Back in 1958, while Antoun Sidhom was in the process of founding Watani, he chose the sunboat, encircled in a [horizontal] pharaonic cartouche, as a purely Egyptian symbol for the budding paper. The sunboat cradled the word “Watani” with rays of illumination emanating from it. Underneath was written a line of poetry by Egypt’s ‘Prince of poets’ Ahmed Shawqy (1868-1932)
“My homeland, if I were to leave you to Eternity
Even in Eternity would I yearn for you”
Today, 50 years later, the time seems ripe for a retrospective reading of Antoun Sidhom’s articles in Watani, which were instrumental in bestowing the paper with the hue of fearlessness and fairness it still bears, and which are still as fresh today as when they were written years back.
The poor man’s goat
Writing, for Antoun Sidhom, was not a routine, periodic task; he only wrote when he felt he had to. In fact, he only began writing his famous editorials in 1975, and then he did not write every week. In some 288 articles he analysed, discussed, criticised, and proposed solutions for issues which worried and grieved Egyptians.
The first article he wrote was to wish all Egyptians a happy holiday season, for in that year Eid al-Adha coincided with Christmas in what Sidhom described as an auspicious occurrence.
The last article was written on 19 March 1995, during his last sickness, in which he printed a bitter complaint he had received from Mukhtar Doss, professor at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Agriculture, against the regular exclusion of Copts from the university faculty. For Sidhom, this was an alarm signal for dire, fanatical days to come.
A week earlier he had written a ‘message’ to the minister of religious endowments, which he borrowed from Nathan the Prophet’s words to David the King in the Old Testament. Sidhom reminded the minister of the rich man who owned hundreds of thousands of feddans and millions of square metres of the prime land yet insisted on seizing the goat of his poor neighbour, the only thing he owned in the world. Sidhom compared the rich man’s wealth to the vast property of Islamic religious endowments, and the poor man’s goat to the mere 1700 feddans of land endowed as a trust fund by some Copts to the Church and used to generate proceeds to finance its expenses, and which the Ministry of Religious Endowments had usurped. Worth mentioning is that, ten years later, the problem was solved and the land returned to the Church.
National unity held a special niche in Sidhom’s heart. He was severely pained at the attacks against Copts and it galled him that officials would brush off the incidents as mere ‘individual accidents’. He warned time and again, in some 37 articles, that these were attacks against the core of the Egyptian nation, and were intended to destabilise the entire country. His fervent, prophetic words have, very sadly, materialised into a reality we today struggle to deal with.
And despite the horrible massacres of Copts in Dairout, Sanabo, Abu-Qurqas and others in the early 1990s, Sidhom wrote calling upon the Copts to be peaceful, calm and wise. He harshly criticised the government for failing to compensate the families of the victims for lost lives and property. In an attempt to adopt positive action, he called upon Watani readers for donations to the victims. The response was huge, some LE500,000 were donated, and Sidhom drew upon his economic experience and made sure the victims, especially the orphaned children, got their fair share, in the form of investment bank certificates through which they may collect a monthly income.
Policy of exclusion
Sidhom could clearly see that school curricula, fanatic teachers, and the media carried the seeds of sectarian strife. He wrote 18 articles on the topic, calling for “purging the curricula from the poison of hatred that may kill the spirit of love and peace in the hearts of our children and give them wrong impressions about [the other] Copt.” He demanded that Coptic feast days be national holidays, and he repeatedly criticised the scheduling of exams in schools and universities on these dates.
Excluding Copts from the political arena was another issue that worried Sidhom, all the more because Copts were accused of being behind the problem owing to their alleged isolationism. Sidhom ardently defended the Copts, saying that isolationism has been imposed upon them through their deliberate exclusion from State posts and political party nominations; it was natural for them to seek alternative existence in their own self-made communal and economic sphere. It was not so, he stressed in the first half of the 20th century when they seized every opportunity to be active on the public and political level because nothing stood in their way. They had then shone in whatever task they tackled.
In 65 articles Sidhom cited cases of hindrances before the building and restoration of churches. He condemned the Hamayouni Line, the Ottoman decree issued in 1856 and until today used by Egypt’s rulers, whereby no church or restoration in a church may be licensed without a presidential decree. Under the title “Wipe this disgrace off the nation’s brow” he cited the case of a church that was not able to repair its toilets for want of a presidential decree. He demanded alternative legislation to place the building and restoration of places of worship in the hands of civil authorities.
Gone with the wind
Egypt’s economic and environmental woes figured high on Sidhom’s interest. He wrote 61 articles tackling the problems of the housing, industry, red tape, rampant corruption, and mismanagement of Egypt’s resources. He called for fair taxation, claiming that unfair taxation was a major reason behind widespread tax evasion. “Normal people are normally law-abiding, he wrote. When people regularly break the law, it is an indication of how unfair the law is.”
In a poignant article about the River Nile he wrote: “How beautiful was the Nile decades ago when it made the land happy with the flood that came every summer to swell it with the reddish, muddy water, the natural fertiliser so far superior to the chemical fertilisers we have to use today, to the ruin of our health.”
In November 1991 Sidhom wrote lamenting the ailing Egyptian conscience. Under the title “Gone with wind”, he wondered why Egyptians had changed so much. “Poor new generations,” he wrote, “grow up to find pollution, corruption and demolished morals. Ideals are gone and good has disappeared.”
In 1985 the Bulgarian government took oppressive action against the Muslim minority, forcing them among other things to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Sidhom was the first one in Egypt to draw attention to the predicament of Bulgaria’s Muslims, urging the public to support them “so that they would know that they have brothers in humanity—not only in religion.”
He also supported Muslims in India against Hindu aggression, and Bosnian Muslims against Serbian brutality in 1992.
Sidhom defended Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977, praising Sadat’s courage and his breaking the taboo of talking to Israel. He believed that the Camp David Accord had benefited Egypt tremendously; the fruits of which we are today garnering.
A prayer of thanksgiving
In September 1981, Sadat cracked down against political opposition in Egypt, issuing his notorious ruling shutting down several papers, among which was Watani, and dismissing Pope Shenouda III to a desert monastery. On 6 October 1981 Sadat was assassinated by Islamists, the very people he had supported and empowered, and Mubarak became president. In 1984, by court order, Watani resumed circulation, and in January 1985 Pope Shenouda was back in Cairo by order of President Mubarak in response to Coptic demand, in which Sidhom was instrumental. Sidhom wrote a very moving editorial for Coptic Christmas (7 January) 1985 in which he offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the return of the pope.
“Dear Lord,” he wrote, “We pour our hearts and souls before your heavenly throne, and offer thanks for the boundless love and mercy with which you answered our prayers. We rejoice to have again in our midst our beloved spiritual father Pope Shenouda III and, for this, we thank you endlessly.”