Cultural diplomacy: The influential mind and the power of emotions

Gihane Zaki
Monday 15 Apr 2024

Mohamed El-Tabei was a leading Egyptian political writer and a pioneer of the modern press in Egypt and the Arab world during the interwar period, who shaped Egyptians’ perception of the newly crowned King Farouk and helped galvanize generations of journalists.


Watching the Arabic biographical series Asmahan (2008), which chronicles the life of the famous diva the series is named after and who was born in Syria and grew up in Egypt, I delved into the charming scenes and vintage scenography of the tragic tale of this young lady who was independent, provocative, divisive, and gifted with a wide vocal range, contralto, and mezzo-soprano. 

The mysterious life and tragic death of Asmahan, her formidable character, her glamour, her alleged political views, her powerful voice, and her on-screen persona continue to resonate as loudly as they ever did.

One of the episodes covers Asmahan’s life during 1941, including when she met with Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Egypt's most distinguished composer.

In the episode, Abdel-Wahab introduces her to a distinguished gentleman who is quite attractive with a sophisticated appearance, elegance, ease with French, and elite behaviour. The scene rapidly reveals that the gentleman is an Egyptian journalist with influence within the king’s political circle: Mohamed El-Tabei.

El-Ostaz: The influential mind and the power of emotions

Mohamed El-Tabei, or El-Ostaz, (1896-1976) was a leading Egyptian political writer, known by historians as the pioneer of modern press in Egypt and the Arab world.

The “Prince of Journalism,” as he was also known, was a leading figure in the intellectual and social transformation of Egypt during the reign of King Farouk. He was also keen on preserving the country’s cultural identity and authenticity.

His intelligence and leadership distinguished him.

El-Tabei had a normal childhood in a town near Mansoura in the central Nile Delta. He was an avid reader from a young age and occasionally skipped classes at his primary school to read books at a small bookshop.

Then he moved to Cairo and enrolled in the Saideya High School where he met and befriended Fikry Abaza, who became a famous journalist and democratic activist.

El-Tabei started in journalism in Cairo and rose to prominence after joining Rose Al-Yusuf magazine in 1923.

In 1934, he started his magazine Akher Saa with Mustafa Amin, Saroukhan and Saiid Abdo, his former colleagues from Rose Al-Yusuf.

Akher Saa quickly became one of the leading political magazines for fast news.

El-Tabei quickly understood that culture is an influential tool for the country’s branding. He invited the famous caricaturist Saroukhan to publish caricatures in the magazine. The first edition, packed with political critics, sarcastic jokes and caricatures, sold out within the first hour.

Al-Masry Afandy: When art voices politics

In the 1930s, Egypt witnessed the rise of a new class of leading middle-class cultural consumers: the affandiyya.

The affandiyya conception of nationalism had spread throughout so thoroughly as to be seen or felt everywhere, reverberating to the top strata of society.

El-Tabei believed that art is a magical tool to serve politics as it can provide a wide platform to voice thoughts and identities.

He introduced the character of Al-Masry Afandy to the pages of Rose Al-Yusef and then later Akher Saa.

Al-Masry Afandy started in 1929 as a caricature by Saroukhan to express the average middle-class Egyptian’s character and cover the political life in Egypt.

El-Tabei understood very early how to use arts and culture to serve politics by acting as a communications channel for the royal family.

Akher Saa published a special edition marking the Farouk’s coronation in 1937.

In its pages, Saroukhan distinguishes Farouk who is portrayed as a king of and for the people – from his father, Fouad.

In a caricature, Al-Masry Afandy honours the king: “Years ago we crowned you in our hearts; today we crown you on the throne of the nation.”

Farouk had captured the popular fancy well before Fouad's death, and the Egyptian people had been waiting patiently for their beloved crown prince to come of age and replace his obsolete father.

This image was particularly striking for the way it forged indirectly, an alliance between Farouk and the Egyptian everyman, suggesting that the new king was not foreign, elitist, or aloof, but rather “one of us,” made from the same mould of authentic Egyptian-ness as the affandiyya and even perhaps subject to their will.

Farouk was represented as a populist, publicly pious Muslim king loyal to the affandiyya and other non-elite social groups, who cleverly managed to reach out to a much wider cross-section of Egypt's population.

The king embodied the youthful spirit of national regeneration that would revolutionize Egyptian society from the bottom up and do the work that the older generation never could.

Part and parcel of this political process was a reconstitution of Egyptian society and culture per the values and tastes of the affandiyya, the expansive modern, nationalist middle-class of Egyptians.  

The prince of journalism and the branding of the country

Outstanding statesmen were needed to read the international political map and shape the national political scene (palace authority, parties, opposition, etc) in the critical interwar period. They had to carefully utilize mass media to keep the royal family firmly in the centre of Egypt's national political field.

Upon King Fouad's death in 1936, it was necessary to re-fashion the monarchy's public image in the popular press.

Farouk and his entourage successfully repackaged the monarchy, presenting the young king as the perfect symbol of authentic Egyptianness and the great new hope of a bright future for the nation.

The royal family invited El-Tabei for a summer trip to Europe in 1937.

Hassanein Pasha, manager of the royal household, thought El-Tabei’s presence would give the people an inner look at the “real” crown prince.

El-Tabei joined the family, but financed his way on the trip and was not part of the royal entourage.

It was a big chance for him as he was the only Egyptian journalist on the five-month-long royal fairy tale.

El-Tabei's close relations with the royal family, members of the leading political class, and the writers and social stars of the times were phenomenal.

His network was unique and powerful, allowing him to become a close witness and participant in many historical events.

A close analysis of the popular press at that time shows how El-Tabei tapped into the dominant ideological and cultural orientations and languages of his times.

It also shows how the palace was keen to adjust its public image. This dialogue powerfully braided together art and politics.

A touchstone for a generation

El-Tabei was a touchstone for a generation of journalists who understood the strong relationship between the arts and politics, particularly between various kinds of art and power. This generation of journalists valued a freer, more truthful school of journalism.

Among his most recognized students were Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Ihsan Abdel-Koddous, Mustafa and Ali Amin, Kamel El-Shennawi, Ahmed Ragab, Anis Mansour and Ibrahim El-Wardani. Other big names who also received his support were Mahmoud Abul-Fath, the founder of the El-Masry newspaper.

El-Ostaz was a reference point for his generation and a touchstone for the following generations.


*The writer is a member of the Egyptian House of Representatives - Foreign Relations Committee and Researcher at the French National Centre CNRS-Sorbonne University

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