Egyptian revolutions book review series: Workers and Students in the Egyptian Nationalist Movement

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 24 Feb 2011

El-Desuky records testimonials and reactions from discussions on the history of Egyptian movements dating back to 1964 until the student movement in 1972

Omal wa tollab fil al haraka al wataney al masreya(Workers and Students in the Egyptian Nationalist Movement), editor Assem El-Desuky, Cairo: Dar El-Mahrousa, 1998. pp 213.

For an entire 31 years, between 1964 and 1977, the Egyptian’s struggle and dissent has not stopped, whether against invaders, enemies from inside the ruling authorities or the political regime.

“Workers and Students in the Egyptian Nationalist Movement”, edited by Assem El-Desuky and published by Dar El-Mahrousa in 1998, documents the discussions of the workshop by the Centre for Arab Research, Al-Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies, in co-ordination with the Committee for the Documentation of the Egyptian Socialist Movement until 1965.

During 4th - 5th of March1996, the workshop attempted to shed light on the various dimensions of the workers and student's movements to refresh the national memory, and to listen to eye-witnesses who were active during the 1964 incidents.  They also wanted to understand the evolution of the movement, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, and to realise the extent of the “continuation across generations", as expressed by Assem El-Desuky in the introduction.

Maybe the most interesting feature in this book is just how lively it is.  It is primarily concerned with recording the discussions raised by the working papers presented by the participants, whose roles are well-known and documented, either during the 1964 uprising or the following movements, especially the extended wave of protests from 1968 till 1972.

The first two sections of the book deal with the 1964 uprising and the ensuing events in the 1960s and 1970s, while the final section records the overall national movement in general.

The Egyptian Uprising of 1964

The first section includes testimonials of nine participants from 1964; workers, students or activists. The testimonials and the following discussions reveal that during the summer of 1945, requests started for the British evacuation, which had begun in1882. It was sparked by the end of the Second World War with the Allies’ victory. At the sports courts at the Faculty of Medicine, the first meetings took place between students belonging to various faculties representing a wide majority of directions and national movements at the time.

The same year, the Nokrashy government presented the British government with a memo requesting negotiations to revise the 1936 treaty, which was supposed to be cancelled. The students hastily arranged for a meeting on 9th February, demanding the cancellation of the treaty, and only two days later upon the celebration of King Farouk’s birthday and the opening of the university hostels, masses of students went out chanting “no celebrations while the nation is ailing” and destroyed all the party decorations, even stepping on the king’s picture.

The demonstrations expanded into Alexandria, Mansura, Zagazig, Aswan, Assiut and other major cities, with hundreds of deaths and injuries.

On 21st February, a national committee for students and workers was formed and started leading the national battle against the invasion.  They called for a civil strike to include transport, shops, the commercial sector, schools, universities and factories.

Many were killed and only days later, another strike was called on 4th March in memory of the martyrs, and from then on the movement gained momentum until the arrest of the national committee members in July of the same year.

Egyptian Movements in 1960s and 1970s

The second section includes testimonials and comments from seven actors in the political field during the 1960s and 1970s.

In the paper by Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr, is a record of the youth movement from 1960-1969. During the first three years, the movement took form through joining the existing political opposition organisation, such as a branch in the Arab Revival Socialist party.  Between 1964 and 1976, many young people joined the organisation of the Socialist youth, which was part of the Socialist Union – the only political opposition organisation at the time.

The secretary of the youth organisation included a number of Marxists which affected its direction. However the failure of the Nasserite authority to conduct a real democratic conversation forced these youth to revolt against the limited spaces available.

The 1976 defeat came as a blow to the Nasserite project, in addition to the important rising of independent public movements such as those leading the February1968 demonstrations against the lenient punishment of the army officers responsible for the defeat.  Similar economic and political demonstrations were joined by workers and students from all around the country.

The discussions pause at the workers movement after the 1964 uprising, noting that the first conference for the Egyptian workers union was planned for September 1952, to crown the years of struggle, hoping it would unite the worker's movement under one leadership. 

But the famous coup took place a fortnight before the conference so it was cancelled, only to discover two weeks later that the army had crushed the striking workers in Kafr El-Dawwar who were asking for pay raises.   Two workers were killed on the spot after a symbolic trial, revealing the tendency of officers towards oppressive behaviour to terrorise everyone.

The testimonials and comments draw an impressive panoramic picture of the protests and movements arising from the political factions, with a prominent role for the Egyptian left-wing, especially after the 1967 defeat.

In 1971 for example, widespread protests started among workers, reaching some 500 movements, most famous of which is the strike of the iron and steel workers.  In 1972 there were around 30 movements which rose until 1974, when there were 400 strikes.

At the same time, the movements never ceased among students,  the most important was in 1972 which started at the beginning of the year and peaked in January 1974.

There was a sit-in inside Cairo University hall for two weeks which was ended by the security forces when nearly 1,000 students were arrested, resulting in major demonstrations by students to free their colleagues.  They occupied Tahrir square until they were assaulted and dispersed before dawn.

One of the revealing points of the 1972 movements is that the workers joined in and formed once again a national committee for students and workers, holding a number of protests and strikes.

The last section deals with the challenges of documenting the movement. Emad Abu-Ghazi’s paper, presented on behalf of a number of organisations and ministers, and in particular the Ministry of Interior, contends that there is a lack of transparency and a refusal to reveal documents pertaining to the Egyptian national movement, squandering the national memory and threatening authentic history..

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