The young girl woke up at 6am and sleepily stumbled to the radio for the morning news. What she heard jolted her awake. She ran to her parents' room and banged on the door. “Wake up, wake up, the revolution has started.”
She then flung open the front door to her apartment and ran excitedly to bang on the doors of her neighbours, shouting that the revolution they had all been waiting for had begun.
The young girl was Azeema El-Husseiny, a 17-year-old who hailed from the governorate of Mounefiya. The year was 1952.
El-Husseiny was in Cairo, living with parents and five brothers, on that day.
“I was so happy, everybody was happy,” recalls El-Husseiny. “The situation was so unstable at the time and there were many stories swirling around that something would happen. But what exactly we didn’t know.”
Her friend, Shahenda Maklad, recalls a similar story. She was 14 on the morning of the 1952 revolution. Upon hearing the same broadcast on the news, her father quickly wrote a telegram supporting the revolution and asked her and her brother to run to the post office to send it.
“It was the first telegram by an individual announcing support of the revolution,” Shahenda remembers proudly. “In the telegram, my father urged the revolutionaries to pay special attention to the constitution. Sixty years later, when I witnessed the January 25 Revolution, I knew what my father meant when he said the constitution was paramount.”
On 25 January 2011 the two women found themselves facing a second revolution, and again they excitedly joined in.
“I went to all 18 days,” smiles Shahenda. “I was even in the square during the Battle of the Camel, when government thugs attacked the protesters. People were so scared.”
But she was happy and so was Azeema who also joined the protests on 28 January, which has come to be known as the “Friday of Rage.”
“We saw the violence that was taking place in the streets. They threw tear gas at us,” says Azeema. “But I was so happy. I’ve lived a lifelong love story with this country and I wanted to see things get better.”
Shahenda and Azeema are now 74 and 77 respectively and through the 60 years between the revolutions, the two women became untiring activists, fighting for justice for the Egyptian people.
Shahenda, coming from the village of Kamshish in the governorate of Mounefiya, took up the battle for farmers’ rights, earning the title “Mother of all farmers” by the same. Azeema worked relentlessly through the years fighting the injustices she witnessed.
“I lived through four regimes. The first was King Farouk, then Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. I have the history of this country in my heart,” she laughs. “I think of myself as the woman who married Egypt because I never settled down or had a family of my own, because I wanted to dedicate my life to fighting for Egypt.”
Azeema, a small woman with classic Egyptian features — olive skin, unruly curly hair and striking brown eyes — now lives in the Cairo district of Manial.
Sitting in her small apartment, Azeema’s eyes cloud over as she remembers the days before the 1952 revolution.
“At the time the situation in Egypt was very unstable. We had political turbulence for several years before 1952,” remembers Azeema.
The country was a monarchy, reigned over by King Farouk, a descendant of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the “founder of modern Egypt.” Egypt was still under British occupation.
The country was also reeling from the catastrophic 1948 defeat to Israel, which many blamed on King Farouk. The country was already in the throws of instability; Ahmed Maher Pasha, the prime minister, was assassinated in parliament in 1945. Political assassinations continued as tensions between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood led to the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Nukrashi Pasha in 1948. This was then followed by the assassination of Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna in 1949.
When 1952 rolled in, Egypt was launched into more political turbulence when British occupation troops murdered 60 Egyptian policemen in Ismalia. The result? The notorious “Cairo Fire,” where many of the city’s historic symbols — including the Cairo Opera House and 750 buildings — were torched.
The young Azeema witnessed all this drama.
“I would ask my father, 'Who killed Ahmed Maher, who killed Nukrashi Pasha?'” she smiles. “My family were part of the Wafd Party and we used to have many lively political discussions. It really opened my eyes to what was happening in the country.”
The family was residing in Luxor when they heard news of the death of Palestinian resistance fighter Abdel Kader El-Husseiny. Because they shared the same surname, many Luxor families assumed that he was a relative and went to their house to pay their respects.
“When they left, I asked my father if he really is our relative,” remembers Azeema. “And my father would say, 'Yes, he is our relative because we share the same land, language and religion.' That’s when I learned that Palestine is like a second home for Egyptians." "Things have changed now. People don’t feel that way anymore,” Azeema added sadly.
But it wasn’t just her father’s guidance that raised her awareness of Egypt’s problems. She remembered several incidents in her youth where it struck her how much the Egyptian people were suffering.
