Defending Nationalism, Ignoring Democracy

Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim gave up an important prize to protest the Mubarak government's policy toward Israel and the U.S. But there are those who cast doubts on Ibrahim's integrity.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The huge applause that was heard in the Cairo Opera House was not for a philharmonic orchestra from abroad or the president of the country. The ovation broke out as a spontaneous response to an almost-spontaneous speech by one of Egypt's most gifted writers, Sonallah Ibrahim, who declared that he was not going to accept the prestigious prize for best author.

Sonallah Ibrahim was chosen by a jury of writers from a number of Arab countries, headed by Sudanese writer Altayyib Saleh. The prize of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (about $17,000), which was funded by the Egyptian government, was supposed to have been awarded to the writer by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni.

Ibrahim apparently knew that he was the prizewinner and prepared a short speech in advance, "because I don't know how to improvise like Jabbar Asfour, the secretary general of the Supreme Council for Egyptian Culture," he said. After a few words of thanks to the jury, Ibrahim explained why he was rejecting the prize. "As we are convened here, the Israeli army is invading what remains of the Palestinians' territories, killing children and pregnant women and uprooting thousands of their homes ... but the leaders of the Arabs are embracing the leaders of Israel to their bosoms, and only a few streets away from here the American ambassador has occupied an entire quarter at a time when his soldiers are scattered in every corner of the world that was once Arab.

"I have no doubt that every Egyptian knows full well the extent of the terrible disaster that has befallen our people. This is not just a matter of the Israeli military threat or the American dictates or the impotence of Egypt's foreign policy. This impotence is felt in every corner. There is no theater left in Egypt, no cinema or scientific research. There remain only festivals, conferences and box offices of lies. There is no longer an agriculture, health or justice ministry that is not full of corruption and extortion ... In such a reality the writer cannot shut his eyes and remain silent. He cannot evade his responsibility ... Therefore I have no choice but to offer thanks once again for the honor and apologize for not accepting the prize, because it comes from a government that in my opinion does not have the legitimacy to award it."

This is a speech that apparently would not shame an Israeli artist and is reminiscent of the remarks by painter Moshe Gershuni when he refused to shake the hand of the minister of culture at the Israel Prize awards ceremony.

The large audience of intellectuals invited to the award ceremony swarmed over the courageous writer, embraced him and did not let him leave the hall. "One hero among us redeems our honor," proclaimed one writer. Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, an artist in his own right, appeared to be looking for somewhere to hide on the podium. He straightened his hair, shook imaginary dust off his jacket; but within minutes recovered, took the microphone and explained to the audience that "Ibrahim's remarks are a citation of honor for the Egyptian administration. If the administration were not so very democratic, Ibrahim could not have offered his trenchant criticism."

Satellite of America

The audience of intellectuals was not impressed by the culture minister's comments. Ibrahim's history and the struggles he has conducted are well known. Born in 1937, Ibrahim studied law but abandoned the profession in favor of journalistic and literary writing. He was the Egyptian news agency's' correspondent in Moscow, where he learned Russian, then went on to Berlin, where he studied cinema ("Mostly I watched films," he related), and then returned to Egypt.

During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser he was convicted of leftist incitement and sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he served five. In a newspaper interview he related that he drew his ideology from the story of his parents' lives. His father was a senior official in the Egyptian regime and his mother, who came from the lower class, had been hired to look after his fathers' first wife. The love story that developed between the employer and the nurse made the son into a very talented socialist writer.

Ibrahim's novels are more like documentary films; reality is described in harsh, plastic and uncompromising language. One of his best known books, "That Smell," was written after he was released from prison and describes the horrors and the tortures there. This book was banned by the authorities for almost a decade on the grounds that it contains pornographic scenes (Ibrahim describes homosexual relations, rape and masturbation inside the prison). Two thousand copies of the first printing were confiscated, but Ibrahim managed to hide 100 copies and distributed them to literary critics. He told a foreign journalist that this was the first time reviews were written about a book that "did not exist." Ibrahim also spent some time in the United States and taught literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

He was not enchanted by his American experience. Ibrahim is among the vehement opponents of United States policy in the Middle East and especially toward the Palestinians. His latest novel is entitled "Americanli," on the pattern of otmanli - that is, a satellite of the Ottoman Empire in its day and now a satellite of America. In an Arabic pun, it is possible to read the title as umri can li, which translates to "my business (fate) was in my hands," and now it is in the hands of foreigners, in American hands. Two stickers are up on the walls of his office. One says "Boycott is resistance" and the other says "Together against the United States, globalization and the war against Iraq."

