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Sami Sharaf: Shadows of the revolution
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 08 - 2001

photos: Khaled El-Fiqi
Sami Sharaf:
Shadows of the revolution
After a mentor's death, where does the student turn?
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Sami Sharaf stabs his index finger at the air in defiance. "I challenge any fault-finder who bears a grudge against me to come forward and confront me," he exclaims, jabbing with each word. Life has taken some dire turns for Sharaf since President Gamal Abdel-Nasser passed away. For over a decade, he wielded enormous power, but then it all began to go horribly wrong with his mentor's unexpected death.
Sharaf instinctively knew that there was life after the ominous tap on the shoulder that cast him into political oblivion. What sort of life, he knew not. He may not be a political survivor, but he has survived as a man. He faced his trials and tribulations with amazing sang-froid, although he bears the scars of imprisonment, political humiliation and ostracism. Prison has exacted a terrible toll on his health. He saved his sanity and lost his physical strength. There is a deep sense of dislocation.
Basking in the limelight of an omnipotent Nasser, his political career spiralled upwards until it was eclipsed with Anwar El-Sadat's assumption of power, following Nasser's death, and abruptly terminated with Sadat's consolidation of power in what later became known as the Corrective, or May Revolution.
Sharaf ascended the political ladder under Nasser only to be pushed out by Sadat. His appetite for politics was blunted by his time in Sadat's prisons, where his cell mates were those he had sent to prison earlier in his political career. A taste of his own medicine, his enemies say. What sort of retribution are they really after? he counters. Perhaps it is not a person, a mere mortal, they want to deprecate and nullify, but an illustrious chapter in Egypt's modern history, which cannot be omitted.
Even at 72, Sharaf still savours the memory of Nasser's legacy. His political mentor bestowed ideology and education in equal, lavish amounts. The way he describes working with Nasser, almost half a century ago, is redolent of a lost age. The preoccupations of his work were in many ways the dilemmas of his own life and times. Sharaf was cast of a mould now so badly shattered that we will not see his like again.
Sami Sharaf's world once appeared crowded with circling vultures who picked at and created open sores that festered on for many years. Sharaf contends that he was even stopped from embarking on a master's degree course at the American University in Cairo because of the harassment of a CIA agent. He now lives a relatively tranquil and sedate lifestyle -- a long way from that fateful week in which his political fortunes were reversed. "Ten years, two days and four hours," he recalls. Sharaf was imprisoned on 13 May 1971 and released on 15 May 1981.
Sharaf sips his coffee and delicately picks up a piece of paper on which he has jotted down some notes before breaking into a nervous chuckle. He is meticulous: he tapes every single word of our conversation. He looks you straight in the eye, scribbles down points he wishes to come back to. Still, it is hard to believe that this is the man who instilled fear in the hearts of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in the 1960s. "No regime in the world is angelic," he concedes. "I am not apologetic."
Sharaf's unceremonious demise abruptly overturned his standing as a political heavyweight. On 28 September 1961, he was appointed minister of state for presidential affairs and moved to Manshiyet Al-Bakri, Nasser's residence, which also housed the presidential office. It was a position he retained after Nasser's death. His office was virtually the nerve centre of the Nasser regime: every piece of information relevant to the state passed through it before reaching the president. Sharaf's job entailed poring over all the information gathered and presenting it in a concise form to the president. After Nasser, the mood and tempo of work dramatically changed. Nasser worked around the clock. "We could phone him at any time, even well past midnight, to relay an important message. Not so with Sadat. At my first meeting with him as president, he made it crystal clear that under no circumstance should he be disturbed after 9.00pm. Thursdays and Fridays were also holidays, he insisted. He would not want to be bothered with any information on his days of rest," Sharaf recalls.
