Mohamed el-Sayed Said, a long-time contributing editor of this publication, died at the age of 59 on October 10, 2009. He was buried in his native Port Said. The intellectual elite of Egypt attended his funeral.
On a warm day in May 2005, Mohamed el-Sayed Said welcomed us into the dark, cool salon of his apartment in the Cairo district of Agouza. Speaking slowly, our friend reflected on the state of Egyptian politics days before a national referendum to amend the constitution. His demeanor was amiable but serious. We asked about “the incident” the previous January. In typically mellow tones, he retold the tale of how he had addressed President Husni Mubarak at the Cairo Book Fair.
As Mohamed taught many of us, the most meaningful phenomena defy social science’s crisp borders and partitions. The Book Fair tête-à-tête was no exception; Mohamed stood within both the “opposition” camp of Kifaya, the “Egyptian Movement for Change” that had burst onto the scene in 2004, and the intellectual “elite” that enjoyed an annual audience with Egypt’s chief executive. Had Mohamed maintained the forum’s normal diffidence toward Mubarak, the Book Fair gathering would have been unremarkable — another orchestrated occasion for the powerful to treat silence as paean. Instead, he stood up and implored the president to redress human rights violations in the Sinai, corruption in government ministries and the quotidian degradation of Egyptian citizens. Thanks to Mohamed’s intercession, the forum transformed from a ritualistic homage into a moment of exposure and forced introspection, whose effects were too potent for the president to ignore. As Mubarak received the cultural luminaries after the meeting, he leaned in close to Mohamed and said, “You’re an extremist.”
The president of Egypt was hardly the first person Mohamed had startled through his incisive and gently delivered critique. Whether writing or speaking, Mohamed prompted those friends and colleagues who received his attention to revisit their assumptions, see old problems from new perspectives and delve into literatures of which they previously had no clue. Trained in the discipline of political science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he received his doctorate in 1983, Mohamed intuitively understood what today’s political scientists are still striving to grasp: the significance of transnational processes, the interplay of civil society and state in repressive conditions, and the vicissitudes of political liberalization.
Those who encountered Mohamed — whether at the Book Fair, his home, his office at the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, or, briefly, in the buzzing den of the independent al-Badil newspaper — could not escape being illuminated, even warmed, by his mind and personality. Unpretentious but never reclusive, Mohamed touched countless people who now mourn his passing: the activists he communed with in Kifaya, the Arabic students he guided in the CASA III program, the academics and journalists he advised, and the avid fans of his columns in al-Badil and the quasi-official al-Ahram.
Mohamed’s life epitomized the bold self-scrutiny and readiness to challenge power that MERIP champions. While vivid in recent memory, the establishment of al-Badil (in 2007), the exchange with Mubarak (2005) and the co-founding of Kifaya were late chapters in a four-decade commitment to social justice. From participating in the 1968 student demonstrations to going to jail in 1989 alongside protesting steel and iron workers, Mohamed believed in the ability of popular movements to advance human equality and dignity. His writings, which include over a half dozen monographs and collections, enabled a broad community of readers, most of whom would never join in social struggle, to grasp the meaning of those campaigns. Mohamed’s most fortunate legatees are the students, young and old, around the world, who will return to his work and example.