“I remember walking in Zamalek in the 1940s and seeing Egyptian soldiers walking with tattered clothing. One was barefoot and the other was wearing a torn slipper,” says Azeema. “My heart just filled with rage. I felt hate towards the king and these foreigners who were occupying our country and treating our soldiers like that.”
Years later, Azeema would remember this moment when she saw a poverty stricken State Security enlisted man (frequently used by Mubarak to quell protests) eating a tiny piece of bread with a dry cucumber during one of the anti-Mubarak protests she participated in. The scene made her realise how little had changed in Egypt in 60 years.
“These people (SS officers) have been wronged. The Egyptian people have been wronged. We have been suffering for decades,” says Azeema.
But the revolution that was supposed to change all these wrongs was already in progress. Gamal Abdel Nasser, a previously unknown army officer, was inaugurated as president in 1954 and the country witnessed massive social and political change. Nasser issued his land reform law and began handing out land to Egypt’s farmers that was previously owned by feudal lords. The Aswam High Dam was built, the Suez Canal nationalised. Development, social justice and national identity became the main aims of the revolution.
However, the situation was not all rosy for Azeema and her family. Nasser's regime notoriously imprisoned thousands of its political opponents, including two of Azeema’s brothers, Mustafa and Mahdi, who were thrown in prisons in Fayoum and Wadi El-Gedid. Mahdi, only 17 years old, was sentenced to seven years for opposing the Nasser regime. The family was not allowed to visit him in prison.
“Despite all this suffering, I love Nasser,” smiles Azeema. “I love him because he helped the people. Food was cheap, education and healthcare were free, so why wouldn’t I love him? Yes, he imprisoned the leftists, but Egypt is much more precious than all of us. Nasser did many good things, but his problem what that he was a dictator.”
Meanwhile, Shahenda was fighting her own battle in her village of Kamshish. Coming from a family of farmers, she was ecstatic when Nasser issued his land reform law in September 1952, which limited land ownership by feudal lords and redistributed it to small farmers. She witnessed her cousin, Hussein Salah, take the microphone and address farmers shortly after the revolution erupted. He told them “Farmers, the July 23 Revolution has erupted from you, now take your land back and live free.” Inspired, Shahenda decided to join the battle for social justice. However, to their dismay, the law was not applied and feudal families continued to monopolise the land.
“We were not book rats who sat around reading political theories about social justice. We adopted socialism because injustice was the reality of our lives. We were farmers and we saw how much we worked and how much of our money was stolen,” says Shahenda. “The person who established socialism was called Marx. But he could have been called Ali, Mohamed or Ibrahim, because it’s these simple people who experienced injustice firsthand.”
Shahenda faced a more personal battle when she fell in love with Salah and her mother refused to allow her to marry him. The distraught teenager then ran away twice from the family home, to force them to agree to the marriage. Finally, the couple got married when she was 19.
“It was a great love story,” she remembers. “I adored him.”
The couple continued to fight feudalism in their village, but tragedy struck in 1966 when Salah was gunned down by the hired thugs of the large land-owning family in Kamshish, leaving Shahenda a widow at 27, with three children to take care of. On that day, an inconsolable Shahenda decided to wear mourning black and never take it off again. She also vowed to continue the fight that she and Salah began over feudalism.
“I carried his coffin on my shoulders during the funeral possession,” Shahenda recalls as her eyes tear up with the memory. “And I kept chanting, ‘We will finish the battle,’ over and over.”
Eerily, it’s the same chant Shahenda used during the 18 days of the revolution, as she urged Egypt’s youth to stay strong and continue their fight.
Salah’s death also signaled that a counter-revolution was fast in progress.
“Nasser said that if Salah died 14 years after the revolution, then we have been oblivious to the counter-revolution,” says Shahenda.
Shahenda continued her activism, her face becoming a staple at every conference or rally for farmer’s rights. She became one of 25 women across Egypt to join Nasser’s Socialist Union. At one point, she joined the farmers in Kamshish in a 15-day sit in when land they obtained through land reform was under threat.
However, the situation took a dire turn in 1967, when Egypt lost to Israel in the Six Day War.
After the defeat, the feudal family in Kamshish, feeling that they are gaining power, attempted to reclaim the land from the farmers. At that point, Shahenda joined the farmers in a 15 day sit-in until Nasser announced that they may keep their land.
However, it was a small victory. Shahenda knew that the end was very near.
“The 1967 defeat was a big blow and for me it was the end of the July 23 Revolution,” says Shahenda.
Nasser’s death three years later only confirmed that feeling for both Shahenda and Azeema.
In fact, when news of Nasser’s death was broadcast on radio at 10pm on 18 September 1970, Azeema remembers screaming and sobbing hysterically. Anwar El-Sadat, Nasser’s friend and fellow Free Officer, became Egypt’s president.
“I never liked him. He was arrogant and was ashamed of his poor roots,” says Azeema.
During the following decades, both women watched as many of Nasser’s policies were overturned and the dreams of the July 23 Revolution dissipated.
Both women joined the leftist National Progressive Unionist Party (NPUP — commonly known as Al-Tagammu), a party that campaigned hard in opposing the economic liberalisation programmes of both Sadat and Mubarak. The party also played an important role in hosting and promoting actions in solidarity with the Lebanese resistance in 1982, the two Palestinian intifadas, and opposing the Iraq war during Mubarak’s reign.
During Sadat’s 15 May “corrective revolution,” he imprisoned many Nasser loyalists. The four most famous detainees were Mohamed Fayek, Nasser’s minister of information, Ali Sabry, former prime minister of Egypt, Sami Sharaf, Nasser’s secretary, and Fareed Abdel Kareem, a former high official of the Arab Socialist Union. Azeema along with the Tagammu launched a campaign to demand their release. She also forged ID cards to be able to visit them in prison.
“At the time we had no computers. So we manually published millions of flyers and sent them to Syria, Libya, France and Iraq,” she says.
Also while living with her father in the Egyptian border town of Rafah during the mid-1960s, she became one of the first Egyptians to join the Palestinian national liberation movement Fatah.
Azeema’s activism never dulled through the years. Neither age nor personal tragedies dulled her spirit. During the Mubarak era, she began participating in anti-regime protests and one time threw herself at a SS officer because he was viciously beating an activist who had fallen on the floor.
“I literally sat on his back to stop him,” she laughs.
However, now that Egypt is going through a second revolution, both women express concern about the future. Shahenda says that the constitutional amendments, which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued in March 2011 — weeks after Mubarak's ouster — were when the revolution began to flounder.
“When they held the referendum, I said bring me the person who pushed for it, because he is a traitor,” fumes Shahenda. “The referendum divided the Egyptians and the Muslim Brotherhood were the first to turn their back on the revolution.”
Shahenda remembers a similar tug of war between the regime and the Brotherhood during the Nasser era.
“Now, however, the Muslim Brotherhood are a powerful group, unlike in 1952. They have a strong presence in the street,” Shahenda points out. “They get their power from the massive amounts of money they have and the fact that they use religion and the kindness and simplicity of the Egyptian people to get support.”
Shahenda adds that one of the weak points of the January 25 Revolution was that it was a popular uprising without a leadership. “The revolutionaries should have quickly created a patriotically and not ideologically driven leadership,” she explains.
In 1952, there were two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, which created balance, says Shahenda. Now, there is only the US and a powerful Gulf, loaded with petrodollars.
Azeema adds that the July 23 Revolution did not have the violence and bloodletting that took place in the aftermath of the 25 January uprising.
“The January revolution had amazing youth, but they didn’t find anyone to support them,” says Azeema. “That’s why I blame all the country’s political forces who ended up fighting among each other and did not embrace these youth.”
Needless to say, both women spoiled their votes during the first-post Mubarak presidential elections. Azeema wrote on her ballot paper, “Since the time of Nasser we have been under the illusion that we had a democracy and personal freedoms.”
“And we never, in the last 60 years, had either. We’ve been living a lie,” adds Azeema.
But neither has given up hope on Egypt’s revolution.
For Shahenda, the sight of Tahrir Square, packed by hundreds and thousands of Egypt’s youth during the uprising, warmed her heart. She remembers how the youth were strong and determined, and refused to be intimidated, no matter what weapons Mubarak’s regime threatened to use against them.
They reminded her of someone else who had fought and died young for justice: her husband Salah.
“I remember walking around the square and thinking how proud Salah would be if he saw how courageous Egypt’s youth are. They are the flowers of Egypt,” Shahenda says as her eyes well up.
“Salah used to tell me that the Egyptian people are like running water under a stable bed of mud. On top it looks like nothing going on, but underneath there is flowing water. That’s why they will revolt again. The Egyptian people will never be broken.”