By Amira Howeidy
Friday 17 March: Draped in black, Nadia Lotfy, the blonde sweetheart of the 1960s Egyptian cinema, is crying her eyes out at the funeral of Adel Hussein. The huge turnout of mourners (and security forces) at the Omar Makram mosque in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the day after he died in Alexandria of a cerebral haemorrhage, attests to Hussein's popularity and eventful life as writer and politician.
Autumn 1995: Adel Hussein, secretary general of the Islamist Labour Party, announces he will run for parliamentary election in the Cairo constituency of Nasr City. One of his rivals is a businessman who has been inviting voters to free meals of grilled kebab.
When I asked Adel Hussein one October evening, in his small Heliopolis flat overlooking the Merryland gardens, what he could offer as competition, he flashed his wide smile and replied: "Hope." Unless one is acquainted with Hussein's background, this would have sounded like a trite cliché. It wasn't.
For more than half a century and until a week before his death, Hussein was engaged in a brave battle for what he believed was a just cause. To anybody who knew him well he was the embodiment of a "driven" spirit. Such drive couldn't have lasted for so long without being fuelled by hope, lots of it. And it was this essential optimism, his close friends say, which made him the charming and charismatic politician he was.
Hussein was the youngest brother of Ahmed Hussein, a prominent nationalist figure who founded and led the Young Egypt Party in the 1930s. A political activist at the early age of 14, Adel Hussein formed student committees to oppose the British occupation, and regularly joined anti-British demonstrations. As a student in the Faculty of Science at Cairo University, Hussein joined the underground communist movement and, as a result, was imprisoned between 1953 and 1956. After obtaining his university degree in 1957, the young Marxist was sent to jail again between 1959 and 1964. Upon his release he joined the staff of Akhbar Al-Yom newspaper, and continued to work as a journalist for the next 10 years.
In 1973, Hussein was among a number of journalists who were shunted to administrative jobs as a disciplinary act for their opposition to President El-Sadat. This was when he began what he called a "long journey of scholarly research." The outcome was a two-volume study entitled The Egyptian Economy: from independence to dependency, which was briefly banned. Another controversial work followed under the title Towards a New Arab Thought: Nasserism, development and democracy, in which Hussein urged young people to move beyond the fundamentals of traditional Egyptian schools of thought. After obtaining an academic prize from the Kuwaiti government in 1981, Hussein published his third work, Normalisation -- the Zionist plan for economic hegemony in 1984.
This marked the end of Hussein's scholarly years, which he described as "a very fruitful period of my life during which I reached the peak of maturity, and which witnessed my transformation to an Islamist ideology." He began a new period of political activism by joining the Labour Party and focusing his efforts on formulating the party's own brand of Islamism; one combining anti-imperialist positions which Hussein had inherited from his Marxist background with the application of Islamic Shari'a to bring about social justice.
But Labour, which at that time spanned a wide range of ideologies from Nasserism to socialism and radical nationalism, lacked an organisational infrastructure and did not represent a coherent, let alone substantial, political force.
After Hussein became a member in 1984, the party underwent major upheavals which led to a virtual Islamist takeover. "The party suffered from ideological confusion," Hussein argued. "There was no general agreement on the Islamic framework or the need to comply with Shari'a. Some wanted to wave the banner of Islam, some did not believe in Islam at all, and others did not really know what they wanted."
Analysts agree that Hussein's membership took the Labour Party by storm, polarising members into pro-Islamist and pro-social democrat factions. When the famous tripartite alliance (Labour, Muslim Brothers and Liberals) emerged in 1987 as an electoral platform adopting the "Islam is the Solution" slogan, Labour was stamped Islamist.
Hussein's influence was equally strong on the party's mouthpiece, Al-Shaab -- the most hawkish of opposition papers -- which he edited between 1985 and 1993, opening its pages to Brotherhood leaders. Al-Shaab's editorial style under Hussein echoed that of the pre-1952 Young Egypt Party's newspaper Masr Al-Fatah. That paper is well remembered for once publishing large photographs of beggars on its front page under the banner headline: "Those are your subjects, Your Majesty." Hussein is said to have brought the same school of journalism to Al-Shaab with banners such as "No stability, no security, no supremacy of law in this country."
For years, Al-Shaab was a source of trouble for the regime, frequently launching campaigns against top officials, accusing them of corruption and subservience to imperialism and Israel. Its last campaign, during May of last year, against a novel it deemed blasphemous, provoked thousands of Al-Azhar University students to stage violent demonstrations. Accused of inciting public opinion, the political parties tribunal decided to close down the paper and freeze the activities of the Labour Party. Both remain on hold.
Hussein's close friends argue that his party's ordeal was the most intense experience he had to endure, even worse than the days he spent in a tiny cold prison cell in December 1994 while suffering a cardiac attack. The void his death has created has triggered concerns over the future of the Labour Party in an already stagnant political scene. Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, the party had not decided who would replace him.
Hussein came under fire for his shift from Marxism to Islamism and was occasionally branded as an opportunist, shifting politics whenever a new wave emerged. Scoffing at this accusation, Hussein said with his characteristic smile: "How can I be an opportunist, politically or otherwise? I have been in opposition under King Farouk, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. I have gained nothing, politically or financially."
Now that his life is over, most people will agree that he was not a man in search of personal gain. His life was spent in a long, brave and daring struggle which entailed many a hardship, yet must equally have provided him with the personal satisfaction of standing as a fighter. Fighting was the quality he most cherished, and for which he would have liked to be remembered. The huge crowd at last Friday's funeral, coming from across the political spectrum to pay a last tribute to this remarkable man, was one more proof of the validity of his choice, and of the love and respect his legionary qualities earned him among foes and friends alike.