It was with the heartbreaking scene of a poor man scratching the muddy floor in front of a rural grocery, searching for half a piaster, in the early cold morning of 18 January 1977 that alerted then engineering student Said Abdel Fattah Abu Taleb that public anger against harsh economic conditions was about to be articulated.
“The man had gone to the grocery and gave the grocer a half piaster to get a loaf of plain bread for breakfast. He was unaware, like many of us, that the government had issued a decree to increase prices and that the price of the loaf had doubled. The grocer was harsh and threw away the half piaster coin. It fell from the counter of his small store onto the muddy ground,” recalled Abu Taleb.
“It was so painful to see the man on his knees with his bare hands going through the mud in search for the half piaster. I had to be very tactful, claiming that I found the coin, to be able to offer him one without hurting his dignity. He took the coin, thinking it was his lost piece, and declined my offer for a simple sandwich for his breakfast. He had just realised he could no longer afford a full loaf of bread,” Abu Taleb said.
“This is what gets people desperate, I thought back then. I actually think that this is always what gets people desperate,” Abu Taleb argued in interview with Ahram Online on the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s famous bread riots 18-19 January 1977, in the wake of a decision by President Anwar El-Sadat to increase the prices of basic food commodities.
“It was those people who had to face the harshest economic challenges that managed on 28 January 2011 to take what started as protests against dictatorship and grave human rights violations into the revolution that called for ‘Bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity,'” he argued.
According to Abu Taleb, those who joined the demonstrations in large numbers, without any pre-organisation, on 28 January 2011 are very much like the poor man who was digging through the mud to find his half piaster on the morning of 18 January 1977, or the workers of the poorer neighbourhoods of the capital who came out from the small alleyways late afternoon the same day to join the hundreds of students who marched from Ain Shams and Cairo University to Tahrir Square.
“It was those people who turned a demonstration of a few hundreds in 1977 to a massive protest of tens of thousands, and these people who turned the demonstration of 25 January 2011 into a revolution that lived for 18 days,” he stated.
A student at Ain Shams University at the time, Abu Taleb walked from the grocer’s to the train station where he would commute to Cairo to attend classes. Once on the train, Abu Taleb realised that Sadat’s economic measures would not be easily absorbed. “It was clear from the things that people on the train were saying on that day that whoever gave the go ahead to the increase of prices was simply unaware of the true volume of frustration that people felt,” he recalled.
At the heart of the Ain Shams Engineering School, Abu Taleb joined hundreds of students, “essentially from the ranks of the Left – Nasserists and Marxists – with a humble showing of Islamists who were still not really visible at the time,” for a one hour conference that collectively decided to protest the increase in prices.
“It was really almost simultaneous – and with no hesitation,” he recalled.
And according to Abu Taleb, “it was a move that gained consensus among most people, even those with no particular political affiliation.”
Having worried about missing the early part of the demonstration in order to attend a class of a professor who would fail absent students, Abu Taleb was “overwhelmed with emotions” when he reached the class of design professor Ahmed Hussein who openly told him, “There is no attendance for class today. I am here for those who wish to take the class, and I accept that most of you would want to be in the demonstrations, against making life harder for Egyptians.”
Hussein is one of the professors that Abu Taleb remembers with joy and pride for their “exceptional role” in taking the side of the “students' right to be politically engaged, while still abiding by the highest academic discipline.”
“Ali Kamel, a prominent professor who had lost his teaching job at the university in 1968 for openly criticising Gamal Abdel Nasser, was in Egypt in 1975 upon the request of the Sadat regime to convince students to refrain from politics. Instead, he told us you have to study hard to make it as good engineers and to go underground with politics, to avoid security persecution,” Abu Taleb remembered.
Ahmed Shaker, dean of the Engineering School at the time, decided in 1978 to spare a student from arrest for violating security regulations issued in the wake of the 18-19 January food riots, banning campus political activism. He took personal responsibility for allowing a demonstration that security had wanted to prevent.
Abu Taleb argued that the 1977 food riots, “which really started as demonstrations and were only partially riots because some of the very poor acted impulsively to grab some commodities from some stores,” were about societal opposition to hasty and unfair economic measures that undermined the already fragile living conditions of the majority of Egyptians.
In fact, he argued, 1977 did not come out of the blue; it was rather the culmination of repeated signs of social dismay related first to what was perceived as Sadat’s hesitation to embark on the war to liberate the Egyptian territories occupied by Israel in 1967.
