This week marks five years since the death of Ahmed Abdalla, leader of the early-1970s student movement, political activist and social scientist. Abdalla's untimely death shocked numerous friends and admirers who followed with approbation his heroic attempts to swim against the political current during one of the darkest periods of Egyptian history. Now that new vistas seem to be opening up before us, those fortunate enough to have known Abdalla and worked with him – and there are many of us – are doubly bereaved. They feel an immense sense of loss in his not being here to witness this new phase of the country's history and contribute to the very democratic future of which he died dreaming.
I first heard of Ahmed Abdalla during the wave of student activism that swept the country between 1971 and 1973. We both enrolled in the academic year 1968-1969; we were the fortunate beneficiaries of the struggle of our senior colleagues during the 1968 student movement, of which we caught the tail end. The student movement had managed to free campuses of the worst of police surveillance, granting us a wide margin of freedom: we could now elect our representatives to student unions and form associations and groups of every conceivable shade. In 1972, while we were both on the verge of earning our undergraduate degrees, while campuses across Egypt were seething with political vitality, the late president Anwar Sadat gave a speech on 13 January explaining why 1971 would not be "the year of determination" – in reference to liberating Egyptian territories occupied by Israel since 1967 – which he had promised earlier. He cited the war between India and Pakistan as the reason for backing out of war, referring to developments in the Indian Subcontinent as a "fog" that had descended on the international arena preventing Egypt from liberating its territories.
A lame excuse at best – and it did not sit well with the students, and campuses across the country were up in arms demanding that the President come to discuss the future of the country with the students. It was at this moment that Ahmad Abdalla became a household name; the whole country found out about this final-year political science student, who led the occupation by the students of the Cairo University campus and was elected president of the National Student Committee on the occasion. A tall and slender young man, Abdalla was an eloquent orator and it was this gift which earned him the love of tens of thousands of students who flocked every day to Cairo University's Assembly Hall to listen to him – huge human gains to the cause, thanks to his astounding eloquence and huge charisma.
It was not students only who flocked to Cairo University during the ten-day sit-in: people from all walks of life heard about what was happening in Egyptian universities, especially the Cairo University campus – which was at the forefront of the event, and came to see this new uprising until a ground swell of popular demand formed around the students. I was not a Cairo University student, and though Ain Shams, where I attended classes, had its fair share of activity, I made a discretionary visit to Cairo University at the peak of events.
Waiting at the Assembly Hall for the leaders of the movement headed by Ahmed Abdalla, who were at a meeting in parliament with the then speaker of the house, Sayed Mara'i, to discuss the demands of the movement and impose their terms for ending the sit-in, I can vividly recall being overwhelmed by anticipation. Ahmed Abdalla and his companions arrived around midnight, and as he entered the hall and crossed it to the podium, he was surrounded by thousands of students chanting the movement's slogans. He ascended to the podium, and that was my first glimpse of the legendary leader and his "red scarf", subsequently made famous when Sadat, in a speech following the events, talked about "disrespectful students" and the red scarf of their leader, a speech in which he mentioned Ahmed Abdalla by name.
Abdalla gave an incendiary speech in which he announced the failure of talks with the regime and warned that it would not be long before those occupying the university were arrested. True to Abdalla's word, security forces stormed campus at dawn arresting Ahmed and the many students who decided to stay that night to give the movement the kind of momentum that would extend far beyond the campus of Cairo University. On that same day, while news spread to the rest of the universities in Cairo, students took to the streets, occupying Tahrir Square until the following morning when they were dispersed by security forces.
Checking the dates of those distant events of some four decades ago, for the purpose of this column, I was surprised to discover that we occupied Tahrir Square on 25 January 1972 – what a coincidence that this year's revolution began on that same day.
On 25 January 1972, the students occupying Tahrir were once again joined by hundreds of writers and intellectuals embracing their demands, to which a new one was now added: the immediate release of student leaders. The famous manifesto of Egyptian writers, dubbed the Tawiq Al-Hakim Manifesto, was born that day and hundreds of writers and journalist, including Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris and many notables, signed that manifesto in solidarity with the students. On that same day, Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam joined the occupation, singing some of their most memorable songs about the revolution which had just begun.
The student leaders were released a few weeks later, to be arrested again at the end of the year, this time from their homes, in what was believed to be a preventive measure to curb the political dissent spiraling with greater and greater force all across university campuses in the country. Abdalla was the first to be arrested and among the last to leave prison, where he sat his final-year exams, to be released shortly before the 1973 October War. With his State Security record, he had little hope of finding a job – Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, then editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, later recalled that Sadat called him personally to warn him against appointing Abdalla in Al-Ahram.
In 1974, Abdalla decided to leave the country to study in the UK, and it was there that I met him and struck a friendship with him to the last day of his life. With the exception of the ten years he spent in England, where he worked to finance his graduate studies that led to his obtaining a PhD in political science from King's College, Cambridge, Abdalla spent his life working with and for the poor and the disenfranchised of this country, and remained to the end of his life a model of the committed intellectual whose loyalty to the people never waned or wavered.
Ahmed Abdalla had a "fascination of what's difficult," to quote W.B. Yeats's title. I can find no better words to describe Ahmed's premature death, the result of heart failure, than the Irish bard's: "The fascination of what's difficult/ Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/ Spontaneous joy and natural content/ Out of my heart."
A version of this article also appears in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper