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.