Remembering Ahmed Abdalla

Roger Owen , Monday 6 Jun 2011

Ahmed Abdalla, political scientist and activist, died five years ago today. In this talk given on the first anniversary of his death, Roger Owen recalls the man and the historic events he witnessed as an active participant

Ahmed Abdalla, political scientist and activist, died in 2006. Professor Roger Owen gave this talk at Cairo University on the first anniversary of Abdalla's death.

In his talk, Owen called for instituting an annual lecture at Cairo University in his memory – the call fell on deaf ears. In publishing Owen's unpublished talk, Ahram Online renews the call 

We have come together to remember – and to honour – the life, the works and the untimely death of our dear good friend, Ahmed Abdalla and to talk about how we might institute an annual lecture at Cairo University in his memory.

His monument at the moment rests in the hearts of those that loved him and the many young men that he helped through the Al Jeel Center for Youth and Social Studies

But it would be also wonderful if we could establish something more permanent, something to remind people of what Ahmed Abdalla stood for: the warm heart of Egypt, his sense of community, of social responsibility, of pride in his country, of dissatisfaction with mediocrity and above all, his desire to find ways to bring out the rich potential to be found in all its people.

I first met Ahmed in Oxford sometime in 1974. He came to me as many young Arab students did in those days seeking my help in getting into a British university, which I gladly gave, of course, and was enormously pleased when he was accepted at Cambridge.

I remember a tall, charismatic, smiling young man, someone easy to imagine as a student leader, at the head of student demonstrations, holding his own in discussions with the pompous, over-bearing ministers and officials of President Anwar Sadat.

I can remember too – as all of you here must – the temper of those times in Cairo: the year of the ‘fog’, the year of demonstrations and strikes and sit-ins that followed. Although, I have to say, in my own case, I viewed what was going on in Egypt’s universities between 1968 and 1973 very much through the lens of the world-wide student movement of those years, in Paris, increasingly in America beginning with the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and then later, more tragically at Kent State, and then at many British universities including Oxford when I was then teaching – in which, as always, national and more specifically student issues were combined.

I should also say that, for a young teacher like myself, these events, though welcome in many ways, posed a particular problem as far as both our institutional and political loyalties were concerned; trying to support the students whenever possible but also critical of some of their tactics and wary of some of their attempts to involve us in such a way as to make us captive of their agenda rather than our own. Ahmed says something about this in his book on the Egyptian student movement of those times, but, not surprisingly, judging faculty behaviour in terms of the stand which particular individuals took for and against the university administration. Again, many of you in the audience will appreciate the problems involved, say at Cairo University, very much better than me.

I got to know Ahmed better over the years, in England, in Cairo and later during his regular visits to America. He was always wonderfully helpful, never more so than at a conference organised by Harvard and the American University at Cairo in early 1993, in which an attempt was made to reach our Egyptian students from the other Cairo universities, to encourage the use of social science methods to structure their research into various aspects of Egyptian civil society and to plan ways in which the American universities might help augment their rather meagre library, language resources. Ahmed more or less took it over, made everyone feel at home, changed the language from English to Arabic and, in every way, acted as a friendly and efficient master of ceremonies – as well as editor of the final collection of papers.

Ahmed was also always wonderfully predictably the same: walking into the room – like a breath of fresh air to provide humorous, hard-hitting, no-nonsense accounts of political life back home, jokes and all – optimistic after the apparent return to multi-party life in the 1980s, then increasingly pessimistic in the 1990s.

Much of this comes through very well in the short report he wrote for a University of Amsterdam publication in 1995 concerning the forthcoming Parliamentary elections – entitled in his characteristically provocative way: ‘Parliamentary elections in Egypt: what elections? what parliament? and which Egypt?' Three central questions which remain as relevant today as they were then.

Not surprisingly, Ahmed had little good to say either about the elections themselves or the way they were conducted. The elections: meretricious in intent and an obvious insult to the intelligence of the voters. Nevertheless, he also used what reliable statistics he could find to demonstrate the regular drop in popular participation in such transparently rigged, more or more meaningless events, and the fact that, as a result, the regime rested on an ever more narrow popular base. To give just one of his many trenchant summing up of the whole proceedings:

"Parliamentary elections have been turned into an occasion for flattery and special favours rather than serious political decision-making. As a result elections have become a transaction, a sale and purchase of votes through the method of barter if not by means of actual cash payments."

