Remembering Hani Shukrallah, the activist-journalist

As Egypt’s journalist and political activist communities gathered on Thursday to mourn the loss of prominent journalist and leftist activist Hani Shukrallah, we take his remembrance to our pages.

Although he didn’t have direct ties to the institution, Hani was a beacon for us at Mada. As a political activist who challenged the comfort of those in power and a journalist who believed in speaking truth to power, he represented a combination that inspires us and was an embodiment of the ethos that guides us.

Hani was 69 years old when he died. His activism began to take form during the student movement of the 1970s, in which Egypt’s university campuses became a hotbed of resistance against the government’s ambiguous stance on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

But Hani’s pursuit of political issues was not limited to joining effervescent, preexisting movements. It also included attempts to fundamentally shape a thinking behind a type of contentious politics that was slow to form in Egypt, from the 1980s onward. In a generous effort to highlight these endeavors, Amr Abdel Rahman, a political thinker and activist in our generation — a generation one step younger than Hani’s — synthesized Hani’s writing on a possible new communism in Egypt in the early 2000s. This writing was marked by the proposition that a capitalistic oligarchy, formed in the early 1980s, with the rise of the Mubarak government, has direct control of the state and has instigated the process of privatizing it as a whole. This process did not develop into a full-fledged capitalist project — à la the Four Asian Tigers model — because of the accumulation of a massive surplus in its hands, given the direct state control it exercised and the absence of any pressure to invest this surplus into some form of economic development. This oligarchy has also defined the possible modes of opposition to it, one that must steer clear from the presidency’s power establishment and its main economic model. In this mode of opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, which would later become a subject of Hani’s vehement criticism, managed to find room to maneuver. Unless a democractic movement stands against this oligarchy — by reactivating ties with the labor movement and the middle class — the opposition would slowly be eliminated, Hani argued. Post-2011, he would write about the ominous death of politics, saying, “The defeat of the revolution was destined to expand into a ‎trouncing of politics.”

Presented with the difficulty of reinvigorating a new leftist political movement, Hani engaged with the emergence of the fledgling human rights movement in Egypt: He was one of the people who founded the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, considered to be Egypt’s first rights organization, in 1985, later becoming a member of the board of trustees of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

While he continued to articulate his thoughts on politics in formative essays, Hani mainly focused his energy on journalism, leaving an indisputable imprint on the media landscape in Egypt by leading projects that attempted to influence mainstream conversations with critical narratives. From 1991 to 2005, he was the managing editor (later becoming executive editor) of the English-language Ahram Weekly, once the host of seminal writing from Edward Said. On the occasion of the weekly’s 25th anniversary, Hani wrote, “For the crop of very young, more often than not straight out of school journalists who would come on board to make the Weekly what it is, the business of journalism was truth not power, or as one of Weekly’s greatest contributors, Edward Said, often put it: speaking truth to power.”

Hani also helped found the daily Al-Shorouk newspaper, once a leading voice of independent journalism, where he set the editorial line in 2008, becoming part of its editorial board in 2009. In 2010, Hani founded the English-language website Ahram Online and served as its editor-in-chief for two years before he was forced to resign in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, by his own account.

But he kept going.

Hoping to break Egyptian journalism’s Cairo-centric focus, he contributed to Welad al-Belad, an initiative to develop local journalism from different parts of the country. He then fostered partisan writing and unorthodox thinking with his establishment and leadership of Bel-Ahmar in 2017, a leftist online platform that was blocked in July 2017, along with hundreds of other Egyptian websites.

Hani’s writings featured in an array of different local and international publications, including the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), Weghat Nazar magazine, the London-based Al-Hayat, The Guardian, Foreign Policy and the Journal of Palestine Studies, as well as Al-Shorouk and Al-Ahram Weekly. His book, Egypt, the Arabs, and the World: Reflections at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, was published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2011.

Hani also served as the executive director of the Heikal Foundation for Arab Journalism and a consultant for the ACPSS. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, in Spring 2006.

We now leave you with tributes bringing together memories from four different generations touching on the life and work of Hani Shukrallah, the activist-journalist.

