The Foreseeable Death of an Egyptian Peace Activist

Left-wing intellectual and writer Amin al-Mahdi fearlessly aimed barbs at sacred cows like Egypt's regime and army. When friends warned of the consequences, he'd say: 'What can they do? Arrest me? Kill me?'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Amin al-Mahdi, an Egyptian intellectual and activist, and fierce critic of his country's regime and army, who died on October 11, 2020 after being detained by the authorities.
Amin al-Mahdi. On every issue he had a sharp and well-phrased opinion, not always free of conspiracy ideas and not necessarily based on facts – but always original and clever.Credit: Facebook
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

With Amin Al-Mahdi, the Egyptian left-wing intellectual, writer and peace activist, you could know only when and where an evening would begin, but not where it would end, and certainly not when – it wasn’t even worth venturing a guess.

“Let’s begin at the Greek club and we’ll see where it takes us tonight,” he used to suggest to me. He was always willing to meet up, without fear. On the rooftop balcony of the Greek club, near Cafe Groppi on Talaat Harb Square in Egypt's capital, Mahdi felt at home. Of course the waiters knew what his favorite delicacies were and how to serve them, and they didn’t forget to bring over a bottle of Stella beer, which would be followed by others.

A tall and handsome man with a captivating manner of speaking, Mahdi liked to explain his philosophy and his opinions at length and without restraint. And on every issue he had a sharp and well-phrased opinion, not always free of conspiracy ideas and not necessarily based on facts – but always original and clever.

Sometimes, when he tired of the dialogue, or to be more precise of the monologue, in which the guest managed only to nod or barely get in a question edgewise – he would suggest going to a bar to meet “some friends who hate the regime.” “Don’t worry,” he would reassure me. “Intelligence knows where I hang out and with whom I meet. I do everything openly. I don’t hide anything from them.”

That was the moment when the nighttime journey to dim, quiet bars in central Cairo began. We would sit with a group of unemployed filmmakers here, and drink beer there with young and frustrated journalists or lawyers, embittered Copt activists or university graduates who were waiting for a government job and meanwhile supporting themselves by waiting tables.

There were always the same suspicious glances, the surprised looks directed at Mahdi, expecting him to explain who the guest with him was and where he was from. And he, in his loud voice, would reassure them: “He’s one of us … in favor of peace,” as though that was a secret password to a clandestine club.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, left, meeting with Kuwait's new Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah, October 2020. Credit: - - AFP

At around 3, 4 or even 5 o'clock in the morning, when the waters of the Nile began to shine and glimmer in the first rays of the sun, the journey would end.

Those were the nights when Cairo was revealed in all its bold, the breeding ground of the young people of the so-called Arab Spring – an amazing spectacle, which Mahdi himself never imagined could take place. More important is Mahdi’s criticism of what is happening in Egypt today, where “the bankrupt ideology of 'one opinion’ has monopolized the management of the Israeli-Arab conflict for 50 years … that’s the ideology of the alliance of the enemies of democracy,” as Mahdi writes in his book “The Arab-Israeli Struggle: The Crisis of Democracy and Islam” (published in Arabic in 1999 and in Hebrew translation in 2001).

Mahdi was described simplistically as a “peace lover,” but the peace he favored is not the peace signed by the Israeli and Egyptian governments in 1979. Peace, he would explain, is not just a geopolitical concept that serves narrow military interests, which is how Egypt sees its peace with Israel. If peace is used as a bargaining chip or a deterrent or a tool for improving relations with America – the relationship created is not based on democracy and its effectiveness is limited, in his view.

Mahdi sought a “peace of democracy,” a concept that prompted him to consider establishing a parliament of peace lovers, to handle problems that delay the advent of the “perfect peace.”

Mahdi also carried position papers in his briefcase, drafts of essays and newspaper clippings, with which he tried to convince his Egyptian interlocutors of the need to build a new peace.

When Facebook became an alternative to the official media outlets as a means of expression in his country, Mahdi would fill his home page with dozens of posts and articles, in which he launched poison darts at the regime. His confidants warned him of the consequences, but he replied, “What can they do to me? Arrest me? Kill me? I’ve already seen dangers in my lifetime.”

Not only was the regime his dartboard. He criticized the people he called “the intellectuals of the regime.” “The people who see their calling in an orderly supply of padding and of a cultural stamp of approval for the acts of the government … that same intelligentsia that is always committed to toeing the line of orthodox Islam, in order not to be attacked by extreme Islam; which is willing to give a stamp of approval to the emptiness of the concept of democracy in the environment where it operates; and mans the barricades against laws designed to restrict freedom of the press, but uses this press precisely in order to prevent any other opinion,” he wrote.

Moreover, Islamic clerics and institutions were also a regular target of his incisive criticism: “We have created a culture that belongs to religion,” he wrote angrily.

Mahdi did not even spare the holy of holies – the Egyptian army – and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was the target of his sharpest criticism.

It’s not clear why the regime waited so long until it arrested him, on September 9. And we don’t know what he experienced during the 21 days in which he was incarcerated, but 10 days after he was detained he was rushed to the hospital in Alexandria, where he died, on October 11.

According to the official account, the 76-year-old detainee died from complications of an illness, but his confidants and human rights organizations doubt the truth of that statement and are demanding an investigation of the circumstances surrounding his death. They say that Mahdi died due to the “treatment” he received during his detention, and know of no illness from which he suffered.

Hundreds of political detainees are still languishing in Egypt's detention centers, thousands have already been prosecuted, and there’s more to come.

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