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Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Book review: El-Gamal: An Ordinary Life?

The current deputy prime minister Yahia El-Gamal's memoirs reveal his own dilemma between the practice of politics and holding executive positions

Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 20 Mar 2011
Views: 4316
Views: 4316

Kesat Haya Adeyya (An Ordinary Life Story), by Yahia El-Gamal, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2011.

Yahia El-Gamal, the current deputy prime minister of Egypt, did not just appear suddenly on the political scene. He has been a clever player behind the scenes in politics for some 40 years and his memoirs, entitled “An Ordinary Life Story,” recently republished by Shorouk, allow access to the mind of a man that can only be described as “mysterious”.

On Facebook, where the youth believe that his visit to Tahrir Square among the 'Committee of Wise Men' was anti-revolutionary, it is maintained that he has proved this by serving in Shafiq’s cabinet.

 At the same time as the revolutionaries were demanding Shafiq’s resignation, El-Gamal was saluting him and asserting that he was a huge loss.  This was not El-Gamal’s only controversy.

Hundreds of internet pages refer to this man’s contradictions and unclear stances. Many talk about a “shady resume”, even posing the questions: “How does he look at himself? Was his life really ordinary?"

His memoirs, first published in an abridged version by El-Helal in 2002, describe his term as a cultural attaché in Paris during Farouk Hosni’s time as minister of culture.

During the time from 1972 until October 1973, his book confirms the relationship between Hosni and the Egyptian intelligence. This satisfied the hunger for gossip when finally revealed in a debate between El-Gamal and Hosni, organised by the Egyptian magazine “Al-Musawar”, when El-Gamal said that he was not afraid to discuss this period, given that he was playing a patriotic role at the time, and he went on to explain how the relationship began with Ahmed Kamel, whom he knew as the governor of Alexandria.

During the same debate, El-Gamal withdrew much of what he had written in his memoirs, stating that not everything inside it was accurate, given his dependence on memory. But the story was retold upon Hosni’s nomination for the UNESCO’s leadership and was used, among others, by the European press against the ex-minister.

Otherwise, the memoirs were well-received among critics, such as Ragaa El-Nakash, Salah Fadl and the late Abdel-Aziz Hammuda. It was later reprinted by Dar Tallas, with a new introduction by General Mostafa Tallas, an authority in Hafez Al-Assad’s rule (the late Syrian president), but it didn’t stir as much debate, except for a sharp article by Gala Amin in “Weghat Nazar” (Points of View), where he compared it to the memoirs of Roshdi Said.

The question of what El-Gamal saw as his life, could be considered as a great deal of experience in crisis management as stated in the book. Within each crisis, El-Gamal faced and successfully managed he "stepped over" its contradictions and turned it into a push forward – not to say a big win.

After an upbringing in a small Egyptian village in the Monoufia governorate, he obtained his education at the kottab (religious school), and struggled, like many of his generation, with the sheikh.

The most exciting part of his career was after he was appointed to a respectable government job, he was able to get a job at the downtown firm of a big lawyer, Aly Mansur, Then, similar to many of his cohorts including Osma El-Baz, he was appointed as deputy to the prosecutor-general in the south of Egypt.

Through his tales, we see many images from this world of poverty but they are not any different from Yahi Haki or Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s stories about the prestige of this role.

El-Gamal also tells the story of setting up the Libyan judiciary, having been a witness of the creation of the “state” through leading the prosecution in Fazzan. When he requested an investigation with authorities regarding a corrupt wheat deal, his request was denied and so he returned to Egypt and started his PhD in law, supervised by Hamed Soultan, who pushed him to learn English and French to prepare his much-valued thesis.

Once he had mastered the two languages, he faced the difficulty of the costs of the journey to Lahai in search of major reference books at the International Justice Court. 

With some help from a classmate who became the famous Saudi minister of petroleum, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, he got a contract as their law consultant. However he stayed there only for a while before heading to Lahai, and his first step into European life.

The story of the defense of his thesis reflects on some of his self- perceptions. The defense took place on 9 March 1962, a day he describes as “memorable”, since “his family came and the hall was filled with lawyers and students, including Mostafa El-Fiqi.”