Adieu, dearest Hani

Nourhan Tawfik, independent culture journalist

Hani was my friend, one I made during my time as a “confused” arts and culture journalist at Ahram Online. The year was 2015, and I was encouraged to walk into his office and interview him for an obituary of Lebanese-Egyptian veteran documentary filmmaker Nabeeha Lotfy. Little did I know that a close friendship would quickly spring up between us, one that rested on a triad of Palestine, literature and journalism.

What to say about a man who cheered me on with every new piece of writing?

His generous mentorship extended beyond our time together at Ahram. When he founded his incisive platform, Bel-Ahmar, he welcomed me with open arms and gave me the space to think and write. When I was grappling with the career blues, he strategized solutions and opened avenues for further opportunities. Hani flipped traditional mentoring on its head. He was unwavering in his humbleness and prioritized that we, his lucky mentees, were always content. He checked in on me, gave ample advice and helped me recuperate my sense of purpose time and again.

But he also had a great sense of humor. I still recall how following a somewhat desperate attempt on my part to style what Hani described as a “rather unconvincing afro” (which I bragged about by posting a photo online), he reacted by posting a photo of Angela Davis and her beautiful coiffed afro and writing of their “epochal breakfast” together in Cuba in 1969.

I will no doubt miss his wit, his eloquence, his relentless commitment toward the people and his larger-than-life character. But it is Hani, my dearest friend, whose absence will leave the biggest void. I’d like to think that his attitude toward life offers some modicum of comfort. He was a connoisseur of life and incessantly fought to live. It only makes sense for us to try to do the same. Will miss you, ya ustaz. Thank you for taking a bet on me.

A visit to Youssef Chahine in the 1990s

Hani Mustafa, journalist and film critic at Al-Ahram Weekly

Hani Shukrallah has been a pivotal figure for me since I graduated from the journalism department of Cairo University’s Faculty of Media and joined Ahram Weekly in 1991. At the time, I had begun to feel my way around the mysterious, enormous world of journalism at Al-Ahram, which was packed with leading writers, like Mohamed Sayyed Ahmed, Lutfi al-Kholi, Philip Gallab and Salama Ahmed Salama. I learned from weekly founding editor Hosni Gindi that there was a journalist (then outside of Ahram) who wrote for a number of international outlets and who would begin writing an opinion column, “This Week in Journalism.” Shukrallah’s unfailing punctuality, graceful English and broad erudition led Gindi to appoint him as a desk editor in just a few months. Before 1992 was out, Hani had become the managing editor of people.

We often discussed international, regional and Egyptian politics. Hani was impressive in that he knew how listen to and debate any colleague without denigrating that person’s opinion. He was charming and wore a constant smile, despite the many grave events witnessed in Egypt and the Arab world during his tenure as managing editor (and later chief editor from 2003 to 2005, after Gindi’s death), including terrorism in Egypt in the 1990s and Arab peace agreements, like the Oslo Accords.

Shukrallah’s wide ranging knowledge made him a role model for me. Politics was not his sole domain. He was well-versed in arts, literature, music and film (my field of writing since the mid 1990s.)

In the 1990s, Shukrallah and I visited the great director Youssef Chahine, after he won the hisbah suit filed against him for his film, “The Immigrant,” based on the story of the Prophet Yusuf. Listening to the conversation between two of Egypt’s intellectual giants at the time, I only asked one question, but Shukrallah insisted on putting my name on the interview with his.

Throughout his career, Shukrallah did not impose his ideological and emotional attachment to Marxism on his work. This quality, rare in that time, earned him the trust of the Ahram leadership and its editor, Gindi, as well as with the Ahram board chairperson, Ibrahim Nafie, who was part and parcel of the Mubarak political regime.

Three journalistic experiences

Dina Ezzat, journalist at Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the last two years, Hani zealously confronted the depression of the unraveling of the January revolution head on through work on a leftist — and now blocked — online experiment, Bel-Ahmar. In the few years prior to that, he contributed to a project to foster serious local journalism with Welad al-Belad.

With the exception of these experiments, I worked with Hani — who didn’t like anyone describing him as their “boss” — at three different outlets, beginning in the early 1990s: Ahram Weekly, the English-language weekly; Ahram Online, the English-language daily digital platform; and Al-Shorouk, the daily newspaper written in sober Egyptian Arabic.

At all these places, Hani’s place in the hierarchy was more than one rung up from mine, but, at all of them, I had a direct relationship with him, which I imagine was the case with most of those who apprenticed with him since the beginning of Ahram Weekly — whether they are middle-aged today, like me, or younger.

