يا أبعد الناس  خلقــأ            عن كل فعل كريــه

أخي و من منك أولى          بكل وصف نزيــــه

و ما ذكرنا عظـــيما          إلا رأيناك فــــــــيه

شأوت عمرك حتـــى          بلغت ما تبتغيــــــه

حتى الممات فمــــــنه          حققت ما تشتهيــه

فصرت بالموت معنى        حيا بغير شبيــــــه

رجوت دنيا و ديـــنا         فنلت ما ترتجيــــه

 العصر إن يبك شخصا       فأنت من يبكيــــــه

و ما بكى أي عصــــر        إلا أعز بنــــــــيه

Intellectuals are revolting again, “electronically”

“I don’t like smoking” – says the minister of Culture to the woman labeled “Culture”. Her look is that of militante, a word to describe middle-aged and well-off women who have become Abd al-Fatah Sisi’s most fervent adherents.

I don’t like fatties” – says the minister of Culture to the woman labeled “Culture”. The cartoon refers to the famous comment by the minister on physical appearance of one of his female subordinates in the ministry


“The minister of Culture : I don’t like fatties”. The elephant : “i don’t like ministers of Culture neither”

It’s been two months that some Egyptian intellectuals are involved in an initiative calling to remove the current minister of Culture, Abd al-Wahed al-Nabawi, from his office. The official Facebook page of the campaign yesterday published the following two posts revealing rather unsurprising accusations leveled against him : lack of enthusiasm for  the Egypt’s new Suez Canal, ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and his lukewarm support for the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram :

“While Opera House was producing a show for the New Suez Canal following direct orders from the political leaders, the minister of Culture was having a protocol meeting with the ministry of Religious Endowments”.

“While Nancy Ajram was rehearsing her new song about the Suez Canal, the minister of Culture was busy increasing Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in the ministry”.

The event page calling for a demonstration has already mobilized nearly 400 souls, a crowd which would be sufficient to occupy the ministerial building and to force al-Nabawi out as it happened against Morsi’s unfortunate candidate for Culture, Ala Abd al-Aziz, in 2013. In Sisi’s Egypt however filling the streets with protests would mean chaos and destruction of the State, and the organizers of the campaign specified that they demonstrate only “electronically” on Facebook.

A lack of visible enthusiasm for the New Suez Canal is a serious accusation. With the approach of inauguration of the Canal, intellectuals as well as other public figures were rivaling each other to find the most original and creative ways to express their emotions.

A piece to celebrate the New Suez Canal by an opponent to the minister

A piece of al-fann al-ta’areesi to support the New Suez Canal

Hilmi Namnam, the current head of GEBO and a historian specializing in Sayyid Qutb’s conspiracies and crimes, went as far as to burst into tears in Mona Shazli’s talk-show in the same studio in which Wael Ghoneim cried for the martyrs back in 2011. Reacting to this unexpected outburst of emotions by such a solid man as Namnam, Shazli explained to the audience that it was the first time in her life she saw him crying, and that it was an undeniable sign of patriotism and integrity.

Hilmi Namnam, the new head of GEBO, crying for the New Suez Canal

Hilmi Namnam, the new head of GEBO, expressing his emotions over the New Suez Canal

The accusation of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood is nevertheless a more serious one. In these accusations, the organizers of the campaign rely on a mysterious report allegedly issued by the Bureau of National Security which stated that al-Nabawi is “a sleeping cell of the Muslim Brotherhood”. Those who find it surprising that these cells might be sleeping on the top political shelf should remember that Egypt has previously even elected such a cell to the presidency. As for al-Nabawi, the proofs of his forming such a cell are countless : it’s his stay in Qatar where he, under the cover of the university job, mediated between Qatari intelligence and the Muslim Brotherhood; it’s his links to his hometown in Daqhliya, where numerous pro-Brotherhood demonstrations were organized after Sisi came to power; and finally, it’s his dismissal from his post in Egyptian archives during Muhammad Morsi’s rule. While it might seem as a result of Morsi’s insatisfaction with al-Nabawi, he was in fact made available for bigger missions with Qatar, and his dismissal was meant not to attract suspicions.