As for Parliament: according to Ahmed, in the minds of most Egyptian citizens this had become nothing but a mechanism for providing services. They do not, he wrote, see it as "an authority with the need to protect broad social and national interests."

This was true also of the governing elite which uses parliament as a "mere bureaucratic office for the administration of legislative affairs and does not see it as an independent law-making body."

Lastly, "Which" Egypt:

Egypt, Ahmed argued, stood at the crossroads between democracy and dictatorship.

As a result there was no alternative but to reform the electoral system in law and practice and to reform parliament’s role and performance.

Only then would Egypt be able to face its four major challenges: the new post-Cold War global realities, regional problems, internal problems and a fourth posed by the existence of a younger generation which was the victim of all the first three, a generation which, he went on to assert, "encounters almost insurmountable hardships and obstacles in education, employment housing and marriage." It has lost faith in everything, he wrote. Consequently its members were divided into "those who have become indifferent to all aspects of life, those who have become drug addicts and those who try to escape by emigrating physically."

He knew. But, it was also typical of Ahmed to end by referring to the need for "hope." Hope, he wrote in this 1995 article is the "necessary fuel for continuing onwards and tolerating all the hardships of future changes."

Hope: he knew a lot about that – as well as about despair. To begin with you just have to look at his dates. Born in 1950. Brought up during what I believe to be the "high" Nasser period of enormous optimism about Egypt’s ability to develop, to put an end to foreign interference, to lead the Arab world into a new and better age.

The beneficiary too of a huge educational explosion, the magnitude of which he records in his book on ‘The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt’:

– a huge increase in funding,

– a huge growth in numbers with enrollment in Egypt’s increasing number of universities growing from 54,000 in 1952 to 130,000 (1965/6) and nearly 200,000 by 1972/3,

with university made free for all in 1962.

But all this was not, as we know now and as he observed in his book, without huge problems: giving a systematic advantage to the better-educated children of Egypt’s middle class, overcrowded libraries and lecture halls, graduates with little knowledge of the history of their own country, and so on.

Again, he knew.

And then the Sadat years, the end of the Nasser experiment, infitah (liberalising and opening up of Egypt's economy), the return of radical Islam and all that entailed for activists, would-be movers and shakers like him. And the further hurt of returning to Egypt and not being allowed to use either his graduate education or his political talents in the universities and public life as he rightly expected to be able to do. Being a man of great hopes himself, of a great desire to be of use, to be of service, a man of great dignity – it must have pained him more than I, and probably most of us here, could ever really know.

And, in an important way, not just a personal pain either, but a pain he shared with all those others in Egypt whose resources of energy, intellect and political skills were never given an opportunity to flourish – when Egypt, like all countries with similar ambitions, needed, and continues to need, just these kind of people like Ahmed to reach anywhere near its full potential.

So, in a way, he, as many like him, became something of a "marginal" man, with some of the advantages, as well as all the huge disadvantages that such a position entailed. This is something I’d like to say more about in a few minutes time. But, before we leave Ahmed Abdalla the student, there are a few more things I’d like to say about his thesis turned book, a wonderful record of the man and his student times.

The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt (London: Saki, 1985)

Dedication: to the people of Masr al-Qadeema: the illiterate who "gave me knowledge, the poor who enriched my conscience" (in English and in Arabic)

And a note saying that the writing of the book required many years of separation from the people to whom the book was dedicated. Then a Preface in which he notes that he consulted a wide range of references and sources, including interviews with other student activists – scattered throughout the world – and a number of documents he obtained as a student activist himself.

Then the book itself in which he combines an examination of the political system as it evolved from 1923 onwards with a study of the educational and social conditions at the time of what he calls the four student "uprisings" of 1935-6, 1946, 1968 and 1972-3.

Much of what Ahmed writes about the first two of these goes along with the conventional view of these events, the marches from Cairo University, across the Nile and into central Cairo, the attendant deaths and funerals and so on, in which he well captures the essential drama of those days with the key institutions of the British occupation – the Embassy in Garden City, the military barracks in what he correctly calls Ismailiya Square – and the key institutions of the new Egyptian state – parliament, the palace and the ministries, all within easy walking, or marching, distance from the University itself. And the Abbas bridge, as is well known, able to be opened and closed not just for river traffic but also to try to prevent students from marching from the Giza side across.

