Truths and Lies in the Middle East
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Eric Rouleau was one of the most celebrated journalists of his generation, a status he owed to his extraordinary career, which began when Hubert Beuve-Méry, director of Le Monde, charged him with covering the Near and Middle East.

In 1963, Rouleau was invited by Gamal Abd al-Nasser to interview him in Cairo, a move which was not lost on the young Rouleau—going through him, a young Egyptian Jew who had been exiled from Egypt in late 1951, shortly before the Free Officers coup, was a means to renew diplomatic ties with de Gaulle’s France. This exclusive interview, which immediately made headlines around the world, propelled Rouleau into the center of the region’s conflicts for two decades.

Writing between Cairo and Jerusalem, Rouleau was a chief witness to the wars of 1967 and 1973, narrating their events from behind the scenes. He was to meet all the major players, including Nasser, Levi Ashkol, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon, and Anwar Sadat, painting striking portraits of each. More than a memoir, his book presents a history, lived from the inside, of the Israel–Palestine conflict.

Acknowledgments ix

Foreword. Éric Rouleau’s Empire, Alain Gresh xi

Introduction 1

1. Gamal Abd al-Nasser 7

2. Egypt to the Egyptians 29

3. The Indispensable Torah 45

4. My Brother Ishmael 67

5. The “Prussians” Win Out Over the “Jews” 91

6. The Six-Hour War 111

7. The “Liberal” Occupation 137

8. The Survivor 159

9. Missing Peace 179

10. The End of an Era 199

11. “De-Nasserization” 221

12. War and Diplomacy 237

13. Lost Illusions 255

14. Update and Renewal 271

15. The Oslo Deadlock 287

16. Cassandra 299

Index 309



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Date de parution 03 septembre 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781617979545
Langue English

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This electronic edition published in 2019 by The American University in Cairo Press 113 Sharia Kasr el Aini, Cairo, Egypt 200 Park Ave., Suite 1700 New York, NY 10166

Copyright © 2012 by Librairie Arthème Fayard First published in French in 2012 as Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient: Mémoires d’un journaliste diplomate (1952–2012)

English translation by Martin Makinson

Copyright © by The American University in Cairo

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

ISBN 978 977 416 802 4 eISBN 978 1 61797 954 5

Version 1
For Michèle Berrebi

1. Gamal Abd al-Nasser
2. Egypt to the Egyptians
3. The Indispensable Torah
4. My Brother Ishmael
5. The “Prussians” Win Out Over the “Jews”
6. The Six-Hour War
7. The “Liberal” Occupation
8. The Survivor
9. Missing Peace
10. The End of an Era
11. “De-Nasserization”
12. War and Diplomacy
13. Lost Illusions
14. Update and Renewal
15. The Oslo Deadlock
16. Cassandra
I am grateful to Alain Gresh for his pertinent suggestions during the writing of this book, to Michel Raffoul for his detailed and vigilant editing and his constructive remarks, and to Jean Gueyras for the information that has nurtured this work.
My most affectionate thoughts are for my children and grandchildren.
Alain Gresh
T he tramway has just left Heliopolis, “City of the Sun,” a newly built Cairo suburb. As on other mornings, the young man has sat down comfortably to ride to the prestigious Law Faculty. As the carriage runs past wide, flashy stores, he suddenly notices thieves breaking the front window of a shop. He jumps out of his seat, sees the crooks escaping by car, and flags down a taxi to try to catch up with them, but to no avail. Forgetting his lectures, he races to the head offices of the Egyptian Gazette , the English-language daily where he works in the evenings. The editor in chief, impressed—and somewhat amused—by his story, stops the rotary presses and changes the front-page headline to “Theft in Heliopolis,” by “our star journalist.” On that day in 1943, a star was born in Cairo.
The journalist is not yet known as Éric Rouleau, but as Élie Raffoul. He is only seventeen, an age which, for some, is the best time of one’s life. A few weeks before this incident, and despite his father’s advice, he had turned his back on a better-paid job for pen pushers in an insurance company, preferring to join the Egyptian Gazette while pursuing his law studies in the mornings. Tenacity, flair, and a stroke of luck—to be in the right place at the right time—leave their mark on his career.
He emigrated to France in 1952, worked at the Agence France-Press (AFP), and then joined the staff of the newspaper Le Monde . For several decades, during the years 1950–80, he was to cover not only all the Arab countries, but also Israel, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Africa in the process of decolonization, Ethiopia, and even faraway Pakistan, and would become the most famous journalist of the most illustrious French daily. His colleague and companion Jean Gueyras once remarked that “the sun never sets on Éric Rouleau’s empire,” just like over the British Empire or that of Charles V of Spain, who invented the expression.
But how does one land in the Rue des Italiens in Paris, when one is born in a Cairo suburb? How does one go from the Egyptian Gazette to Le Monde when the gap between them seems insurmountable? In fact, it was less than one might imagine.
Élie was a French speaker, as were many Egyptians at the time, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Many of the other communities coexisting in Egypt: Greek, Italian, French, and Syrian-Lebanese. Egyptian literature in French, unjustly forgotten today, was at the height of its glory, with books written by Edmond Jabès, Albert Cossery, and Georges Henein. It had attempted surrealism and had been influenced by Paul Éluard and Max Jacob, using an unusual and sometimes bizarre form of French, rolling the ‘r’s and lifting expressions directly from Arabic.
It is difficult to imagine how love for France, their second homeland, would stir young Egyptians. On 10 June 1940, Élie could not believe what he saw and heard. At the family table, his father had broken into tears for the first time in his life, after learning on the radio that France had surrendered. For this man, born in Aleppo, educated in the French-speaking schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, France was the home of freedom and justice. Éric Rouleau recalled that “the great affair of his life” was the Dreyfus scandal, whose twists and turns and sudden developments he knew in detail. He often spoke frequently and at length about the matter; he would describe, with great pride, the public meetings and demonstrations he had joined to defend the Jewish captain wrongly accused of spying on behalf of Germany. He would recite the poems of Jean Jaurès, Émile Zola, and Victor Hugo, whom he worshiped. He would pepper his words with quotations borrowed from the fables of La Fontaine. A few decades later, Éric Rouleau was to be decorated with the French Legion of Honor: “My emotion was at its highest,” he remembered, “for it was President François Mitterrand himself who was rewarding me for ‘services rendered to France.’ I seemed to see my father standing in the first row, among the famous people who were attending the ceremony in the Élysée Palace.”
This passion for France was widely shared. At the same time, Henri Curiel and his brother Raoul, also Egyptians, Jews, and French-speaking, were in the French consulate seeking help against Nazi Germany, a commitment that the consular official rejected with disdain. In Cairo, people were listening to Radio London and to General de Gaulle, supporting Free France and not Marshal Pétain. In October 1943, Frenchmen and Egyptians of all creeds were creating the association Friends of France “to materially express their attachment to a country whose soul and destiny they had never ceased believing in.”
Élie Raffoul was not only an Egyptian citizen, French-speaking and Francophile, he was also a ‘Jew.’ But how can one define a ‘Jew’? Anti-Semites had tried to do so without success, by inventing a ‘race,’ but defining it solely in terms of religion. The State of Israel has not done any better, as it has put both believers and non-believers under the same umbrella, those who claim to belong to a more or less vague Jewish culture, and those who reject it. Is one a Jew by choice or, as Jean-Paul Sartre would write, in the eyes of anti-Semites?
Like many young people, Élie went through a teenage crisis and decided to become a rabbi, before giving up and losing his faith. The Talmud’s loss was journalism’s gain.
Although he was an atheist, Élie nevertheless did not reject his Jewish origins; he was only trying to understand their meaning. At the time (and this is hard to believe), Zionists had complete freedom of action in Egypt. The Jewish Agency was well established in Cairo, and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the National Jewish Fund founded in 1901 as an organization for the development of colonization in Palestine, was gathering donations in synagogues. Éric Rouleau recalled that “usually, donors lacked any political motivation, and believed that they were only contributing to charity.”
He then turned to the Hashomer Hatzair movement, literally ‘the Young Guard,’ a Zionist movement of the extreme left. “The hundred or so teenagers who went to the club participated in sports competitions, attended classes in Jewish history, and joined philosophical debates where ideologues of the workers’ movement were prominent.”
He began to focus on Marxist thought, but abandoned the organization after one year, irritated by their narrow-minded nationalism and their indifference to struggles carried out in Egypt, even against the colonial power controlling the country. He concluded that “I had trouble believing that the majority of Egyptians were anti-Semites, and I had no wish to live abroad.”
Jews of Egypt felt Egyptian and the sirens of Zionism did not enchant them particularly. Gilles Perrault, in his book Un homme à part (A man apart), said that “apart from the Zionist minority, no one felt the need for a Jewish state, and no one saw fit to chant ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ when one could take the 9:45 train to get there.” Only when the Israeli–Arab conflict later made their life impossible, and transformed them into victims of both an anti-Jewish wave in the Arab world, and material for the Israeli government to use them as a fifth column, would they be forced to migrate to France—the true Promised Land.
Nowadays, criticizing Zionism is often equated to hidden anti-Semitism. And yet during the first half of the twentieth century, the large majority of Jews throughout the world viewed the Zionist project with indifference, and sometimes even hostility. Élie thought of himself foremost as Egyptian and loyal to his fellow citizens, united beyond their religious divisions.
In 1943, the year when he began studying law and trying to be a journalist, Egyptian universities were mobilizing against the enemy hated by all, perfidious Albion, that is, the United Kingdom, which had been occupying the country since 1882 and controlled everything. People still felt the burning humiliation of 4 February 1942, when His Majesty’s tanks surrounded King Faruq’s palace, forcing him to sack the prime minister and name a government favorable to an alliance with London.
Once, Egyptian nationalists had looked toward Germany and even impatiently awaited the arrival of Erwin Rommel’s tanks, which were speeding toward Alexandria, following a principle as old as the world itself: the enemies of my enemies are my friends. However, since the German general’s defeat at al-Alamein in autumn 1942, and above all since the Soviet victory in Stalingrad, the left was thriving: Éric Rouleau recalled how he was “attending public meetings and demonstrations on campus.” He adds:

