Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Bassem Sabry

Bassem Sabry visiting the Washington Post offices. Max Fisher

Egyptian activist and writer Bassem Sabry has died in Cairo at the heartbreakingly young age of 31. Sabry, who also worked as a media consultant, was widely respected in and outside of Egypt for his thoughtful analysis and his tireless advocacy for political and civil rights progress. I will not comment on the reported details of his death, which are still developing clarity, except to say that it appears to have been accidental.

For those who had the good fortune to know Bassem, which seems to includes half of Cairo and just about every non-Egyptian who has worked in or cared about Egypt, he is remembered first and foremost for the seemingly bottomless supply of compassion that he brought to all things, and that was an increasingly rare and vital commodity in a place that badly needed him.

My own connection to Bassem was slight, but still enough to appreciate the important role he played in Egypt's sometimes-hostile public sphere. He wrote for me a few times after the February 2011 revolution on his country's steps toward and away from democracy, a journey he chronicled astutely, thoughtfully, and always with a gentle nudge back toward the revolutionary ideals that Egypt has has at times lost track of. Bassem urged me to contact him any time to discuss Egypt, an offer I abused endlessly, as I think just about anyone who covers Egypt has, and eventually we became friends. He was always ready, even at the strangest hours, with a useful insight, a helpful suggestion, and a kind word.

The compassion that guided so much of Bassem's work — compassion for his country even at its lowest moments, for his fellow Egyptians even at their most polarized, for democratic ideals that others had forgotten — made him an invaluable voice as well as a dear friend. At a time when Egyptians are beyond divided, the nation politically polarized past the point of crisis, he was one of the few that seemed able to unite, and that has come through in the outpouring of remembrances on social media.

"My friend Bassem Sabry was a voice of reason during unreasonable times," Egypt scholar Eric Trager wrote on Twitter. "The more the news sinks in, the more clearly I see what an important — potentially vital — person we've lost in Bassem Sabry," wrote Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine.

Sheera Frankel, a Middle East reporter with Buzzfeed, perhaps put it best: "I think it speaks volumes that in an increasingly polarized Egypt, voices from the across the spectrum are mourning Bassem. Loved by all."

But the Egyptian economist Mohamed el Dashan put it simplest: "Amid prayers mumbled, here's one for you all: may you be as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There's nothing better."

I leave you with words from Bassem himself. This is from a piece he submitted to me for publication in May 2012, and which I stupidly declined, on the then-looming presidential elections. He argued that the elections were a cause for celebration, but also of concern, as Egypt had still not addressed the authoritarianism and corruption of the old regime, had not reconciled the military's political dominance, had not succeeded in creating a working parliament, and was suffering from ever-worsening polarization.

All of his fears came disastrously true. But the reason I want to visit this piece now is the way that Bassem ended it: with the unshakable optimism and faith in his brothers and sisters that he carried with him to the end. His words still ring true to me:

It is for such reasons, and many others, that I will go as an Egyptian to the polling station with both an inspired and elated mind, and a genuinely heavy heart. Perhaps there is too much bleakness in these words above, and perhaps much of it is an expression of frustration with the more negative sides of democracy as it exists in the world, but believe me when I say that I remain hopeful. I truly remain hopeful not just out of a survivalist need to be hopeful, but also out of true conviction that there is so much to be hopeful for, and so much to be hopeful from.

Good luck to the nation.

For those in Cairo, information on services can be found here.

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