Journalists and intellectuals riding the bandwagon of military rule in Egypt are a dime a dozen these days, but Gamal al-Ghitany is a special case.
His 1974 novel Zayni Barakat is considered a seminal study of postcolonial disappointment, a vivid account of how the hopes placed in a charismatic leader were suffocated by a net of state surveillance and torture.
Al-Ghitany, who was jailed for half a year during the regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, has firsthand experience of the horrors of totalitarianism.
It may come as a surprise, then, that in post-Mubarak Egypt, al-Ghitany has emerged as one of the most outspoken proponents of military rule and the draconian suppression of dissent.
What can this tell us about postcolonial literature and the Arab Spring’s authoritarian turn?
Next to Naguib Mahfouz’s works, Zayni Barakat has come to define the historical Arab novel of the postcolonial era, both in the Arab world itself and in the West.
In 1988, it became the first Arabic novel to be published by Penguin publishing company, as translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab with an introduction by Edward Said—a seal of literary respectability.
It has since found a secure niche in the syllabi of Western university courses, as well as in that hazy construct known as the canon of world literature.
Written shortly after Nasser’s death, Zayni Barakat is set in sixteenth-century Egypt, a seemingly anachronistic stage for exploring the sociopolitical dramas of the twentieth century.
The plot covers approximately one year, beginning with the appointment of the eponymous Zayni Barakat as governor of Cairo to the immediate aftermath of the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517.
Told from the perspective of various narrators, the story follows the meteoric rise of Barakat, a man without a past. From his position of influence, the book traces Barakat’s growing popularity among the long-suffering population, as well as his eventual betrayal of that support.
A striking feature of the novel is its plot, which defies and even frustrates the expected trajectory for such books. Typically, in historical novels, individual actions combine with the fate of various protagonists to move society as a whole forward. Zayni Barakat is, however, an account of how the actions of individuals cancel each other out to produce a state of stagnation that crushes the ambitions of those striving for social progress.
The accounts of multiple, unreliable narrators overlap and contradict each other, so that we do not know exactly what happened, but we know enough to gather it was not pretty.
As projected back into the sixteenth century, the failure of postcolonialism is represented through the failure of both the novel’s potential heroes—Zayni Barakat and the young Said al-Juhayni, al-Ghitany’s alter ego—to realize their heroic roles.
At the beginning of the novel, Zayni Barakat has all the trappings of a heroic statesman. He appears as a spark of hope in a corrupt system, initially refusing his appointment as governor and thereby demonstrating his lack of interest in political power.
But Barakat dashes all hopes for his exceptionalism in a haunting scene in which he addresses the population from the pulpit of the venerable al-Azhar mosque—an obvious reference to Nasser’s speech in the same venue during the 1956 Suez crisis.
Zayni Barakat’s populist rhetoric is glaringly juxtaposed with the reality of a totalitarian state – the one dissenting member of the audience, Said, is dragged away by Zayni’s secret police after shouting “Liar!”
Said’s putative heroism is limited to this single display of futile bravado, which serves only to land him in prison.
This frustration of heroic potential is compounded by the prominence of spy chief Zakariyya, an almost omniscient character who runs a system of total surveillance throughout Egypt.
What at first seems like an inevitable clash between Zayni Barakat, the reformer, and Zakariyya, the ruthless master of the dark arts of torture and monitoring, develops into a symbiotic relationship in which each recognizes his need for the other.
The novel has often been described as Kafkaesque. But while Kafka’s narrations center on the point of view of the individual who is trapped in an all-encompassing and inescapable system, al-Ghitany tells much of his story through the perspective of Zakariyya, who is the embodiment of the system itself.
The people of Egypt, meanwhile, appear to have no moral identity at all. They are a ship lost on an ever-shifting sea of propaganda, manipulation, rumor, and uncertainty – as Zakariyya puts it, “a herd that moves whichever way you move it.”
On the surface, the novel’s depiction of state terror, its nefarious and debilitating effects on society, and the country’s subsequent defeat by a foreign power (the Ottomans, standing in for Israel) allow the novel to appear as an indictment of the totalitarian trajectory of post-independence Egypt.
However, al-Ghitany’s evasive treatment of the enigmatic Barakat complicates this reading.
Unlike other characters, whose perspectives emerge in first-person accounts, Zayni Barakat himself is only spoken about, his motivations always in doubt: Is he a fallen hero? A manipulative villain? An incompetent dreamer?
Historical context can never fully determine literature, but the dramatic events in contemporary Egypt seem to illuminate the expertly crafted ambiguity at the heart of Zayni Barakat.
Rereading the novel against its author’s recent political statements shows the work in a new light. At the same time, this new perspective on Zayni Barakat helps us make sense of the militarist and hypernationalist fervor that has taken hold of large segments of the Egyptian cultural scene since the military takeover that ousted President Mohammad Morsi on July 3, 2013.
By that time, al-Ghitany had received numerous national and international awards for his fiction, becoming an established cultural figure in Egypt.
For almost two decades, he served as editor-in-chief of the leading Egyptian literary review, Akhbar al-Adab. He continues to publish cultural and political commentary in his regular column in the state newspaper al-Akhbar as well as in other newspapers and journals and on television.
As Samia Mehrez has documented, al-Ghitany’s proximity to state power increasingly shaped his commentary during the Mubarak years. In the summer of 2013, al-Ghitany used his platform to cheer the antigovernment demonstrations and the subsequent coup.
He has since taken an active role in shoring up support for the military and advocating for the forcible suppression of the regime’s critics.
In al-Ghitany’s voluminous writings on recent events, three central themes stand out: the unquestioned status of the army as the “backbone of the state;” the existence of a conspiracy of internal and external enemies who must be eradicated; and the role of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the latest incarnation of the great national leader with Nasser as his predecessor.
Al-Ghitany cut his teeth as a journalist during the Six Day War in 1967. Ever since, he has been an admirer of the Egyptian army as a symbol of national strength.
During the massive June 30 demonstrations against President Morsi, al-Ghitany called for the military to step in and “transform the political landscape,” assuring his readers and the opposition that “the army does not want to rule, and we have to trust that.”
A day later, he insisted a military takeover was necessary to save Egypt from the Palestinian organization Hamas.
When the coup took place on July 3, al-Ghitany hailed it as “a miracle of history” and suggested that the new, post-coup constitution should grant the army the permanent right to intervene in Egyptian politics in situations of national disunity or large-scale demonstrations.
Such enthusiastic admiration for the Egyptian army as a neutral arbiter uninterested in gaining or wielding power is surprising, given that military men ruled Egypt with an iron hand for almost sixty years before the January 25, 2011 revolution.
While it reflects the standard nationalist narrative permeating the Egyptian state media and educational system, it seems odd coming from an author who prides himself on his historical knowledge.
Al-Ghitany’s vision of Egypt rests on a state of war in which the nation is conceived as a single body, free of divisions and ambiguities, and the army as the agent of this unified self.
Al-Ghitany’s adulation for the Egyptian army stands in perfect symmetry with his hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that he describes as “a cancer to be eradicated by the army.”
While for al-Ghitany the army is the institution par excellence of the Egyptian state, the Muslim Brotherhood is deeply foreign and alien to Egypt. It is part of a global Islamist movement supported by Qatar, Turkey, and—surprisingly— the United States.
Indeed, for al-Ghitany, the Brotherhood represents a fully equipped foreign army, which occupied Egypt through Morsi’s presidency and subsequently committed crimes unprecedented in the country’s history.
Al-Ghitany is by no means alone in his antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood: opposition to political Islam has deep roots among Egyptian cultural elites, going back at least half a century.
Nonetheless, the question of dealing with the mass sit-ins of pro-Morsi protesters that followed the coup divided even those who supported Morsi’s ouster.
Al-Ghitany took a hard-line position, advocating for the dispersal of the sit-ins by force regardless of the inevitability of bloodshed and accusing anyone working toward a political solution of “supporting violence perpetrated against the Egyptian army and people.”
He flatly denied confirmed reports about the army’s execution-style killing of protesters. He characterized statements by witnesses at the protests as lies, and presented reports such as those by Human Rights Watch as part of an international propaganda campaign against Egypt that had to be countered.
When the Egyptian security forces finally broke up the sit-ins on August 14, perpetrating what Human Rights Watch called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history,” al-Ghitany celebrated the massacres as “excellent actions that need to be extended to all levels” and praised the brave soldiers and police officers who were “cleansing” Egypt.
For al-Ghitany, the enemies of the state are not limited to the Brotherhood. Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who was vice president of the post-coup interim government and its most prominent member internationally, drew withering criticism from al-Ghitany for his repeated attempts to reach a peaceful solution with supporters of the ousted president.
By failing to participate in the Brotherhood’s demonization, ElBaradei was, in al-Ghitany’s eyes, sabotaging the Egyptian state, undermining the heroic struggle undertaken by the police and acting as “a danger to the people and the state.”
ElBaradei reacted to this article via Twitter, lamenting “It seems that nothing from my efforts to spare the country from a cycle of violence reaches the government newspapers except articles about me posing a ‘danger to the people and the state.’”
When ElBaradei finally resigned his post in protest at the August 14 killings, al-Ghitany was furious. The resignation, he claimed, constituted a pre-planned act of sabotage that stabbed the Egyptian army and police in the back and tarnished the image of the Egyptian state in the international arena.
Al-Ghitany demanded the security agencies investigate anyone ElBaradei had appointed during his tenure and anyone he had had contact with, and that ElBaradei himself face legal consequences for his treason.
This Orwellian scenario—massacres for which no one is held accountable, but a trial for the individual who protested against them—would have been right at home in the world of Zayni Barakat.