For all his memories, Sharaf is not an old man hanging on to the past. His reluctance to engage his critics and detractors publicly puzzles some. He has kept his distance from the media. But he is not camera shy. On the contrary, he has participated in several programmes dealing with Nasser and the 23 July Revolution, including those of the BBC, Orbit and a number of Arab broadcasts. Every now and again, he blurts out acerbic and often poignant comments and makes observations that betray his inner anguish. But he is also a very level-headed man with a strong sense of history, who knows all too well that he played his part and the curtain has fallen. And he doesn't necessarily regret that there were no curtain calls, either.
Sharaf's upbringing was comfortably middle- class. His father was a physician who was frequently posted in different parts of the country as a Ministry of Health inspector. He attended schools in Heliopolis, Minya -- in Upper Egypt -- and Mansoura, in the Delta. The mansion in Heliopolis where he was born, his maternal grandfather's, is now a school. At election time it doubles up as a polling station and Sharaf enjoys visiting the house he grew up in to cast his vote. "It brings back fond memories of innocent childhood. The polling booth was my grandmother's old bedroom," he muses.
Born and bred in Heliopolis, Sharaf is passionate about the north-eastern Cairo suburb. He even founded Al-Shams Club. Two of his brothers, ambassadors Ezzeddin and Omar Sharaf, were diplomats. Alone among his siblings he opted for a military career. He was an officer, they were gentlemen.
Sharaf's background did not alienate him from his fellow officers, who hailed from the lower rungs of the middle class. Indeed, it was regarded as an asset. His command of the English language stood him in good stead. "I owe everything to Nasser," he insists. Sharaf was seduced by Nasser's charisma, his strength of character and single-minded sense of purpose. To this day he calls Nasser "Al-Rayyis" -- the Chief. He is unapologetic about his adoration of the late leader.
Today, in the post-Cold War world, Sharaf seems to be on the wrong end of every home- policy argument. However, it would be harsh to call him an anachronistic misfit. He may be from the wrong side of the political tracks for some, but he played a vitally important role as an important member of Nasser's close circle of aides in the 1960s. Sharaf acted as Nasser's eyes and ears: he reported everything of consequence, often twice or thrice a day.
Sharaf's talents still provoke strong passions and even stranger paradoxes. After having a go at medicine and commerce at Cairo (then Fouad I) University, he enrolled at the Military Academy in 1947 and graduated two years later with flying colours. Nasser, who was teaching a course at the Artillery School, Almaza, spotted him in the artillery corps and was impressed with the bright young man. Nasser sparked genuine enthusiasm in the demoralised ranks of the Egyptian army after the 1948 defeat of the Arab armies in Palestine.
Sharaf was an impressionable 23-year- old at the time, and he vividly remembers the encounter, which involved fetching a packet of Craven A for his chain- smoking superior. The initial rapport between student and teacher soon matured into mutual trust and respect. Sharaf was about to be appointed air defence radar instructor when the 23 July Revolution took place.
Few now remember that Sharaf was first jailed under Nasser, an accessory victim of the January 1953 so-called artillery movement crackdown. But he quickly recovered Nasser's trust and won special favour with his mentor. He is still faithful to that mentor today. The Nasser regime's alleged human rights violations were not unique in scale and thoroughness, Sharaf argues.
Nasser chose him to work in military intelligence, where he was entrusted with monitoring the dispatches of foreign correspondents. In other words, he was chief watchdog. Over the years, many of his peers felt he had metamorphosed into the most trenchant of propagandists -- worse, that he did the government's dirty jobs. His style and mannerisms aroused antagonism, even revulsion. Sharaf was notorious for his nasty (some would say vulgar, even obscene) notations. He acknowledges that an early career in the military hardened him.
Politics, however, was Sharaf's first love. You can't escape what holds your heart, and he's still interested in politics -- indeed, fired up about the future of this country. "My life is behind me now, but I like to keep abreast of developments," he allows cautiously. But he keeps his distance from political parties, including the Nasserists. Sharaf was a founding member of the Nasserist Arab Democratic Party and, as first head of its electoral committee, he supervised its first electoral campaign in 1995. However, he resigned his position and withdrew from the party for personal reasons, which he does not care to explain.
