Egypt's hidden history of dissent
Over the past four years, Egyptian streets have been gripped with successive waves of revolutionary mobilizations, which shook the foundations of the ruling regime, before receding as a result of the military coup staged by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The 25 January 2011 revolution and its successive waves, are the product of a long complicated process of what I call ‘dissent accumulation’, brewing in the previous ten years.
But the current revolt has also echoes from a previous era, not so long ago.
1968 was a year of global revolt, not only in the industrial West. But also from Latin America to Asia and Africa revolutions, protests and dissent were fermenting in different forms. Egypt had its share of the action.
Following the June 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, the legitimacy of Nasser was shaken enough to see a section of the population disillusioned with him and the ruling elitte.
In February 1968, mass protests by workers in Helwan, south of Cairo, broke out at what many saw as the lenient sentences handed to Egyptian Air Force commanders, blamed by Nasser for the that cataclysmic defeat.
The protests were met with a violent response with security forces using live ammunition againt the striking workers. The leaders of the protest sought help and turned to the students movemnet. They sent delegations to meet with students at the universities in Cairo asking for solidarity. Joint protests by the workers and students, probably for the first time since 1954, immediately ignited demanding holding the military generals and political leadership accountable for the catastrophic defeat and calling for democratic reforms.
The protests fizzled out after a week, mainly because of state repression, coupled with promises by Nasser for reforms. In November of the same year, more protests broke out, this time centred on Alexandria, that saw police battalions fight bloody battles with student protesters in heavy and persistent rain for days.
The 1968 anti-government protests in Egypt signalled the start of a new wave of leftist dissent. When Anwar Sadat successed Nasser, his rule was greeted with a large student rebellion in 1971-2, during which there was a short-lived takeover of Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square.
The protesting students filled the streets of the capital and major provinces, calling on the government to launch a liberation war against Israeli forces occupying Sinai, and demanded more rights and liberties.
The student rebellion was spearheaded by the “Supporters of the Palestinian Revolution Society,” a left-leaning network of Egyptian students inspired by the Palestinian resistance.
Under pressure, Sadat launched a limited war in 1973, but it was enough for him to sustain a temporary boost in popularity and drag the carpet from underneath the feet of the student movement.
Declaring the limited 1973 war a triumph, Sadat actively sought rapprochement with the US and Israel in the sphere of foreign policy, and domestically started in 1974 enacting neoliberal reforms in 1974, dubbed as “infitah” (Open Door Policy).
Facing a dire economic situation but slowly recovering its strength, the labour movement came back to the scene with force in the years 1975-6, with workers in traditional hotbeds of industrial militancy, like Mahalla and Helwan going on strike over cost of living and other bread and butter issues. Other provinces followed, with wildcat strikes affecting a number of enterprises.
As often with popular, grassroots movements the limited economic demands soon crossed over to the political sphere. After all, the workers were striking against state-backed management structures and personnel and their actions were thwarted and repressed by the state’s newly formed paramilitary troops, known as the Central Security Forces.
Finally, in a move that clearly underscored Sadat’s eroding legitimacy, Cairo’s public transport workers went on strike following the re-election of Sadat in a sham referendum whose results were typical of those in other police states, with 99% voting 'Yes'. The strike caused life in the city to come to a complete halt for two days.
This wave of leftist dissent brewing between 1967 to 1976 is usually ignored. Middle East scholars tend to focus on the rise of the Islamist movement during that period, linking it mechanically to the defeat of Arab nationalism in 1967.
It would be impossible to understand the 18-19 January 1977 known as the 'Bread Uprising', without placing it in the context of an accumulating political and social dissent during the previous ten years, when the Islamists’ role was not as central as that of the left.
Sadat’s decision to push ahead with his austerity programme and approving the lifting of subsidies from basic commodities that Egyptians depend on, was the trigger for a two day nationwide uprising, which saw a general strike, student protests, clashes with the police in almost every city. The protests ended only with Sadat scrapping the new economic decrees, and the deployment of the army on the streets, as the police force had collapsed and was not functioning. Sounds familiar?
Though the January 1977 uprising did not topple Sadat, many now see that event as signalling the beginning of the end of his regime. Sadat was defeated and he temporarily shelved the neoliberal reforms. It took the ruling elite and regime an entire decade of weaving and diving to retry imposing austerity measures once again in 1987.
While many cite 1919 as the last time Egyptians rose up in revolt, the country’s history is rich with tides of dissent that go usually ignored by academics, those who write history, and are left out of school textbooks. That way it is wiped off our collective memory.
The January 1977 uprising was only one of the many chapters in the history of rebellion and defiance in Egypt. The parallels with today’s events can always be found, and there are lessons to be learnt. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and repeat the mistakes of the past each time a revolt against the status quo starts.