Salama Moussa in Jail

In July 1946, almost exactly 68 years ago, the authoritarian government of Isma’il Sidqi ordered the arrest of the Egyptian Intellectual Salama Moussa. Almost 60, he endured two weeks in the hospitality of an Egyptian jail with good cheer.  What is remarkable about this episode is that by then he was well beyond his earlier advocacy of radical cures to backwardness, tweaking of Egyptian sensibilities and general attacks on the mendacity and stupidity of the ruling classes. He had in effect given up politics, handing over his newspaper to George Hunayn and Ramses Yunan, esthetes and Trotskyites of little political effect.  For most of the 1940s he wrote for the Coptic publication Misr, an odd occupation for a man estranged from the Church and perennially critical of religious authorities.  We don’t know fully what moved the cranky Sidqi to order his arrest. But the circumstance can give clear evidence.

By the end of World War II the arc of Moussa’s life was pretty clear. His earlier optimism about the possibility of developing Egypt as a normal country in the Western model had faded, replaced instead by a sense of gloom over the forces gathering toward a stormy future. The inflection point might have been the ugly election of 1938, which featured interference by the King, in the person of his henchman Sidqi, anti-Semitic and anti-Coptic riots, regular religious incitement by many politicians, as well as unseemly gloating by the rising Muslim Brotherhood that their time to govern is near at hand. Moussa spent a good deal of the 1940s agitating against the Brotherhood and against the looming fight in Palestine. He saw nothing less than a disaster in the ascendance of Arabism and Islamism. Many criticized his posts in Misr as unduly alarmist; but to read them today is to see prescience at work. This, probably more than anything else, had aroused the ire of Sidqi, and perhaps King Farouk. Farouk, still in his twenties, was aiming to exploit Islamism and Arabism to forestall any developments toward a constitutional monarchy that would leave him both honored and powerless.  He coveted the title of “Caliph”, which made him engage in unnatural discourses with the Brotherhood. He wanted leadership in the “Arab” world, leading to the formation of the Arab League; its fresh pulpits broadcasting self-defeating rhetoric of praise for the already dead Hitler and advocating an ill-prepared war against the Zionists. In a few years Farouk would depart Egypt in humiliation, neither the first nor the last man destroyed by the explosive devices he wished to employ for his narrow purposes.  But in the meantime, the voices of men such as Moussa, weak and irrelevant in the dangerous currents of street politics, were a reminder of his lack of illegitimacy. Good sense would have advocated ignoring such men, but it was not the time for good sense.  It can be said in praise of the Egypt of 70 years ago, is that it was milder and gentler toward critics.

But then, as now, the land was ruled by myths advocated as facts, shortcuts sold as solutions, and outlandish schemes whose failure would rebound to the advantage of those that proposed them because blame can always be placed elsewhere.

— Maged Atiya

 


3 Comments on “Salama Moussa in Jail”

  1. This is a wonderful article. Thank you for your wisdom and sober insight.

  2. joshlandis says:

    Thank you very much for this wise and judicious appreciation.

  3. Dioscorus Boles says:

    Good article. Glad to see that you have come to realise Salama Musa’s last political development. This extraordinary Copt realised in the 1940s, some would argue even earlier, that that the dream that had been fostered by the 1919 Revolution was dead. Arabism and Islamism had triumphed over Egyptianism – and in that new situation, not only Copts will have no place but reason, sciences and liberty too.

    Musa became disillusioned as he was disappointed. At the same time new thing happened to him – he rediscovered his roots. He was once again first a Copt – on that depended how others looked at and treated him.


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