The third striking characteristic of al-Ghitany’s recent writings is his depiction of General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi as the strong leader of Egypt who continues a line of heroic military men stretching from the warrior pharaohs Ahmose and Thutmose to Nasser.
When Sisi stepped forward on July 25 to call for a mass rally supporting his “fight against terror,” al-Ghitany was enraptured: Sisi, he wrote, was a new Nasser.
The author described Sisi as repeating the call Nasser had issued from al-Azhar’s pulpit, asking the Egyptian people for their support in his battle against British, French and Israeli aggression in the Suez canal.
And suddenly the reader stumbles, as if through the looking-glass, back into the novel Zayni Barakat, to the precise scene in which Zayni’s totalitarian and manipulative nature is revealed, when he, standing in for Nasser, addresses the people from the same pulpit.
But now the author’s role has been inverted: whereas in the novel, al-Ghitany’s alter ego, Said, was the only person brave enough to challenge the rising totalitarianism, today al-Ghitany offers not critique but unwavering support for Zayni/Sisi.
On July 25, he encouraged the masses to turn out and confer their mandate on “the leader.” He assured his audience “the leader” would ask for this only if he had absolutely certain information that the survival of Egypt was at stake.
Two weeks later al-Ghitany declared Sisi to be a leader of historic dimensions, part of an “ancient national tradition.”
Like Zayni Barakat, Sisi represents a long-awaited savior of Egypt, his purity proven by his alleged distaste for power.
While in the novel this perceived promise turns out to be a cynical propaganda scheme, in al-Ghitany’s 2013 writings the iron leadership of Sisi is celebrated with no hint of irony or misgivings.
In a sense, al-Ghitany has taken the place of the propagandists in Zayni Barakat, who inflamed the hearts of young men such as Said with the mythology of Zayni Barakat.
Conclusion: Rereading Zayni Barakat
One way to deal with the paradox of al-Ghitany the author of Zayni Barakat and al-Ghitany the propagandist of military rule is to erect a mental separation between the two; to allow the novel to exist in the lofty realm of literature while relegating al-Ghitany’s opinion pieces to the particularistic arena of Middle Eastern politics.
But this would be a missed opportunity to gain perspective on the present Egyptian situation.
Most obviously, al-Ghitany’s recent statements draw attention to a particular conception of politics. According to this view, politics is not a quest for compromise between competing interests, but rather the promotion of a monolithic national destiny that is best represented by a strong military leader who, father-like, leads the fickle and easily manipulated masses.
This conception also seems to underpin Zayni Barakat.
But while al-Ghitany’s columns are written from the perspective of an all-knowing seer with insight into the motivations and backgrounds of both domestic and foreign actors, the novel employs the postmodern technique of using a multitude of alternative and even conflicting accounts.
This ambiguity opens the book to a deconstructive reading: there is no such thing as a hero – there are only myriad incompatible narratives that fail to produce a coherent story.
Under such a reading, the radical, postmodern form of Zayni Barakat breaks with the modern historical novel and its progressive subtext.
But al-Ghitany’s political commentary supports a different, obscurantist reading of the novel – from this perspective, Zayni Barakat is the deeply personal project of a wounded idealist retreating to his desk to encode his experience into a distant historical era but deliberately obfuscating the hero’s real identity in order to avoid a closer analysis of the failures of both the hero and the system he represents.
As a result, the critique of Nasser and Nasserism in Zayni Barakat remained half-hearted and incomplete.
This is not to suggest that understanding al-Ghitany’s political activism paves the way for a definitive reading of this important and multifaceted work of literature.
But recognizing the authoritarian potential of the novel and the implicit and explicit parallels between it and post–June 30th Egypt allows us to use Zayni Barakat as a map to understand Egypt’s current cultural moment.
In that sense the novel conveys a profound sense of progress deferred, of a dormant promise that has now finally been revived. It is the story of a youthful trauma, which was previously repressed and encrypted into the form of a historical novel and has now returned to the stage of political activism.
This motif of repetition, most conspicuous in al-Ghitany’s promotion of Sisi as Nasser’s second coming, calls to mind Karl Marx’s famous observation that great historic personalities appear twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Four decades have passed between Nasser’s death and Sisi’s rise, and it is al-Ghitany and his generation of Egyptian intellectuals who seem to yearn in their old age for a repetition of what they were part of as young men: the elating days of Nasserite optimism and common purpose, which somewhere, inexplicably, took a wrong turn and ended in the dark dungeons of the security police.
Their advocacy appears rooted in the conviction that given a second chance, the promises of that era will at last be fulfilled.
The farcical nature of this project arises from the fact that this time the grand themes of Nasserism—anticolonialism and social justice—have withered away, leaving behind the same shortcomings that doomed the experiment the first time around: hypernationalism, hysteria regarding internal enemies, the dehumanization of opponents, and finally the worship of the strongman in uniform.
Unfortunately, these are the ingredients not for liberation or societal progress, but for fascism.
 Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice (London: Routledge, 2008).