After four hours of discussions, El-Gamal was awarded a PhD with honours, and was then appointed to the university staff.  Here he describes the issues of higher education after the revolution, starting with books right up to the authoritarian setup.

As usual at the time, law school was a factory of ministers, and he took his first steps into political work when invited by Refaat El-Mahgoub, head of the Egyptian parliament at the time (he was assassinated in the 1990s), to join a leading organisation first set up by Abdel-Nasser.

Although he was accepted in the organisation he writes, “Our friend here [describing himself] was irritated deep down, believing in the Arab Nationalism’s modern definition, which meets the criteria of the 23 July revolution, but then he also believes in democracy and people’s right for self-determination. If July’s revolution has done a lot to achieve the first part of his beliefs, it has done nothing to the second, which is democracy.”

Salah Fadl comments on this saying that it is certain that El-Gamal’s views at the time were not formed as clearly, for like many of his generation, he was confused and blinded by the promised Nasserite Project.  If his belief in democracy had been strong, he would have never accepted the post of minister for Sadat and assistant to Abdel-Aziz Hegazy, his leader in the organisation.

This was not the first time he was confused when appraising the July revolution, for he realised during the March 1945 crisis that he sympathised with Mohamed Naguib, and was against the revolutionaries' attack on Abdel-Razziq El-Sanhoury, describing it as "scary and an assault on the symbol of law".

Despite all that, El-Gamal believes in the enforceability inside all the revolution’s institutions, including the youth organisation to which he was invited by Zakareya Mohieldin, as a representative of the Arab National movement. He understood then “that Nasser wants an interaction between all political currents inside the organisation.”

Before he entered and during his time in the organisation, he met Hussein Kamel Bahaaeldin, Mofeed Shehab, Kamal Abul-Magd, Abdel-Ahad Gamal El-Din, and from the younger generations, Ali El-Din Hilal, Mahmoud Sherif, and Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, head of the Tagamuu (Leftwing) party. El-Gamal describes this experience saying, “Egypt has a group of talents whose contributions are extended until now.”

The book shows the experiences El-Gamal combined on the Arab front, especially during his time in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which enabled him to deepen his connection with figures from the Arab national movement.

This period was not less productive than his work in Paris, where he witnessed the youth movements in 1968. His practical experience came after his appointment in the cultural consultancy there, when he got closer to Fathi Sorour and was introduced to Farouk Hosni, (referredto as FH).

The reader can't help but notice that Atef Sedki was his successor in the post, then left it early to become a minister of administrative development in the cabinet of Abdel-Aziz Hegazy, together with a number of competent people such as Ismail Sabry Abdalla, Fouad Morsi and Ismail Fahmi, as well as others such as Mamdouh Salem, who was secretly conspiring against Hegazy and his cabinet.

Maybe the most interesting part of the memoirs is the period of closeness to Sadat; a period increasingly debated within movements.  But it is interesting to note that Mahmoud Fawzy, the vice-president called and told him, “When Hegazy suggested you for the ministry, I thought you will collect some of your college friends and other intellectuals and think of problems and find strategic solutions, making you a “Think Tank”.  But it seems that Hegazy dragged you into the daily executive problems, not leaving time for you to think deeply.”

It is apparent that the reader of this passage will think of the role El-Gamal plays today, for he repeats his mistakes of the past, continuing what he calls “firefighting".  Or will he get over it?

The reader is bound to find a satisfying answer, but I would urge a reading of El-Gamal’s views on the idea of a “political minister”, which disappeared in favour of the idea of an “employee minister”; natural after the disappearance of political parties, supposedly the source for all ministers.

What is certain is that the policy of the “employee minister” is what led Egypt into the events of 17th-18thJanuary 1977, and led Sadat himself to sign the Camp David agreement, falling into the trap of “lost peace” and the sequence of events that followed which led Egypt into the Mubarak rule in 1981.

Here El-Gamal ceases the “permitted talk” and now the question is whether he will be allowed to write about the Mubarak era.



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