I was discovering Marxists, who were distinguished from the others by associating national liberation with social revolution, and citizen equality with anti-racism. Copts and Jews were becoming militant in their ranks, together with Muslims. On certain evenings, I would meet them at a club conducted surreptitiously by the Democratic Movement of National Liberation, founded and led by Henri Curiel. This was a public forum where lecturers would come and debate on international issues. Organizers would avoid speaking of domestic problems, for fear of provoking the ever-watchful political police. In theory outlawed, communists were tolerated in practice.
In February 1946, when the National Committee of Workers and Students was created, this agitation led to waves of demonstrations against the British presence. This political and social militancy had some similarities to that which would engulf Egypt in February 2011. Élie was to participate actively in these events. During one of the protests, one of his comrades fell from bullets right next to him.
The creation of the State of Israel, in May 1948, sealed the fate of Egyptian and Middle Eastern Jews within just a few years. King Faruq’s government held against Élie Raffoul his links with both the extreme left (which were real) and Zionism (a figment of the imagination), and gave him a choice: prison or exile, together with loss of citizenship. Thus forced, he chose the second option, but like many exiles, he was to keep Egypt close to his heart.
At the age of twenty-four, with one small piece of luggage and much experience, he landed in France. One year of unemployment did not discourage him, and in the end he found a position in charge of monitoring Arabic radio stations for the AFP. In those days, newspapers had few correspondents abroad and few means of knowing what was happening outside their country. One therefore had to tune into local radios to keep informed.
In October 1954, Élie pulled off his first scoop: he announced that President Gamal Abd al-Nasser had escaped from an attack attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1955, he began to collaborate with the daily Le Monde , and it was once more Egypt and the crisis unfolding between Nasser and the west that gave him his first front-page byline: “Cairo guarantees that ‘the Aswan dam will be built anyway’” (“Le barrage d’Assouan sera quand même construit,” Le Monde , 22–23 July 1956). A few days later, on the evening of 26 July, he was listening, on behalf of the AFP, to Nasser’s speech announcing, with a huge burst of laughter and probably surprised by his own audacity, the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, in order to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam, since western funders had decided not to participate. The press agency’s management, taken aback by this news—surely Nasser could not dare make such a move—kept the information under wraps and published it only after competitors had done so.
These were years of apprenticeship. The man who now signed his articles under the name of Éric Rouleau would roam a world seething with agitation. He wrote his first series of articles, published over three days, under the headline “Israel, a Western State?” He met Mustafa Barzani, the historic leader of Iraqi Kurds, with whom he would have exceptional relations and who would make him realize the importance of Kurdish claims in the Middle East. He traveled to Iran, a country whose dark side he would describe at length, speaking of the authoritarian and megalomaniac regime of the shah, to the great displeasure of some of his colleagues, who were more tolerant toward Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ally of the west. He covered the coup d’état of 12 September 1960 in Turkey, which soon led to the hanging of the prime minister. He turned up in Belgian Congo during its decolonization, where the maneuvers of the old colonial power and the United States had resulted in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s independence hero, on 17 January 1961. He described the uprising following the announcement of Lumumba’s death and, from Léopoldville, sent an article which was published on 26 and 27 February 1961 on the front page of Le Monde : “Lumumba’s troops launch an offensive against the provinces of Equator and Kasai” (“Les troupes lumumbistes lancent une offensive contre la province de l’Équateur et du Kasai”). Every day, at his own peril, he had to travel by road to northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) to send his articles to Paris—at that time, journalists would dictate their stories over the phone.
The Arab world was also undergoing historic events: the creation of the United Arab Republic, which united Egypt and Syria in February 1958; the republican coup in Iraq in July 1958; the creation of the Northern Republic of Yemen and the start of the civil war in 1962, and so on. But how could Rouleau speak about Arab countries when he was forbidden to enter them because of his Jewish origins?
At one point he was thinking of dropping the Middle East beat, when something unexpected (luck, once again?) occurred: he was invited to Cairo by Nasser in person, in the early days of summer 1963. Rouleau gives details of how this return to his native land unfolded in the first chapter of the present book. Having been legitimated by the most popular figure of Arab nationalism, he saw all the gates of the Middle East open for him. In the decades that followed, he was to meet all the region’s leaders, from King Hussein to Yasser Arafat, from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddafi and Hafez al-Assad. Although this book focuses on Egypt, Israel, and Palestine, Rouleau’s career also took him to other horizons; worthy of note are his coverage of the colonels’ regime in Greece, the various army coups in Turkey, and, in all its twists and turns, the first steps of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
A sign of his prescience, he was at the right place at the right time during historic moments: in Cairo in June 1967, during the Israeli offensive; in Amman in 1970, during the massacres of Palestinians by the Jordanian army; once more in Cairo, on 28 September 1970, the day when President Nasser died completely unexpectedly; in Nicosia in 1974, during the coup attempt against His Eminence and President Makarios (Cyprus and Greece were for a long time part of Rouleau’s “empire” when he was working for Le Monde , in accordance with a very British conception of the “Middle East,” which included those countries as well as Turkey).
Rouleau was often received with exceptional honors, settling into the best hotels, where political figures would wait in the antechamber to meet him, to confide things to him, to reveal their truths—a source of some jealousy among some of his colleagues.
Only one country behaved differently: Israel. Of course, he was able, as he says in this book, to meet David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. However, Menachem Begin, the leader of the right, denounced him as an “Egyptian agent,” an opinion that would be shared by the Israeli establishment. Jean Gueyras recalls that in Paris “he was being harassed by the Israeli embassy via daily letters from ‘outraged readers’ addressed to the director of Le Monde .” For the leaders of the “Jewish state” in the 1970s, Éric Rouleau was more than an enemy. He was a traitor filled with “self-hate.” They could not understand that, quite the opposite, this man was the bearer of a Jewish tradition that they were attempting to bury, a tradition that rejects narrow-minded nationalism, that shows solidarity with all the oppressed. One of his friends, Chehata Haroun, an Egyptian Jewish lawyer who refused to leave his country until he died, had this epitaph written on his tombstone
I am Black when the Blacks are oppressed. I am Jewish when the Jews are oppressed. I am Palestinian when the Palestinians are oppressed.

