“Why is it that all the good people die in this country?” (Bassem Sabry, 24 March 2013)
I saw a couple of friends recently – both of them had been reasons I loved the “City Victorious”, but who had lately moved away from Cairo. We hadn’t met up together in a very long time, and we were talking about how so many of our friends had since left Cairo, for various reasons. Our point was simple – if they all leave, then what is this grand city anymore? If they are all gone, then what does this city mean to us, personally, anymore?
And then the phone rang – right then and there. And I learned that my friend, colleague, and comrade, Bassem Sabry, was also … gone.
We talked about how so many people in Egypt seemed to have gone mad over the past year or so – such was the destructive, ugly and perverted polarisation that has taken over so much of this country’s discourse. But Bassem hadn’t gone mad. Bassem was still precisely as he had always been, against all odds. That was a great comfort to so many people, who looked at these behemoth forces of division, and saw despair… until they spoke with someone like Bassem Sabry.
We talked about hope – hope in this country, in its people and its future. Many had given up all hope for any change. But Bassem hadn’t given up hope. He was mature and sober about that hope – but it was real, and solid. We talked about people feeling Egyptian – and at the age of 31, Bassem inspired a joy in being Egyptian for so many in this generation.
Yes, he was 31 years old. A friend in Chicago wrote me: “He was only 31? I can’t believe he was only 31.” If at 31, Bassem Sabry was a blogger, writer, producer, analyst, strategist, and communications expert – well, what might he have been at 41? Or 51? Or 61?
Bassem began writing through his blog, and then began writing for some of the most prestigious outlets on Arab politics in the world. He was often surprised that people would be interested in what he wrote. But, of course, it was not something particularly peculiar at all. Bassem, over the course of the Egyptian revolution, marked out a space as one Egypt’s most balanced and composed writers. He never gave in to extremes, even when everyone else around was more than happy to.
For many moons, we pondered how we might write our first joint piece together – and we came close a few months ago. We didn’t, and that’s my fault. I would have loved to have had Bassem Sabry’s name, and my name, in a joint byline. It would have been a great pleasure. It’s my loss that now, I never will.
I met Bassem Sabry through the 25 January Revolution. It’s not a very popular thing to say anymore. But both of us believed in that revolution’s potential. I’ll be forever grateful that the revolution allowed me to meet people like Bassem. And it is the revolution’s, and Egypt’s loss that Bassem is now no longer here to fight for it. And fight for it, he did – with all his heart.
He didn’t fight for it with his ego, as so many have done. No – he fought with his heart, and that meant he was incredibly discreet and quiet about the work he had actually done, behind so many different scenes and in so many bizarre situations. He was incessantly private about his political affiliations in all of his writing – because he truly wanted there to be as few barriers as possible between him and his readers. In an Egypt where schism and division are the norms, Bassem was one of a kind. He wanted, so much, to be the non-partisan commentator that was so rare – and which we all saw as so needed – in the public sphere. And he was.
We were together in Tahrir Square during protests in 2012. I still remember him clearly as we strode through the square together. We talked about the prospects for a new Arab political ideology – one that would be true to the Arab world’s heritage, but that would be vibrant and dynamic, beyond the failures that Egypt had already seen. We often talked about his political work behind the scenes, though. I was always so honoured that my deeply private friend would confide in me about some of the difficult decisions and quandaries he found himself in.
But he went through those difficult decisions, avoiding the limelight, even though he could have very easily become an incredibly famous man in the process. He did so, because he wanted so very much to help build a better Egypt. He called his blog “An Arab Citizen” – even though he knew that this was an aspiration, as opposed to being a fact. He wanted to help build that concept of citizenship, where all Egyptians and all Arabs could genuinely claim that there was an equitable and just social contract between the ruled and the ruler. Where, indeed, they were citizens. That was Bassem’s work. That was his mission.
It came at a price. Bassem at heart was a great optimist. But – and he was very reserved about this fact in public – he was deeply and terribly pained by the experience of particularly the last year. The pain he felt as he saw Egyptian turn on Egyptian troubled him tremendously. He lived to see the revolution that so many Egyptians of his generation wanted to be a part of – but he was also profoundly wounded to see the failure of Egyptians to live up to that revolution.
But I never had any doubt that if the revolution were to rise again, Bassem Sabry would be, as he always had been, right in the thick of it –hidden in plain sight, giving so much of himself without anyone knowing about it.
The last time I saw Bassem Sabry, he was visiting me in my home. He always found great joy in playing with my young daughter, and insisted that I prepare myself for the days ahead, where he would teach her Latin, philosophy, astrophysics, and all sorts of subjects that he would learn in order to teach her to be a renaissance woman. My daughter, incidentally, is not even four years old – but it didn’t stop Bassem from planning.
We all left the house together. I put my daughter in her car seat, and then went over to say bye to Bassem.
He was about to walk away, when my daughter told her mother, “I want to kiss Bassem goodbye.”
I don’t think I have ever heard my daughter say that about anyone.
He came back, and she kissed him goodbye. And that was the last time I ever saw Bassem Sabry.
We buried Bassem Sabry Wednesday. We had all gathered at the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque for his funeral prayer. For a young man of 31 years old, so many people were there – and from so many different walks of life. The condolences received for Bassem Sabry were from across the political spectrum, and from around the world. He was not simply an Egyptian analyst – he was a globally respected one, and, more importantly, a globally loved one.
When his funeral prayer finally took place in a suburb west of Cairo, I thought there would only be a handful of us. There had been complications about where the prayer would actually be, owing to some paperwork in releasing the body. But the procession of cars and people that I saw on Wednesday evening, I cannot remember seeing before, except perhaps on television. From far and wide, people drove for hours, to reach Bassem.
When the funeral prayer was over, we walked to his final resting place. He was placed in the ground, and his friends and family supplicated for his soul. As the grave was sealed, I placed the last pieces of soil on it, and swept the remaining pieces of earth upon it. I couldn’t quite let go of the door of the crypt – but eventually, I did.
I was honoured to call Bassem Sabry a companion – a colleague – and most of all, a friend. At a time when Egypt sorely needed voices that rejected destructive polarisation and mutual hatred, Bassem was one of the few that insisted on standing for far loftier principles. He believed in a better Egypt for all Egyptians – and worked tirelessly, often very quietly and without taking credit, in pursuit of that goal.
It is my loss that I did not know him longer, and I congratulate each and every person who knew him for the blessing they thus received in having known him at all. If you want to honour his memory, I suggest you do what he did: Start building something beautiful, and just put the hate away.
Rest in peace, Bassem. To say you will be sorely missed would be a tremendous understatement.
This was first published in Mada Masr at www.madamasr.com.
Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com