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The Rais: Arab Leaders in Egyptian Literature

Egyptian presidents (From left to right): Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak

From Naguib Mahfouz to Muhammad al-Bisati, the narrative of power, oppressions, revolutions and counter-revolutions goes through the pages of great novels

The Day the Leader was Killed is the title of a short novel by Naguib Mahfouz that develops a central theme in the recent history of the country, since it narrates the actual assassination of the President-Pharaoh. This title allows us to define and fix a first point: in Egyptian literature, the figure of the rais is linked to (violent) death.



Again, the assassination of a leader ends the novel The Leader by Muhammad al-Bisati: here the leader is not a precise historical figure, but an undefined “hero in the struggle for independence” of a (Arab? African?) “nearby country”, a paradigmatic protagonist of post-colonial history.



However, the number of leaders metaphorically dead surpasses the number of those actually killed, underlines Alwan, one of Mahfouz’s novel’s characters, who lists some of them: the homeland hero, Mustafa Kamil Pasha, one of the first nationalists, and martyr of the fight and illness at the end of the Nineteenth century, beginning of the Twentieth century. Muhammad Farid, his political heir and Saad Zaghloul, hero of the first Revolution – the one against the British in 1919 – martyr of the exile, or Mustafa el-Nahhas too, another great figure of Egyptian nationalism, martyr of persecutions. Then, he concludes, there is “Gamal, martyr of June 5th.”



Thus, history makes the heroes martyrs and creates the inclination to a desperation that is a real national feature. “We are a people who finds more pleasure in defeat than in success. A long series of defeats has left us with a deeply-rooted sadness. We love pathetic songs, dramatic theater, defeated heroes.”



How can one say that Alwan is wrong? In Gamal Abdel Nasser, the defeated hero of June 5th, this inclination finds its highest political expression. Who can forget the resignations that Nasser gave to the country after the defeat of the Six-Days War, and the immense demonstrations during which the entire people begged him to stay in power? Remain! was the slogan, antithetical to the Go away! (Irhal, in Arabic) of the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011.



The dialectics of political action cannot be but binary: go away/stay (die/live), and the form is that of collective rituals (funereal/festive). The death of the leader is the driving force for political action.



The terms used are not neutral ones. The rais, Ppresident (head, in arabic) is, both in Mahfouz and in Bisati, za‘īm, leader. The term has a military connotation, derives from za‘āma, “to speak on behalf of,” to become the spokesperson, leader of a party (the Wafd of Zaghloul in the 1920s) or of a group (in Lebanon the za‘āma is institutionalized and regulates the coexistence among different minorities). In 1935, Nahhas called himself za‘īm al-umma (leader of the nation-community, introducing a religious connotation in the national claim), and Nasser, some decades later, is za‘īm al-‘arab, leader of an Arab nation searching for its unity.



What unleashes violence is the betrayal of a word through which the za‘im becomes the guarantor in an authoritarian way, of an almost messianic promise (and not a political or military defeat).



In Mahfouz, Anwar el-Sadat is killed for his betrayal, the infitāh, which is a turn to liberal politics (in economics) and pro-Western attitude of the Seventies. It is not the authoritarian and abusive character of his power, but again the betrayal of a word given (promises of investments) to cause the killing of the anonymous za‘īm in Bisati, who embodies all of the caudillos in the twentieth century’s second half.



The za‘īm draws upon himself a kind of religious fervor. As Omar Saghi highlights in one of his essays on the Trilogy of Mahfouz, the za‘īm is thought to be a “repository of knowledge” which must necessarily manifest itself both in the realm of (true) word and (effective) action. The affective dimension of the adhesion manifests itself at the lexical level as well: it is not by chance that the party is often confused with the jamā‘a, the group, the mass.



It matters very little that the figure of the leader is a weak figure (as it is now Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) and indeed is an expression of a system (the army, the different security organs, often antagonists and rivals): consent or refusal continue to occur according to the ways recalled above, and struggle to emancipate themselves. For this reason the manifestation – the milyūnīya – has a central role in Egyptian political life, so much more than the vote.



A form of political action that has a strong passive connotation: to the za‘im (to the prince, we could simply say) is asked justice primarily (not to violate the sacred covenant that binds him to his people), and freedom only in the second instance.



The measure of oppression (zulm) is the failure to satisfy the need of a people asking primarily, and almost exclusively, for bread, and only secondarily to be able to (actively) exercise its freedom. Although in the manifestations of the Arab spring freedom is asked in a very strong way, and it constitutes a true, disruptive innovation.