Nadine Elali

Ahmad Fouad Negm: "The poet of the poor"

Egyptian poet and folk hero dies at age 84

Ahmad Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam

"Guevara Mat (Guevara has died)" tweeted hundreds of Egyptian activists Tuesday morning. “Ya meet khisara lil regal (What a loss for mankind.)” “Negm mat (Negm has died.)”


Ahmad Fouad Negm, a renowned Egyptian poet, died at age 84 Tuesday morning in Cairo after suffering from a prolonged illness. Writing in colloquial Arabic, his trademark, Negm was considered one of the most important Egyptian poets. For decades, he criticized entrenched political interests in Egypt and other Arab states.


“Guevara Mat (Guevara has died),” a classic written by Negm and sung by Sheikh Imam, for instance, celebrates the Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara, for his integrity and rebellious ideals. Negm, like Guevara, is being mourned today but instead as the Arab world's countercultural symbol of rebellion.


His poetry was neither praise nor celebration, and he was no friend to power. Negm was a fierce critic of Egypt’s rulers over the decades and was arrested on several occasions along with his friend and colleague, singer Sheikh Imam. Together they produced several songs that are still popular among Egyptian youth. Some of them became trademark chants in anti-government protests over the years, including the 2011 revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.


The words of The Brave Man is Brave and other renown poems were chanted during protests in Tahrir Square. “The brave man is brave, and the coward is a coward; Come with the brave, go down to the Square,” cried the protestors.


“It is a loss for Egypt,” said the majority of Egyptian activists NOW interviewed. “He became a symbol of Egypt’s revolution and his words were being continuously sung during protests.”


Negm was born in the province of Sharqia in 1929. After his father died, his uncle placed him in an orphanage until the age of 17, when he returned to his village. Initially working as a sheperd, Negm later sought employment from one of the local British camps while simultaneously working to undermine the occupation by aiding guerilla operations. He was subsequently convicted for counterfeiting forms and jailed for three years.


During his imprisonment, he began to write poems in the colloquial Egyptian dialectic, an unprecedented move at the time. Negm wrote prolificly about the working class, and while in prison, his poems were smuggled to the public, building his reputation before he was eventually released.


Negm met singer and composer Sheikh Imam in 1962. For many years later, they formed a duo composing and singing political revolutionary songs which criticized Arab regimes. Though their songs were banned on Egyptian radio and television stations, they were popular among ordinary people. Both Sheikh Imam and Negm were imprisoned on many occasions during the governments of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak for mocking the Arab leaders’ political positions and ineffective agendas.


Of all of Egypt’s political figures, though, Mubarak perhaps received the heaviest dose of Negm’s mockery. In his poem “From Hosni Mubarak, a gift to the Egyptian people,” he lambasts Mubarak's foreign policy, using double entendres to label his lack of aggressiveness as a sign of sexual impotence.


Negm, who is the father of columnist Nawara Negm, an iconic figure of the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak, supported the ousting of Mubarak. His words which were written in the 70s became the revolution’s icons of victory.


The poet initially supported the ousting of President Mohamad Morsi, although he sympathized with the ousted president and held the Muslim Brotherhood partly responsible for ineffective rule.


After Morsi was removed and General Sisi rose to power, however, Negm called for a return to legitimacy – i.e. Morsi’s rule – fearing military crackdown on freedom of expression. He released a poem entitled “3ali Rasak (Lift your head up high),” criticizing the Egyptian people for rebelling against what he referred to as “Mubarak’s military rule,” and then rebelling a second time, only to allow it to return under Sisi. Surprised by this reversal, many activists attributed his later remarks to his illness and advancing age.


Like the man himself, his work reflected on the poor and on the experiences of the oppressed. He was dubbed “the poet of the poor” for empowering the Egyptian and Arab working class by writing with their voice. In 2007, Negm was chosen by the United Nations Poverty Action as ambassador of the poor, and the Klaus Dutch Foundation recently bestowed its 2013 award to Negm in recognition for his contributions and his colloquial poems which have inspired three generations of Egyptians and Arabs. However, he will not be able to receive it due to his untimely death.

Ahmad Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam. (Image via Facebook)

"It is a loss for Egypt."