Also, not surprisingly, Ahmed is anxious to use these events to make several larger points.

First, that, as a result of their activities during the great political and constitutional crisis of 1935/6, the students emerged as a "distinct national political force."

Second, that, as such a force, they were also able to play an important role in persuading Egypt’s party political leaders to form something which in 1935/6 got to be called a "United Front."

And third, that in 1946 at least, during the great demonstrations calling for Britain to sign a treaty granting Egypt full independence, the students not only played a forceful role in formulating a set of national demands through the issue of a so-called "National Charter" but also were instrumental in creating institutional links with other political forces culminating in the formation of the National Committee of Workers and Students.

Then, after a period of what Ahmed calls "Hibernation", 1952-67, the students return to the forefront of national political life in two waves in 1968, and two more in 1972-3. These of course will be part of the university experience of many in this room as they were, of course, to Ahmed himself, and it is here that he comes into his own with a comprehensive account of the movements, now spread across many more of Egypt’s universities, new and old, as well as, in 1968 in particular, many of its secondary schools. Just where he was in 1968 itself you will remember better than I, but in 1972 he is obviously heavily involved, not something that appears directly in the text itself but in many of the footnotes based on obvious personal experience.

In Ahmed’s analysis, the student campaigns of 1968, particularly the first wave beginning February in response to the defeat in the 1967 June war, the lenient sentences awarded to the air-force commanders and the huge workers’ strike and demonstrations beginning at Helwan prepared the way for the return of student activism in a number of ways. First, it freed up the universities themselves by obtaining the withdrawal of some of the security surveillance, while encouraging new forms of expression such as the newspapers, wall-posters, political meetings and so on. As Ahmed comments, the universities now had the freest press in Egypt. The result, in Ahmed’s trenchant comment, the way in which such freedoms allowed the students to "wriggle out" of the government’s ideological containment – a vital step, and one about which I would have liked him to say much more, particularly in the light of what he also has to say in criticism of the protests of the secondary school students in Mansoura and elsewhere during the second wave of 1968 activity – is that their attempts to block a set of government educational reforms showed the government itself as "more progressive than the students."

Second, the student demands not only found a national following but also got their leaders and representatives into direct contact with the heart of the Nasser establishment with a series of meetings with ministers, senior officials and members of the People's Assembly.

It is here too that Ahmed’s footnotes begin to get really interesting, giving the names of many of the student leaders – with some, in terms of the book at least – uncharacteristically sharp comments about the "opportunists" among them, realistic numbers of those injured in demonstrations and those arrested and details of small incidents which must have seemed very large at the time, like the seizure by students of the Governor of Alexandria who, in Ahmed’s words, had came "bravely" to address them.

The fourth uprising; that of 1972-3, was, in Ahmed’s opinion, the culmination of the huge amount of political and organisational activity – the wall newspapers and magazines, the creation of new political societies and the holding of public meetings – just described. Once again, the book describes what I imagine is the experience of most of you in the audience, either directly or because of learning about it at first hand. The spark, as we all know, was President Sadat’s infamous "fog" speech of 13 January 1972 in which he made himself look particularly ridiculous in his attempts to explain away why he had not made 1971 his much vaunted "year of decision."

Protests beginning at the Polytechnic (Cairo University's School of Engineering) led rapidly to the creation of the Higher National Committee of University Students, the drafting of a student proclamation, and various efforts to obtain a meeting with President Sadat himself.

What they got instead was an offer of a meeting with members of the People's Assembly. But before negotiations could be complete, the Central Security Forces stormed the university. The students then replied by organising large demonstrations, followed by a sit-in in Midan Tahrir until dispersed.

Meanwhile, as a result of growing public support, President Sadat was forced to adopt a more conciliatory attitude, eventually releasing most of the arrested students and turning a blind eye to the fact that a number of the activists, while supposedly barred from campus, had actually returned to attend lectures.

This then set the stage for the second stage in which activism re-started at the beginning of the new academic year, 1972-3, and then again after the return from the winter break. More wall magazines. More meetings culminating in a daily open air conference at Cairo University. More arrests and counter demonstrations. But once again, the whole thing winding down over the summer in the interests of national unity in the run up to the October War. I would imagine that it was also at this time that Ahmed was released from jail to make his way to Britain.

