Obituary: Lutfi el-Kholi

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS said that prophets are misunderstood in their own lifetime. This was almost certainly true of Lutfi el-Kholi, one of Egypt's leading columnists and political activists.

During the course of several decades, Kholi metamorphosed from the cerebral dynamo behind Gamal Abdel Nasser's ideology of "Arab socialism" in the 1960s, to become Anwar Sadat's sworn foe in the 1970s, a champion of Palestinians and Egypt's poor in the 1980s, and a born-again campaigner for peace with Israel in the 1990s.

His last years were blighted by perhaps the most virulent vilification that the turbulent world of Egyptian debate has witnessed. To many, the great patriot had become the ultimate turncoat. He bore these attacks with a courage, determination and integrity that won plaudits even from his bitterest enemies.

He had begun his political life as a member of the Egyptian Communist Party, and in the 1940s wrote a number of anti-government tracts. However his ultimate political home was the leftist Tagammu (Coalition) party, which he joined when Sadat was president.

Kholi had trained as a lawyer, graduating from Cairo University in 1949, and as well as journalism he also wrote plays (e.g. Kings' Coffee Shop, 1955, and Rabbits, 1964) and screenplays, the best-known of which was The Sparrow, in which the lack of freedom of expression in Arab states was blamed for their defeat in the 1967 Arab- Israeli war.

In 1963 he joined the newspaper Al-Ahram. Hassanein Heikal, Nasser's literary confidant and himself a journalist, recognised Kholi's versatile intellect, and in 1966 saw that he was appointed editor-in-chief of Al- Talia ("The Vanguard"), a campaigning journal which inspired a generation of new writing talent. Kholi's political mentors (including Nasser) exploited his ability to converse candidly with all strata of society. As the Israeli academic Ginat Rami put it, Kholi became the "conducting rod between the ruling elite and the masses".

However in 1977 Sadat stripped Kholi of his editorship. It was not the first time his outspoken anti- establishment views had landed him in trouble; he had previously ended up in prison. Even fellow radicals could not fathom why he insisted on being such a maverick.

Kholi was a consultant to Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader, from the early 1970s. He rejected Sadat's peace deal with Israel in 1979, and was in charge of an official Egyptian charity that backed the Palestinian "Intefadeh", or uprising, of 1988- 93. Yet he put himself out on a limb to create Egypt's first "peace movement" in April 1998, precisely when Israeli-Egyptian relations were at their lowest ebb for decades. In 1991, he had been a member of the Egyptian delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid, and after Arafat signed the Oslo peace accord with Israel in 1993, Kholi changed to become one of Egypt's chief advocates of peace with Israel.

The Egyptian/Israeli peace treaty of 1979, the first between any Arab nation and Israel, has lasted ever since - although Egypt suffered ostracism from the rest of the Arab world until 1990. Peace with Israel has therefore been quite unpopular on "the Arab street", especially whenever it was perceived that Israel was breaking the spirit of the agreement (e.g. invading Lebanon in 1982, building settlements). The Egyptian Writers Union and other academic bodies maintain a "boycott" on normalisation with Israel, which Kholi - bravely or wilfully - broke.

In the last few years Kholi and his colleagues in the peace movement, Abdel-Moneim Said and Salah Bassiouni, were blacklisted by their peers, yet pressed ahead. They felt inspired by their meetings with Israeli, European, Jordanian and Palestinian academics in Denmark, where in January 1997 they had signed the "Copenhagen Declaration" and launched the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace.

Kholi denied any inconsistency between his former and later stands. To him, "normalisation" with the Jewish state was not an end in itself, but rather the ultimate "weapon" which Egypt could wield to achieve justice in the region. Egyptians who disagreed were "sideliners clinging to a rigid, facile stance, oblivious to change . . . obsessed with form over content". Nor did he spare the old foe. On a controversial visit to protest at the Har Homa development near Jerusalem, he told Benjamin Netanyahu: "You are not building homes; you are building graves to bury the peace."

Kholi was periodically feted and rejected by Egypt's establishment. He joined Egypt's leading intellectual think-tank, the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in the 1970s, but was later forced into temporary exile in Paris; only to return, advocating human rights, low- cost housing and a bank for the poor. For a diehard socialist, he was more au fait than many half his age with the realities of globalisation, and the potential of telecommunications to eradicate borders.

For many years Kholi wrote an influential column in Al-Ahram. Journalists there paid tribute to his candour and conviction, his promotion of new talent, his imperturbable logic, piercing gaze and his sly sense of humour. The paper's cartoonist, George Bahgory, described his mane of white hair which "floated about a large and leonine head, as if whipped into disarray by a storm . . . Perhaps his thoughts generated this halo of crackling energy."

Yet Kholi's enthusiasms came at a cost. For signing the Copenhagen Declaration and visiting Israel, he faced disciplinary procedures from his Tagammu Party, and was investigated by a committee of the Egyptian Journalists' Guild, with a view to possible expulsion. Mohamed Sid Ahmed, a fellow columnist and friend, initially backed Kholi's peace quest, but later balked because he felt it was premature. The result was a bitter public spat. Sid Ahmed still blames Kholi for thinking that he was leading a "grassroots movement", whereas in fact he was "a general without an army . . . isolated from his source of legitimacy".

None the less, to Sid Ahmed, Lutfi el-Kholi remained a "warrior-knight who never shrank from challenging . . . the unanimous view".

Lutfi el-Kholi, journalist, playwright and political activist: born Qalyoubia Governorate, Egypt 1927; married; died Cairo 4 February 1999.