Nasser, My Grandfather

Gamal Abdel Nasser grandson demonstrates the Filipino martial art known as Kali. (Harry Shuman/Hannah Wilkinson)

Gamal Abdel Nasser grandson demonstrates the Filipino martial art known as Kali. (Harry Shuman/Hannah Wilkinson)

Since the removal from power of former president Mohamed Mursi on June 30, the Egyptian army has once again emerged as the leading political force in Egypt. The ensuing schism between the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters is setting the tone for the future of the nation’s politics.

Until now, the descendants of Egypt’s late President Gamal Abdel Nasser have shied away from mainstream politics. But in the context of the resurgence of the military's political power, the dynasty is making its voice heard. Granddaughter Tahia has vocally come out in favor of the military leadership and grandson Gamal is gearing up to teach the army the same martial art that Jason Bourne, the protagonist of the famous film series, used to kill a man with a towel.

In his family home, under the imposing portrait of the great general himself, Gamal gave The Majalla a demonstration of the Filipino martial art known as Kali.

“It’s a purely fighting art,” he says in a cool voice of perfect American English. “You need to respect it. You have to be ready to work with live blades. A lot of people died developing this art.”

Gamal takes us into a living room filled with gilded furniture and varnished wood. Placing his children’s toys and his artist wife’s paintings to the side, he comes at Harry with a knife. An imposing figure, easily standing a head taller and a foot wider than his quivering opponent, Gamal tells him to throw a punch.

The progeny of the Egyptian hero who, in 1956, took on the British Empire, the French and the Israelis, and won, sets upon Harry with a smooth, professional flow of fighting moves that leaves him contorted, compromised and sweating, with a knife pressed against his neck.

“I’m just using the knife for leverage to bring you down. I’m also holding it to your neck so you feel in danger,” he explains.

Demonstrating other attacks with swords and sticks, which he says can also be done with just one chopstick, Gamal tells us Kali “is about causing as much damage to the other person as possible, breaking them.”

Gamal, Grand Kali Master of Egypt, teaches carefully selected students the best way to break an attacker’s bones—when he’s not working for the International Chamber of Commerce as a consultant, that is.

Gamal chooses his protégés on the basis of the philosophy behind the art. He refuses to teach anyone who is impatient, overly aggressive, and even those whose Facebook pages show sympathy to Islamist ideology. But he doesn’t see any problem teaching the entire Egyptian Army a martial art that took him ten years to master. The lethal art has already been adopted by the US Marines in Southeast Asia, the German Army, and the Austrian Special Forces.

As he puts it: “When armies learn Kali, they don’t have time to play about with sticks, they have to learn faster.”

Gamal’s discipline in the office and on the sparring mat comes from what he calls a “daily struggle trying to live up to the Nasser name. Or at the very least not to make it look bad.” He says that “growing up wasn’t about me as much as it was living up to the symbol of Nasser.” As Gamal talks, it becomes clear that the lines between him and the legendary grandfather he venerates are blurred.

His ideas of right and wrong seem to come from family fables in which Nasser’s most banal, everyday interactions provide a moral code by which to live. At one point, he even compares Nasser to Robin Hood.

Gamal recounts a story of his eight-year-old father driving in the presidential convoy, waving at cheering crowds. Taking on the voice of the sage grandfather, he says, “Don’t ever do this, they’re not waving to you, don’t wave back. It’s not about me or you or any person, it’s about the vision.”

"That’s why I dislike the term Nasserite,” says Gamal, sliding back into his own speech.

Much like the aims of January 25 Revolution, Gamal’s own precise vision isn’t clear. He tells us he stands for social equality, equal opportunities and basic human rights. Yet these sound like buzzwords reeled off by televised generals who trade on the idea of a future that is as opaque as it is attractive.

Like many of his contemporaries, Gamal sees Islamism and politics as mutually exclusive. “It’s been happening from the time of Adam and Eve: people use religion to manipulate others. It’s history repeating itself with different mechanisms,” he argues.

Pressed on Nasser’s human rights record, Gamal skilfully weaves around the questions, unwilling to admit his grandfather’s connection to acts of torture and violence against the Brotherhood. In the voice of Nasser, he reels off the time-old military justification for the oppressive treatment of Islamists: “If you were in my position, would you let go of 600 people knowing they will try to topple the regime with violence and weapons?”

Gamal considers his grandfather’s prediction vindicated: “Look at now: the 600 people from the Muslim Brotherhood who were released from prison, they have weapons and they’re not afraid to use them.”

When asked if that system of oppression worked in the past, could it be used to combat the “Islamist threat” today, Gamal’s answer was eerie.

“I wouldn’t want them to kill the Brotherhood. I just think they need to be detained. I think they need to be corrected.”

We pointed out that despite years of being forced to operate underground, the Muslim Brotherhood is still one of the most determined political groups in Egypt, their incarceration and marginalization making them all the more radical. The arrest of Brotherhood members, the violent demolition of sit-ins, and the curfew currently in place are arguably a twenty-first century version of the repression it suffered under Nasser and his successors.

Gamal is convinced that the Brotherhood’s undemocratic actions during its twelve-month rule signaled the end of their mainstream influence.

Mursi’s rule, which saw the passing of an unrepresentative constitution, a government that favored hard-line Islamists and the stifling of independent journalists and NGOs, gave Egyptians a “glimpse of a terrorizing culture” that did not fit with revolutionary aims, says Gamal.

“I was sure that unless Mursi and the Brotherhood followed this wave they would just be swallowed up, because January 25 is much bigger than they are,” he adds.

It’s late. The next generation of Nasser’s descendants are getting ready for bed. We rise to leave, and Gamal offers us the only reconciliation the Brotherhood could hope for.

At the front door, we notice a bowl of dog food.

“It’s for my dog, Messi. When we adopted him, he was called Marsi,” Gamal tells The Majalla. But we note that, in his accent, the name sounds similar to Mursi.

“I couldn’t have a dog with a name like that. That would be too disrespectful,” Gamal says.