Egypt’s oldest revolutionary still going strong
Born in 1916, Lili Doss has spent her life fighting for the rights of her people
When I met Lili Doss for the first time many years ago, she was still living in her father’s grand Nile-side mansion on Mohamed Mazar Street in Zamalek. Today the house, as beautiful as ever, is the Saudi ambassador’s residence and Lili – christened Leila – lives in an eighth-floor flat in a dull brown building among the heavily guarded embassies in Garden City on the other side of the river.
Lili, born in 1916, is the youngest daughter of monarchy-era minister Tewfiq Pasha Doss, who was from a large Coptic Christian clan. As transport minister in 1931, he greeted the arrival of the Graf Zepplin in Egypt, then as now a regional air travel hub, and laid the foundation stone of Qasr al-Nil bridge which leads to Tahrir Square, the cradle of the current revolution.
Sitting on the divan in her cosy flat, Lili says, “Father did not believe that girls should go to university so he sent me to work.” She was among the founders of the Society of Tahseen al-Seha, established in 1936 to provide medical treatment for poor tubercular children. “It was the largest women’s association in Egypt and had branches all over the country – 23 I think.”
She refused marriage, even to the crown prince of Ethiopia, and dedicated herself for 40 years to the battle against poverty and disease. During this time, she ran foul of Egypt’s rulers by challenging policies. During the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser she was banned from going abroad. His successor, Anwar Sadat, gave her a medal meant for 25 years’ service. When she found people who had not earned the honour had also received it, “I sold the medal for 300 Egyptian pounds and gave the money to the kids” in hospital.
When Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the ousted president, wanted to turn the hospital near the pyramids into a museum, Lili responded, “Over my dead body.”
“It was built with money donated by Egyptians for the poor. My dossier in the interior ministry became very big. The hospital is still okay.”
“At 65, I retired, made my GCE and got my BA and MA at the AUC”, the American University in Cairo. “I knew I wasn’t going to change the world.”
When she offered her autobiography to AUC, “they didn’t want it. They wanted me to be a saint. I’m far from that.”
As Lili cannot hear well, I write my questions on paper, she reads them with a magnifying glass and replies. Since her life has spanned three revolutions – 1919 against Britain, 1952 against the king and 2011-13 against autocracy – she takes the long view.
Of the most recent effort, she says, “It is very simple. First we had to get rid of [president Hosni] Mubarak and his group because they went beyond belief in making money. People grew poorer and poorer... the nation told the government to resign. It was amazing.”