No matter how incongruous these charges might seem, it must be noted that the accusation of ties with the Brotherhood is also directed by the opposite side against the organizers of the campaign. Back in July 2015, when al-Nabawi announced the sacking of Ahmad al-Mugahed, the president of GEBO, he attempted to shore up support for his decision by reminding that in 2011 GEBO published Sayyid Qutb’s novel, Ashwak. The attempt proved a failure, and a number of powerful intellectuals, as Ibrahim Abd al-Maged, Baha Taher or the painter Muhammad Abla, mobilized in support of al-Mugahed causing the current crisis in the ministry of Culture. Despite the spiral of mutual accusations of ties with the Brotherhood, what seems to matter the most in the dusty corridors of the ministry of Culture is the high degree of solidarity. “He is not like us” – huwa mish zayyina – this is how Muhammad Alba summed up the reasons of the ongoing opposition against the minister.

Hamdî Qandil, a policeman or a journalist ?

Often when we read or watch an Egyptian intellectual taking political stances today, we have no clue where he stood in the past. Yet the sixties is not a distant past. Accordingly, most public intellectuals who have hit their nineties – a widespread phenomenon in Egypt, despite its generally young population – must have built their careers under the encompassing and all-protective Nasser’s shadow.

For writers, the sixties was a decade of contradictions : the period of imprisonment and abuse by security services for ones, and « the best period of Egypt » permeated by the dream of Egypt becoming « the best country in the world » for others. However, no one would probably deny that the fastest path to arrive at the peak of one’s career was a strategy of boot-licking, identified by an overused Arabic term starting with a letter T. The relevance of this term in Egypt’s intellectual history is perfectly illustrated by the list of reports, written by members of the Avant-garde organization (al-Tanzîm al-Talî’î), a secret governmental structure established in 1964. In these reports, they were informing the central authority of the breaches of their colleagues’ commitment to the Nasserist spirit.

The TV veteran Hamdî Qandîl is one of these intellectuals who built their fame and career in the sixties. Recently, Qandîl recalled the wave of repression launched against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1965, by giving credit to Abd al Nasser for having done well in acting against the conspiracy prone organization. However, he failed to mention the role he himself undertook during the 1965 crackdown. Then a young and promising TV anchor, Hamdî Qandîl was entrusted to lead public interrogations of arrested elements of the conspiracy. Placed in front of TV cameras, in a special room in the Military prison allocated for filming purposes, the culprits would confess their crimes, and confessions would be broadcasted all over the country to a terrified audience. The following day, the text of confessions would appear in the government owned al-Gomhoriya newspaper. Each article included an announcement of whose confessions would be published the following day.

Taking up the role of a security service officer, Hamdî Qandîl would proceed like an interrogator. He would start the TV show with : Name. Age. Profession. According to some Muslim Brothers, he would even hit the interrogated ones with a shoe seeking to extract confessions pleasing the regime. These public sessions continued for one month, october 1965, then they were cancelled for an unknown reason. The TV watchers were thus unable to see the confession of Sayyid Qutb, planned for december 1965.


A screenshot from a TV show : Qandil is interrogating Hilmi Hathut, a member of the Brotherhood accused of conspiracy in 1965

Ahmad Ra’ef, a former MB member, recalls these public interrogations as exercises of absurdity and humiliation. Everyone was waiting their turn to be called to the « filming room », known among prisoners as « the room of fabricated confessions ». When the turn of Ra’ef came, the unexpected happened : he was violently expelled by Qandîl who was angered by a big injury visible on his face. « How dare you bring me an injured person ?! », reportedly screamed the presenter. « What will people say of us ?! ».

The « us » signifies the symbiosis created by regime, media, and public intellectuals in the sixties. « People » are the ones to be convinced by the transparency of the investigation, ordered by the regime and entrusted to the media. This episode tells a great deal about the foundations of the present day Egyptian media. Also, it says a lot about the mission in which Egyptian intellectuals nurtured by Nasserist milk still believe. Far from being a flip-flop, Hamdî Qandîl didn’t stop believing in the Nasserist dream, while often taking critical stances against political leaders such as Mubarak. A revolutionary and critical intellectual. This is the image of him drawn by the media.


 Born in the 30’s, Qandil join the television in 1961. He stayed there until 1969

Nevertheless, one could ask the question of whether the resistance remains the resistance, and the revolution stays the revolution, when it becomes appropriated by the repressive State. One could also ask what happens when the regime gives intellectuals power to « protect » the revolution ? Can they ever protect it against the regime itself ? These are the questions that are equally relevant today.


