On February 18 1978 members of the Palestinian Abu-Nidal gang shot and killed Egyptian writer and government minister Yusuf Al Siba’i while in Cyprus. In response, the Egyptian government dispatched a squadron of special forces to the island, violating its sovereignty and engaging in various bloody encounters there. This incursion was a rare and uncharacteristic response from the Egyptian state. The mess did not end on the tarmac in Cyprus. Sadat, visibly angry, cut diplomatic relations with Cyprus and called its leader a”pygmy”. That resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the Central African republic. It was heavy price to pay for the life of a writer, especially given the general value of such lives in Egypt. But Yusuf was more than just a writer who produced dozens of novels and short stories. In fact, too little attention is paid to his life and what it symbolized. He deserves a closer look, and perhaps an entire work centered around his career. That career started in earnest three decades before his death at age 60. The arc of it was rather unusual but prophetic. Yusuf was a military man; he was of the same age as the Free Officers and joined the military at the same time as all of them and served with distinction until he retired as a Brigadier General. His subsequent career as a writer and intellectual was not a departure from his military service but a continuation of it by other means. Egypt after 1952 featured many military men who officially retired and then were assigned to manage commercial enterprises, state entities, provinces, political parties and even the presidency. Siba’i’s assignment was culture. He was an intimate of Nasser and wrote many of his speeches. If Mohamed Hassanein Heikal spoke for Nasser, then Yusuf Al Siba’i thought like him.
Yusuf’s rise was symbolized by his role in the Third Conference of Arab Writers organized by the Egyptian state in December 1957. The previous two conferences were modest academic affairs. But this one was an entirely different beast. Albert Hourani described it as the moment of death for Arab liberal thought. Siba’i wrote the opening talk, it is rumored, but Nasser read it. He welcomed the writers to Egypt and identified their task as “create Arab literature that is free”. He went on to describe that freedom as “freedom from foreign control and foreign direction”. He assigned them the task of “realizing our goals” and bid them God’s protection. The speech reads closer to what a commander might give to a graduating class of cadets. The attending writers, by and large, competed in showing their dedication to the task of pan Arabism and their devotion to their assignment. There were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the Tunisian Mahmoud Al Mas’adi, who spoke of individual freedom and autonomy, and was denounced as a traitor to the corp and the imaginary uniform. Taha Hussein spoke elliptically about the necessity for thought as the foundation of writing, but few listened. In the next decade he delivered a series of valedictory speeches and interviews to rebut this vision of the intellectual as a servant of the state but few listened. In a TV interview with Layla Rustum he lamented that “the problem with Arab writers is that they write more than they read”. Without mentioning names he was castigating the entire group and its leader, Yusuf Al Siba’i.
It is sometimes said that Nasser served as a bookend to Muhammad Ali, and there is truth to that. Ali attempted to build a state without a nation, while Nasser, who ended Ali’s dynasty, attempted to build a nation as an arm of the state. He had the assistance of many in that task, none more effectively than the men in uniform and those who took up the pen as their special weapon. Levantine writers were especially enamored with Nasser, for much the same reason as young men are attracted to uniforms and military service; belonging, adventure and purpose. As with these young men, the writers and intellectuals were to realize all too soon the dangerous and tragic nature of their calling. Mas’adi predicted the likely failure of this project decades in advance. He also castigated the practice of conflating anti-Colonialism with anti-Western intellectual thought. The common wisdom today is that the poverty of Arab thought and intellectual discourse is the result of authoritarian governance. But there is a darker explanation. It was perhaps the willingness of Arab intellectuals to be drafted to the cause of the state that ultimately gave rise and support to these authoritarian regimes. It was the exceptional figure, such as Adonis or Nazik Al Malai’ka, who denied that the intellectual’s primary obligation is to serve a national vision, or the state that often articulated it in violent thoughts and actions.
In many ways, Yusuf Al Siba’i was the genteel face of the intellectual as the state’s servant. At the height of his fame, during the 1960s and 1970s Al Siba’i was ever present on the Egyptian scene. He headed many of the the cultural institutions and publications, including Al Ahram, and thus was technically Heikal’s boss. His novels were assigned reading in Egyptian schools, especially the 1952 “Al Saghamat”, always hailed as a work of Egyptian realism, but in fact it was largely political fiction. Siba’i mastered political fiction as thoroughly as Nasser mastered political theater. An elegant man with careful diction he faithfully represented the state. His political views were always subject to trimming by his service. He was a soldier at heart; his mission was not to ask why, but to do or die. For decades he lionized the Palestinian Fedayeen, only to turn against them when they attacked Sadat for visiting Israel. He published paeans to socialism in the 1960s and defended its dismantling in the 1970s. Siba’i was the epitome of the writer as a civil servant. Under his tutelage a generation of Egyptian writers grew up not to write the great Egyptian novel but to become the head of its writers’ union. Many who opposed the state still invested in Siba’i’s vision of the writer as a servant of a cause.
Half a dozen years before his death the ideology of Siba’i’s career claimed one of its victims in a horrific but little examined assassination. On July 8 1972 Ghassan Kanafani, an extraordinarily talented Palestinian writer, indeed possibly the Kafka of Acre, was blown up in his car. He had loudly, but largely without participation, supported the Lod airport massacre. To this day it is not fully known if his murder was a retaliation by Israel or part of an internecine fight within the Palestinian militant groups. Regardless of the truth, it was a terrible waste of a life and a talent. A futile demonstration of the Arab insistence that the artist represent not his individual beliefs, but his people, right or wrong. That was the message of the life and death of Brigadier General Yusuf Al Siba’i, soldier and writer.
— Maged Atiya