Éric loved to talk about his “return” to his childhood home in Heliopolis, at the end of the 1960s. Accompanied by his wife, Rosy, he rang the doorbell of his old house and was kindly received by the occupants, to whom he told his story. Standing there nonplussed himself, he saw them explode into laughter: the people living in his home were Palestinians, and the irony of the situation was blindingly obvious. He was to become friends with this uprooted family, who had lost their homes and land, and would feel like their neighbor.
He was able to assess, in the long run, the devastating effects of the Israeli–Arab conflict on the countries of the region, on the coexistence of communities, on the spirit of tolerance. What he wanted above all was a just peace. He desired the building of a Palestinian state, which he was convinced would ensure the security of all in the region. On several occasions, as he details in this book, he would be an intermediary between Israel and Arab countries, swapping his journalist’s hat for that of a diplomat. In 1970, he attempted to arrange a visit to Cairo by Nahum Goldmann, then the president of the World Jewish Congress. This initiative failed because the leaders of the Israeli Labor Party vetoed it, and Éric was able to observe—particularly after the Oslo Agreement—the sabotaging of each peace initiative by the Israeli executive.
Éric owes his influence and prestige to his talent, his knowledge of the Arabic language, and his capacity to get in touch with people and listen. However, he also owes it to a daily newspaper unlike any other, Le Monde , whose print run is, however, quite limited—140,000 copies in 1946, 475,000 in 1969. During these decades, it was this paper on the Rue des Italiens that set the tone of all analyses of international politics. Their unsigned “foreign bulletin” on the front page was scrupulously and systematically examined by all foreign ministries. That was journalism before “real time” television, before the arrival of satellite channels, before information as entertainment, where the only event worth speaking of is the one you can make a show out of. Print journalism classified news by its importance, and it did not need spectacular pictures to do so.
In the 1980s the media landscape began to change. Since then it has been possible to view wars and Olympic games directly. Print journalism entered a crisis, and Le Monde was shaken by struggles for succession. In 1985 Éric Rouleau chose diplomacy as a career, at President Mitterrand’s request. He was appointed as ambassador, first in Tunisia (then the headquarters of the Arab League, especially after the expulsion from Beirut of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982), then in Ankara in Turkey. From then on, only diplomats would benefit from his broad knowledge, his analyses, and his innumerable relations. He would himself observe, humorously, that he went from several hundreds of thousands of readers to two, and sometimes only one: the president of the French Republic.
During the first meeting of French ambassadors held in Paris after his appointment, when each diplomat had to introduce himself and announce his posting—to the Ivory Coast, to Jordan, to Argentina, and so on—he rose to say when his turn arrived: “Éric Rouleau, the world” (le monde) . An ominous silence followed, and then a burst of laughter throughout the room. Freud saw in slips of the tongue the expression of an unconscious desire. Did Éric see himself as the ambassador of the newspaper Le Monde ? Or of a world he had traversed from one corner to another? Or, more simply, our ambassador at the bedside of a planet whose convulsions he has help us better decipher?
E ducated in France since his childhood in the schools of the Republic, including that of the Alliance Israélite, my father was naturally in favor of state secularism and the full integration of Jews in their country of citizenship, and hostile to any form of Jewish nationalism. Though an atheist or a deist—I have never known precisely—he was nevertheless faithful to Judaism’s traditions. He would celebrate the great feasts—Passover, Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement—while abridging the prayers and services generously. He said nothing, apart from gently teasing me, of my teenage crisis, when I decided to attend evening courses in a synagogue to study the Holy Scriptures (including the Talmud), the prelude to a career as a rabbi (this is indeed what I believed before losing my faith). Nor was he against my choice when I joined a youth club of the Hashomer (the Young Guard), a Zionist movement with Marxist tendencies. I suspected that my father, like myself, knew precious little about Zionism and Marxism, ideologies which were apparently absent from his intellectual world. I left the club a year later, disappointed by its pretense of reconciling Jewish nationalism and Marxist internationalism.
Every five years, my father would save enough money to offer us holidays in Lebanon, where the abundance of water, the exuberance of plants, and the generosity of orchards would contrast with the dryness of Egypt, to our delight. A wobbly train from another age would take us across Sinai in a deafening roar of scrap iron. A bus would then take us to Tel Aviv, where we would visit my brother, who had emigrated to Palestine before the war, less from idealism than because of his taste for adventure. Nothing else would detain us in the Holy Land, where we would stay only for two or three days before enjoying three months of holidays in Lebanon.
We were well integrated into Egyptian society, where Jews had a privileged position. In the center of Cairo, business neighborhoods would collapse into deep lethargy during the Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah festivals. Many important retailers, small shops, banks, and trading businesses, as well as the stock exchange, would close doors. Coffee shops, restaurants, and cinemas would slow down. One had only to take a stroll in the capital’s main arteries to see the glistening names of luxury stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Gattegno, Orosdi Back, Ades, Oreco, Le Salon Vert, and La Petite Reine, all belonging to extremely wealthy Sephardic families. Only one other luxury store was comparable to them: Sednaoui, the property of immigrant Syrians of the same name.
At the community’s head was Chaim Nahum Effendi, Egypt’s chief rabbi from 1925 to 1960, who was at the same time a senator and a member of the Royal Academy, a position he had obtained because of his exceptional erudition. An accomplished polyglot, he could express himself equally fluently in classical Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, French, and English. Because of the diplomatic missions he had undertaken for the Ottoman sultan until 1920, at the time when he occupied the position of Chief Rabbi of the Empire, he maintained serious relationships with the European political spectrum, an asset he had placed at the disposal of Egyptian authorities and the Jewish community. A pure product of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris, where he had spent the years of his youth, he shared with most Jewish Egyptian leaders “integrationist” or assimilationist convictions, just as he agreed with their reluctance as regards emigration (aliyah) to Palestine. Egyptian Jewry had for a long time confused Zionism and philanthropy (believing that their donations were for Jews escaping European persecution), to the great displeasure of leaders of the Zionist movement.
Moreover, the notables of the community, with the Great Rabbi at their head, gradually became conscious that the conflict in Palestine could have annoying consequences for Jews in a country where the majority of the population could only be hostile to the plans of the Zionists. This is why they would loudly emphasize their claim to be “both Jews and Egyptian patriots.” This was a declaration of faith, which resulted in both support and protection from the king’s palace and from the government, and even the goodwill of Muslim elites, before the Jewish–Palestinian conflict took a turn for the worse. Quite naturally, Egyptians would feel a special sympathy for Palestinians, neighbors who were being dispossessed of part of their territory by a minority of foreign settlers.
It is in the aftermath of this conflict, and before his assassination on 12 February 1949, that I had the occasion of interviewing Hassan al-Banna on behalf of the Egyptian Gazette , the English-language daily that had hired me as a journalist. The supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood had taken the lead in a campaign against the creation of a Jewish state. He had stirred in me a sense of discomfort hard to define.
Stocky, dressed in an ample red tunic he would occasionally swap for a business suit, his face framed by a black beard and scruffy hair, he would welcome his guest with a churchlike smoothness, while staring at him with a particularly piercing look. He was apparently attempting to seduce the person he was speaking to by demonstrating cheerful cunning, metaphorical language, and well-structured analyses, which he would illustrate with an apparently inexhaustible stream of quotes and anecdotes. The fact that I was Jewish apparently left him indifferent.
A brilliant and passionate speaker, his demagoguery with prophetic tones would arouse the enthusiasm of crowds. He would maintain that only Islam had the capacity to remedy all evils affecting the population. Apart from Zionism, his favorite targets were British colonialism, the “moral turpitude” of westerners, “infidels” who were destroying economic power, and the upper classes, whose selfishness and rapacity he denounced. He would irrevocably condemn socialism and communism as foreign doctrines incompatible with the Prophet’s message. He would attract admirers and followers thanks to multiple networks of social, sports, and charity associations all over the country, with clinics and free schools that he would build, thus compensating for the failings of the state while using these institutions as a screen for the conspiracies and terrorist attacks he would incite.
In February 1949, two years after our interview, Hassan al-Banna was shot by agents of the government. They were avenging the murder of their prime minister, Mahmoud al-Nukrashi Pasha, by a Muslim Brotherhood member. The head of the Egyptian government had paid the ultimate price for his decision on 8 December 1948 to ban the Muslim Brothers. Two months later, it was the turn of the Brotherhood’s leader Hassan al-Banna to be murdered.
In the years that followed the Second World War, the national movement’s priority was not to fight Zionism, but to resist British occupation. To that end, Wafdists (the militants of the left-wing Wafd Party) and communists were organizing public meetings, sit-ins, and other demonstrations. I participated in one of them in February 1946. It was the most massive one ever organized by the Central Committee of Workers and Students. The result was a bloodbath. Confronted with a compact and rough human wave overwhelming Ismailiya Square (which would become Tahrir Square in the aftermath of Nasser’s revolution, and where British military quarters were then located), the police opened fire on the crowd, killing some twenty people and wounding hundreds. A bullet instantly killed a young student who was marching by my side. This scene of massacre was to stay graven in my memory. The head of government, Ismail Sidki Pasha, who was also one of the most powerful businessmen and managers of the country, arrested hundreds of Wafdist and communist party members, and outlawed clubs and publications they controlled. However, this event had the effect of giving momentum to the national movement, which would lead six years later to the collapse of the monarchy, a prelude to the evacuation of British bases from the Suez Canal area.
The political climate deteriorated beginning in November 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly decreed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian Arab. This decision stoked the flames of Egyptian anger and heralded the beginning of an anti-Jewish campaign. The press, which until then had displayed moderation, began attacking the Jews, accusing them of being simultaneously “Zionists” and “communists.” The creation of the State of Israel marked a divorce between Jews and their fellow citizens in the entire Arab world. Zionist leaders saw in this the confirmation of their idea that non-Muslim minorities had no future in Islamic countries: emigration to Israel resumed and increased. And yet my family, like many others, decided not to leave Egypt, still hoping for normalization.
King Faruq’s government took advantage of the situation to discredit Marxists, whom they described as “Zionists in disguise.” Apart from the Jewish background of many communist leaders, their decision to support the partition of Palestine into two states made them eminently suspect: in the government’s eyes, they also implicitly endorsed the Zionist movement’s aims, which they had for years considered “reactionary” and “racist.” In fact, Egyptian communists, like most of their comrades in the Arab world, were abiding by the Soviet Union’s decision to vote in favor of Palestine’s partition at the UN General Assembly, and thus in favor of the creation of a Jewish state. This unquestioning conformity was to cost them dearly for many years, while the Egyptian authorities remained profoundly hostile to Zionist ideology. For instance, the anti-Zionist Jewish League—a movement originating in one of the communist organizations—was dissolved by the Egyptian authorities and its leaders arrested.
The reaction of the authorities was even more brutal during Israel’s invasion by Arab armies. On 15 May 1948, hundreds of people suspected of being communists or Zionists were interned in two different camps near Cairo. Many communist party members, both Egyptian citizens and foreigners, were expelled from the country. They were luckier than their Iraqi counterparts: three of the latter were hanged in Baghdad under the pretext that they were favorable to the partition of Palestine. I myself was detained, subjected to intense questioning on my political opinions, and released on bail a month later, while the inquiry for my trial was continuing. Taking into account the martial law then applicable, my internment could have lasted indefinitely.
Threatened by accusations of being both a Zionist and a communist, unemployed and without financial means, I decided to leave Egypt. The police did not oppose my departure, and consented to give me a one-way visa with no right of return. In December 1951, I embarked with mixed feelings: the sadness of becoming an exile, and the joy of traveling to France, my father’s favorite country, where another life would await me, a life which would prove to be in many respects full of surprises. A few months later, on 23 July 1952, the Free Officers led by Gamal Abd al-Nasser seized power and established the republic.