“Only one year ahead of the 18-19 January protests there was, also in January, a considerable march of university students in support of public transport workers who had gone on strike to protest unfair pay against the backdrop of costly living expenses,” he recalled.
For Abu Taleb himself, the 1977 protests were part of a longer path of commitment to social justice that he had embraced as a teenager, when he started reading the literature of Vladimir Lenin, only to be told “by an open minded teacher of Al-Azhar that the call of Lenin for the welfare of all humans and social justice is in essence similar to the call of Prophet Mohammed for justice and fairness.”
Growing up in a small village of the Nile Delta, Abu Taleb had learned firsthand the accounts of economic hardships and had gradually embraced the many shades of socialism and Marxism in pursuit of social justice. Living not far from the mega industrial zone of Abu Zaabal and being the brother in law of Mohamed Shaalan, a prominent blue collar leader, Abu Taleb had dedicated time and effort to help workers in the factories of Abu Zaabal acquire legitimate economic and legal rights.
Along the path of the search for social justice he joined an underground Marixist movement, “The Hammer," where he rubbed shoulders with leading Leftists of the time, including Mona Mina, his later wife and mother of his daughter, Salma Said, herself a prominent face of the 25 January Revolution.
“But yes, I agree, the call that had been echoed in the 1970s was heeded in 2011 and is still being recalled; and yes, Tahrir Square, especially the centre point, the poems of Amal Donkkol, the songs of Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm, are still being echoed from the 1970s, through 2011 and until now,” he said.
Indeed, Abu Taleb said, on the evening of 18 January 1977, like the evening of 28 January 2011, many of the demonstrators decided not to leave Tahrir Square prior to acknowledgement of their demands.
On 19 January 1977, Sadat “bowed, at least temporarily” to the demands, Abu Taleb said. He added, however, that the battle did not stop there, for either side.
The student movement continued its resistance against Sadat’s economic and political choices, including those related to unilateral peace talks and later the peace treaty with Israel. Meanwhile, Sadat did not stop in his pursuit of the elimination of the Left, “something that he had already embarked on in the wake of the 1973 War.” That war allowed Sadat to think that having reversed, at least partially, the humiliating military defeat of Nasser, he was in a position to drop the entire socialist call.
Inevitably, Abu Taleb argued, while both sides had considerable losses, Sadat managed to put the Leftist movement in a corner, “first by pursuing a peace deal with Israel that he said would bring about unprecedented economic prosperity, and second by granting the Islamists a free ride to take over university campuses, and society as a whole, by the sway of religious discourse.”
Again, Abu Taleb makes a comparison between January 1977 and January 2011. In both cases, demonstrators made a considerable advance but then fell in the trap of a counter-offensive, “essentially because in both cases those who were at the forefront of the demonstrations had no coherent political scheme about taking power.”
However, Abu Taleb is convinced that “irrespective of the dates and the details, the core cause of the call for social justice never died." It was there in all the demonstrations and strikes that Sadat and his successor Hosni Mubarak tried to quell through successive decades, “although Mubarak was, I think, alert to always pave the way for his economic measures to avoid any potential angry reaction that might come as a result of shocking the public.”
Still, he remarked, this never stopped the workers from showing their anger in strikes, including the one of 1989 by steel workers, when Abu Taleb himself was arrested and jailed, though not for the first time.
Throughout the decades and generations, Abu Taleb said, the act of protest was related to the call for social justice, “although in some cases, as in 1977, it was instigated by direct unfair economic measures and in other cases, as in 2011, it was prompted by political frustration first and then by socio-economic unfairness.”
There is one exception to this pattern, Abu Taleb agrees: 30 June 2013, which was essentially about getting the Muslim Brotherhood out of power following the democratic election of their candidate Mohamed Morsi as the first post-Mubarak civilian president.
Abu Taleb argues that 30 June “was a moment of fear of excessive Islamisation” of society.
Abu Taleb is convinced that it was “a true identity scare” and not the old bad blood between Leftists and Islamists over the role the latter played in the wake of the 1977 protests.
According to Abu Taleb, today, neither Leftists nor Islamists, “nor any other political bloc,” is in one mind about the developments that followed 30 June 2013.
“But the one thing we seem to agree on today is that the call for social justice is again gaining the attention of the masses, and obviously it is the will of the masses that decides the choices of political groupings and political action. It did in before January 1977 and after January 2011,” he said. “And it will always do,” he concluded.