Friday Discourse 229
Gamal Abdul Nasser is often remembered as a great Arab leader who not only returned the control of the Suez Canal to Egypt but was also the key founder of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Arab League. His policies against Anglo-American interest in the Middle East cannot be denied. He was not a corrupt leader either. Even while he was the President of Egypt, his father used to work as a messenger. An Arab nationalist by orientation, his socialist policies remained ingrained in Egyptian society for over a decade after his death despite the subservience of his successors to Washington.
However, that is where the good about Nasser ends. Speak about human rights abuses and Nasser suddenly falls into the pit of infamy. He was a totalitarian of the first order. He tried to silence every dissenting voice and fought every opponent. The Soviets were his masters. It was on one of his visits to Moscow in early 1960s that he stood by the grave of Stalin and swore that he will never forgive anyone involved in an attempt to assassinate him. Nasser stood by his words. He did not forgive. Neither was he expected to do so. Oppose him, or be a member of a group he disliked, and you will be arrested, tortured very severely, and jailed indefinitely, if you are lucky to survive.
The people who suffered most from his highhandedness were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This group, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1927, is dedicated to reforming the Egyptian society using Islam as a rallying point. There was no doubt that Western (including communist) establishments were uncomfortable with its growth. Within fifteen years of its formation it had covered every nook and corner of Egypt and extended its branches to neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Palestine. Luckily for al-Banna, he was assassinated while returning from his morning prayer in 1948. Western establishments could not hide their delight.
I said al-Banna was lucky to be assassinated because he did not share the regime of torture and executions that became the hallmark of Nasser's human right record. Within two years of being on power, Nasser, using an assassination attempt, cracked down mercilessly on the Brothers, the same group that assisted him to overthrow the monarchy. From then until his death in 1970, Nasser subjected the Brothers to every conceivable measure of repressive treatment: arrests, interrogation, torture, disappearances, executions, exile, etc. So brutal was Nasser to the Brothers that they received the news of his death with utter disbelief.
Nasser maintained elaborate machinery for torture that employed various techniques. Routinely, cables were used to beat mercilessly; dogs were set to devour people, often to death; cigarettes were used to burn sensitive areas on human body; people were hanged from their feet; cold rooms were common place; plaster of Paris was used to block urinary tracks until the prisoner died; etc.
Eminent scholars received the severest and inhuman punishments. To date, there exist a section in the Ministry of Interior in Egypt that deals with research, procurement and maintenance of torture equipment.
To the craze of intolerance Egypt lost its finest intellectuals, people like Sayyid Qutb and Sheikh Audan, despite their age. Yet, they ended up better than Nasser. They were never replaced. The then septuagenarian Audan who served as Qadi for over forty years went to exile in Saudi Arabia where he was received at the Airport by King Faisal. He wrote a will in two verses saying, "God, save us from every difficulty by the guidance of The Chosen (Muhammad), the best of all. And give me in his City a place, provision and then a burial in (the graveyard of) Baqi'." Faisal granted his request: He gave him a chair for commentary on the Holy Qur'an in the Prophet's mosque in Medina, maintained him and then buried him in Baqi'.
Nasser did not spare his friend, Sayyid Qutb, the foremost ideologue of the Brotherhood, the poet, the famous author of In the Shade of the Qur'an and dozens of other books, one of the finest brain I ever come across among Muslim writers. Nasser arrested him in 1954, only to re-arrest him in 1955. He remained in prison for ten years until the President of Iraq, Arif, interceded on his behalf. Shortly after, Nasser rearrested him and hanged the sixty year old man after ten months in 1966. Sayyid died a true martyr, unlike the false ones that people want us to believe.
Women were not spared. The inhuman treatment of Zainab Ghazali was a typical example. She was among those arrested in 1965 and remained in Nasser's prison until she was released after his death by Sadat in 1971. Throughout her jail term, Nasser took particular interest in persecuting her in a manner which, as described in her book, Ayyamun Min Hayati (Return of the Pharoah), was the worst any sadist will inflict on his victim.