Some sixty years later, I am now a witness of the “spring” inundating the Arab world. No one would have bet that the region would be shaken by popular uprisings, until then almost unheard of in the area. Nor would anyone have predicted that heads would roll; that the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would flee; that Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian head of state, would be tried for high treason; that the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh would be obliged to give up his post; and that Bashar al-Assad would provoke a bloodbath in his attempt to preserve his stranglehold over Syria. A new era is now opening, with no way for us to ascertain what the outcome will be. Free elections in Tunisia and Egypt have brought in the Islamists, who have made a commitment to respect scrupulously the principles of democracy. Why not, since they in fact hold a majority of seats in elected assemblies?
If the pages that follow do not explicitly announce the birth of an Arab Spring, they are at the same time its prelude and its justification.
T welve years after leaving my country, I returned to Egypt accompanied by my wife, Rosy, who worked as a press photographer. The welcome we received upon disembarking at Cairo Airport was surreal. We were greeted by a high official from the Ministry of Information with unusual attention, and driven in an official limousine to a grand Cairo hotel where a suite had been reserved for us. A huge bouquet of flowers was handed to us, with a note indicating that the “Presidency of the Republic” was welcoming us. All these honors were enough to surprise a former outlawed exile.
The genesis of this dream had occurred in Paris, a few months before, during the spring of 1963. At the time, I was the section editor for the Near and Middle East at the newspaper Le Monde , a position that had been handed to me in defiance of all logic, because most, if not all, Arab states were then refusing to provide an entry visa to a Jew.
The newspaper’s management trusted me, no doubt because of my previous reports and dispatches from sub-Saharan Africa at a time when it was not an easy place to work, since the decolonization movement was in full swing. It is true that my knowledge of Arabic and English could explain this strange choice, but this was surely not enough to open the doors of most of the region’s countries. My reports on Israel, Iran, and Turkey might have led some people to the belief that I could make the walls of the “Arab fortress” fall. As for me, I was under no illusion, bearing in mind the sharp hostility that Israel was engendering in the area. I was even considering resigning from my position to dedicate myself to another region of the world, where my origins would be of no consequence.
A glimmer of hope shone three years later when an Egyptian journalist passing through Paris asked to meet me. I knew by reputation Lutfi al-Kholi, a talented chronicler at the al-Ahram daily, as well as an essayist, playwright, and militant of the left. Over the lunch to which I invited him, he made a proposal that was to lead to a major turning point in my professional life. He announced that Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, al-Ahram ’s director as well as friend and confidant of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, had charged him with conveying to me an invitation to Egypt. He guaranteed that all amenities would be placed at my disposal to carry out a journalistic investigation. I would have complete freedom of movement. I would also be free to contact anybody I wished, including members of the opposition, and my articles would be published without any censorship whatsoever. An entry visa was to be delivered at once, for whatever duration suited me. These were all privileges that Nasser’s Egypt, at the time, almost never gave to a foreign journalist, whoever he might be. Informed of the offer, Le Monde ’s management allowed me to accept the invitation, on one condition: all travel and accommodation costs would be at the expense of the French newspaper, not of the Egyptian daily.
It took several decades to solve the mystery surrounding the strange invitation from the director of al-Ahram . By questioning those close to Nasser after his death, particularly his chief of staff Sami Sharaf, I discovered that savvy political calculations were behind the decision to open up Egypt to Le Monde ’s special envoy. Algeria had won its independence the previous year, and Egypt and France had resumed diplomatic relations. Nasser wished to put an end to years of quarrels and confrontation by initiating relations of trust with the government of General de Gaulle, a man for whom he had great admiration—an admiration that in the future would prove reciprocal, all the more so because Nasser judged—not without reason—that Paris was offering recently independent nations a third way, enabling them to escape from the American–Soviet dichotomy. It was therefore necessary to dissipate as much as possible the persisting hostility between the two countries by, among other things, engaging the French media. Only Le Monde , at the time considered to have Gaullist and Third World sympathies, and whose authority and influence went far beyond national borders, was capable of thus contributing to drawing Egypt and France closer together.
Nasser’s advisors, in particular al-Ahram ’s director (who was undoubtedly inspired by Lutfi al-Kholi), had thought that a first step in this direction would be to establish a relationship with the man who directed the Middle Eastern section at Le Monde . This was not a completely insane bet. In political spheres, I was considered to be “progressive” and someone likely to be impressed by some of the achievements of Nasser’s regime.
The orientation of my articles had indeed attracted the attention of Egyptian officials. During the 1960 Belgian–Congolese crisis, I had clearly taken sides in the confrontation between Brussels and Léopoldville (the old name of the Congo/Zaïre capital Kinshasa). I was obviously in favor of the independence movement and of its leader, Patrice Lumumba, who had been on the receiving end of a vast international plot (in which the United States was playing a part), a conspiracy leading to his murder and replacement by Mobutu Sese Seko. I was one of the few journalists of the French press to reveal the secret agenda behind the secession of Katanga province, which had been remotely controlled by the Union Minière, a Belgian company in charge of exploiting Congo’s rich copper mines. Like all businesses in the colonial era, it feared that independence would harm its extortionate privileges.
Two years later, in 1962, I had defended the Republic of Yemen in a series of articles in the wake of the monarchy’s overthrow. My harsh criticism of the Shah of Iran’s dictatorship (a man considered in the west as a “great reformer”), of his human rights violations and his submission to the will of the United States, had caught the attention of Egyptian political elites, who roughly shared my political stands.
My relative sympathies for Nasser’s Egypt stood in stark contrast with the open hostility of almost all the press toward Cairo’s “dictator”; my own newspaper was not the only one to attack the Egyptian president and to compare him to Hitler or Stalin, or both in succession, or even simultaneously accuse him of being a fascist, a communist, or, even worse, an agent of the Kremlin. As for me, I was not duped by the usual adjectives used in the west to demonize Third World leaders who challenged the established order. The head of the Egyptian Revolution had not only overthrown a monarchy, dispossessed the great landholders, dismantled industrial and financial oligarchies (native, British, and French), and nationalized the Suez Canal Company, the crown jewel and symbol of foreign control over the Nile Valley, but he had also established friendly relations with the USSR and its satellites, as a counterweight to western and particularly American influence.
Fourth Republic France, for its part, was reproaching Nasser for his support for the Algerian people’s uprising and practically calling him responsible for the nationalist movement. As befits such a situation, the campaign launched against the Egyptian Rais (leader) had moral overtones, in order to conceal the dishonorable interests of the great powers.
I thought it perfectly legitimate for Nasser to support the Algerian revolution, and to wish to erect the Aswan High Dam so as to extend and rationalize irrigation in a largely desert land, as well as increase energy capacity and, as a consequence, augment industrial potential. I considered Washington’s decision in 1956 to deprive the project of the financial and technological participation of the United States very mean, a way of punishing Nasser for having reached an arms deal with Moscow, a transaction nevertheless justified by the United States’ refusal to provide him with means for his defense.
It was not difficult to share the enthusiasm of Egyptians—as well as that of the peoples of the Third World—during the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, an initiative of incredible boldness for the time, a revolutionary action, the second to date after the aborted nationalization of Iranian oil five years before by Mohammad Mossadegh, a moderate nationalist. Mossadegh’s challenging measures had led to his vilification and he had been denounced as an agent of Moscow, among other things, before being overthrown in 1953 thanks to a coup instigated by the CIA. And yet in both cases, the reclaiming of national resources was in conformity with the rights of sovereignty and had not violated the interests of shareholders, who had been legally dispossessed and honestly compensated.
Retaliation against Nasser, compared to what had been applied to Mossadegh, had seemed in my opinion even more brutal and just as unjustified. Barely three months after the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, Israeli tanks were overrunning the Sinai Peninsula, while French and British forces were disembarking in Port Said in order to separate the belligerents, or so it was claimed. In reality, the allies’ common aim was to knock down Nasser’s republic; to that one should add the Jewish state’s ambition to gain free access to the Suez Canal, and, above all, to seize Sinai. The victory of the invaders seemed unstoppable despite staunch Egyptian resistance, until the day when President Eisenhower put a halt to it by demanding and obtaining the retreat of all foreign forces. It is true that the Soviet head of state, Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, was threatening to intervene militarily, no doubt a gesture of Moscow’s symbolic support of developing countries.
The American president’s initiative, a unique case at that, was not the result of altruism. He had taken umbrage at the collusion behind his back of London, Paris, and Jerusalem, governments who had the clear aim of placing Egypt under their tutelage. Eisenhower had seen the light: his intervention led to the apogee of the United States’ popularity and clout, in Egypt and the entire Middle East, while the failure of the so-called Tripartite Aggression had put an end to the French and British presence in Egypt and heralded the beginning of the ebb of the two great colonial powers’ influence in the region. The damage done to Israel was no less: the Jewish state was more than ever perceived as an expansionist state doing western imperialism’s bidding.
Despite everything, I was returning to Egypt with very strong reservations about Nasser’s regime. The overthrow of the monarchy, followed by profound economic and social reform, the restoration of national sovereignty following the final eviction of the British occupation army, did indeed go along with beliefs held dear in my youth. The military character of the regime established by the junta that had seized power on 23 July 1952, however, remained, in my opinion, an indelible stain. During the conflict that arose two years later between Nasser and General Muhammad Naguib, the official leader and the emblem of the Free Officers’ revolution, I sided with the latter. Naguib wanted to legalize the entire spectrum of political parties, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the communists, as well as restore parliamentary life.
Paradoxically, I was not completely deaf to the points made by General Naguib’s opponents, who emphasized that such a process of democratization would have no other effect than to restore the influence of great capitalists, still in possession of the means to dominate the political scene. The one-party system was, moreover, prevalent in most countries that had gained independence since the Second World War: everything appeared to indicate that this was the price to pay to guarantee progress and the well-being of developing peoples.
Torn by these two diametrically opposing positions, I thought I had found the right answer by considering that, whether under a one-party state or not, nothing justified the confiscation of public liberties, or the violation of what we would nowadays call a person’s civic rights. The brutal repression striking Egypt, affecting all dissidents, be they liberals, Wafdists, communists, or Muslim Brothers, became intolerable to me, all the more since mistreatments of all sorts were nothing exceptional in internment camps. Le Monde reported the death under torture of two leading intellectuals I had personally socialized with in Cairo during my young years, two men that I particularly admired: Farid Haddad, the “doctor of the poor,” who was one of my fellow students in secondary school, and Shouhdi Atiya al-Shafei, whom I had met when he was editor in chief of the weekly al-Gamahir (The Masses). Shouhdi, a professor of English and a man of seductive charisma and intelligence, had played a major part in the communist movement. It was a bitter irony that both men were beaten to death by their jailers, for neither of them was truly anti-Nasser.
I had fond memories of them in mind as I was welcomed by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal the day after my return to Cairo in June 1963. During the dinner he gave in my honor on the terrace of the Semiramis, a large hotel on the shores of the Nile, I wished to dissipate without much ado any ambiguity that could have tainted our nascent relationship. I thanked him for the invitation he had sent me, and for the opportunity he had given to me to set foot once more in my native country, in conditions very different from those that had led to my exile. I was also grateful to him for having obtained from Nasser the agreement in principle to give an interview to Le Monde , a privilege that the Rais rarely granted.
While incidentally setting out my code of ethics, a code I scrupulously abided by, I made him clearly understand that, although I was a friend, I would never be an unconditional supporter of his, and that upon returning to Paris I would publish a series of articles that in all likelihood would not please him, but that would honestly reflect my own opinions. Of course, these were not his opinions, nor were they those of Egyptian leaders.
Heikal, an extremely sharp man, received the message with a surprised pout, and then—as it seemed to me—with a quite undisguised satisfaction. Lutfi al-Kholi, who was present during our conversation, let me know that al-Ahram ’s director preferred by far dealing with a man of conviction like himself, even if our opinions differed. He calculated that criticism in good faith from a credible observer would better serve Nasser’s regime than the praise of a servile journalist. This informed journalist, who knew the western press well, was not shocked at all by my intransigence.
