Columnist and screenwriter Belal Fadl came to one of our Thursday breakfasts at Mada Masr. We spoke about the difficulty of taking a stance amid political polarization and the position of intellectuals in the current stalemate.
Fadl described the complexity of taking a nuanced political position nowadays, particularly vis-à-vis the military. For him, no battle can be won with the military as an institution that is at the backbone of the state. This has cost him criticism from the revolutionary front, who don’t find his writings as confrontational as their protests.
At the same time, he has been clear about the military needing to remain outside the political game and this has cost him further criticism for being an “anti-military” figure.
For Fadl, reconfiguring the position of the military in state and society will take time, until social structures emerge and balance power. But also, the geo-politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict contribute to delaying this process.
“I am very much with the state, but not the state which dictates that people are stepped on; the state of social welfare, which is closer to the ideas of social democracy. But when you try to critique the current structures, they label you as an anarchist,” he said.
With these labels abundant, self-defense becomes recurrent. “I always said that the most important thing is to determine what you want to be, but now in Egypt the most important thing is to determine who you don’t want to be.”
Fadl critiqued the transformation of positions that intellectuals assume without engaging their audiences in the change. “My problem with some writers is that they changed their contract with the people. Some started with the idea of being against the corrupt state, then they changed with no prior notice, without explaining to their readers the reason for this transformation.” He referenced writers who, while they opposed the Hosni Mubarak regime, became radical defenders of the pro-military regime following the ouster of President and Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
For him, it is painful to see writers who changed their position to one of full acquiescence with the current regime and still speak of the revolution fondly.
Of the intellectuals he criticized, Fadl also mentioned Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the long time journalist, close to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a statist at heart. “Heikal’s critical role now is like a reference for writers and intellectuals which tells them that they can be with the state, defend its violations and try to minimize damages,” he said. He called Heikal’s position particularly dangerous. Back at the time when he headed the state-run Al-Ahram daily, he allowed dissidents to criticize the state. But he essentially defended the state.
A few days after his visit to Mada, the editors of the daily privately owned Al-Shorouk would refrain from publishing his weekly article, which questioned Heikal’s support for the military today. The article referenced an archival conversation between Heikal and Montgomery, in which Heikal admitted to not supporting the political involvement of military figures. Fadl terminated his contract with Al-Shorouk after the incident, even though he had revealed to Mada Masr the ongoing negotiations he went through with the editors in order to minimize internal censorship over his critical articles.
Just like he critiqued the change of positions among writers and intellectuals, Fadl also lamented the uncritical consumption of readers. “A large portion of the readers are used to cheering. If they love someone, they cheer for anything they write.”
Fadl praised the work of Mada Masr and other emerging news websites that try to break away from the corporate and state media binary. “I am betting on the idea that you can take people out of their attachment to [certain] writers and dispel the obsolete beliefs that intellectuals lead the way.”
“Instead of media being a power that the state can either win over or oppress, independent websites can develop an influential audience that forms a pressure group. Then the power is in the hands of this group and not the media itself, and the media can help them develop their ideas and refresh their memory,” he said. “A nation without memory is miserable. The media can be the people’s archive, their memory.”