Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Illusions of Absolute Control and Egypt's Revolution in "Violet and the Bekbashi"

Despite the numerous literary works over the years that addressed the Egyptian Revolution of 1952,"Violet and the Bekbashi" by Amr Kamal Hamouda (2010) is maybe the first to delve into the world of the second-ranking Free Officers (the group of officers that led the military coup in the 1952 Revolution) and their role and impact following the revolution. The novel sheds light on how a movement that began with much daring and promise, was undermined at the hands of these mostly unqualified officers, and by the illusion of absolute control and the ensuing mismanagement and corruption this entailed. The same regime we observe in today’s revolution  is the one being created at the time, and bears the roots for its own destruction.

Building a Web of Control

Spanning a period stretching from the 1950s to the 1970s, we are taken through the life of the young colonel or bekbashi Youssef Abdel Moneim (bekbashi is the rank of colonel used in pre-1952 Egypt). A patriot who displayed exceptional courage and daring during the 1948 war in Palestine, he was among the young officers disgruntled with the king and the British presence in Egypt.

Joining the Free Officers movement, he participates in the 1952 coup d'état against the king which ushered in a new era that raised the banners of independence and social justice. As a second-ranking officer, he is placed, like many others of similar rank, in positions of authority in political and economic bodies throughout the country in order to secure the new revolutionary regime's power and to ensure that all is kept tightly "under control". The latter is a key phrase mentioned throughout the novel, emblematic of the new regime's obsession to maintain and safeguard its rule and authority.

However, in this attempt, trusted cadres such as Youssef were appointed to leading roles regardless of their qualifications or competencies. Youssef is an action-oriented decisive man, not very happy with books or reading, and more comfortable with straightforward issues that are settled quickly and decisively. "He took the file on fertilisers and tried to read it. He tried to understand, but the numbers clouded in front of his eyes…all his life he hated reading…..Every new project or file was like a hammer beating on his head "

Moreover, he is uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the exigencies of political life and the intricacies of the power struggle within the regime. "Youssef followed closely what was going on…and his distaste grew. True he was counted among Gamal's (Abdel Nasser) and Abdel Hakim’s  (Field Marshall Abdel Hakim Amer, the Egyptian Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces until 1967) group…but he nonetheless had to bear the burden of having to prove his allegiance every day…even every hour”

However, the positions of power and authority that these young officers attained were intoxicating; the privileges and benefits seductive. It was no surprise that they held tenuously to their positions and strongly opposed the forces calling for the return of the army to the barracks and the restoration of democracy and legislative life during the 1954 crisis"To leave this luxury and power…to be moved every now and then between (the army barracks in) Wadi Houf, the Hackstep, El-Salloum and Al-Arish?? No, this can never be".  Yet the inevitable implications of all this was failing performance and growing corruption.

All this is paralleled by Youssef's complicated private life. Feeling trapped in a ‘dry marriage’, he jumps into an extra-marital relationship with a married woman of stunning beauty, Violet. Palestinian by birth, she finds in this dashing ex-officer and prominent official the security and protection she yearns for.  Their love affair is consummated in one of the many apartments that were entrusted to Youssef and other fellow Free Officers following the revolution, as safe houses, where weapons were stored for precautionary purposes, to be used against any possible counterrevolutionary action.

Youssef further abuses his newfound position of authority and privilege to support his mistress and her family and to pay off her husband after he discovers his wife's adultery. We see how he is involved in financial misconduct and mismanagement while heading a major corporation, showering top officials, family members, and friends with gifts and discounts as well as financing his romantic liaison. The resulting critical losses in the company lead to Youssef's removal from his position. But rather than being punished for his misconduct, he is placed elsewhere in the government structure.

Despite his financial indiscretion, Youssef is not a major player in the power games and corruption surrounding him.  We see throughout the novel how he is shifted from one position to another, indicating how he – and those of similar rank – were used and kept "under control" to ensure that they serve the system and the regime, and also to ensure that they never turn against it; a condition that at moments aroused Youssef's bitterness. However, we also see how he  himself strived to keep both his marital and extramarital life firmly under control, using money, power, connections, and sometimes force.

Tragic Implications

This however proves ultimately illusory for all parties concerned. The 1967 defeat was evidence of acute failure and loss of control, a defeat that eventually paved the way for a sharp reversal in the Nasserist era policies. One of the striking moments in the novel is when Youssef witnesses in shock and disbelief the post-1967 student and worker demonstrations in Tahrir Square calling for "democracy and change". "During his entire political life he was convinced that people revolted because of hunger or poverty or to resist an invader. But to protest and revolt for their dignity...this was something new for him."

Youssef's grip on his life gradually slips away: his wife distances herself from him, immersing herself in poker games; at the same time facing increasing difficulties in maintaining a double life and making ends meet following the post-1973 liberalisation policies. Youssef appears more a relic from the past as the world changes around him and old comrades join the bandwagon to maintain power and enrich themselves. The final blow comes from Violet who, thanks to her now-grown children, opts for the possibilities of wealth and riches in the new market-oriented Egypt, leaving Youssef to head to the Gulf region alone in search of a new beginning.

Although written about a past era, Violet and the Bekbashi is deeply relevant to our times and to the uprising Egypt is witnessing today. It carries a poignant message to those under the illusion that maintaining an iron grip and disregarding peoples' rights, freedoms and dignity can build a nation or bring prosperity. It also describes much of the corrupt and misguided practices of the regime which have eventually led to the dissatisfaction we see in the streets today.

Amr Kamal Hamouda (born 1954) is a researcher, commentator and writer on oil and energy.  This is his first novel.

Published in Ahram Online: