The untimely death of public intellectual Bassem Sabry is a blow to Egypt and the entire Arab world
One always hesitates to write a eulogy. It inevitably feels unspeakably tawdry, because nothing one can put into words can do justice to the person being remembered. Worse, it feels vaguely exploitative. It may not come across that way as a reader, but writing fondly about the departed often feels transgressive. It’s the same sickly feeling one would probably get by crashing an intimate family gathering.
Time, perhaps, ameliorates that feeling of transgression, which is probably why all of my remembrances of those who have passed away tend to come later than people would expect. I suppose I’m hoping that a “decent interval” will make the experience somehow feel less obnoxious.
I waited as long as I could before putting together my thoughts on Bassem Sabry, who passed away at the tragically young age of 31 last month. When I heard about his death, it was immediately clear to me that the Arab world in general, and Egypt in particular, had lost a major asset, someone who would certainly have made an extraordinary contribution in coming years.
Even at his young age, he had already made his mark. He was respected internationally as an activist and thinker of the first caliber. And he takes with him rare qualities that Egyptians and other Arabs have in disturbingly short supply. We simply cannot afford to lose people like him: we just don’t have enough of them.
First, he was an extraordinarily good person. Decent, right down to the core. There are a lot of people all over the world, including the Middle East, who are fundamentally good and decent. Probably most are.
But the unusual thing that Bassem was able to do was to be good and decent both in his politics as he conceptualized them, and in his dealings with those he disagreed with.
The outpouring of shock and raw emotion at his death from people on every side of a deeply divided Egyptian society is the most powerful testament. Radicals, liberals, Islamists, traditionalists, and others all expressed profound sorrow. It’s not that they all agreed with him; most of them didn’t. It’s that he had demonstrated an unusual willingness to treat them all with respect and consideration.
Bassem was a genuine liberal in the best sense of the term. He actually wanted a pluralistic society in which people with serious differences could openly and passionately disagree without being disagreeable. In the contemporary Arab world, Egypt included, there are very few people who are able to not only espouse that ideal but to demonstrate in practice how it looks. Bassem did exactly that. Through openness, patience, and a serious, practical commitment to the values of pluralism and tolerance, he was living out the principles of a decent society.
I regarded his work as crucial not only because I fundamentally agreed with his values, but even more so because, in my view, there was a powerful pedagogical element to the way he was conducting himself: modest and respectful, but unwavering on core ideals. This, his public engagement seemed to say, is how reasonable people ought to conduct themselves in a society in flux and under difficult circumstances. This is what it looks like.
What’s more, Bassem was brilliant in a region and a world that cannot spare its brilliant sons and daughters. He was initially one of a cadre of young Egyptian public intellectuals and bloggers who became known outside of their country in the course of the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. However, Sabry, at least in my own mind, established himself as particularly insightful when he was the first to predict, several months in advance, that Mohammed Morsi would be the next Egyptian president.
Bassem pieced together a straightforward puzzle, but one that had previously eluded everybody else. Khairat el-Shater would not be allowed to run on technicalities. The Muslim Brotherhood would nonetheless field a Freedom and Justice Party candidate. Morsi would almost certainly be that candidate, and would probably win. No sooner had he sketched out the scenario than the pieces began to fall into place, and exactly what he had anticipated happened.
But even if it hadn’t, because things can always change, it was a brilliant piece of political analysis. After that, I didn’t read Bassem occasionally: I read him religiously. And I had numerous Skype conversations and meetings with him, which I will always treasure. Particularly when discussing Egypt, he invariably managed to teach me something important.
His death was a tragic and untimely loss, not just for his friends and family, but for his country and the region. Bassem Sabry was a rare talent and a remarkable young man. Selfishly, and somewhat transgressively put, we simply do not have enough people of his caliber to spare them to the cruel caprices of fortune.