Snapshots of Sayyid Qutb’s life

Capture d'écran 2014-05-16 19.22.13

“I was alone in my study room. Although at this time, it wasn’t a study room anymore but a warehouse for all sorts of things of the house. The time was before the Feast, and the house was preparing to greet it by sweeping, wiping and dust mopping. While all of this was happening, the study room became an immense warehouse of affairs : chairs from the dining room, chairs from the salon, chairs from the corridor, cases, furniture, blankets and loads of shoes… all scattered in a chaotic mess !

I could either leave the house or take a refuge in this warehouse. With the dust stirred up by sweeping and mopping, the waters flowing from washing the tiles and wood, knocking and thudding at every corner of the house, the warehouse appeared as the safest and calmest refuge.

I sat in a deep armchair. I sank inside and relaxed without thinking about anything. Is it possible to collect the wandering pieces of mind in this genius chaos ? As my armchair was against a bookshelf, I carelessly stretched out my hand towards it without intending to any specific book. Any book would do. A loosely bound and disjointed fascicle attracted my attention; maybe I was unconsciously intending to adjust it…

Oh God ! It was your bite marks, Toot ! Oh… My dear dog… What a huge distance have the days put between us ? A sweet and poignant souvenir broke out in my heart.

Toot, my dear and fast dog. Here are your traces in this book. Your little claws and sharp canines. These are the traces that you left in this book which I stumbled upon one day.

 These are your bite marks, but where are you, Toot ? A hot and caustic teardrop rolled out of my eye. It had an acidulous, but delicious taste.  My mind travelled towards the fleeing image of Toot trying to retrieve its pieces with the help of his marks lodged in the book. Suddenly, a question popped out in my mind, overflowing me and halting my tears which in the meantime became abundant : where is Toot now ? Nothing remained of him except of these tiny traces. Will they not resist annihilation ? Will these tiny traces not be overflowed by this great force ? An idea of immortality took my mind back to rest. Immortality ! But isn’t it the straw that a drowning one clutches at? Does not time delete all the traces of the living ones, day by day ? Does not the turning wheel of time grind to dust everything humankind creates on earth ?

The marks of Toot will disappear, as will do the traces of his teeth and claws… Immortality, what a naive trickery for fragile sons of mortality !”

Sayyid Qutb “Immortality” (1947)

In his later writings, Sayyid Qutb provides us with more information on the destiny of his beloved dog, Toot. Taken for a stray dog, Toot was hunted and heartlessly shot down by the police.

Toot white&black

Young Men’s Muslim Association : The Beginning

This is what I do when I want to take a break from writing my dissertation : composing photo albums. A part of being relaxing and fun, it’s a very instructive activity, since there’s no a better way to learn history than through real persons with real faces. Here I made a selection of several fine men who were at the origin of Young Men’s Muslim Association in 1927 which started with nine old veterans and twelve young students, as accounted by Muhammad Mahmoud al Shaker. I was intrigued to see what type of education they received and what type of a look they assumed while going to the photo studio to snatch their photo. The results were rather surprising. Though the YMMA were frequently siding itself with al Azhar – namely in times of crisis between al Azhar and Taha Hussein – only two of them were dressed as sheikhs, while others had a proper effendi look, wearing a suit, cravate and tarbush. Only one of them, the famous Mustafa Kamel’s companion Abd al Aziz Gawish opted for a mixed solution, an original costume composed of a suit and a turban. As one of my friends suggested me, maybe Abd al Aziz Gawish was suffering from a tremendous headache that day.

These photos also allow to trace back educational choices of the 20’s intellectuals; the sheikhs in their ranks are progressively being replaced by the graduates in letters and teaching. A great number of them were men of letters and poets. A fact worth of exploring, since nowadays there are mostly scientific faculties that fill up the ranks of religiously oriented associations in Egypt.

