In his lifetime, he was christened “the saint of the national movement,” the “liberties lawyer,” and “the Egyptian people’s advocate,” since he spent nearly all of his waking hours defending those accused of engaging in free expression, association, and assembly. And so at his funeral, “all of Egypt was there, from the Communist factions to Judges Club board members to Islamists, and everyone in between,” says a well-known rights lawyer. Though much loved and respected, Hilali was far from being some bland “consensus figure” with no clear commitments. He was an ardent, lifelong Communist, one for whom Communist values were spurs to action, not theoretical props or abstruse arguments. He was a Communist who constantly warned against the chronic fractiousness of the Egyptian left, a Communist who respected and defended Islamists of various hues, a Communist who believed in the deliberative capacities of ordinary people, and a Communist who was fiercely loyal to his chosen ideology yet understood and appreciated other projects of emancipation. Quite simply, Nabil al-Hilali was a true democrat, and a sweet, retiring, extremely kind man to boot. Words fail to capture the immensity of this latest loss.
The Romance of the Pasha’s Son
Ahmed Nabil al-Hilali was born in August 1928 to a family of landed notables. As is well known, he was the son of Naguib Pasha al-Hilali, minister of education, trade and industry, and Prime Minister in the final months of the monarchy before the Free Officers’ coup. As part of the culture’s abiding titillation by the mixing and mingling of classes, Hilali’s chosen riches-to-rags trajectory has been turned into something of a mystique surrounding the man, though he himself never fed this and if anything seemed hobbled and embarrassed by his lineage. But leftist hagiography emphasized and magnified the romanticised narrative of elite Egyptians turned Communists, finding in the likes of Hilali, the late Mohamed Sid Ahmed, Injy Aflaton, and Ismail Sabri Abdalla the perfect fodder. It’s as if a leftist ideological commitment is somehow more authentic if it’s professed by a member of the upper crust.
No surprise then that each of Hilali’s attempts to chart his own, disciplined path have been folded into the narrative. There’s the well-known story of how he gave up his family’s landed assets in Upper Egypt to the poor peasants who tilled them. And his spurning of his father’s elite law firm in Mostafa Kamel Square for a modest practice in Bab al-Luq that he established with fellow law school graduate and comrade Paulos Lotfallah. And of course his marriage to firebrand and fellow traveller Fatma Zaki, one of the founding members of the 1946 Students and Workers Committee and a key figure in the history and development of Egyptian communism.
Hilali met Zaki when they were both still university students and members of the very short-lived, underground Egyptian Communist Organisation (al-Munazzama al-Shu’uiyya al-Misriyya), founded in December 1948. Zaki was one of its four elected leaders and Hilali was the head of the oversight committee (lajnat al-riqaba), the organisation’s internal disciplinary body tasked with rigorous Marxist training and evaluation of all members. In addition to spawning their lifelong union from 1949 until Zaki’s death in 2004, the ECO had another profound effect on the young Hilali. He experienced first-hand the problems of organisational decay, dictatorial leadership, and police crackdowns that have long bedevilled Egyptian opposition groups of all stripes. Under the weight of internal disintegration and police repression, the ECO ceased to exist by 1950, only one year after its founding.
In one of the very rare interviews that he granted, Hilali told Rif’at al-Said in 1975 that the ECO and its autocratic leader Odette Hazan caused such high levels of mistrust between organisation members that when he and Lotfallah opened their law firm in 1954, they agreed never to talk politics with one another for fear of their views getting back to a potentially reconstituted ECO, even as Hazan had renounced her Egyptian citizenship and left the country for good. The ECO experience forever sensitised Hilali to the classic problems of organisation: recruitment, retention, trust, durability, and innovation, challenges that he spent his activist life trying to overcome in the inauspicious environment of republican Egypt.
After he resumed membership in other underground Marxist organisations but before he could launch his legal career, Hilali was snatched up in the notorious New Year’s day raids of 1959, when more than 200 socialists and Communists were rounded up following a similar crackdown on Syrian leftists. The roster of the accused reads like a who’s who of the Egyptian activist intelligentsia, past and present: Fu’ad Mursi, Ismail Sabri Abdalla, Mohamed Sid Ahmed, Mahmoud Amin al-Alem, Abdel Azim Anis, Adli Barsoum, Lotfi al-Kholi, Yusuf Darwish, Sherif Hetata, Son’allah Ibrahim, Adil Hussein, Fu’ad Haddad, Mohsena Tawfiq, Rif’at al-Said, Salah Hafez, Fatma Zaki, Eryan Nasif, Nabil Zaki.
Perhaps the most well-known name in the 1959 group was English teacher Shuhdi Atteya al-Shafi’, an articulate writer and pamphleteer who would become the leading martyr of the Egyptian left. He died in 1960 after a brutal assault by prison guards, and his life and death are still studied and commemorated by Egyptian leftists.
Before and after the 1950s, defendants in Egyptian political trials have availed themselves of the courtroom as a platform to air their ideas to the public, and the Communists were no exception. They were concerned less with constructing careful legal arguments than with spreading their ideological message and exposing the political motivations of the kangaroo trials. So they were not shocked by their sentencing, and immediately set about constructing a remarkable, alternative world in their confinement based on mutual solidarity and organised cooperation.
