I have spent many years and a considerable amount of time reading, assessing and making sense of the memoirs of the former Free Officers who led the 1952 Revolution in Egypt.
Some of these were an easy and pleasant read, while others were more sophisticated, though still reliable, and others still could easily be dismissed as untrustworthy.
Many of them were intriguing. They were rich, subtle and often vivid, but it was quite difficult to use them for historical purposes.
Among the latter category of memoirs is a towering book by former RCC (Revolutionary Command Council) member Khaled Mohieddin entitled Now I Speak.
When it was published, many of the other Free Officers were angry at it what it contained, as Mohieddin had told stories in it that stemmed from former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser whose truth he had not checked with other members of the RCC.
Former culture minister Tharwat Okasha, a former Free Officer, was particularly unhappy. I greatly benefited from such discussions.
My problem was a different one, however. I wanted to write a narrative telling as accurately as possible what happened in the week or ten days that led up to the 23 July Revolution.
Mohieddin’s account was the most detailed, covering 100 pages, but there was a snag in that it was difficult or even impossible to use.
He used two chronologies, the first starting on 17 July and giving precise dates, such as 21 July, and the second counting off the days and describing the events that happened on the first day, the second day, and so on.
Both chronologies said the third day in the build-up was a Friday, making it Friday 19 July. However, in fact this was not the case, as the last Friday before the revolution was 18 July. Many difficulties derived from this error, some of them crucial.
I asked for a meeting with Mohieddin and obtained one with the help of my friend Ali Durgham. I was struck by Mohieddin’s smile and his gentle manners.
I explained my problem. He asked me not to ask him questions about the days of the week leading up to the revolution. He remembered nothing, he said.
It was a week of considerable tension. There were many things to do. He had run everywhere, and there had been very little time even for sleeping.
Even later in September 1952 he had been unable to tell people what had happened in that week, he said, apart from certain key moments, crucial decisions and important meetings.
I pointed out that the chronology in his book had been quite detailed. He answered that he had not written those pages himself and that he did not have a reliable memory.
This was a plausible answer, as I discovered during the captivating discussion we had on many topics related to my research.
The book’s style and its way of talking had little relation to Mohieddin in person. He had a knack for quick and accurate description, and he was not afraid to use undiplomatic and blunt terminology.
He was very “matter of fact,” in fact, and was quite strong at assessing the balance of power in any relationship. There were no precautions, no psychological depth, and no ratiocination. He was telling the simple truth, as he saw it.
Anyone who has read his memoirs and knew Mohieddin personally will understand my point. The two voices were quite different. Somebody else must have written much of the book, to say the least.
A comparison of what he had to say about Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna in person and what the book says is funny, for example. Mohieddin was much harsher about Al-Banna in person.
I recalled this encounter when I came across Mahmoud Al-Mamluke’s book The President’s Cave: Hosni Mubarak’s Last Confessions.
This was first published in 2014, but I did not have the time then to take a serious look at it. I have still to finish it, but I found the first 85 pages of the book very interesting.
One of its charms is that the reader seems to “hear” the former president speaking when reading the book, not the self-constrained official tone, but the military man’s cheekiness.
In the book, Mubarak fiercely defends his legacy. On many counts, he is convincing, though on others what he says is more debatable. In the pages of the book I read he focused on foreign policy and what he said there should be seriously examined.
Foreign policy was one of Mubarak’s strong points. He had considerable experience in it, and many foreign diplomats I have met were impressed by his flair, his ability to use simple words to describe complex issues, and his accounts of his own approach and recipes.
I know that many people in Egypt think the country was once a leader of the region and that it declined due to Mubarak’s incompetence, but this is unfair.
Nasser and former president Anwar Al-Sadat were towering figures and larger-than-life characters, and during their rule Egypt punched above its weight. Theirs were glorious, but exhausting regimes.
Mubarak was risk-averse and a cold-blooded realist, and Egypt needed such a person at the time.
The 85 pages of the book I read had their own dose of sensational revelations. However, I do not want to dwell on these, as the country does not need any new polemics now.
Instead, I will focus on themes that could be useful for any leader and that are suggested, rather than plainly stated, by Mubarak.
First, Egypt should be trusted, but not taken for granted. This requires a delicate balancing act. Second, foreign policy is a key issue that deserves constant attention, especially in Egypt’s case, since it is both a powerful country and a weak one.
It is powerful in that it is a nation-state that has considerable soft power and a long memory. It also has a very strong army. Its location is strategic and its population numerous.
However, Egypt is also a poor country, underdeveloped, racing against time to face different challenges, and with chronic financial needs. It needs to exert its influence while avoiding wasting time and resources. It needs to fiercely defend its interests while avoiding costly and irreparable divorces.
Some of Mubarak’s insights are fascinating. For instance, he tells us that there is something called “African solidarity,” and if you act in improper ways with another African country all the others will take notice and be wary of you, to say the least.
The price can be very high, as you will soon discover. These improper ways are numerous and include violating international law, trying to exploit ethnic tensions, or using military means without the utmost necessity.
Of course, none of this means that such methods should be ruled out. But their cost can be terribly high.
Another interesting point in the book is how to deal with Egypt’s financial weakness. Avoid begging, says the former president. Egypt has reliable friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
They know what is happening in Egypt, and they will know if you need their help. This can even be provided without prior notice. This does not mean that Egypt should not ask for aid, Mubarak says.
It does not mean being arrogant. It means being polite and knowing that as the leader of Egypt you have definite weight in the region.
I had the impression that he wanted to tell us not to ask for the help of those who might humiliate or marginalise Egypt. But I may be prone to illusions.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Insights from a leader