I openly alluded to the question that was most taboo—the persecution of prisoners of conscience—by mentioning that I intended to ask the president himself about it during the interview he was to give me. Knowing that Heikal would not fail to warn Nasser of this, I added that in the eyes of world opinion—and of France, as concerned my newspaper—the existence of internment camps was obscuring the positive aspects of the Egyptian government’s policies. Heikal understood this implicit warning, and as an answer, he merely smiled enigmatically. Several years later, I was to learn that Heikal secretly shared my viewpoint.
My meeting with Gamal Abd al-Nasser a few days later was decisive in more ways than one. I was pleasantly surprised by the polite simplicity of my reception. Dressed in canvas pants and a light shirt with an open collar, he welcomed Rosy and me into the relatively modest home in which he resided in the Cairo suburb of Manshiyat al-Bakri when he was a young officer. He preferred this home to the palaces the republic placed at his disposal. The living room in which the interview unfolded was furnished in the good old tradition of the Egyptian middle class—sofas and armchairs in a fake Louis XV style—but it was far from reflecting Nasser’s status as a head of state. The gray-green wall was decorated with signed portraits of Third World leaders: Tito, Nehru, Zhou En-Lai, Nkrumah, and Sokarno. The room was not equipped with air conditioning; a fan made the heat of this Cairo June barely tolerable. Our conversation, sometimes in English, sometimes in colloquial Arabic, lasted more than two hours, in the presence of Heikal, who, respectful of the leader, never intervened at any time during our talk.
Quite tall, with the massive stature of a slightly stooped boxer, and with an intense yet benevolent gaze, my host first spoke with the obvious intention of making us comfortable. The ice was quickly broken: he complained he was suffering from loneliness, since his wife and children had moved to Alexandria for the summer holidays. The house, where neither colleagues nor servants were to be seen (except the man serving us lemon juice and Turkish coffee), seemed to him desperately empty. He added that he was fortunately working a lot, too much for his taste, in the office he had fitted out in his apartment. He was still doing his best to practice his favorite sports, swimming and tennis. Did he have a hobby in his spare time? Nasser did not go as far as confessing either his taste for American Westerns, a taste well known to those close to him, or his passion for chess, a game he would play as much as possible with Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, his closest friend among the officers who had seized power in July 1952. He was to dismiss Amer, with a heavy heart, in conditions I shall recount in chapter 12, following the complete 1967 military defeat, for which Amer, then chief of staff, was held responsible.
Nasser showed insatiable curiosity and a very unusual capacity for listening. Before I could formulate the first of the interview questions I was supposed to publish in Le Monde , he asked me many questions on my career, on how the French media worked and on the freedom at their disposal, and, more surprisingly, on my private life. How many children did we have? What kind of housing did we have? How had I bought the apartment in which we lived in the middle of Paris? What was the interest on our bank loan? To what extent did paying this loan put a strain on our family budget? My astonished face induced him to apologize for his indiscretion, while he explained that he was trying to find out whether he could provide Egyptians with inexpensive housing so they could become homeowners. He was wondering whether such a project was not mere utopia in a developing country where the income of the great majority of the citizens was barely enough for them to live on.
Then, since his cabinet had not provided him with all the information concerning myself, he asked me about my origins, the life I had lived in Egypt in my youth, but avoided speaking of the conditions that led to my exile. We were “neighbors,” since my place of birth, Heliopolis, was located close to his home of Manshiyat al-Bakri where the interview was taking place. He was attempting to seduce his conversation partner, something people cognizant of communication know how to do well.
The atmosphere seemed favorable enough to question him on the issue—more sensitive than any other—of internment camps. He was expecting it, judging from the swiftness of his answer. He calmly declared he had decided “to free all political prisoners before the end of this year.” Of course, this totally unexpected announcement was printed on the first page of international newspapers, including Le Monde . All the radio stations spread the news, with the curious exception of Cairo, but this did not prevent hundreds of prisoners from learning it thanks to the foreign channels they regularly listened to. Joy exploded in the camps, and noisy merrymaking celebrated the event. A wind of optimism blew on civil society, which to a large extent was left-leaning. A quite insane corollary to this announcement: for political prisoners, I had become “the hero” who had managed to wrest this promise of liberation from the president!
The gap separating Nasser from the communists had appeared unbridgeable, at least at the time. Most of them had initially condemned the coup of July 1952 and the summary execution of two communist workers a little later. Two years later, the communists had taken General Naguib’s side, demanding the return of the army to its barracks. A number of them had been jailed when Khaled Mohieddin, one of the officers in the Revolutionary Council who flirted with communist ideas and who was a close friend of Nasser, was sent into exile in Switzerland. An unprecedented wave of arrests had engulfed Egyptian society in 1958, when Marxists were expressing their disagreement with Nasser’s pan-Arab policies, criticizing him for imposing an artificial unity founded on the supremacy of a single party.
The Syro–Egyptian union, which took the name of the United Arab Republic, had been declared in February 1958 following the insistent demand of the leaders in Damascus. It was founded on the conditions imposed by the Rais : all political associations were to be dissolved in favor of a single party, and all political and economic systems that were in effect in the Nile Valley were to be exported wholesale to Syria, regardless of local traditions and conditions. Despite everything, the fusion of the two countries initially caused unbridled enthusiasm among Syrians and Egyptians, and much jubilation in the entire Arab world. The media were saluting the coming of a new dawn for a “nation” that would extend from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic. Imperialists and their agents, the exploitative landowners, and the reactionary monarchies were being warned that this was merely the start of an unstoppable process.
The overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in July 1958, the coming to power of a junta greatly resembling the one in Cairo, and the first revolutionary, nationalist, and socialist announcements of the new Iraqi government had all lifted the hopes of many throughout the region. The era of triumphant Nasserism was on its way to glory, or so many thought. In other countries—Lebanon among them—many partisans of pan-Arabism were apparently ready to join this caravan of Arab unity.
However, against all odds and expectations, the Marxists spoiled the party. From one end of the Arab world to the other (particularly in Iraq), they were opposed to an eventual union between Cairo and Baghdad. This was in their opinion a regression, since the revolutionary movement in Mesopotamia was much more radical than that in the Nile Valley. By contrast with Nasser, his Iraqi counterpart, General Abd al-Karim Qasim, was supported by a coalition of political forces. First of all, Iraqi communists had decided to resist the establishment of a single-party system, at a time when they were dominating the political arena. They were particularly influential among the Shia—the country’s largest community—and among the Kurds, who were a quarter of the population. Both of these groups were wary of a fusion that would have erased their specific identities in an Arab and Sunni “nation.” At the end of the day, the great majority of Iraqis, just like the government of General Qasim, had no desire to merge into a United Arab Republic.
Differences between Cairo and Baghdad, muffled at first, quickly developed into confrontation. Egyptian communists who had sided with their Iraqi comrades were singled out as traitors to their country and to the Arab nation. The wave of arrests overwhelmed not only them, but also many liberal or left-wing intellectuals with little tolerance for Nasser’s Napoleonic rule.
The announcement of the release of political prisoners without any explanation, five years later, puzzled me. Why had the decision been made, and why had it been announced to a passing foreign journalist? It appeared obvious that Nasser wished to speak above all to western opinion, an opinion that, for the most part, had no sympathy for him. He had to consolidate his regime, still shaken by the collapse of the Egyptian–Syrian union two years earlier. His prestige in the Arab world and even in Egypt had been dented. Following the overthrow of Abd al-Karim Qassim in 1963, his successors in the Ba‘th Party were posing as competitors to Nasser’s supporters. The Egyptian president was mistrustful of them to the point of obsession, believing that this political party had betrayed him by causing the dissolution of the United Arab Republic.
I realized retrospectively that the closure of internment camps should not have surprised me at all. Despite its spectacular character, this was merely a single measure among many that testified to Nasser’s will to move on. It was a logical step in a succession of reforms introduced to renew and consolidate the regime.
As an act of self-criticism, Nasser began by disowning traditional pan-Arabism, by characterizing it as obsolete. As he explained during the interview, unity could only be achieved between two peoples with “common aims”: socialism and anti-imperialism. In other words, cultural, linguistic, and religious characteristics that people had in common were insufficient to gather them into a single entity. The unity of peoples was replacing that of homelands: if this indeed had to happen, Nasser indicated, a confederation with two houses of representatives, one elected through proportional ballots, the other representing member states on an equal basis, would respond to the specific interests of the peoples concerned. The European Common Market as conceived by General de Gaulle was apparently his model.
Unsatisfied with formulating a doctrine with little chance of being applied in concrete form—at least in the foreseeable future—the Rais was resisting pressures on him to unite Egypt with Yemen, where he had sent troops to defend the republic founded in 1962, troops who were fighting tribes paid by the deposed previous ruler and by Saudi Arabia. Nasser was also not in favor of an Egyptian–Algerian union. He was extremely critical of the jingoism of Baghdad’s new rulers, who were refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Kurdish aspirations (as non-Arab Muslims) to autonomy within the Iraqi state. Several years later, he would leave unanswered the insistent request of the effusive Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was demanding a proclamation uniting Libya with Egypt.
The Rais was evidently seeking to organize a friendly hinterland that would be able to absorb Egypt’s excess population and its surplus of products. He was aiming to exert pressure on the oil-producing Arab countries that he described as “reactionary monarchies,” in order to force them to dedicate part of their income to the development of “brotherly peoples” without natural resources (above all, of course, Egypt). Through the political leadership he intended to exercise over the Arab masses, he was attempting to spark complete solidarity, essentially meant to support Egypt’s role in the international arena.
An illustration of this policy was visible at Night and Day, a cafeteria in the Semiramis hotel on the bank of the Nile. As its name implied, it was open day and night, and was a meeting place for Arab political refugees, past or future leaders, who mingled with Egyptian intellectuals of all political tendencies. These exiles were all more or less “Nasser supporters,” in that they believed that Arab unity, whatever its form or content, could contribute to achieving their respective aspirations. All were indebted to the Rais , who had granted them political asylum and quite often even their means of support. As for Nasser, he was making sure he was gaining potential allies in the Arab world.
I went almost every evening to these meetings and took part in conversations that lasted until late at night. This was rewarding for me as a journalist. It was enough to listen to each of the people present, who were shouting at each other from one table to another, to be informed of the situation in various countries of the region. I would often collect new and unpublished stories transmitted by opposition movements and spread by their representatives in Cairo.
Fuad al-Rikabi, a Ba‘th Party dissident and one of its founders before assuming the leadership of the Iraqi Nasserist Party, was a former minister of General Qasim. He would speak of the atrocities committed in Baghdad following the coup of 1963. Quite young (he was barely thirty-two), enthusiastic, filled with optimism, he had no doubts about his country’s shining future. Nasser wanted to demonstrate his affection for him by being a witness at his marriage. When he returned to Iraq, he was murdered by jailers obeying the orders of Saddam Hussein.
Said al-Attar, in his thirties, was a man I had known as a student in Paris. He passionately defended the cause of the Republic of Yemen, founded the previous year. Thanks to him, I had been one of the first westerners to enter the imamate, less than a week after the monarchy’s overthrow. Originally from Djibouti, an economics graduate from a French university, Said would eventually be nominated to high ministerial positions. Our friendship was to last many years.
Abdullah al-Rimawi, a professor of mathematics and physics and previously a member of the Jordanian parliament, was a typical Palestinian of the time, in that he considered Arab unity as a necessary precedent to the liberation of Palestine, rather than something that could follow it. He described himself as a Nasser supporter but was hostile to the hegemony of a single party, nor did he approve of the Rais ’s idea that the Palestinian problem could be peacefully solved if Israel applied UN resolutions, and he would unceasingly repeat that the Jewish state had to disappear as a colonial entity.
General Ali Abu Nuwar, who had escaped from Jordan after leading an attempted coup against King Hussein, was a man of few words. He proved to be an Arab nationalist with a temper, hostile to the British and mistrustful toward his fellow citizens of Palestinian origin. Among all the people I spoke to at Night and Day, his personality, opinions, and appearance were particularly conspicuous. Moving with military rigidity, he was always dressed in a well-cut pearl gray suit, and his tie and cufflinks were always black. He would show a measure of hostility, scorn, or indifference toward the members of our group, with the exception of the Sultan of Lahej, the deposed ruler of a province in South Yemen and a man with whom he was often very close. He would sometimes begin tirades for the benefit of pro-Nasser intellectuals present among us. I heard him one evening say to the journalist Lutfi al-Kholi, a self-declared Marxist, “We should massacre all communists like yourself.” Anticipating what I thought of him, another evening he declared to me, “Yes, I am a fascist, if this means defending the Arab nation; yes, I am racist when it comes to denouncing Kurdish pretensions to autonomy.” It was impossible to engage in the least conversation with him. Pardoned by the king, he returned the next year to Amman, where in 1970 he participated in the repression of the Palestinian fedayeen during their Black September confrontation with the Jordanian armed forces. He was then posted as ambassador to Paris, where he requested my help in being introduced to Parisian civil society.
Jalal Talabani, at the time a young military officer assisting the head of the Kurdish rebellion of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, swore by Nasser. The latter had agreed to receive him and had guaranteed him his support for the Kurdish people struggling for autonomy. The Rais ’s stand was bold at a time when pan-Arabism and a form of xenophobia were often combined. I became Jalal’s friend. I saw him on many other occasions in the hiding places of the Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq, but also in Baghdad, Beirut, Tehran, Ankara, and Paris. Quite a sociable man, with a sense of humor that compensated for his cynicism, he could change his allegiances, enemies, or allies, as well as his ideology, without any qualms (he had been a Maoist, among other things). He was even able to reach an understanding with Saddam Hussein. His tactics would evolve according to circumstances, but his strategy remained unchanging: he was faithful to his people’s aspirations. He reached the zenith of his career when he was elected to the presidency of the Republic of Iraq, after Saddam Hussein’s downfall in 2003. His loyalty to the alliance with the United States, who were the protectors of Kurds before and after their invasion of Iraq, proved to be exemplary.
Another remarkable character I met during the encounters at Night and Day was the poet and caricature artist Salah Jahin, a star employee of the al-Ahram newspaper, who injected much cheer into our conversations. He told nukat (jokes) that were prudently irreverent toward people in power. Short, plump, with sparse hair and a rounded face, he was brave enough to state his opinions. An illustration of this: accompanying an article reporting on limits to freedom in higher education, he published in al-Ahram a drawing showing a padlocked brain. Since I knew his personality, from which racism was entirely absent, I remarked one day that he ran the risk of being called an anti-Semite for publishing caricatures depicting Israelis with crooked noses. He reacted with great surprise, for he was quite ignorant of western anti-Judaism, and the very next day he modified everything he had drawn on a profile representing a citizen of the Jewish state.
Ibrahim Tobal was a picturesque Tunisian with neither party affiliation nor political connections in his country of origin. He would regularly announce the start of the revolution that would supposedly overthrow Habib Bourguiba’s regime. We could never determine if he was talking seriously or in jest.
The leader of the Moroccan opposition, Mehdi Ben Barka, would sometimes join us at Night and Day and listen attentively to everything being said. He spoke much less of the situation in his country of origin than of the “Tri-Continental Conference” (including Africa, Asia, and Latin America), whose aim was to merge people from the Third World into an anti-imperialist front. He did not hide his sympathies for Ba‘thists, despite his good relationship with their pro-Nasser rivals, and supported the Baghdad government against Kurdish autonomists. The Moroccan secret services, in association with some French policemen, masterminded his assassination in Paris two years later.
Among the most assiduous members of our group was Lakhdar Brahimi, who was barely thirty and the Algerian ambassador in Cairo. Lakhdar was an unusual diplomat. He had been a militant in the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) prior to independence. He would appear at Night and Day in jeans, shirtsleeves, and sandals. He participated in all our conversations as an intellectual committed to a cause. Yet he was very discreet, which was easy to explain: he maintained a close relationship with Egyptian leaders (above all, Nasser), who had shown both esteem and friendship in return. We usually listened to Brahimi with full attention, since his remarks and analyses were often extremely pertinent.
Lakhdar, who would become my friend in the following decades, was later promoted to high positions in his country, particularly that of minister of foreign affairs, and then worked for the secretary-general of the United Nations. Sent by the United Nations to various countries in a state of conflict, particularly to Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of their occupation by George Bush’s American forces, he became a subtle diplomat, undoubtedly one of the most experienced of our age.
Nasser’s new pan-Arabism resulted in the elimination of one of the main obstacles to his reconciliation with the left: indeed, the jailing of communists, carried out precisely because of their opposition to unity with Syria and Iraq, became pointless. Marxists of all sorts had other reasons for mending bridges with the leader of the Egyptian revolution before converting to pro-Nasser ideology. They saluted the Rais ’s “progressive” measures: Egypt’s participation in the Bandung Conference, its membership in the movement of non-aligned countries, the arms transaction concluded with Moscow, the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, the treaty putting an end to British occupation, and finally the agreement signed with the USSR to finance and build the Aswan High Dam, making the dream of several generations of Egyptians come true.
Debate among political prisoners began immediately after the announcement of their forthcoming release. Should they unconditionally rally to Nasser’s ideology, despite its authoritarian traits? Those in favor of the alliance would emphasize the clear shift toward the left taken by Nasser the previous year with the promulgation of socialist laws and the adoption of a national charter, which had set the country on the path of “scientific socialism” instead of “Arab socialism,” thenceforth considered obsolete. The freed left-wing prisoners had noted that “monopolistic capitalists and exploiters” were being denounced and their property nationalized on a huge scale. They rejoiced at the state’s takeover of insurance companies and all commercial businesses, including the country’s two main banks (Banque Misr and the National Bank of Egypt). All in all, nationalizations affected half of Egypt’s industrial and commercial investments.
Another matter of satisfaction for communists who had joined Nasser was that agrarian reform was being carried out at full pace, and the amount of individual landed property had been halved. The taxation system had been profoundly modified in favor of people earning low salaries, while the highest incomes were taxed to as much as 90 percent of their value. An upper limit was being placed on salaries of high officials and CEOs. Industrial workers appeared to be the regime’s spoiled children. They enjoyed a forty-two-hour week. Workers entered self-management arrangements and took 25 percent of profits, which were added to their salaries. Nasser was denouncing the “new bourgeoisie,” who were prospering on the margins of the “socialist” system. The National Charter, Egypt’s new gospel, denounced “personal power” without any irony whatsoever, yet it rejected the principle of dictatorship of the proletariat and advocated the “collaboration of social classes.”
The scenario was well rehearsed and the time was ripe. The only thing left was to secure the support of the leftists, who were now pro-Nasser. At this point, a large, mistrustful, incredulous, or skeptical section of the intelligentsia was confining itself to the role of mere spectators. Liberals, independent Marxists, communists out on parole or still in jail were keeping silence. Martial law and press censorship began to be relaxed. Nasser gave Heikal responsibility for solving what was at the time euphemistically called the “crisis of the intellectuals.” Al-Ahram ’s director began co-opting the main figures of the left, as this current represented by far the majority in civil society. He dedicated a daily page of his newspaper to (free) “opinions” and entrusted its management to the notorious Marxist Lutfi al-Kholi, who transformed it into a rallying point. He would later allow this journalist to found a magazine, al-Tali‘a (The Vanguard), making it the unofficial medium of Marxists whose restraint expressed itself by self-censorship.
Logically, the next step was obviously the closure of internment camps, then populated with professional people, valuable intellectuals, and experienced politicians. The only authorized party, the Arab Socialist Union, desperately needed them to supervise some five million party members. It was in this framework and with this perspective in mind that Nasser had chosen Le Monde ’s special envoy to announce his decision to free political prisoners. This is how I assembled the various pieces of the puzzle in retrospect in order to present a coherent picture of the political landscape of the time.
The prisoners, however, soon discovered Nasser’s hidden agenda, and more specifically that they would have to pay dearly for their release. While the process of liberation was taking place very slowly and lasted for months, the Egyptian president was specifically asking the communists for a written commitment to refrain from acting against the republic’s interests, and was insisting on the dissolution of their organizations. In exchange for this, he was offering them individual integration as “citizens” into the ruling party and the state administration.
The initial reaction of prisoners was one of indignation: it was out of the question for them to renounce their very identity so as to recover their freedom. They informed Nasser of their categorical refusal to sign a certificate of good conduct, and instead demanded the repeal of anti-communist legislation that ensured heavy prison sentences, some enacted under Faruq’s monarchy.
The deadlock was total. Nasser finally yielded, since he was in a hurry to cleanse the political abscess prior to the arrival in Egypt of Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party. The Soviet leader—half in earnest, half in jest—had earlier told Anwar al-Sadat, who was in Moscow to invite him to the Aswan High Dam’s inauguration, “I do not want to take the risk of being arrested in your country because of my communist beliefs.” The anecdote (transmitted to me by a member of the Egyptian delegation) confirms that Khrushchev could not or did not wish to travel to a country where hundreds of communists were behind bars.
The fact remains that the very last releases took place exactly a day before Khrushchev landed in Alexandria, in May 1964. This deserves to be remembered: it was the first time in twenty years that Egypt had no communist political prisoners. The Soviet leader’s stay in Egypt is no doubt unprecedented in the diplomatic annals of both countries. It remains unique in terms of pomp, the warmth of the welcome shown to Egypt’s guest, and its astonishingly long duration. For sixteen days, I was part of the group of journalists following Nikita Khrushchev on his triumphal tour, flanked by several Russian high officials, including Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Marshal Andrei Gretchko, commander in chief of the Warsaw Pact forces.
The Soviet leader was also accompanied by his wife, his son Sergei, his daughter Rada, and his son-in-law Alexei Adzhubei, providing a family touch to his official visit. He took time from his political duties for the pleasures of tourism. He attended a performance at the Opera, took a cruise on the Red Sea, and visited museums, historical monuments, and, of course, the Cairo pyramids, as well as tombs of the pharaohs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. Everything seemed to impress and enchant the Soviet leader.
As he got off the boat in Alexandria, he was met by cannon salvos, the release of balloons, and national songs played by the army band, and then went to shake the hands of figureheads wishing him a warm welcome. He was saluted by all the government’s ministers, the entire group of MPs, constitutional bodies, and the heads of diplomatic missions. Confetti and rose petals were spread on the road, right up to the train that would take him to Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, mostly peasants in traditional costume and uniformed schoolchildren, were in line along the rail tracks, noisily cheering him. His journey through Cairo, particularly under the triumphal arches erected in his honor and the flags celebrating Egyptian–Soviet friendship, were a show never previously witnessed in the Nile Valley.
Gamal Abd al-Nasser had good reason to offer such a welcome to Nikita Khrushchev. He had previously—but in vain—requested the assistance of the Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States to build the Aswan High Dam. Having accepted the draconian conditions put forward by Washington, he had been shocked and humiliated by the sudden decision of the State Department in 1956 to revoke its offer of funding. The United States’ pretext was that Egypt had the reputation of not honoring its financial commitments. What had really occurred was that Secretary of State Foster Dulles had yielded to the converging pressures of the Zionist lobby, cotton plantation owners in southern states (who feared the extension of Egyptian cotton fields), and a segment of Congress that was overtly hostile to Nasser, whom they called a “fascist.” The Egyptian president suspected Washington and London of wishing to overthrow him by a coup similar to the one that had caused Mohammad Mossadegh’s downfall in Iran three years before.
It was under these circumstances that the Rais had decided, in desperation, to request the help of Moscow after seizing the revenue from the Suez Canal. Nikita Khrushchev had handed him the gift of the century by agreeing to provide the funding, the technology, and the thousands of engineers and technicians necessary for the erection of the “Great Pyramid of modern times.”
Carrying out this major public work was vital on more than one account. It was meant to regulate the flow of Nile waters, which to a large extent were spilling into the Mediterranean because of the lack of retaining dikes; it was also built to improve access to water or to provide complete irrigation of some 850,000 hectares of land, and to double hydroelectric production in eight years, thereby intensifying the country’s industrialization process. In summary, the dam would spare Egypt from devastating floods and ruinous drought, while simultaneously allowing it to provide for the needs of a nation whose living standards were implacably plummeting as the population increased. Completing this project was all the more urgent because the cultivated land area per capita had been halved in forty years.
The climax of celebrations organized on the occasion of the High Dam’s inauguration was without any doubt the ceremony marking the channeling of Nile waters to feed an artificial lake some five hundred kilometers long. Several hundred journalists from all over the world were present. The show before their eyes was on a par with this great event, which the press did not hesitate to describe as historic. A circular stadium was filled with 120,000 people, including tens of thousands of workers and Egyptian engineers, as well as a few thousand Soviet technicians who, working day and night for fifty-three months, had finished the first phase of construction a year earlier than planned. Rhythmic ovations rose from the mass of humanity saluting Nasser, “the father of modern Egypt,” and Khrushchev, “the faithful friend of the Arabs,” both of whom were standing on a rock, accompanied by three Arab heads of state and surrounded by their closest collaborators. Cries of joy were heard when, using a push button, the two leaders made a charge of dynamite explode, thus opening the entrance to the diversion channel.
The climax of the opening ceremony was marked by fireworks, the release of balloons painted with the national colors of both countries, and the formation of huge portraits of Nasser and Khrushchev made up of thousands of young people perched on the benches of the stadium, while the army’s orchestra played patriotic anthems. The Egyptian president was visibly moved. The Soviet leader’s face was glowing. In his speech, Khrushchev spoke to the tovarich (comrade) Nasser before decorating him with the most prestigious medals: the Order of Lenin and that of Hero of the Soviet Union. Nasser replied, “Never, absolutely never, will the Egyptian people forget the selfless support of Nikita, our friend, our brother.”
The speeches the Soviet leader gave during his entire stay—fifteen in total—did not always please his Egyptian hosts. The funder of the canal did not refrain from giving lessons in applied Marxism, from offering an apology for communism (the “world’s youth”) in a country where this ideology was outlawed, or from celebrating the Soviet system’s social welfare in speeches to tens of thousands of workers from four industrial complexes. At no point did Khrushchev pay homage to the socialism of Nasser’s Egypt, although he did concede that the country had the merit of choosing the path of “non-capitalist development.” The general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party proved to be a big hit with his audiences, who, unlike some Egyptian leaders present, gave him standing ovations. Nasser, always standing nearby, remained silent with a frozen smile and even a sullen face, but Mohamed Hassanein Heikal reacted in the columns of al-Ahram : he launched a violent tirade against Egyptian communists, who were accused of political blindness, among other things. However, he failed to mention that they were still persistently refusing to dissolve their various organizations.
Khrushchev went so far as to attack “xenophobic” pan-Arabism, which he compared to the pan-Russian movement of the tsarist era. He bluntly declared, “I wish that the motto of Arab unity would be modified and transformed in the following way: Arab workers, peasants, intellectuals, unite against the exploiters!” As for the Israeli–Arab conflict, he made only a passing mention of it in his speeches once or twice, insisting on the necessity of solving all problems by peaceful means, and calling for a “just and reasonable peace,” a deliberately very vague formula which once more sparked the enthusiastic approval of his audiences. Nasser followed in his footsteps by announcing his support for Moscow’s proposal of declaring the Mediterranean a “nuclear-free zone,” in all likelihood fearing at the time that Israel was attempting to build an atomic arsenal.
Khrushchev’s “historic trip” ended with results the Egyptian leaders were hoping for without actually believing possible. He announced in quick succession that Moscow would fund the second and last phase of the Aswan High Dam’s construction, and grant long-term loans for the implementation of the second (and costly) five-year plan, which among other projects was a blueprint for the construction of some twenty heavy industry plants. Nasser was overwhelmed by the generosity of his “brother” Nikita.
“Egyptian–Soviet friendship” was at its zenith, to the extent of deeply worrying western foreign ministries and prompting the resignation of the American ambassador in Cairo, John Badeau, who was considered responsible for the policy failure of his government. By refusing to sell weapons to Egypt, then withdrawing funds from the High Dam’s construction (thereby believing they could destabilize Nasser’s regime), the Americans had pushed the Rais into the arms of Soviet leaders. Moreover, to Washington’s great bewilderment, Nasser’s position was consolidating. The praise that was being heaped upon him was useful from an internal viewpoint, since he was now being described as “the builder of modern Egypt” (to quote Khrushchev). The debate among communists (which I witnessed) became all the more intense, while taking a new direction. The contention was no longer whether they would support neo-Nasserism (which a large majority approved of), but whether they would agree to join the single party, a nationalist and non-Marxist political association (which explicitly rejected class struggle, among other things). The supporters of the Communist Party’s dissolution finally won over their opponents. The point of these “revisionists” was particularly seductive: they maintained that Nasser was clearly on a path toward socialism, since he was introducing reforms that went well beyond what the most ambitious communists could dream of. The dialogue with Marxists established by al-Ahram was a sign of the Rais ’s good intentions and would pave the way to additional progress. Did they have anything better to suggest? The revisionists concluded that the communists had to contribute to the implementation of reforms, radicalize them, and make them irreversible by deepening their roots. The supporters of party dissolution added that they had little choice, for any opposition to the regime would be not only fruitless, but also dangerous, given Nasser’s popularity and the extent of his powers.
It is not known whether the Kremlin (which held Nasser in great esteem) had advised the communists to scuttle their organizations in order to join the Arab Socialist Union, considered in Moscow as a progressive association that could lead to socialism. Russian leaders at the time were under the illusion that Third World anti-imperialist movements were likely to establish popular democracies, at least in the states integrated into the Soviet sphere. Was not the conversion to Marxism–Leninism of a nationalist like Fidel Castro, prior to the decision of Cuba’s Communist Party to fight under his banner, a momentous precedent?
And yet the Kremlin was entirely mistaken about both Nasser’s visceral anticommunism and the weakness of Egyptian communists, who were divided into rival organizations. It is nevertheless a fact that these organizations, which committed political suicide, would never be reborn, except as small marginal groups and, much later, as a left-wing party, the Tagammu‘.
Communist Party members, now freed from prison, were mostly honorably reshuffled into jobs that corresponded to their skills. The best elements joining the Arab Socialist Union were placed in positions of responsibility in the media or within the single party. The party’s school of cadres was therefore entrusted to the management of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a communist economist of great reputation. Ahmad Fuad, another communist economist, was placed at the head of fourteen firms, including Banque Misr. The “Red Major” Khaled Mohieddin, one of the architects of Nasser’s 1952 revolution, was given a huge endowment to launch a left-wing daily.
Nasser, however, allowed no ambiguity to loom over the nature of this nascent collaboration. He gave a stern warning in no uncertain terms to a group of ex-communists in al-Ahram ’s offices. His ominous words were, “Take note: I will never let anyone stand at my left.” And he then added: “or claim to be part of the power structure.” At the same time he declared to an American journalist: “I will never be the satellite or the stooge of anybody. . . . Egypt is determined to preserve its independence from all foreign ideologies, be they Marxist, fascist, racist, colonial, imperialist, or atheist. By the way, all of these are of European origin.”
The Rais had perhaps forgotten Nikita Khrushchev’s warning. Six years earlier, the Soviet leader had recalled to an Indian journalist that both Hitler and Mussolini had, prior to Nasser, attempted to liquidate communists “from a position of xenophobic nationalism.” However, one can better measure the substantial changes in the Kremlin’s judgment by referring to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia , which in 1952 had given an account of Nasser’s revolution in the following terms: “During the night of 23 July 1952, a group of reactionary officers led by General Naguib seized power in close collaboration with the United States.” Likewise, within a few years the United States completely altered its opinion of the Rais . At first, he had been considered “pro-western,” but he was now, in Washington’s opinion, nothing more than a “pawn of Moscow.” Thus, the perceptions of each of the two great superpowers were gradually reversed, but for both sides Egypt remained a major stake—and ultimately a casualty—of the Cold War, as the following years would demonstrate.
U pon returning to Cairo in 1963, I discovered that, within just a few decades, Nasser’s regime had been successful in giving back “Egypt to the Egyptians,” in accordance with the slogan of nationalists at the beginning of the twentieth century. For starters, it was enough for me to take a walk in the city center of Cairo, where I could see that Europeanized minorities, the khawagat , who had been virtually the only people to visit the business districts, had by then disappeared. The streets were full of natives (“wogs,” the offensive British word for aliens) from the lowest social classes and wearing local costume or the gallabiya (a long traditional robe), together with a turban or a tarboosh (the Arabic name for a fez). Under the monarchy these people would have avoided venturing into the cosmopolitan neighborhoods: they were liable to be stopped by policemen, who would then check their identity.
In my opinion, the multiple changes were quite surprising: signs in Arabic had replaced those in foreign tongues; polyglot saleswomen in the large retail stores had given way to young women who only spoke the local language, stylishly dressed, with light makeup on their faces and appearing emancipated. The customers, women who drove around the streets or who were sitting in their cars, did not wear the veil. Prudish mores had been relaxed, judging, among other things, from the young couples affectionately holding hands while taking a walk along the Nile. Over several kilometers along the embankment, luxury hotels were spread out, together with teahouses, casinos, and nightclubs. Here as elsewhere, in cafés and bakeries, backgammon players were noisily challenging each other, often while smoking a hookah.
I had a small surge of emotion on Ismailiya Square, which had been renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Twenty years earlier, I had witnessed the bloody repression of a demonstration for independence, during which I had seen a young man parading next to me collapse to the ground from police bullets. Imposing buildings had grown like mushrooms around and near the square. Toward the horizon, skyscrapers of twenty to thirty stories were looming above the city. Some lower-class neighborhoods, considered too squalid, had been demolished to make space for rows of buildings providing low-cost housing that the Egyptian president was thinking of selling to their tenants, before realizing that the latter would not be able to afford the costs.
The democratization of culture and knowledge was also improving. Free public education from kindergarten to university had opened the gates of schools to the working classes. An official explained to me that, on average, a new school was being built every two days. The number of high school and university students had doubled in less than ten years. Evening classes were providing workers with notions of economics, central planning, management, socialism, and even art. Theaters and museums, with entrance fees drastically reduced, were visited like never before by common people.
“Raise your head, my brother, the days of humiliation are over!” Nasser’s slogan, which just after the revolution had called forth thundering ovations and cries of joy from the listening crowds, was now painted on huge banners across the country. The harangues of the Rais were popular and attracted hundreds of thousands of listeners, as I could observe on many occasions. To their joy, Nasser would speak in the local dialect understandable by all, whether literate or not, breaking with the politicians’ traditional use of classical Arabic under the monarchy. The voice of the 23 July revolutionary leader was overwhelming and warm. His words, spoken in familiar and confident tones, were uttered with passion and unleashed the enthusiasm of the masses.
The speaker was also a unique storyteller who would hold sway over his audiences by giving them the feeling that he was addressing each of them individually. He would often recall events of contemporary history known to everybody, mentioning the successes and failures of popular struggles against colonialists. Two words were recurrent in his speeches: “pride” and “dignity”—words that would later be heard in demonstrations demanding Mubarak’s overthrow. These were also terms that made Nasser’s fellow citizens vibrate with emotion after suffering from the humiliations inflicted under the previous regime by occupying powers, rural feudal landowners, and business directors.
By contrast with what many believed abroad, Nasser’s sincerity was so obvious that Egyptians did not consider him a demagogue. The cult built up by his fellow citizens was rooted in manifold reasons that only they themselves could grasp. He was the first native Egyptian to rule them for centuries, as well as the first to be of humble extraction. The family of this postman’s son belonged to the poor peasantry of Upper Egypt. Moreover, he was one of the few officers of the royal army to have owed his successes in the various examinations to himself, and not to connections: his hard work had elevated him to the rank of colonel and had been a prime factor in his nomination to the body of professors at the general chief of staff’s academy, at the age of only thirty-three. Nobody could ignore his deeds during the 1948 war against the State of Israel. People were grateful to him for having overthrown the monarchy without any bloodshed. He had been able to stoke the flames of national pride by a series of spectacular achievements, in particular the evacuation of British occupation forces, the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, and the construction of the Aswan High Dam. And above all, the man was impressive as he courageously and tenaciously confronted the great powers in their attempts to curb and erode Egyptian sovereignty.