Old Fathers 

Image         Image              Image

Abd al Hamid Sa’id                 Abd al Aziz Gawish                      Ahmad Taymour

Tawfikiya School-Paris         Azhar-Dar al Ulum-London                      Private learning

    Image                  Image              Image

    Muhibb al Din Khatib     Muhammad al Khadr Hussein   Muhammad al Ghamrawi

School-Sheikh Taher al Jaza’iri    Sheikh Muhammad              Dar al Ulum-London

                                                         Mekki al Azuz-Zaytuna

Image        Image            Image

Yahya Ahmad al Dardiri      Muhammad al Hihyawi                  Ali Mazhar

        Doctor in Law                Al Azhar-Dar al ‘Ulum        School-Cairo University-Vienna

Young Preachers : 

Image       Image         Image

Muhammad al Shaker        Abd al Salam Haroun      Abd al Mun’am Khalaf

Cairo University (Letters)           Azhar- Dar al ‘Ulum                 Dar al ‘Ulum

Image            Image        Image

 Tawfik Ahmad al Bakr      Muhammad Mahgub      Muhammad Abu Fadl Ibrahim

Cairo University (Letters)             Dar al ‘Ulum                      Dar al ‘Ulum

The wretched habit of psychologising the social


During the last Egyptian revolution, a very special kind of intellectuals started emerging in media to generously share their comments on political affairs. I have in mind psychiatrists. It seems that most of media channels have their own experts of the human mind, who in times of political crisis comes out, as an oracle, to teach common mortals some truths on what is going on and what is awaiting them. Ahmad Okasha’s kindness-beaming face, the head of the Psychiatry Association, should be known for all. He was appearing on Masry’s pages to explain that the revolution was due to the feeling of « frustration », that the origin of dictatorship was a a simple “mental illness”, that the characters of presidential candidates can be easily undisclosed by a quick glance of a vigilant psychiatrist, and that revolutionary hungover could be overcome by an all powerful feeling of love. 

But Ahmad Okasha is not alone on the scene. Al Wafd had its own psychiatrist, Youssef al Rakhawi, who also tended to explain the revolution through categories of “pain” and “anger” required to transform into a « responsible action ». Who doesn’t remember the guru of the positive thinking Ibrahim Feqqi and his famous theory of the magic “Like” button  that prevents wars, stops diseases and garantees happiness and well-being. The TV program “Akher al Nahar” hosted by Mahmoud Saad has its favourite guest psychiatrist Manal Omar gifted with an eloquence and a capacity to transform Saad’s studio into a classroom and Saad himself into a drooling student for almost one hour. Manal Omar came into prominence with her fine analysis of a torturer/victim dialectics applied to the Muslim Brotherhood suggesting that the latter is about to pass from a status of victim to that of torturer

Interestingly, her conclusion was based on an argument that went beyond the boundaries of psychiatry and stepped onto the domain of fundamental physics comparing the MB to a spring repressed for a time and suddenly going off once the pressure is removed.

The image is extremely vivid, but can it be so simple? Can these obvious truths be applied to political associations and social groupings subjected to complex social and political factors and history? Does a society truly feel “the pain”, “the frustration” and a political group act as an individual? Does this massive psychiatric intervention into current affairs mean the Egyptian society is mentally ill?!  The fashion of psychologising the social, or this tendency to manage non-psychological issues in psychological terms, is related to another tendency permeating the ‘scholarly discourse’ and ‘immediate knowledge’ in Egypt, the one of naturalizing the social. In fact, explaining social actions by some immutable “Egyptian nature” or some mystical “Egyptian psyche” is equally despairing. To be convinced of the prevalence of the discourse explaining social behavior by some nature, suffice to remember all theories of natural “submission”, “patience”, “peacefulness” and “kindness” of Egyptians that we were hearing during the revolution. These natural features were supposed to explain why Egyptians did not revolt before, and all the Egyptian revolution did was to force ‘social scientists’ to arrive to the conclusion that Om Kolthom had reached decades ago that « patience has its limits ». 

The tendency of psychologising and naturalising the social was a firmly established trend in the European scholarly discourse of the turn of the century. The spread and assimilation of the psychological school in Egypt is not surprising knowing with what acclaim orientalist Gustave le Bon’s books were received in Egypt. His book “Psychologie des foules” (1895) imputing revolts to a dangerous irrationality and savagery of the masses was a revelation to the Egyptian intellectual elite struck by fear of a popular violence, particularly reinforced after Dishanway peasant riot. Notably, the book was translated by Fathi Zaghlul, brother of the national leader Saad Zaghlul, who was a member of the government tribunal set up to investigate the incident which condemned six of the villagers to be hanged. Gustave le Bon introduced the idea of “a collective mind” or “psyche” stating that every civilization has its own mental constitution inherited from its ancestors, molded throughout long centuries, and taking many generations to evolve. That’s why le Bon maintained modern civilization can not be learned by means of education; a degree acquired by a non-European would form a superficial varnish which will not affect his “psyche”. Today in Europe, taking Gustave le Bon for granted amounts to capital sin in social sciences, not only because he classified races by their levels of intelligence, measured by the size of the skull, but also because he naturalized the idea of inequality between the classes and justified oppression. Meanwhile in Egypt, Le Bon is not only edited and republished – in fact his most condascending writings on Arabs – without provoking any constructive critique except that of routine accusation of “insulting the religion” but also his influence is still alive in psychiatric analysis of Egyptian society that we hear too frequently on the TV. 

