Egyptian Politicians and Prison: A Long History of Hypochondria

Egyptians got the first glimpse of their 30-year ex-dictator last week, and he and his crew did their best to choreograph a pathetic performance. While the cage is standard-issue Egyptian justice system (although I hadn’t seen the wire mesh grille before), Hosni Mubarak’s stretcher, the Qur’ans he and his sons were clutching and their death-bed act of general malaise were all vintage sympathy grubbing.

Considering how strenuously the Mubarak folks had to play down the impending doom behind an unplanned presidential succession prior to January 25, Mubarak’s various health problems (heart attacks, depression, fainting, 2-hour comas — known among octogenarians as ‘naps’ — and sunburn at his Sharm El-Sheikh palace-prison) are somewhat abrupt. The following cartoon (“Before the Revolution”/”After the Revolution”) summarizes the fakery behind both performances of the 82/83 year old.

[The speech bubbles are from off-screen Mubarak supporters. Panel one: “The president’s health is great…” “He’s doing his job completely naturally…” “When he walks, we don’t know how to keep up with him!” Panel two: Mubarak has an ear infection. “My Eye” (expression of sympathy) “For shame, everyone…” “We’re sorry, Oh ‘President’ (in scare quotes)”]

As a historian of 20th century Egyptian politics, I’ve recently turned up similar performances by politicians opposed to the Wafd party who were put under house arrest in World War II. The following comes from the British National Archive Foreign Office file 141/941 of documents from the Embassy in Cairo.

Ali Maher, an incredibly influential politician allied with King Farouk who helped write the 1923 Constitution and was twice prime minister, was arrested in 1942 both for his Axis sympathies and for inciting youth political groups. Even though he was only age 54, his wife frequently complained to the British Embassy of his health and general depression, in March 1944 that he was “seriously ill with rheumatic fever and that his life may be in danger.” But upon leaving internment upon the fall of the Wafd, the pallor of death left his lips and he lived another 16 years! His career culminated melodramatically as the Free Officers’ first post-Farouk prime minister in 1942. He didn’t last long in office before the purges of the pashas began.

Makram ʿEbeid, long the Finance Minister of the Wafd Party, resigned in 1942 when he lost a power struggle with Fu’ad Serag Ed-Din, a young and wealthy hotshot who ultimately ran the Wafd for five decades of insignificance until his death in 2000. Prime Minister Nahhas locked ʿEbeid up for more vindictive reasons the following year when ʿEbeid published a tell-all expose with scores of allegations of nepotism and government corruption. Makram’s brother George came to the British just one month after they dealt with Ali Maher’s swooning bout to tell them that “his brother was slowly dying, and it was imperative, if his health was to be saved, to get him out and allow him to reside in a congenial place, receive visitors and occupy his mind with some literary pursuit.” After his release from prison, ʿEbeid went STRAIGHT back to being Finance Minister now in an opposition cabinet and held the post for two more years. He lived until 1961.

These three men were (are) masters of the political arts. Even in their darkest hour, they were willing to use any tactic for an advantage, and not to give up the illusion. I dare say Mubarak (koff, koff) envisions himself back on top, in an eighth term in 2023. Why else bother?

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About ericschewe

PhD, History. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
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