In addition to various schemes of edification and self-improvement (poetry recital competitions, lessons on specialised topics, translation projects), prisoners of conscience engaged in a rich array of cultural activities, often with the cooperation of prison authorities. They staged plays and skits in makeshift Roman theatres in prison yards that were often attended and much enjoyed by prison officials, they put out “magazines” and news bulletins that they read out loud to the assembled prisoners, held song recitals, and beautified their grim spaces by planting herbs and plants and painting their cells. Nabil al-Hilali was the editor of the popular, satirical magazine “Doktor Shooma,” and he surprised everyone by showing real acting talent when he played the lead role in Jean-Paul Sartre’s underappreciated sleeper Nekrassov.
The Value of Quixotic Acts
Hilali emerged from prison in 1964 as one of the few who opposed the disbanding of the Egyptian Communist Party and co-optation of its members into the state’s well-funded cultural organs. He then embarked on the career for which he would become a legend, defending all prisoners of conscience regardless of political commitment, often pro bono publico. He defended Communists in 1977, poet Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm in 1978 (tried by a military tribunal for mocking president Sadat), the Nasserist organisation “Thawrat Misr” in 1986, striking railway workers in 1987, Islamist radicals throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and freedom of expression cases such as Shohdy Naguib Sorour’s and the Revolutionary Socialists. He was a fixture of bar association politics, from the 1970s when he was elected to the board to the ideologically polarised 1980s, government receivership in the 1990s, and return to elections in 2001 and 2005.
He crossed paths with student leader Ahmed Abdalla many times, first as an attorney for the students in 1972 (he was briefly detained and charged with inciting them to subversion), then during the growth of the human rights movement in the 1980s and early 1990s (Hilali received the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights’ award in 1991), then the formation of Kifaya in July-August 2004, then during Abdalla’s bid for parliamentary elections in autumn 2005, where Hilali was one of the featured speakers at a campaign event. To me, both men embodied an exceedingly rare and even maligned trait in these times of “pragmatism”: they were faithful, stubborn believers in the consequences of seemingly quixotic acts. They had a remarkable patience and long term vision, and I doubt they even understood (much less cared about) the word “setback.” They knew that the struggle for a democratic Egypt began before their lifetimes and would continue long after they exited from the scene.
I want to emphasize two of Hilali’s most quixotic endeavours, which in my mind are also his most significant legacies for the Egyptian struggle for democracy. He was a staunch believer in the possibility and efficacy of opposition coordination, and he had a visionary sense of the politically creative impact of law. Both may seem very quaint but ineffectual tools with which to resist an overwhelming police state. Here’s why they’re not.
Hilali was an extremely persistent and lucid exponent of a coordinated opposition front to advance democratic gains. He was neither the first nor the only propagator of such an idea, but I daresay he was its most sincere, articulate, and credible defender on the left. In 1992, he wrote a series of elegant pieces elaborating on the necessity of strategic, not merely tactical, coordination between Islamist factions and leftist factions, each holding fast to their ideological non-negotiables, yet making room for concerted action to challenge the Mubarak regime. It matters little that such mobilisation has rarely materialised, or that when it has it was unable to reach large swaths of the public. Given how brutally and swiftly Mubarak’s regime has repressed members of nearly every opposition sector, during electoral and non-electoral junctures, it is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of the threat posed by a coordinated opposition effort. Nabil al-Hilali knew that and harped on this same point year after year, not least this ringing democratic manifesto and anti-tawrith declaration in 2003.
Similarly, Hilali’s deep knowledge of the law enabled him to see opportunities where others saw nothing. His courtroom work was not simply a principled stand for rights, but an appeal to one of the few viable public institutions left in Egypt. Hilali understood that the judiciary had the capacity and will to produce autonomous rulings, that even if unimplemented, such rulings constituted a potent weapon in the struggle for rights, and that the majority of judges relished a masterful oral argument. His closely argued briefs were thus models of erudition, combining dense facts on the suspect sources of Egyptian penal provisions, quotations from parliamentary proceedings, comparative insights drawn from American and French jurisprudence, and evocative trimmings such as quotes from Turkish poet Nizam Hikmet.
Hilali was known to go on at considerable length in his oral arguments, only to be invited to continue by the bench. By banking on the partial autonomy of the Egyptian judiciary and the professional spirit of individual judges, Hilali helped to wrest many small legal victories that are more than the sum of their parts. Well before domestic and international pundits discovered Egyptian judges, Nabil al-Hilali knew that they were an effective crutch in the struggle for rights, and perhaps even envisioned that they would be at the frontlines as they are today.
Nabil al-Hilali always politely but firmly refused to let me profile him, partly as a matter of principle and partly because he never sat still, moving from one courtroom and niyaba office to another by day, then attending political meetings and salons in the evenings. Once, when I failed to get a hold of him after seven straight days of persistence, a member of his office staff advised me, “Look, the best way is to come here and wait at the office and then ambush the adversary the minute he walks in! But don’t you dare tell him I told you that!”
I didn’t give up on trying to interview al-Hilali, and began composing an oral argument in my head that I planned to deliver to him on why he should give me the time of day. But he passed before I could execute my brilliant plan. Now I will never get to ask him about this or that law, opaque clause, mystifying procedure, or specific case. I’ll never have the privilege of listening to him reflect on the unexpected power of law in a repressive, undemocratic state. I won’t have the chance to goad him to share some of his rich memories, or elaborate on his vision of a united front for democracy. Most of all, I won’t be able to simply be in the presence of his boundless energy and love for his metier, and his endearing and disarmingly genuine modesty.
Once, walking down the sooty, congested Sharia al-Gala’ on an early afternoon, I ran into Nabil al-Hilali on his way to the courthouse. He shook my hand firmly and gave me a courtly bow and a wide smile, then continued walking purposively and in big strides, large legal briefcase in hand. I stood watching his determined frame recede into the crowds. And that is how I shall always remember him.