The idea of a stable and immutable “Egyptian nature” made its way in Egypt at about the same time. Its foundations were built, in the beginning, by the scholarship on public instruction. In a book published in 1872, the nature of an Egyptian was being immortalised: “The Egyptian is timid and yet defiant, he is susceptible of enthusiasm yet lacking in all initiative, his character is one of indifference and immobility”. 

The tendency was followed by Muhammad Haykal, one of the stars of the Egyptian intellectuals of the time and one of the fathers of Egyptian naturalism. Influenced by the French naturalism, Haykal stated that the peaceful Egyptian character was forged by the peaceful Egyptian landscape:

The sky is always clear and the weather is always mild and tranquil. You can walk from one end of the valley to the other without encountering any major obstacles, strong winds, storms or rain. The landscape is monotonous. In the fields, you rarely see any animals other than tranquil oxen and donkeys. The few wild animals are small, submissive and harmless. Everything exudes tranquility”.

(Haykal 1968, 99-101) (For more, i recommend to look up to a fascinating PhD on Egyptian nationalism by my colleague Benjamin Geer).


The peacefulness of Egyptians is transmitted by a donkey on whose back they like to sit, according to Haykal

The question that arises after a brief survey of ideological trends in Egypt is how these ideas managed to survive despite various crushing attacks sent by a constructivist school and to remain relevant today? Is it because the idea of some special Egyptian nature or mentality is strongly supported by Egyptian nationalism combined to the all-powerful Orientalist discourse that explains and justifies failures of development by the argument of “authenticity”? Or is it because sociology and other sciences which are meant to explain the social never reached enough of credibility in Egypt to undermine psychologists’ monopoly over social issues? However it may be, we should listen to Ibrahim Feqqi and transform our despair to joy. It could be worse : clairvoyants and magicians could take their place. 

Pillar of Shame

Dear Comrades, 

I would like to express my sincere and deep apologies to you and Egyptian intellectual Bashas for neglecting my mission and not writing a single line for 28 days. I admit that i don’t have good reasons to justify this neglect. Season change, bazar of bombs and a new harvest of corpses could be a reason of this lack of inspiration and void. In the presence of my comrades, I solemnly promise to correct myself and to come out with a new piece which would put my name on the Board of Honor next month. We’ll Execute the Plans of the Great Works! Learn to live, work and struggle as Leninists, as communists!


Youssef Wahbi casting upon me a glance of deserved reproach and disgust after I failed to write a single line for the last 28 days. 

Was Taha Hussein a felool?

At the end of the 40s, Sayyid Qutb, attacked his intellectual colleagues with these words : “this generation of old intellectuals has abandoned their duty. Not only towards young intellectuals but towards their homeland, society, humanity and finally the literary consciousness”. After accusing the whole generation of established intellectuals of serving “imperialist propaganda” during the war, Qutb continued : “and then, when the war ended and Arab nations rose to fight imperialists asking for their rights, I found you all behind, not in the frontlines of the battle. I found you in dens of political parties, not in the national battlefield”. Addressing these words to a whole generation of writers, the one of Abbas al Aqqad, Tewfik al Hakim and Ahmad Amin, Qutb pointed out the most blameworthy one, Taha Hussein. For Qutb, Taha Hussein was guilty not only for national treason, but also for the assassination of literature. “The literature has died!” solemnly announced Qutb in July 1951. “It was killed by the ministry of Education. And where is the minister now? The minister is in France!” It was Taha Hussein who occupied the post of minister of Education at that time. In the fashion of bashawat of those royal times, he was accustomed of spending summers in European countries, accompanied by his French wife.


“In dens of political parties..”

