The impact of studying in the USSR on Dr. Amr Asaad

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Tue, 2021-08-24
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I came to know Dr. Amr Asaad [ʿAmrū Asʿad] in the mid 1990s. I had started the Religious News Service from the Arab-World in 1997 and we shared office space and of course had numerous talks about the political developments in Egypt in those days. ʿAmrū was well informed, had a good network of connections and was reading a lot. ʿAmrū joined me on a Missio organized tour in Germany in 2004 that was titled “dare to meet the other.” I knew that ʿAmrū was not religious, but he was also not antagonistic and didn’t mind engaging in interesting discussions about faith and politics. After returning to Egypt ʿAmrū became one of the founders of the Center for Arab-West Understanding in 2004-2007. He saw security not approving our initial request for recognition (no formal answer ever came) which made us present our case to the Council of State that ultimately ruled that our NGO should be recognized which the Ministry of Social Solidarity indeed has done.

Dr. Amr Asaad 

I knew that ʿAmrū had studied in the USSR but apart from that knew little of his experiences. I am grateful for the interview conducted by Russian intern Valeria Bezrodnaya. I now understand much more of ʿAmrū’s background. Only a Russian intern could have conducted such a quality interview since this needed familiarity with contemporary Russian history and culture. Valeria also helped to resurface Amr’s nostalgia for Russia. 


ʿAmrū left for the USSR in 1983 and returned to Egypt in 1989. ʿAmrū’s father was a Nasserist and was associated to the ruling Nasserist elite in the 1970s. Lieutenant colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser [Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣir] had overthrown the regime of King Farouk [Fārūq] with help of the Muslim Brotherhood, then already a power to reckon with. Nāṣir was a nationalist who realized that the Muslim Brotherhood would not serve his agenda, arrested leaders and sidelined them. Nāṣir initially turned to the USA for aid and arms but was turned down. Egypt then turned to the USSR which gave Russia a strong presence in the Middle East. The Soviet influence in Egypt grew to enormous proportions in the 1960s which was also reflected in the many scholarships that were offered to Egyptian students. Nāṣir passed away in 1970 and Sadat [Muḥammad Anwar al-Sādāt] came to power. He wanted to break the power of the Nasserists who had truly become the absolute power in Egypt. Sādāt expelled most Russian advisors in 1972, rekindled relations with Islamist movements and dismantled Nasserist institutions. Relations between Egyptian and the USSR virtually ended in 1976 and the country once more became an ally of the USA.


Amr Asaad during his studies in Moscow


ʿAmrū thus studied in the USSR after Egyptian-USSR relations had come to an end. He saw the USSR in the 1980s and gives a fascinating insight of live in the USSR in those years. He also makes interesting comparisons between the USSR and Egypt in the days of Nāṣir and early days of Sādāt.


Sādāt liquidated Egypt’s public sector that had become so strong in Nāṣir’s days. ʿAmrū compares this to the liquidation of the public sector in the USSR during the days of Michael Gorbachev (1985-1991), “but the structure of the Egyptian economy was totally different. It wasn’t at all like the Soviet economy.”


ʿAmrū Asaad calls himself a Marxist but not one in line with any established party. “I was mostly anti-Soviet since day one, maybe because I was anti-Stalinist. After a while I became also anti-Leninist, anti-Trotskyist, so I became a Marxist of my own.” I was surprised because in the 25 years that I have known ʿAmrū this never came up.


Interesting are his descriptions of student life, lack of equality despite the USSR’s Marxist belief system. The true Russian Marxist faith had to be taught and when ʿAmrū at one time was referring to some non-Soviet-oriented Marxist and non-Marxist scholars he was rebuked for having come with some imperialist thoughts.


ʿAmrū remembers that US President Ronald Reagan was talking all the time in his propaganda of Russia as axis of Satan! He then describes an event with an American delegation in the USSR where one American exclaims “I can’t believe it, oh my God! They are human! They are human!” 


ʿAmrū feels that this still exists in Western mainstream media where Russians are more referred to as the bad guys. I fully agree with ʿAmrū that such media reporting is disastrous. Much media reporting is loaded with ideology and ignorance of the wider context that is needed to help us understand nations as Russia and Egypt.


I am very pleased with this interview of Valeria Bezrodnaya which shows that powerful ideologies can create great distortions of other nations. This interview gives an excellent insight in the way the USSR in the 1980s received foreign students. This experience has impacted ʿAmrū Asʿad for the remainder of his life in Egypt; always critical and opposed to Islamists, people linking their Islamic belief to political action which, in the view of ʿAmrū Asʿad, leads to regress instead of progress. For the full text of this interview please click here.



August 24, 2021

Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report