But there is a twist, always. Nasser was neither saved by his rhetoric nor by ruthlessness. He was crushingly defeated in 1967, a year after Qutb was hanged. Within six days, the tyrannical regimes of Egypt, Syria and Jordan that oppressed the Brothers were humiliated by the Israelis. Nasser offered resignation to the Egyptian people. They refused. Three years later, he collapsed and died. "And never think that God is unmindful of what tyrants do…"
Nasser's Minister of War, Shamsuddin Badran, along with Hamza al-Basyuni, oversaw his human rights abuses. Badran was as cunning as he was ruthless. One day, he oversaw the cruel treatment of Zainab al-Ghazali who was beaten to unconsciousness repeatedly. She begged to sit on the flow as her feet were bleeding and she could not stand. Badran replied: "No! No! Where is your God now? Call Him to save you from my hands! Yet call Nasser and you'll see what will happen! Answer me, where is your God? Answer me, you B…" In the end, Badran was himself accused of spying for the Soviets; he was arrested and tried by Sadat for his heinous crimes.
As it turned out, the violent repression of the Brothers prolonged their survival. Though outlawed, the group is the greatest opposition party in Egypt, running the most efficient social services in the country. Elsewhere in Palestine, Israel still has to confront its off-shoot, Hamas. And throughout the Middle East, similar groups that are off-shoots of the Brothers continue to be the nightmares of Washington, the only veritable challengers of American imperialism.
Early this week, the half-brother of Saddam, Barzani, and Bandah, were executed by hanging in Iraq. That is another twist. Tyrants do pay for their sins. Whether it was in the Palace of the End or in villages, these were people who had the liberty to kill, maim, and torture thousands of fellow Iraqis that were not in the good books of Saddam. I am not among those who sympathise with them. Count me out.
Whenever we express delight over the departure of tyrants like Nasser, Badran, Saddam, Barzan or Banda, their sympathizers among Muslims remind us of the Prophet's injunction to mention (only) the good deeds of our dead. But as the late Abdulhamid Kisk asked, "Was Nasser among our dead. And, in any case, had Nasser any good worth remembering?"
In the same vein, it is false consciousness to regard those who persecuted their people as martyrs simply because they are no longer in the good books of their Western masters. These were agents of imperialism, of the East or West. They tortured by proxy; so when their masters came after them, we must resist their attempt to exploit our sentiments for their advantage.
I am surprised that before they were hanged neither Saddam nor any of his close associates ever confessed his atrocities and sought for forgiveness from those they persecuted or the families of those he killed. Yet, without fulfilling this first pre-requisite for forgiveness, some Muslims are willing to regard them as martyrs. Haba!
Together with those who plant bombs to kill innocent citizens all over the world, the likes of Saddam are in the same wagon of murder as the Americans who dropped bombs on innocent citizens. As I edited this article, al-Jazeera reported the death of sixty-five university students blown up by bombs in Baghdad. This is madness, not Islam, regardless of what Osama, al-Zarqawi or al-Zawahiri would say.
Despite its rhetoric, the West, and US in particular, is yet to prove its commitment to freedom, democracy and liberty. The brutal regimes in the Middle East are sustained and funded by the West. A recent review of torture in Egypt listed all the five members of the Security Council as topping the list of countries that export torture equipment. America, of course, is the gold medallist here with seventy-eight companies. Between 1997 and 2002 alone, US concluded deals for the provision of torture equipment worth $97million to Middle Eastern governments, as shamelessly stated by US Trade Department!
Now, which freedom and democracy is Bush talking about in Iraq? And from where did Saddam source his VX, sarin, mustard gas and other chemical weapons? They were supplied by America, France, Switzerland, India and China. And since its application in 1987 until when the US was prepared to attack Iraq recently, the CIA continued to misguide the world into believing that it was the Iranians, not Saddam, that used chemical weapons attack on Halabja.
So whom do we support among the culprits? The likes of Saddam or America? It is my opinion that we must condemn both: the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East on the one hand and the West, especially America, on whose behalf the abuses were carried out, on the other. That is why if Barzan al-Tikriti will be hanged one million times for his crimes, I will remain least bothered. But for every innocent life killed in the jail of Nasser, or the Palace of the End, or the street of Baghdad, or the World Trade Centre, or Darfur, my heart will continue to bleed.
17 Jan 2007