Obituary: Hussein Abdel-Razek, founder of Egypt’s modern left

Khaled Dawoud , Saturday 8 Sep 2018

Hussein Abdel-Razek (1936-2018)

Hussein Abdel-Razek
Hussein Abdel-Razek (1936-2018)

The love and respect Hussein Abdel-Razek commanded were obvious during his funeral service on Monday at Omar Makram Mosque, attended by hundreds of journalists, politicians and intellectuals of all political stripes.

A hardline leftist and journalist who fought on behalf of the poor for over 60 years, Abdel-Razek, who passed away at Maadi Military Hospital at the age of 81 on 30 August, enjoyed warm relations with various political trends, making no enemies even among his political adversaries.

Born in 1936 in Aswan, Abdel-Razek was a founder of the modern left which emerged after president Anwar Al-Sadat ended the single party rule of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU).

In 1976 three opposition political parties were allowed, the liberal Wafd Party, the centrist Labour Party and the leftist Progressive Unionist Nationalist Party, known in Arabic as the Tagammu. Sadat himself presided over the ruling Misr Party which later changed its name to the National Democratic Party (NDP).

The Tagammu was founded by late Khaled Mohieddin, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council that led the 1952 army revolt against the monarchy.

Despite the many changes that the Tagammu Party went through Abdel-Razek remained loyal to the party until his death, retaining his post as a member of its political bureau.

In 2013 Abdel-Razek made a final attempt to become Tagammu’s president, counting on the support of his colleague for decades, the late Rifaat Said.

But Said, who had become Tagammu president after the retirement of its founder Mohieddin, switched sides and supported Abdel-Razek’s opponent, Sayed Abdel-Aal. As a consequence Abdel-Razek lost the election by a single vote.

Following the loss Abdel-Razek devoted more time to fighting for freedom of the press in Egypt and amending laws that limited freedom of expression, using his position as a member of the committee of 50 that drafted a new constitution following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013.

The new constitution was approved in January 2014 by a massive majority, though many of its articles relating to freedom of the press remain on hold.

Abdel-Razek also served several terms as an elected member of the Press Syndicate’s board, always fighting against laws that allowed journalists to be imprisoned for publication offences or limited freedom of expression.

Abdel-Razek graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science in the early 1960s and received his political training within Egypt’s communist movement. His career as a journalist began as a reporter at Ishtiraki (The Socialist), the newspaper issued by the ruling ASU.

Abdel-Razek first experienced prison after joining student protests in 1972 pressing Sadat to launch war against Israel to restore Arab territories which Israel had occupied in 1967.

Though he would later become a journalist at the government-owned Al-Akhbar, Abdel-Razek remained on the radar of the State Security department. His longest prison experience, following bread riots in January 1977, lasted nearly two years.

Sadat dubbed the massive protests that broke out after his decision to slash subsidies as the “thieves’ riot” and blamed the disturbances on leftist and Nasserist (Arab nationalist) parties opposed to his moves to liberalise the economy and build strong ties with the United States.

Like other communists, leftists and Nasserists, Abdel-Razek opposed Sadat’s unilateral push for peace with Israel which culminated in the signing of the Camp David accords in 1979.

Shortly before his assassination on 6 October 1981 Sadat rounded up more than 3,000 opponents, from the extreme right to the extreme left, claiming this was necessary to protect the peace agreement. Sadat also suspended the three opposition parties and their newspapers, including the Tagammu’s mouthpiece Al-Ahaly.

Abdel-Razek was among the thousands arrested on 5 September 1981. He remained in prison until Hosni Mubarak took office following Sadat’s assassination.

Mubarak wanted to open a new page with opposition parties. The political opening allowed the republication of opposition newspaper and Abdel-Razek became editor-in-chief of Al-Ahaly in 1982.

Over nearly six years as editor-in-chief Abdel-Razek, together with a group of prominent leftist writers including his wife Farida Al-Naqqash, her sister Amina Al-Naqqash, Salah Eissa, Philipe Galab, Nabil Zaki and Mahmoud Al-Maraghi, turned Al-Ahaly into the key opposition newspaper.

Al-Ahaly’s headlines were usually harsh in criticisng the government’s economic policies, human rights record, corruption and close ties with the United States.

Given Al-Ahaly was the official mouthpiece of the Tagammu, which had many internal differences among its leftist and Nasserist factions, Abdel-Razek had a tough job keeping the party’s leadership and rank and file satisfied.

He faced fierce opposition from the more moderate factions within the party who accused Abdel-Razek of communist and leftist bias.

He caused a wide controversy when he became the first Egyptian journalist to visit Afghanistan following the 1986 Soviet occupation. Al-Ahaly regularly praised the Soviet intervention in its headlines, claiming it was necessary to modernise Afghanistan.

At the time Egypt’s official policy was to support the US-backed Afghani mujahideen.

Abdel-Razek was removed from his post as Al-Ahaly’s editor-in-chief in late 1987. As compensation he was appointed editor-in-chief of Al-Yassar (the Left), a magazine issued by the Tagammu.

Despite limited resources — the magazine was run from a couple of rooms on the roof of the Tagammu’s downtown headquarters — Al-Yassar became a mouthpiece for leftist and communist parties in Egypt. Abdel-Razek was basically responsible for all editorial and administrative tasks, helped by a handful of young leftists who worked for free. The magazine was forced to shut down in 2011 due to lack of funds.

After the popular revolt against Mubarak broke out on 25 January 2011 Abdel-Razek joined the crowds in Tahrir Square. He was among the founders of the National Salvation Front (NSF) that united secular parties in Egypt, and strongly opposed the Muslim Brotherhood and their attempt to build a religious state in Egypt.

Abdel-Razek never doubted the goal of the Brotherhood was to replace the Mubarak dictatorship with an Islamist dictatorship of their own, something that he believed would lead to the disintegration of the modern Egyptian state.

Abdel-Razek will not only be remembered for his principled stands but also for his big, warm smile that allowed him to build good relations with friends and foes alike. He leaves behind his wife, Farida, daughter Rasha and son, Gasser, a prominent human rights activist.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A founder of Egypt’s modern left 

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