Ibrahim is one of the harshest opponents of normalization with Israel and sees himself as the standard-bearer of the intellectuals who blocked the transformation of Israel's cold peace with Egypt into a normal peace. However, he does recognize that opposition to normalization is the only area in which Egyptian intellectuals can attack the regime directly without fearing its reactions. Thus there is "peaceful coexistence" in the division of labor between the regime and the intellectuals. Freedom of expression against Israel serves the regime as proof of the existence of democracy, and serves the intellectuals as a symbol of their independence.

"However, in this position Ibrahim is locking himself into an internal contradiction," says an Egyptian writer who thinks that the intellectuals do not need to deal with politics. "When Ibrahim attacks normalization as an intellectual, he feeds the hegemonic discourse in this country and isn't contributing to democracy, because this is the way of the Islamic organizations, the leftist organizations and parts of the Egyptian administration. Instead of examining the administration's positions and criticizing them, Ibrahim sounds like an echo of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, who refuses to visit Israel. If that's the case, then what was that whole demonstration of not accepting the prize all about?"

No support for democracy

But it is not only the supporters of peace with Israel whom Ibrahim annoys. "Does Ibrahim know the difference between `the nationalist intellectual' and the `democratic intellectual?'" asked Lebanese publicist Jihad Azzine in an article he published in the Lebanese newspaper Al Nahar.

Ibrahim won applause for his speech, wrote Azzine, because he violated the understandings that were observed between the regime and the intellectuals on the nationalism question, "And in so doing he will also win applause in other Arab countries." But where was Ibrahim when another intellectual, Said al-Din Ibrahim, was tried and imprisoned because he called for the establishment of a democracy in Egypt?

Said al-Din Ibrahim, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, was tried on suspicion of accepting money from foreign institutions and financial irregularities in his institution, the Ibn Khaldoun Research Institute. But the real reasons were different. Ibrahim initiated a student supervisory groups for the parliamentary elections; he called the regime in Egypt a gumlokhiyya - that is, a republic and a monarchy - after talk began about the possibility that Mubarak's son Gamal would inherit the presidency; and he published studies about the injuries inflicted by the regime on the Coptic minority. The trial and imprisonment of Said al-Din Ibrahim stirred reactions throughout the world and led to the application of massive American pressure on Mubarak, who in the end ordered the court to "review" Ibrahim's case and thus hinted in effect that he should be released from prison. At that time there were only a few Egyptian voices that came to Ibrahim's aid, most of them not in public.

This is exactly the Lebanese journalist's complaint. "In the case of Said al-Din Ibrahim, whom the Egyptian political regime imprisoned, the intellectuals stood shoulder to shoulder with the regime, even though Said al-Din Ibrahim was oppressed because of his attempt to establish unofficial democratic criticism and not because he supported normalization ... The conclusion is that the intellectual elite in Egypt is not motivated by democratic discourse to the same extent as it is motivated by nationalist discourse."

Sonallah Ibrahim wins applause even from the regime, says Jihad Azzine, as he did not utter a word against the absence of democracy in Egypt. "In one case the intellectual wins praise and respect and the status of a hero because he attacked his government on nationalist grounds, while in the other case, of Said al-Din Ibrahim, the intellectuals vanished even though it involved a colleague whom the regime attacked because of his demand for democracy."

Herein resides another important observation. In the end, the nationalist intellectuals and the regime are dependent on each other for their survival. And perhaps this in itself is significant progress, that a regime realizes that it needs intellectuals in order to represent itself as enlightened.

But this too must be qualified. Last month, when intellectuals and human rights activists wanted to convene at the Abdin Palace, Mubarak's official residence, in order to present their proposals for reform, at the last minute they were forbidden to hold the gathering. One of the demands was to cancel the state of emergency that has existed in the country ever since president Anwar Sadat was assassinated, a situation that allows Egyptian censorship to work full throttle and the military courts to continue to issue verdicts on civilian violations in accordance with the regime's wishes. About all this not a word has been heard from Sonallah Ibrahim. Human rights and democracy generally "rhyme" with normalization, and for this there are "special intellectuals," who are not part of the official intelligentsia.