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to describe Taha Hussein as an “organic intellectual” of political parties to which he belonged. By joining a new party, Taha Hussein would make the party’s official journal his platform where he would wage a merciless war on that party’s rivals. As a member of Liberal Constitutionalists in 20’s and early 30’s, it was on the pages of the party’s official newspaper al Siyâsa that Taha Hussein was accusing al Wafd’s leader Saad Zaghlul of dictatorship. His hostility to al Wafd remained consistent after he joined for a short period the royalist Ittihâd party. In 1932 Taha Hussein joined his former enemies, the Wafd party, after accepting the offer of Nahhas Pasha to edit Kawkab al Sharq journal. There Taha Hussein revealed himself as a tireless critic of Sidqi and Nuqrashi Pachas’ cabinets in Wafdist newspapers al Balâgh and Kawkab al Sharq. His attacks were so violent that he had to face two complaints filed against him at first by Saad Zaghlul and later by Sidqi Pacha for insulting his minister of Education.

Back then, switching from one political party to another was not an unusual move. Writers were often under patronage of political parties and acted as their mouthpieces. Taha Hussein’s bonds with Liberal Constitutionalists most likely helped to accelerate his career in the Egyptian University after its members-intellectuals managed to tighten their grip on the University council in 1922 by stripping the exiled Saad Zaghlul from his vice rectorship. The Liberal Constitutionalist party comprised the major intellectuals of the time, most of whom were linked to each other by family bonds or friendships : Ahmad Lutfi al Sayid, Abd al Aziz Fahmi, Muhammad Husain Haikal, brothers Mustafa and Ali Abd al Raziq and Taha Hussein. During the controversy stirred by Taha Hussein’s On the Jahili poetry in 1926, it was Liberal Constitutionalists who defended the author while his adversaries were Wafd party members allied with al Azhar. To Taha Hussein’s luck, the University’s rectorship, the ministry of Education and the ministry of Justice were occupied then by his party friends. Similarly, his reasons of joining Liberal Constitutionalists’ rivals al Wafd party were not only ideological. Taha Hussein enjoyed a precious support and sympathy of University students which grew in particular strong after his dismissal from the university by Sidqi Pacha. It happened that the majority of students who walked to the house of Taha Hussein in Heliopolis protesting against his transfer from the University were Wafdists. As a Dean in the University – the epicentre of political activism in the 30’s – Taha Hussein could not but join the Wafd party. In 1935-6 the Egyptian University would witness a massive wave of student demonstrations that would force the authorities to restore the Constitution, abrogated by Sidqi Pacha some years before. A second reason of choosing al Wafd was economical. After his dismissal from the University, Taha Hussein lost his main source of income and his family experienced “the years of famine”, as his wife once defined it. The rumour goes that Taha Hussein was paid nearly 300 pounds for his first article in Kawkab al Sharq, a huge sum for a writer in 30’s. It is not surprising that excellent writers and figures rich of “symbolic capital” such as Taha Hussein were solicited by the leaders of political parties. At the times when partisan press was one of the main political weapons, influential and sarcastic pens such as Taha Hussein definitely added considerable weight to the party. His membership in al Wafd party would allow him to foster his career and to become the minister of Education in the last al Wafd cabinet in 1950.

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Taha Hussein in Azhar                                                 Taha Hussein in the University

Was Taha Hussein a felool ?

If Sayyid Qutb’s accusations hailed upon Taha Hussein for playing a highly discredited party game make sense, no one could accuse him of insensitivity for social ills. Taha Hussein was deeply concerned by Egypt’s social problems and joined widespread calls for social justice and political reform. His stance towards the King was more complex. As a Dean of the University in 40’s, he could not but adopt a conciliatory stance to the King – dedicating his books, inviting the King to the official university occasions, praising and thanking him for his existence. Nevertheless, after his dismissal from the University, Taha Hussein tempted several tentative attacks on the King in his articles.  This visibly contradictory stance towards the King derived probably from a double and contradictory identity that intellectuals were upholding : the one of a civil servant serving to the state as a scribe, muwazzaf, and the one of a duty-bound engaged intellectual serving to a society. Put in other terms, intellectuals had to conciliate two contradictory dimensions of their identity, the voice of the State and the voice of the society. This task would reveal disastrous in political crisis when the society goes against the State, as it happens in revolutions.

