During discussions with Egyptian young people, both men and women living inside or outside of Egypt, I have been surprised to find that the vast majority do not know that the choice of 21 February as World Student Day has its roots in the modern history of Egypt and the Egyptian student movement that served the struggle of the Egyptian people for national liberation and independence.
This goes back to the post-World War II period, but one should also recall that Egyptian students played an influential and effective role in Egypt’s struggle to achieve national independence throughout the earlier 20th century.
There were important milestones on this march, particularly the 1919 Revolution aiming to achieve independence from the British occupation as well as constitutional democracy.
This revolution led to Egypt’s formal independence after the February 1922 British Declaration and the adoption of the 1923 constitution before multi-party elections were held resulting in an overwhelming victory for Saad Zaghloul’s Wafd Party.
Egyptian students played a no less important role in 1935 when they were instrumental in pushing the leaders of the country’s political parties to agree to establish a national unity government in order to negotiate with the British over full independence for Egypt and the total withdrawal of British troops from Egyptian territory.
These negotiations led to the signature of the 1936 Egyptian-British Treaty, which was an improvement over the 1922 Declaration but still fell short of expectations in Egypt for full independence and the complete withdrawal of British troops.
In the aftermath of World War II, there were new realities in Egypt, the region and the world as a whole.
These led to a new momentum and new ideological, political and social orientations in the Egyptian national movement and the Egyptian student movement.
The struggle was renewed after the end of the war to push for national liberation and independence and the complete withdrawal of British troops from Egypt.
However, the student movement also demanded economic independence and the rejection of Egypt’s joining any of the pro-Western alliances being discussed at the global and regional levels.
It also echoed the need for social justice, including through land reform, and went as far as to call for an end to the monarchy in Egypt and the establishment of a republic.
February 1946 was a special month in the struggle, since it was then that independent National Student and Worker Committees were established and a new generation of leaders came to the fore of the national struggle through them.
The National Student Committee was particularly active on 9 February when a national conference was held that led to street demonstrations in front of Abdine Palace in Cairo, the official residence of king Farouk, in order to reiterate the demands of the students.
These included ending the negotiations with the British occupiers, abrogating the 1936 Egyptian-British Treaty, and the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Egypt.
The government, led by minority political parties, instructed the security forces to stop the student demonstrations from reaching Abdine Palace.
The Abbas Bridge across the Nile was raised, and several students were killed, becoming martyrs of the national movement.
This incident then escalated the protest movement and the demonstrations. On 17 February, a National Committee of Students and Workers demanded the complete withdrawal of British troops from Egypt, the internationalising of the “Egyptian Question”, meaning referring it to the newly established United Nations, and the ending of Egypt’s dependence on the Western powers.
The meeting also called for 21 February every year to be commemorated as Withdrawal of the British Troops Day.
On that day in 1946 there was a general strike when many shops closed.
The National Committee for Students and Workers held a meeting at the Opera Square in Downtown Cairo reiterating demands for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Egypt and the abrogation of the Egyptian-British Treaty.
Demonstrations then spread across the country.
In Cairo’s Ismailia Square, later renamed Tahrir Square, British tanks attacked the demonstrators, opening fire on them and leading both to further martyrs and to more protests and demonstrations.
The government ordered army troops to encircle students demonstrating inside Cairo University.
However, army officers affiliated to new political currents in Egypt as well as to the nucleus of the Free Officers organisation that later led the 1952 Revolution rejected orders to open fire on student activists fighting for the country’s independence.
In that same year, a preparatory meeting took place in Prague in the Czech Republic to declare the establishment of the World Student Union with the participation of representatives of male and female Egyptian students.
The meeting decided to consider 21 February as World Student Day in honour of the martyrs of the Egyptian Student Committee fighting for national liberation.
At the national level, the Egyptian student movement succeeded in forcing the British to withdraw their troops from the country’s main cities and withdraw to their base in the Suez Canal Zone. It also succeeded in aborting the conclusion of a deal between the minority government in Egypt and the British known as the Sedki-Bevin Agreement in reference to the then Egyptian prime minister Ismail Sedki and the then British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly