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Obituary: Bassem Sabry

In memory of an Egyptian commentator and revolutionary

On 29th April 2014, aged just thirty one, the Egyptian analyst and writer Bassem Sabry passed away. As is appropriate for a man who spent much of his time blogging, tweeting and exchanging emails – Twitter has mourned his death as publically as the blogosphere as publically as the throngs of mourners who made their way to his funeral in Cairo earlier this week.

Sabry wrote beautifully and honestly in English and Arabic – contributing to to Al-Monitor, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, as well as writing his own blog – “An Arab Citizen.”

Across all this work  – his detailed and dispassionate analysis was forthright and honest. The riptides of Egypt’s revolution have left Egyptian politics and media characterised by polemic and polarisation, but Sabry made his own quiet way – consistently sound and reasoned analysis that trod neutrally, ignoring temporary passions and short-termism.

His way was having trust in his readers : that when presented with the facts fairly and accurately, they would make up their own minds. His way also spoke to the higher ideals of democracy, rather than the individual promises of each candidate. And although he made a brief foray into political life – he did not want his readers to know his political leanings – he didn’t want to distract with preconceptions. Here are the facts, this is what is going on, this is what we should remember, let us keep calm, let us do the right thing.

Sabry was one of the strongest voices to denounce last July’s coup – not because he was a supporter of Morsi and the Brotherhood (in fact he wrote very critically of them), but because he feared a return to the police state. Caught in the hysteria, much of the Egyptian media either failed to realise or wilfuly ignored this terrible reality.

But he did not deliver his analyses too clinically. As fits the meaning of his first name – smiling was what his friends knew him for, and what his readers sensed he was always doing. Even when the shifting sands of revolution spiralled, contorted and grew bloody – you could still feel the optimism of Tahrir Square preserved in Sabry’s writings; even his most complex analysis was infused with enthusiasm for Egypt’s potential.

He used to joke that he was Batman, because you never saw him and Batman in the same place at once. He had a big heart and endless time to chat with his fans on Twitter – honestly and wittily. He was a willing source for hundreds of foreign journalists who could not travel to Egypt as often as they would like, friendly from the off on email and with generously proportioned responses. He socialised and networked throughout the caffeinated milieu of Cairo’s chattering classes, bringing his own light and laughter even in the darker times. He took the time to osmose everything and everyone’ then to write, so that others could hear and see what he had seen and heard.

When he turned thirty, Sabry wrote a remarkable essay entitled Eleutheria – (Almost Everything I Have Learned In My Life), first in Arabic for Al-Masry Al-Youm, and later an English translation he prepared for his blog. “I had mainly written this article for myself, to remind myself of everything I believe, everything I have learned about life,” he said, “to give myself a renewed sense of my direction.” Reflecting on “an uneasy and complex” transition from his second into his third decade, he wrote that he was looking forward “to everything else I hope to live.” His humility was typical : he seemed genuinely surprised when Eleutheria became one of the most widely shared articles of the year.

He writes about how he is sad that he never became an astronaut, and sad that he didn’t marry Winona Ryder. Those are the jokes – there are a few more but the heft of the essay is wisdom. Wisdom not born of too many years but of tireless attentiveness, wisdom carried forth with honesty and without pretension, wisdom that any one of us in any place or life or crisis could apply with brilliant effect. Whether you knew or didn’t know Bassem Sabry, you can read Eleutheria. Tragically, he wasn’t able to use that wisdom for much longer after his thirtieth birthday passed. But he would have wanted you to – so read, and remember, and above all, laugh.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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