Nevertheless, by joining al Wafd cabinet as the minister of Education in 1950, Taha Hussein ceased being ambiguous about the King.  As a mouthpiece of al Wafd, he was following the official line of the party which adopted a controversial politics of appeasement with the King. Taha Hussein’s conciliatory attitude towards the King while in the minister office will be remembered after the revolution of 1952 : he will be accused of trying to please the King in the Speech of the Throne during his investiture in the ministry, of kissing the King’s hand (while three other ministers refused this honour), of calling the Kind “The moral teacher of people” (ustâz al sha’ab fi al akhlâq), of using his political influence to mount to power, and last but not least, of accepting the rank of Pasha given by the King several months before the coup which will abrogate all ranks. In order to ensure the purity of his revolutionary consciousness, which will be needed in his new role of the mouthpiece of the revolutionary regime, Taha Hussein will deny all these charges. He will seek to attract the attention to his accomplishments while in Ministry such the adoption of free secondary and technical education.

Hand in hand with the Revolution

With the military coup of July 1952, al Wafd’s career was over but the one of Taha Hussein was not. His role in the building of the military regime was crucial. It was Taha Hussein who named for the first time the military coup “the revolution”, one week after the coup in a letter sent to his friend Tewfik al Hakim from his annual summer vocation in Italy. One week after, he compared Egyptian revolution with the French one by stating that the Egyptian revolution is an original one (thawra asliya) for it sought to reform the society. Taha Hussein would insist on naming the event “the revolution” in December in more explicit terms : “it’s not the coup d’Etat, nor the renaissance, nor the army movement, it’s the revolution”. Other intellectuals would rapidly take over this idea. For some weeks, the definition of the event would oscillate between the blessed bounce (al wathba al mubâraka), the army movement (harakat el geish) and revolution (thawra) until the last one imposed itself definitely ar the end of the year. In November 1952, Mohammad Nagib was proclaimed “the leader of the revolution” and in January of the next year the ruling junta switched its name into The Council of the Revolutionary Guidance. It was Egyptian intellectuals – with Taha Hussein in the front line – who defined the event as the revolution thus constructing and providing the Free Officers with the necessary political legitimacy shield.

After greeting with fervour the Revolution, Taha Hussein adopted the stance of uncritical support of the new power, loyally playing the role of the mouthpiece of the military regime. In a number of confrontations between the regime and various political forces that followed, Taha Hussein took always the regime’s side, even when it was attacking his former colleagues. For example, in Mars 1953 with the anxiety mounting over the freedom of expression, Taha Hussein took the side of the regime justifying the censorship in the name of “the protection of the state and the revolution”. He explained : “I don’t think that the freedom to criticize (the regime) is being limited, if by criticism we mean the devotion for the reform and guidance… We tend to forget that we live in the time of the revolution which has the right – and the duty – to protect itself”. He did not change his mind following the wide-spread arrests of communists,  the press censorship, the closure of oppositional journals, including al Masry to which Taha Hussein himself was contributing, but rather he would insist that the revolution “has liberated the minds”. Unsurprisingly, Taha Hussein took the side of Gamal Abd al Nasser against Mohammad Nagib in 1954 Mars crisis and in July of the same year was calling to “the stability” because “people cannot be revolted all the time”.

In exchange to his unconditional support, the regime will grant Taha Hussein with superficial but symbolically powerful positions. Although he would never get a minister position – a possibility given by his omission from the “political exclusion” law adopted in April 1954 – Taha Hussein would be placed on the top of the new born cultural institutions, included in the comitee of the Constitution writing and finally appointed as the chief editor of the state owned Gomhoriya newspaper. By giving the key positions to a younger generation of intellectuals playing the role of experts, the regime sought the loyalty of renowned intellectuals of the older generation for propaganda reasons. Take the example of Taha Hussein’s participation in the State published collective propaganda book “Them, the Brotherhood” following its clash with the Muslim Brotherhood at the end of 1954 where Taha Hussein contributed with two anti-Brotherhood articles. The destinies of two intellectuals who were formerly friends – Taha Hussein and Sayyid Qutb – have definitely separated before this date, the former taking the side of the regime, the latter that of the opposition. In the year of 1966, while Sayyid Qutb will be condemned to the death penalty for his controversial book “Milestones”, Taha Hussein will be granted the highest state honour The Order of the Nile.

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