Monday, October 12, 2009

A Gentle Intellect

On 10 October, 2009, a luminous intellectual and gentle soul passed away. Felled by cancer at the age of 59, Mohamed El-Sayed Saïd was laid to rest yesterday in his native Port Said. Saïd was among a handful of extraordinarily committed, preternaturally courageous public intellectuals and human rights activists who dedicated their lives to making Egypt a more just place. His life is an awe-inspiring string of achievements, spanning intellectual contributions, activist work, and a brief but vital experiment in social justice-oriented journalism. It’s customary for obituaries to list the deeds of such luminaries and mourn their loss, and Mohamed Saïd deserves nothing less. But I find myself first remembering his personal qualities as a wonderful human being.

Those who knew him remember that Dr. Mohamed was an exceedingly nice person--friendly, warm, and genuinely humble. The rough and tumble of public life in an undemocratic country hadn’t coarsened him one bit. He seemed to have swooped into this era from some other time and place, where people were soft-spoken, courtly, even-tempered, a tad shy. He had an air of serenity, unruffled by the constant interruptions of mobile phones and other trappings of the busy-and-important. I often ran into him in noisy public places—a cinema, a downtown street, a public political meeting—and he always seemed enveloped in some otherworldly calm. Once while we were chatting over coffee in his Ahram office, he received three successive phone calls from an irate person who was loudly reproaching him on some personal matter. Dr. Mohamed answered the phone each time and stoically endured the harangue, smiling at me impishly as the agitated person on the other end heaved and screamed.

For someone who had a truly searching mind and considerable erudition, Dr. Mohamed carried his learning lightly. He wasn’t pompous and he didn’t feel the need to dominate every conversation or gathering. He was dead serious about his calling, but didn’t take himself overly seriously. I once teased him about some clunky neologism in his writing (I think it was his literal Arabic translation of “reification”), and he laughed as loud as he permitted himself, blushing endearingly.

In the precincts of al-Ahram where there’s a hyper-awareness of rank and status, with individuals daily seeking to reinforce or augment their social standing, Dr. Mohamed was detached. He seemed embarrassed that he had a driver who ferried him around, and he explicitly refrained from the kind of name-dropping that others think lends them gravitas. Intellectually, he surpassed everyone in that building and far beyond; he was the kind of writer whom you had to read no matter what, because almost always you’d emerge with a new way of looking at an issue, or a clearer understanding of why you disagree with him.

Mohamed El-Sayed Saïd was born in 1950 in Port Said to a father who worked in the Suez Canal authority and a homemaker mother. He took part in the 1968 wave of student and worker protests, and again in the 1972 protests, along with peer
Ahmed Abdalla. He was imprisoned in 1972 for his student activism, and in the same year graduated from the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science. Shortly thereafter he was hired as a researcher at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a professional affiliation that would last until 2007 when he left al-Ahram to head the editorial team of al-Badeel. He pursued higher education and in 1983 received a doctorate in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for a thesis titled “Integration as a Model of Ethnic Conflict Resolution in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Mohamed El-Sayed Saïd was a thinking person. He wasn’t a clever wordsmith or a peddler of packaged ideas or a researcher in the narrow academic sense, but someone who seemed to be thinking during every waking moment, challenging received wisdom, looking more deeply at things we take for granted, and trying to communicate his mental strivings through writing and activism. As the obituaries are repeating ad nauseam, he was a socialist and a liberal who respected and was respected by all shades of the ideological spectrum, from Islamists to Nasserists to the most dogmatic leftists. A secular socialist he certainly was, but to me he represents the true meaning of an intellectual: someone who is constantly questioning why things are the way they are, and urging alternative readings of seemingly settled issues.

But Mohamed Saïd wasn’t the kind of intellectual who retreats from the world to better analyse it. I’ll lazily invoke the hackneyed phrase because it fits here: he tried to change the world. He made real contributions to two areas of Egyptian public life: human rights activism and the independent press. He was among the founders of the Egyptian human rights movement in the 1980s, both as a leading member of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights (EOHR) (and later the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies) and a participant in theoretical debates about reconciling international human rights norms with Islamic principles. Emboldened by their international ties, Egyptian rights groups were the only organisations monitoring the government’s policing, especially during the years-long standoff with violent Islamist groups.

Mohamed Saïd’s human rights work nearly cost him his life. In 1989, the loathsome, vindictive Interior Minister Zaki Badr ordered the violent storming of a steel factory to break up a worker strike (one worker was killed in the confrontation). Dr. Mohamed drafted the EOHR statement expressing solidarity with the workers and condemning the government response. He was rounded up along with colleagues Hisham Mubarak, Amir Salem, and Medhat al-Zahed and subjected to brutal torture. Undeterred, he intensified his human rights work after 1989, and became a valuable source of knowledge about the history, politics, and organisational dilemmas of the rights movement.

In 2007, Dr. Mohamed entered the lively independent press scene. He helmed the fledgling al-Badeel as an experiment in non-partisan, non-doctrinaire leftist journalism oriented to social justice and popular struggles. The newspaper offered superb coverage of domestic politics, from localised cost-of-living protests to national political events, while innovating the idea of opinion pages featuring fresh emerging voices instead of publishing familiar big names serving up their familiar fare. Almost instantly, al-Badeel earned its place alongside al-Dostor and al-Masry al-Youm as daily must-reads, and Dr. Mohamed’s daily column revealed a different side of the public intellectual, a readable, accessible yet no less insightful voice on a far wider range of issues than he had ever commented on in print. During its brief half life, al-Badeel enriched
contemporary Egyptian independent journalism and offered a platform for crucial societal debates. In 2008, when his illness became acute, Mohamed Said left the editorship but continued to write occasional pieces. Earlier this year, the paper lost its funding and sadly stopped printing.

The last time I saw Dr. Mohamed was in winter 2007, in the cavernous offices of al-Badeel in Bab el-Louq shortly after they started publication. The place was boisterous, full of energy, excitement, and good humour. Dr. Mohamed didn’t hold court or preside officiously, he darted from room to room, line-editing with journalists and editors, consulting with the website designers, bantering shyly with office staff. He announced a break and herded everyone around a table, a motley crowd of visitors, well-wishers, the newspaper’s funder, journalists, and a few oldtime leftists. We chatted amiably and sipped coffee as the winter sunshine flooded the room. Dr. Mohamed smiled beatifically, alternating sips of coffee with drags on his never-vanishing cigarette. And that is how I shall always remember him.

Photo: al-Masry al-Youm