Remembering Messeiry: One man's greatness & the malice of autocracy

Nader Fergany , Monday 9 Jul 2012

Four years ago, writer and thinker Abdel-Wahhab El-Messeiry, one of Egypt's leading lights, died at the age of 70. The anniversary of his passing should have been marked in a manner befitting his formidable contributions

This article recalls what I published in 2008 about one of those who paved the way for Egypt's glorious people’s revolution, which remains relevant until today.

On 3 July, 2008, one of the greatest sons of contemporary Egypt, Abdel-Wahhab El-Messeiry, passed away at the age of 70. El-Messeiry spent his life serving his people and country, leaving behind an immense legacy of distinguished and prolific academic output and having taken part in the struggle for freedom and dignity in Egypt, the Arab region and entire world.

What distinguished El-Messeiry was his radiant humanity. Despite his high-profile status, he was very humble, mild-mannered, gentle and courteous. But this refined, outward manner encased a resilient champion of noble human values.

In his death, we lost a genuine researcher and encyclopaedic thinker of great sobriety and, no doubt, deep humanity. He began his intellectual journey as a student before becoming a distinguished professor of literary criticism. But his love for all forms of artistic creativity – which contributed to some of his most beloved attributes – did not satisfy the burning desire deep inside him.

When Arabs were drowning in the depths of denial, then condemnation, then denunciation, screaming and kicking about the occupation of Palestine, the scholastic warrior El-Messeiry realised that the beginning of successful resistance to the immoral Zionist project lay in a scholarly understanding of its origins and direction.

Therefore, he dedicated nearly two decades of his life, at his own expense, sacrificing everything – including his health – for the sake of this genius project, which culminated in his unique encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism, perhaps the Arab world's most important work in the field of human sciences.

It is even more valuable because of the deep sense of patriotism that accompanied the work and radiates from every line. He always represented the highest values of Arab/Islamic culture – so much so that, in his last days, he was considered part of the 'enlightened' Islamic current, sponsoring the establishment of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.

But these remarkable accomplishments were not enough for El-Messeiry, who, until his last days, was an unrelenting champion of enlightenment, freedom, justice and human dignity.

Here I point to his phenomenal decision to become the general coordinator of Egypt's pro-democracy Kifaya movement even though he was approaching 70 years old and had been courageously battling cancer for more than a decade. The terminal disease drained his body; many felt sorry for him, and, perhaps, for the movement itself, because of his extraordinary commitment.

And there is another aspect of El-Messeiry’s warrior spirit. He concluded a discussion about Kifaya’s future a few days before his death by optimistically stating: 'Life isn't over yet.' Perhaps El-Messiery’s faltering health and very delicate nature are reasons why the protest movement was a bit sluggish during his tenure, although I'm certain that having him at the helm raised its stature and helped avoid many pitfalls.

El-Messeiry was keen to maintain Kifaya’s vitality and integrity until the last moments of his life. It is no secret that El-Messeiry, with the humility of a venerable scholar and integrity of a decent person, revealed to devotees at a final meeting his intention to voluntarily step down as Kifaya general coordinator upon his 70th birthday, allowing another coordinator to be chosen. This would uphold a central principle of movement, namely the rotation of power. God’s will, however, intervened.

This eminent thinker and august scholar brought honour to every society that he was a part of or any institution he was a member of. He served Egypt and Egyptians with dedication and competence for more than half a century in various fields of educational, intellectual and patriotic action.

And how did the authoritarian rule that oppressed Egypt reward him? I will mention only three ways: the first, perhaps, is not known to many and the third was a world scandal for the tyrannical and corrupt regime after El-Messeiry’s death.

The totalitarian regime refused to pay for his medical treatment after he had served his country better than any of those who, at the time, were plundering and corrupting the public purse. He asked for help through an intermediary who was a key figure in the despotic regime, asking the state to fund the high cost of his healthcare – but this request was ultimately turned down.

By contrast, one need only remember how the heads of the ousted repressive regime competed to celebrate football players, scrambling to pay for their medical treatment – or for that of oafish singers or lowly actors – at the best facilities abroad and at state expense, without even being asked.

The second affront is when the worthless minions of the oppressive regime physically assaulted the revered scholar at a Kifaya-organised demonstration. This was followed by regime thugs – whether in uniform or civilian clothing – kidnapping El-Messeiry and his wife and dumping them out on the Desert Road.

The third insult was that no state representatives attended his funeral.

These sins are unforgivable, and the people will not forgive the masters of the totalitarian regime, who – if they had an inkling of decency – would apologise for their deeds.

Great nations celebrate the likes of El-Messeiry during their lives and after their deaths, but obnoxious regimes invest in others who are not revered intellectuals or genius patriots. Thus, it is El-Messeiry’s good fortune that his funeral was not tainted by the attendance of representatives of the then-ruling despots.

If the conduct of the ousted tyrannical regime does not seem unusual because of its brazen malice, it is unfortunate that the current rulers – some of whom claim to be revolutionaries, while others are draped in Islam and nationalism – have not marked the anniversary of El-Messeiry’s death in a manner befitting his contributions.

Fortunately, the immense influence of this great man will continue to light Egypt's path to freedom, justice and human dignity.

Short link: