A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nabawi Isma‘il

On a subject other than Iran — though perhaps one with echoes in Tehran today — Nabawi Isma‘il has died. I'm sure a great many younger Egyptians reading the news will find the obituary as meaningless as most outsiders will, but once the name was feared. As Anwar Sadat's last Interior Minister, it was Isma‘il who presided over the fierce crackdown of September 1981. Lashing out at a wide range of critics and in response to Islamist and other protests, Sadat and Isma‘il struck at a broad spectrum of targets, arresting the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (‘Umar al-Tilmisani at the time), deposing the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, who was internally exiled to a desert monastery, arresting Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the journalist/commentator whose later book Autumn of Fury was a ferocious retaliation for his treatment, dismantling Sadat's image rather thoroughly. Also arrested were officials of most of the opposition parties, including the ancient Fuad Seraggeddin of the Wafd Party, who had been King Faruq's last Interior Minister and was hardly a physical threat to the state.

The September crackdowns were an immediate trigger for the assassination of Sadat on October 6 of that year.

A career State Security man, Isma‘il was much feared at the time, and long after he left office radical Islamists were still trying to assassinate him. He seems to have been largely forgotten by the time he died, apparently yesterday. It's also easy to forget, in Mubarak's Egypt today, that in his first years in office Husni Mubarak went far to dismantle some of the more unpleasant aspects of the last days of Sadat: releasing the prisoners, restoring Pope Shenouda, replacing Isma‘il. In time, his government too would come to depend on State Security heavily, but never with as wide-ranging an attempt to silence critics as that of September 1981.

The image above is from the Ministry of the Interior's website, which has a gallery of former Interior Ministers.

So far, by the way, the label "obituaries" on this blog brings up only Ja‘far Numeiri and Nabawi Isma‘il. I hope eventually to find someone I can say unreservedly good things about, but not this time.

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