Obituary: Lutfi el-Kholi

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there