In a state where corruption was the norm, the Egyptian president was respected for his honesty, even if, as years went by, some of his relatives became rich via illicit means. He and his family lived the life of the Egyptian middle class, whose mores and tastes they shared. It was common knowledge that he never accepted a personal gift, except for neckties, items for which he had a strange passion and which, according to rumor, he possessed in extravagant quantities. A CIA agent who said he knew him well asserted, “The problem with Nasser is that he has no flaws. He can’t be corrupted or blackmailed. We hate this guy’s very guts, but we can’t do anything against him: he is just too clean.” It is true, however, that the president’s lack of interest in worldly pleasures and riches was outweighed by his exorbitant thirst for personal power.
Although it was quite legitimate, the policy of “Egyptianization” had its adverse effects in the exodus of several hundred thousand members of “minorities,” a process that disfigured the Egypt I had known in my youth. The country had before that been tolerant, rich in creative diversity because of its various communities, which had greatly contributed to the country’s economic and cultural life. Greeks, Italians, British, French, and Jews of all nationalities, mostly of humble social status, were victims of discriminatory measures in the aftermath of the nationalization of most of the large and middle-sized businesses and as a result of the climate of insecurity caused by exacerbated nationalism.
It was with much sadness that I rediscovered Alexandria, the quintessential cosmopolitan city, the haven of great intellectuals and writers of foreign extraction, now devoid of any charm at all. The residential neighborhoods of the country’s second metropolis, just like those of Cairo and its suburbs, had been depopulated of their previous residents in favor of a new native bourgeoisie, apparently less concerned about aesthetics, to judge by the dilapidated buildings. I would sometimes wonder: why was it not possible to “give Egypt back to the Egyptians” without causing this ominous collateral damage?
I visited my parents’ graves feeling great melancholy. They had died during my stay in France. The cemetery had apparently not been well maintained for many long years. I was shocked to observe that the tombstones of all my relatives were desecrated and now in an advanced state of disrepair.
The new Egypt had deprived me of all my relatives and of quite a few of my friends or acquaintances, who had taken the road to exile. They had left as tensions and confrontation between Egypt and Israel had soared. The phenomenon was unprecedented, however: while only four thousand Jews had left the Nile Valley in the thirty years between 1917 and 1947, and the 1948 War had led to the departure of only some twenty thousand community members, the sixty thousand remaining were viscerally attached to their country and were still under the illusion that their future was, despite everything, ensured, since they believed that the Israeli–Arab conflict would soon be solved. The July 1952 ascent to power of the Free Officers had by no means worried them. This was all the more so since the new leaders had done their best to reassure them, repeating that they knew how to tell the difference between Zionists and Jews, the latter being considered full citizens. The first head of state, General Muhammad Naguib, accompanied by the regime’s strongman Gamal Abd al-Nasser, had gone to the Adli Pasha Street Great Synagogue to present their best wishes to the community. This gesture was unprecedented even under the monarchy, when the Jews had benefited from the consideration of the ruling class (and the king). In addition, the new republican regime had enacted a series of measures to contribute to the reconstruction and the reopening of large Jewish stores burned down during the so-called Black Saturday riots (whose instigators remain unknown to this day). This rioting had taken place in January 1952, some six months before the Free Officers’ coup. Nothing indicated that the new leaders desired the Jews’ departure, until an event tarnishing the community’s reputation suddenly occurred.
In October 1954, a wave of arrests resulted in the detention of thirteen people, almost all Jews of Egyptian nationality. These were members of an underground network, accused of espionage and terrorist acts. Following instructions from the Israeli secret services, they had set off bombs in Cairo and Alexandria, particularly targeting American institutions. The political agenda behind the attacks was to place the responsibility for them on the Cairo government and thus bring to a grinding halt the development of good relations between Egypt and the United States, something the Jewish state was particularly wary of. The Israeli officer Max Bennet, a member of this network who was in fact an intelligence officer, committed suicide in prison, while two of his accomplices (Egyptian Jews) were sentenced to death and executed.
The verdict was particularly unfair, as the campaign of sabotage had resulted in neither human casualties nor significant material damage. Nasser refused to pardon the culprits, calculating that he could not permit the slightest lenience after the hanging of five Muslim Brothers a few days before, who had planned his assassination. He also needed to take into account the anger simmering in public opinion.
In any case, this first real implication of Egyptian Jews in the conflict—the fact that they had acted on Israel’s behalf—greatly harmed the image of all community members, whose loyalty to their motherland had never been an issue. Anti-Semites and xenophobic nationalists took advantage of this to launch a campaign against this “fifth column” carrying out foreign orders. Right- and left-wing Israeli media (with the exception of two major newspapers, Haaretz and Hamishmar , the latter the daily of the Mapam Party of the Zionist left) accused Cairo of adopting Nazi methods and of completely fabricating the case to justify the persecution of Jews. American Jewish organizations saw this affair as nothing more than the preliminary stages of a new Holocaust. The New York Times began referring to Nasser as “the Hitler on the Nile.”
Beyond the excesses of language, the indignation was understandable, for few people truly believed in Israel’s involvement in the plot. With the exception of a handful of high officers in the Defense Ministry, almost all Israeli officials were in the dark about the part played by the Jewish state’s intelligence services. Nor had Prime Minister Moshe Sharett been informed. In a speech to the Knesset, he vehemently denounced the Egyptian government’s “fantastic lies” and showered praise on the accused. The latter, according to him, had merely been guilty of being Zionists.
The conspiracy had actually been fomented by several Israeli political figures, notably Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff; Shimon Peres, director of the General Defense Ministry; and Binyamin Gibli, the head of military intelligence. They had acted in secrecy, without prior consent of their commanding minister Pinhas Lavon. The latter resigned from his position after learning that the three had received David Ben-Gurion’s prior assent. Ben-Gurion, who was attempting a comeback to power, considered the Sharett government too conciliatory toward Nasser and managed to succeed Lavon as defense minister. He at once launched a resolutely aggressive policy (described as “activist”) against the “Egyptian dictator.”
Although it has not been proven, it was likely that the “old lion” (as Ben-Gurion was called) and the group of hawks supporting him wanted to sabotage the dialogue secretly launched between Sharett and Nasser to end the conflict, at the cost of inevitable concessions by the Jewish state. Did they want to make the break irreversible by compromising Egyptian Jews (hence endangering the country’s entire community), when they could have entrusted the attacks to Israelis exclusively?
Their supposed or real hopes were fully met: tensions worsened between Cairo and Jerusalem, reaching their climax on 25 February 1955 with the thunderous attack launched by Ben-Gurion against a location on the Gaza border. Some forty Egyptian soldiers were killed, and several dozen wounded. The infiltration into Israel of Palestinian fedayeen was used as justification or pretext for this particularly disproportionate “reprisal raid.”
Quite exceptionally, Nasser publicly paid homage to Moshe Sharett by declaring that the latter “attempted to solve the problem by peaceful means, while Ben-Gurion is trying to impose a solution on us by resorting to war, violence, and terror.” The Rais , while denouncing the occupation of Sinai by the Israeli army during the October 1956 “Tripartite Aggression,” added during an interview published on 10 March 1957 by the official daily al-Ahram that Israel was “an expansionist state remotely controlled by the great powers.”
It took some twenty years, more precisely until 1975, for all the Lavon Affair’s undercurrents (or almost all of them) to be exposed. For the first time, the Israeli government took full responsibility for the Cairo attacks perpetrated in 1954. Ben-Gurion had until then been able to keep an iron lid over the “blunder,” an understatement used to describe this scandal. A strict censorship was applied for two decades, under the pretext that the Ministry of Defense’s reputation had to be preserved, but this was nothing more than an attempt to exonerate the culprits.
It was nevertheless impossible to keep everything secret after the release, in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, of the members of the Zionist network who had spent so many years in prison. They finally defied censorship and gave the Israeli media their version of events. It came out that the Egyptian authorities were ready to hand these prisoners to the Jewish state after the 1956 War, in the framework of an agreement concluded for their exchange. To Cairo’s great surprise, Israeli officials did not request their release until 1967. A few members of the network publicly accused Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan of having knowingly prolonged their detention by eleven years to protect those responsible for ordering this shameful deed.
As for Egyptian Jews, their fate worsened, despite the official announcements paying homage to their patriotism. The repeated declarations of Tel Aviv’s leaders, according to which Israel was the “homeland for all of the world’s Jews” (making them the Jewish state’s potential citizens), made the situation quite awkward for Egyptian Jewry. Jews were excluded from positions in administration described as “sensitive,” and subjected to oppressive measures, but on the whole they managed to resume their activities in the private sector, and despite everything they retained some influence in an economy that at the time had not yet been fully taken over by the state.
Contrary to what Israeli authorities claimed, Nasser was not an anti-Semite, a trait confirmed by his old Jewish neighbors. He could be compared to Franklin Roosevelt, who, despite interning American citizens of Japanese origin in the wake of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, was not racist. The father of the future Egyptian head of state maintained amicable relations with the Great Rabbi of the Karaite community, Tuvia Levy Babovich. As a teenager, Nasser had grown up among Jews and, according to a quote by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth from members of the family of Yaacov Shmuel, who emigrated to Israel, had established strong links with his Jewish neighbors, keeping in touch with them until October 1956. At this time, the Israeli armed forces, in common agreement with Paris and London, had invaded Sinai before the French and British expeditionary force landed on Egyptian shores.
It is precisely this “tripartite aggression” that gave the coup de grâce to the Jewish community in Egypt. Following this conflict, everything was set in motion to prompt the Jews’ departure: nationalization of businesses whose owners were “enemy subjects” with French or British nationality (many were in this situation); the seizure and confiscation of property belonging to “stateless” people, of whom there were just as many (these were really long-time residents of Egypt who had not been naturalized); and selective expulsions only superficially disguised as voluntary departures, with only exit visas delivered to those who wished to travel abroad for professional or family reasons.
Most Jews emigrated, whether willingly or not, having understood that the worsening Arab–Israeli conflict ran the risk of lasting forever. The xenophobic climate was such that members of other non-Jewish minorities left the country en masse: more than 200,000 according to some estimates, or four to five times the number of Jewish emigrants. As more than half of the capital invested in incorporated businesses had belonged to foreigners and Jews, the greatest beneficiaries of this exodus were Muslims, who purchased abandoned property at dirt-cheap prices until they in turn were hit a few years later by a wave of nationalizations.
The Jewish community was fifty thousand strong in 1954. It shrank alarmingly thereafter, and when I first returned to Egypt in 1963 was somewhere between five thousand and seven thousand people. Many synagogues and charitable organizations had disappeared by then. According to an unverifiable estimate, between a third and half of the community had sought permanent residence in Israel; the others found refuge in Europe and in the Americas. Those who remained in Egypt—senior citizens, but also some young people—were obstinately refusing to leave the country. Among them were communists, who in some cases had made their names sound Arabic and had converted to Islam in order to pursue their political activities. The authorities, however, had succeeded in spreading the idea, popularized by the previous regime, that communists were in fact Zionists wearing a mask.
An exceptional figure whom I had known well, the lawyer Chehata Haroun, was not afraid, exclaiming verbally as well as in the press: “I am Jewish, I am a communist, and I am Egyptian one hundred percent.” A bold man, he would write letters to Nasser, sharing his remarks and criticisms concerning current affairs in the country. The Rais , who had respect for Haroun because of the sincerity of his beliefs, never failed to answer him with equal courtesy.
The relationship between Nasser and religion was also complex. At the age of eighteen, while he was preparing for his baccalaureate (literary section) at the al-Nahda secondary school in Cairo, the future president had published in his school magazine an article entitled “Voltaire and Freedom.

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