Sharaf has no time for the Muslim Brotherhood. After the assassination attempt on Nasser's life in Alexandria's Manshiya Square in 1954, security was tightened. The Brotherhood was implicated. A crackdown ensued, in which thousands of its members were rounded up and the leadership executed following a notorious military trial.
"The Brotherhood leaders met British Embassy's Oriental counsellor, Trevor Evans, regularly at the villa of Dr Mohamed Salem in Maadi. The Brothers wanted to control the 23 July Revolution. Simultaneously, they were asking for arms, allegedly to fight the British. Apparently, they stockpiled the weapons to use against us in a counter-coup."
Sharaf is equally dismissive of the far left. "The Communists were the first to criticise the Revolution, never accepting it as such. They persistently referred to us as a 'military junta.' Nasser used to say that he was the most leftist of the lot. He stood for radical, constructive change." But he does not place them in the same league as the Brotherhood. "In 1956, the Communist stand was exemplary. The Communists enjoyed a honeymoon period with the Revolution," Sharaf concedes.
A week is a long time in politics, and the most uncertain week in his now long forsaken political career was the one that began on Thursday 12 May 1971.
"I visited the Sadat residence. I was ushered into his office, which was rather strange, or more to the point, ominous. Sadat typically received me in his garden. He usually sat on that ridiculous swing of his," Sharaf mused.
Sadat's arrangements must have been meticulously planned, Sharaf believes. "The doors were closed behind me. I saw the shadow of security men. Next, Sadat walked in. 'Tell Shaarawi [Gomaa, the then Interior Minister and head of the Arab Socialist Union's Vanguard Organisation] that I accept his resignation,' Sadat said. So I asked, did he resign? He said no, but added that Shaarawi had betrayed his trust." By the time Sharaf had recovered his composure, he had also realised that his time was up. Sharaf then proceeded to tell Sadat that he couldn't tell a lie. Briefly abashed, Sadat quickly recovered his good spirits. "You need a rest, Sami. You know I can't do without you," he suggested. Sharaf eventually did as he was told. Yet the niggling suspicion remained that some terrible symbolic act had taken place.
Sharaf met with Gomaa later in the evening and decided there and then to tender his resignation. Sharaf had had enough. By the end of the week he was convicted of high treason and was on death row, in solitary confinement, wearing the blue overalls of Abu Zaabal Maximum Security Prison. Sharaf insists it was not a tug-of- war, that the so-called plotters , whom Sadat put on trial for an attempted coup against him, had no designs on power and that they were completely unsuspecting. "Power was in our grasp. We didn't need Sadat as a puppet. We could have removed Sadat if we had wanted to," he explains. "The presidential guard was under my control."
A decade after his incarceration, in July 1980, his health was so poor that Sharaf was transferred to the prisoners' ward at Qasr Al-Aini Hospital. To say that the decade he spent in prison changed the man is a gross understatement. August 1981 was a turning point. His health had deteriorated further; Nasser's children and Ashraf Marwan, Nasser's son-in-law, feared for his life and pleaded with Sadat to permit Sharaf to fly to London for treatment. "Can you act as his guarantor?" Sadat asked Marwan. "Yes," came the prompt reply.
Although so much is known about the Nasser era, and Sharaf's role therein, enormous gaps remain in his political background, like missing pieces of a jigsaw. At Sharaf's request, we stop short of taking these thoughts further. Suffice it to say that 30 years is, frankly, a long time to wait before spilling the beans.
It is, of course, as one of the powerful men outfoxed by Sadat that he is destined to be best remembered, although Sharaf is averse to donning the mantle of suffering. Three decades later, sitting in his living room, he seems remote from the deep recesses of his controversial past. If it is any consolation, Sharaf has survived Sadat, biologically if not politically. In hindsight, it seems obvious, even to Sharaf, that Nasser's closest allies grossly underestimated his successor's political savvy. Their unpardonable transgression was to owe allegiance to Nasser, Sharaf asserts. He appears a little detached reminiscing over painful memories. Time, as they say, is the greatest healer.
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