Hani was a steadfast champion of the newspaper story as story because he was always concerned with sharpness and tightness of the angle it took. He never wanted a series of sentences composed of statements from sources, no matter how important. He wanted a story that staked out a clear perspective, written in disciplined prose.

Hani was sensitive about a reporter’s identification with sources. Though he appreciated the cumulative value of long-term relationships with sources — especially official sources in a country where the accessibility and transparency of information has never been an obligation — he loathed the reporter as stenographer, faithfully transcribing what the source said, what he added, and certainly what he affirmed, especially if that phrase led the story.

Hani supported me moving beyond what I knew into the realm of the unknown, which was always a much bigger terrain. He always looked at my fear of what I did not know as a moment of panic that would pass as I pressed on.

I owe all my teachers for much of the journalism I do that finds appreciation, but I’m specifically indebted to Hani for my continued passion for journalism, to which he gave more than he was given, leaving us with a generous legacy that is unable to be reciprocated.

From the 1970s

Hossam Abdullah, London-based fertility physician

I don’t know if there are words to describe my feelings toward Hani or the history that unites us. I left Egypt over 40 years ago, but Egypt never left me. At heart, Egypt is all the loved ones, friends and family, the common history, intimate gatherings and the discussions, both heated and not-so-heated ones. We were leftists and Marxists, patriots of the nation and always striving to change it for the better, spurred on by social justice, human freedom and the nation.

I met Hani in the 1970s at the height of the student movement, amid an attempt to rebuild the leftist parties that dissolved themselves in the 1960s. We were each a part of a different organization. They considered us rightists; we called them “ramrods” because of their rigid leftism. We disagreed often but agreed even more, especially as we grew older.

On April 22, 2019, Hani wrote on his Facebook page: “I’m plagued by the sense that we urgently need a paradigm shift. It’s no longer possible for us to keep addressing each other, arguing with each other, or competing for leadership, or popularity, with each other within our socially, politically, ideologically, and culturally closed-off cliques.” He wrote that about the recent referendum for the constitutional amendments, but it was if he was commenting on the history of the leftist movement and everything we had experienced.

It reminded me of a moment between us in October 1973. A few days after the war began, many of us went to campus to discuss and agree on the student’s movement stance on the war. We all came bearing our partisan leanings in advance of the statement. Our group’s view — I remember among us were the late Hisham al-Salamouni and Ahmed Seif al-Islam — was that we supported Sadat’s decision to go to war and demanded that he keep fighting to liberate all of Sinai. We wanted a war of liberation, not a war to reposition power at the negotiating table. (Reading the memoirs of former chief of staff Saad al-Din] al-Shazli, it seems as if Sadat heard us, and he ordered the military into the passes, leading to the so-called catastrophe of the breach, when Israel crossed to the west bank of the Canal.) The opinion of Hani and his group was that this was already a war to reposition power, undertaken in collusion with US imperialism, and we had to expose this. Ahmed Bahaa Shaaban was in a third organization, whose opinion was that we should say nothing. In any case, the various opinions were put to a vote and we won. At the time, the majority was accused of having insufficient consciousness, as opposed to the informed minority. But we were all fools, acting as if we had won or lost the real war.

My relationship with Hani and his entire lovely family grew deeper in London. It’s a family that never stops smiling — you’d never see Hani, his brother Alaa or his sister Hala without a smile on their faces, whether in real life or in photos. That came down mostly to their father, the poet Ibrahim Shukrallah, and their mother Janet, or Juna. Their house in London was a refuge for many friends and an intellectual and cultural hub, not to mention a place for a great meal. As the years passed, our house in London became theirs, and they would stay there whenever they visited the city, and the same in Cairo. The days passed, and, in the middle of the revolution in Tahrir Square, the grandchildren of Ibrahim Shukrallah met my children, Khaled and Hanan, and a strong friendship grew between them.

We hosted Hani in our London home many times, and we always discussed and talked about what would happen, how and why.

Over the years and with the lessons of time, our differences faded. We both grew closer to social democracy than socialism of the totalitarian variety, based on the conviction that there can be no justice without freedom, for that is its prime prerequisite and the only guarantee of its perpetuation.


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