Tuesday, June 20, 2006


The certainty of death is no preparation for the actual arrival of the Reaper. In the early hours of 18 June, the honourable Ahmed Nabil al-Hilali succumbed to renal failure and passed away in hospital. Thus ends a truly remarkable and exceptionally productive life, a life devoted to the rule of law, the rights of the dispossessed, and the quest for real democracy and political representation for all Egyptians. Ahmed Nabil al-Hilali was not just the most prominent and principled member of the Egyptian bar, a first-rate lawyer who knew the nooks and crannies of every courtroom and the whys and wherefores of every legal clause. He would wince in genuine embarrassment at this description, but Hilali was quite literally a living legend, someone who inspired unanimous awe, respect, and admiration.

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.

Nasser’s Prisons

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.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Man Apart

I can’t believe that the extraordinarily sprightly and kindhearted Ahmed Abdalla is no longer with us on this earth. He passed away earlier this week, and his funeral procession from Sayyeda Nafisa mosque took place yesterday afternoon. Thus departs a great Egyptian patriot, citizen-scholar, and man of commitment, leaving behind much grief and a yawning sense of loss.

Ahmed Abdalla Rozza was born on 15 January, 1950 to a working class family in Ain al-Sira, the Masr al-Qadeema neighbourhood to which he remained wedded throughout his life, save for the decade of 1974-1984 when he was working on his doctoral thesis in England. He was the most prominent leader of the student activist wave of 1972-1973, and went on to forge a productive career as both an astute political analyst and an uncompromising independent activist. He had a mirthful, loquacious manner and spoke Arabic, English, and French beautifully. Above all, he was that exceedingly rare specimen of intellectual who neither disdains nor romanticises ordinary people. Instead, he lived among them, understood them, loved them, shared their burdens, and did his utmost to alleviate them.

“A Dynamic Element”

Ahmed Abdalla attained national prominence when he was only 22 years old, in his final year at the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science. On 13 January, 1972, Anwar Sadat delivered what soon became a notorious address in which he claimed that the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistan war prevented him from delivering on his promise that 1971 would be a “decisive year,” meaning the year when troops would liberate Egyptian territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Memorably, Sadat attributed his inaction to “the fog” created by the South Asian war.

The speech outraged college students and spurred them to action. They joined several existing groups into the umbrella Higher National Committee for Cairo University Students (HNCCUS), and Ahmed Abdalla was elected president. For one year, HNCCUS became easily the most vital popular organisation in Egypt, a vehicle through which students negotiated directly not simply with top university administrators but the highest officials of state, from ministers to parliamentarians to the president himself via a slew of emissaries. Buoyed by the first, intense wave of student and labour activism of February 1968, and a new regime still finding its bearings, students literally became a vanguard social movement, exerting real pressure on the regime to act on the two cardinal issues of occupied territory and democratisation.

These extraordinarily young and extraordinarily articulate students went head to head with very powerful people, upstaging intellectual elites with pretensions to societal leadership (see Higazy cartoon, top, Rose al-Yusuf, 21 February 1972). For a little over a week, students and state elites engaged in intricate bargaining sessions, including a heated debate between parliamentary deputies and a 200-strong student delegation inside the parliament building. Students escalated their activism, inaugurating a sit-in at Cairo and Ain Shams universities. The state then took off the velvet gloves. At dawn on 24 January, the Interior Minister gave the order for security forces to storm the university and arrest students sitting in Nasser Hall. Hearing of the capture of their colleagues, the thousands of college students coming for classes that morning flocked to Tahrir Square and staged a sit-in there, where they were well-supplied with food and blankets by sympathetic onlookers and citizens. Recalling these events, I can’t resist noting the parallel with the outpouring of popular support for today’s vanguard social sector.

Abdalla was arrested and appeared before a university disciplinary board, which released him with a warning. He responded by intensifying his activism for the rest of 1972-1973. At that moment in Egyptian history, university campuses were humming dens of collective action and consciousness-raising, featuring creative and feisty wall magazines (the grandparents of the contemporary political blog), endless debates and meetings, a steady stream of pamphlets and communiqués, and the formation of bonds with social institutions beyond the university gates.

Authorities studiously recorded and pored over the contents of Abdalla’s personal wall magazine, The Rough Copy (al-Muswadda), as is evident by lawyer Adel Amin’s valuable compilation of State Security documents on student activism during 1972-73 in his book, The Egyptian Students' Intifada (2003, right). Here is a December 1972 assessment by State Security Intelligence of the intrepid, outspoken, and dangerous Ahmed Abdalla:

“This student was one of the leaders of the January 1972 movement...and led the call for sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations. He was arrested with the students occupying Nasser Hall, interrogated by the prosecution, and then released. He remains at the peak of activism, a dynamic element around whom revolves the majority of resistant elements in universities. He continues to carry out his activism, establishing numerous links with these elements and writing wall magazines that attack the state and political leadership and some Arab states and their regimes. The aforementioned and his supporters also seek to unify the student movement in the different universities and to extend its activism to other mass sectors, especially the professional unions. He is also active in the conferences convened at the Economics faculties and other university faculties and had the leading role in designing and steering these conferences. He and his group focus on recruiting first-year students in the Economics faculty, considering them a new asset that must be won over to their side.”

The final crackdown on the student movement came in June 1973, when the chief State Security Prosecutor placed Abdalla first on a list of 56 defendants referred to trial, charged with a slew of the familiar crimes that have long ensnared Egypt’s past and present honourable activists: spreading rumours and false information, repeating seditious slogans, engaging in criminal conspiracy, and inciting assembly, demonstrations, and (my favourite) resisting the authorities. The list included luminaries such as Kifaya leader Ahmed Bahaeddin Sha’ban, rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam Abdel Fattah, writer and critic Safinaz Kazem, the people’s bard Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, journalist Hani Shukrallah, and the late Arwa Saleh.

But then the judiciary stepped in. In the summer of 1973, judges ordered many defendants released on bail while awaiting trial, and upheld those decisions despite the president’s angry appeals. As Abdalla recounts in his doctoral dissertation-turned-book, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt, 1923-1973 (London: al-Saqi, 1985), “when the core of student activists was finally brought to trial, the chief justice who was to try the first group of defendants opened the proceedings with a speech assuring his defendants of the court’s impartiality and even of its patriotism.” In the lead-up to the October 1973 war, Sadat ordered a halt to all student trials and released all detainees.

Scholarship, Activism, Advocacy

Ahmed Abdalla opted to write his doctoral thesis at Cambridge on students and politics in Egypt, and its book form remains the single most valuable English-language contribution to the topic, second to none. It is a scholarly, historical oeuvre written in a staid, analytical style, with significant bits of auto-critique and reflection, scrupulous documentation, and many gems buried in the footnotes. There is no awkward tension between the scholar and the activist, no grand unsubstantiated claims, no self-exoneration, and—-just as important-—no irritating and pointless second-guessing or hand wringing.

Throughout his life, Abdalla miraculously and effortlessly merged analytical scepticism with ideological commitment. For me, he is a model of a thinker who had no truck with the fiction of objectivity, yet never allowed his political passions to blunt his analytical judgement. His example even suggests that—gasp!—each faculty can actually enrich the other. After his return to Egypt in 1984, he joined his erstwhile comrades in the burgeoning human rights movement, not because he harboured any illusions about the transformative potential of such an undertaking, but rather because he viewed it as a promising vehicle to forward democratic demand-making.

For Abdalla, human rights activism was not an ethical project devoid of politics (à la the professional human rights salariat), nor a lucrative cottage industry driven by personal entrepreneurship (à la perpetual cynics), nor a sinister foreign design (à la nationalists), but a deeply political undertaking that would further a modest yet highly significant goal. “The human rights movement is a political movement par excellence, and it should courageously present itself as such,” he wrote. “It should advertise itself as the largest reservoir of consensus politics.”

The language of human rights would be creatively deployed to transcend the historical animosities bedevilling Egypt’s opposition groups, perhaps even pave the way for some form of collective action between them. Though he retained the Egyptian left’s signature suspicion of Islamists, Abdalla thankfully steered clear from the vile stance of individuals like Rif’at al-Said, a putative leftist who takes great pleasure in collaborating with the authoritarian regime to repress and do violence to Islamists. However, by the mid-1990s, Abdalla’s take on human rights activism grew
dimmer, after the groups’ decision to accept foreign funding brought in powerful international institutions with their own agendas, agendas that were far removed from helping Egypt’s opposition groups overcome their collective action problems.

If activism and analysis coexisted in Ahmed Abdalla, so did advocacy and analysis. One of his most abiding concerns was the respectful, dignified depiction and treatment of ordinary people too marginalised to represent themselves, and too powerless to “talk back” to those who represent them. His first book is memorably dedicated to the denizens of his native Ain al-Sira: “To the People of Masr al-Qadeema, the illiterate who gave me knowledge; the poor who enriched my conscience.” He was a truly great and noble advocate for poor Egyptians, whose stock he shared, yet he never abandoned the critical stance necessary to dissect their life conditions and give them the tools to carve out a foothold in a power structure built on their exclusion.

Advocacy mixed with analysis was the driving force behind Abdalla’s energetic bid for parliament in the
2005 elections, and his years long focus on the vexing condition of child labour. Eschewing both the easy, moralising condemnation of the practice and indifference to it as yet another “social problem,” Ahmed Abdalla made the difficult choice of actually doing something about it. He established the Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies, both a research and information centre and an actual space where working children convened each week to, simply, live their childhood. They drew artwork, made puppets, played music, had a meal, and subjected their bodies to physical activity of a different order than the gruelling labour that marked the rest of their week. It was a place unlike any that I’ve ever been in, where the concrete reality of child exploitation coexisted with an utterly charmed environment full of laughter, love, and an aura of being blessed.

A Personal Note

I don’t remember the first time I met Dr. Ahmed, but I always remember his uproarious laugh and his moments of quiet, conversational reflection. He had a charming ability to be both hilariously funny and dead serious in one breath, and a devilish knack for teasing that apparently found in me an irresistible target! I do remember the last time I saw him; it was at the Shaykh Yassin concert in Ramadan outside Bayt al-Harrawi in 2000. It felt like spotting a loveable celebrity. We waved and smiled across the giddy crowd, in the moments of anticipation right before Yassin began to chant.

When I remember Dr. Ahmed, I always see him sitting in animated, relaxed conversation around a table on the scraggly lawn outside Markaz al-Jeel one friday, as the children played all around us and the setting sun turned a fiery orange. Dr. Ahmed’s maternal older sister was busy making sure that every child had eaten his koshari and cucumber; she was a woman of few words and enormous kindness whose death took a serious emotional toll on her younger brother. The day that I visited the Centre, I met a boy named Gharib, who worked in the tanneries. He held on to my hand tightly for the whole five hours I was there, leaving me only to take part in the karate lesson, but not before making me promise to sit and watch him kick. Dr. Ahmed kept playfully chiding him to leave me alone for a while and go eat his koshari, but Gharib only lowered his huge eyes bashfully and smiled.

Under a drooping tree branch we all sat, savouring the final hours of a purgative day.