As with regard to the third wave, but only more so, Ahmed’s footnotes contain many interesting bits and pieces of information, drawn now from his own personal experiences: the names of student societies, the results of student elections, slogans, debates between ministers and students – one particularly dramatic one interrupted by frequent phone calls from President Sadat himself.

The footnotes also have interesting things to say about the hands-off approach adopted to those foreign correspondents in Cairo at the time – for example, the Guardian’s David Hurst – lest the authorities be able to accuse them of being under influences from abroad, including mention of a moment when three such foreign correspondents managed to slip into a meeting at University Hall, were recognised and asked to leave.

Even more interesting, for those like me and you who knew Ahmed, is his own "first" appearance in the footnotes of his own book as author of a wall magazine beginning in December 1971 entitled The Rough Copy – with a caption explaining the title – "I’ll not let anybody censor me nor will I censor myself. I’ll publish my Rough Copy as it is."

He is also there when he notes the report that he was the leader of the Higher National Committee of Cairo University Students by David Hurst in the Guardian on 25 January 1972.

And finally, anonymously, but certainly our Ahmed Abdalla, when reporting the following exchange with the prosecutor at one of the student trials:

Prosecutor to student in dock: "It appears that the article entitled ‘Tractatus Theologico-Politicus' scoffs at the government and denounces it for repressing freedom."

Defendant: "This is Spinoza’s view – ask him about it."

Ahmed’s account of the student movement ends at roughly the same moment his own central role in national political life comes to its enforced end:

He goes to prison, he comes out of prison.

He comes to England.

He gets his Cambridge Ph.D.

He returns to Egypt and is unable to get an academic job.

He is forced to make an alternative life for himself: he publishes his thesis, he founds Al-Jeel Center, he engages in many local campaigns, and, finally – as you in the audience will know better than I – he is drawn back to national politics by deciding to stand as a candidate in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

This is not the life he would have chosen. But it also turned out to be one with its own particular rewards as well as its own bitter disappointments.

On the positive side, it brought out the best in him, including aspects which might have remained less prominent if he had been able to follow either a conventional academic, or a conventional political career. Here I think especially of a word coined by the American, formerly Algerian, formerly French, novelist and writer, Claire Massud – the characteristic which she ascribes to one of her male characters which she calls his "maniness."

All of us here must have benefited over and over again from Ahmed’s own "maniness."

I think of his obvious interest in so many things and in so many people.

I think of the respect he invariably showed for the lives of others.

I think of his unwillingness to do what in America is called "dish the dirt" on other people.

I think of his love of conversation, his stories, his jokes, his playfulness.

I think of the way when he was travelling abroad he was always up for simple adventures, going somewhere new, taking advantage of some last minute change of plan.

I think of his quick smile, his boyishness,

I think of how physically graceful he was.

I think of him as the father of Bushra, his love for her, the way he treated her even when quite young as his equal, of the way that he was able to teach her self-respect, how to develop her own many talents.

And I wonder how much the fact that he could sustain all these qualities and how he could help Bushra find her place in the larger world wasn’t due to something which another friend of his, the film-maker Michal Goldman, suggested to me as his own "marginality" and the space that it gave him, and others like him, the freedom to be themselves in a way that they might not have been able to manage if subject to the enormous pressures which Egypt – and many other countries besides – imposes on those whose lives depend on teaching, on writing, on making their way in their profession, on keeping up appearances.

This is a difficult, even controversial, subject I know. I also know that Ahmed would have preferred a million times not to be as marginalised as he was. But given that he was given little choice in the matter it seems to me that much of what we remember best about him was the ease and grace which came from being able to live in his own space, accountable to his own conscience, his own sense of right and wrong.

What can we do best to honour the memory of this remarkable man in a properly institutionalised form? Here it seems to me an inspired idea to bring his name back inside Cairo University where his own political and intellectual journey began. This means raising money. This means creating some sort of organization capable of arranging an annual lecture including speakers well-able to address those many, many topics close to Ahmed’s heart, beginning, perhaps, with freedom of expression, with Spinoza, with how best to organise, and maintain, a vibrant, open, transparent, intellectual and political life. And it means taking steps to ensure that the speakers themselves are well-informed of the character and achievements of the man they have been invited to honour.

Roger Owen is A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard University.


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