Egypt: Recalling 1968

May 26th, 2008 | Posted in Culture, Egypt, Politics, Solidarity

    Al-Ahram. by Amina Elbendary. May 2008.


    Photo: Javasroe. Cairo streets…

What connections can be drawn between the waves of student and popular protest that swept the world in 1968? Amina Elbendary asks Hossam Issa, an Egyptian student in Paris in May 1968…

May 1968 was an exceptional moment in world history, but like moments of protest before and since it had its roots in events long before and its echoes have continued to reverberate long afterwards. In addition to the revolt in Paris in May, 1968 also saw protests in other parts of the world, including Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Pakistan and the US. The ongoing war in Vietnam and continuing racial tensions led to student demonstrations in the latter country, notably at Columbia University in New York and at Berkeley in California.

In Egypt’s case, the 1968 events came at a time when the state was already under pressure from failing development goals, and it had resorted to coercive measures in the years leading up to the 1967 defeat. However, popular protest against the regime had been growing since the mid 1960s, and, as Hossam Issa, Professor of Law at Ain Shams University in Cairo recalls, confrontation between students and the authorities had already taken place in summer 1966 when postgraduate students on state-funded study abroad were summoned home to discuss their criticisms of the government with the then president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

These were children of the revolution who were not satisfied with its performance, and they were critical of the way in which the regime had curbed essential freedoms, including the freedom of expression.

The students elected their own representatives, and they drafted position papers outlining their views on issues deemed fundamental at the time: education, the ongoing war in Yemen and the rise of the new social classes. Egypt’s student movement was thus already critical of the regime before the events of 1968 broke out, and it continued to be so over the years that followed.

Issa was a member of the 1966 student mission, and, as a member of the delegation of Egyptian students studying at the time in France, he was part of a group of nine students that included Rushdi Rashid, Hassan Hanafi, Hassan Abd al-Hamid and Laila Enan, among others. Issa was elected spokesperson for this quite diverse group. Though the group was mostly composed of leftist students, there were also liberal rightists in its ranks. However, all the students were united in their criticisms of the regime.

The atmosphere of Paris in the 1960s heavily influenced the development of the generation of Egyptian students who studied in the city at the time. Perhaps this is why, as Issa recalls, the delegation from France at the 1966 conference was the one that caused the greatest stir and the one that most actively engaged President Nasser in debate.

There was the challenging intellectual atmosphere of the time, dominated by the figures of Louis Althusser and Herbert Marcuse. It was for this reason that the 1968 protests began in universities and particularly in faculties of social sciences, Issa says. “These were students who were capable of making criticisms and had learned new tools” from the writings of such intellectuals. Althusser’s Pour Marx, and Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a wide-ranging philosophical work, were among the foundational texts of the student movement, he recalls.

“These works and others led to an increased attention to ideology and to theories of ideology and the mechanisms by which the capitalist system reproduced itself, and this was also the time of the Cultural Revolution in China.”

In March 1968, French students began to demand reforms at universities in France, their protests spreading from Nanterre to Paris by May and escalating towards revolution. The students were then joined by workers and trade unionists, who, Issa says, “brought the state to a halt and gave the movement its strength.” Political parties, including the Communist Party, reluctantly joined in. “But the real power continued to be from groups of workers outside the official trade unions and from students and young people from outside the political parties.” All these powers came together at the Sorbonne, which turned into the headquarters of the ‘revolution.’

“The main idea behind the protests was criticism of everything,” Issa remembers. “Everything was up for criticism, and employing a critical mind was the dominant feature of the movement.”

The atmosphere was “very impressive,” he says, and was similar to British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on insurrection in his book Bandits. “Here were ‘bandits’ and ‘highwaymen’ who found the claims of the students convincing and joined ranks with them. Some of their leaders — the bandit leaders that is — were found dead after the protests. During the events, though, they stayed at the Sorbonne with the rest of the protestors, playing a major role in defending the students.”

Issa’s eyes shine as he remembers this historical moment that seemed to unite the people. “We discovered the political activism of the popular classes and the depth of the workers’ intellects. The intellectuals among the workers were truly inspiring: these were men who had read and reflected and had come up with truly original ideas.”

The Paris protests were put down, de Gaulle threatening to bring in the army to restore order, and the repression of the student movement began. In Egypt at the same time protest had started brewing in February 1968 when workers in Helwan outside Cairo went on strike to protest against rulings in the trials of Egyptian Air Force officers deemed responsible for the 1967 defeat.

The judgments were perceived as being too light, and then news of the student movements in Europe arrived. Were the protests by Egyptian students, especially by students in Mansoura and Alexandria in November the same year, related to what had happened in Europe?

“Lots of students were influenced by their lack of fear,” Issa recalls, who was not himself in Egypt during the protests . Indeed Hobsbawm would write of the events: “what France proves is that when someone demonstrates that people are not powerless they may begin to act.”

However, unlike the February protests, the November 1968 protests in Egypt were very much a student affair, being triggered by reforms to the educational system. These threatened to limit the number of times students could repeat years and sit for their exams. While the reforms were seen as progressive by the government and were meant to improve the educational system, many students from less-privileged backgrounds saw them as a way of halting social mobility.

Protests against the reforms turned violent, culminating in the occupation of Alexandria University and the taking of the governor of Alexandria hostage. Then the army was sent in, military planes hovering over Alexandria University in November 1968 succeeding in driving the students out.

When Issa returned to Egypt in 1969 the atmosphere was very different. This was the period of the War of Attrition with Israel, and the mood was one of renewed resistance and the rebuilding of the army. There was more tolerance of criticism and more freedom to express dissent.

“There was a good critical climate at the time,” Issa recalls, and “it was perhaps the highest moment of the resurgence. There was the infatuation with Che Guevara, for instance. In France his photographs had dominated things, overshadowing even those of Lenin and Trotsky.

“This was also the time when Ahmad Fuad Negm and al-Shaykh Imam, ‘the poet and the shaykh’, formed their famous duo. We were influenced by this critical moment in history, and critical thinking was promoted within the university, especially by younger faculty members” such as those who, like Issa, had just finished their study abroad. “We taught students that a professor was just a human being, and that his opinion was just a human being’s opinion.

“I formed several student clubs during those years to encourage students to express themselves more courageously. We were the first to host Negm and Imam at the Faculty of Law at Ain Shams, for example. We also invited intellectuals, writers and critics.

“And there were magazines and journals such as Al-Katib and Al-Tali’a that were important outlets at the time and published truly novel analyses of Egyptian society. Many of their authors had been influenced by the new left. One of the main themes discussed at the time was that of the ‘new class.'”

Despite these memories some might argue that the true echoes of May 1968 were only heard in Egypt in January 1972 when students at Cairo University joined massive protests by tens of thousands of Egyptians calling on President Sadat to go to war with Israel.

What, then, remains of 1968 forty years later? Do the protests that have been raging in Egypt in the last few years bear comparison to those that took place in 1968, either in Europe or in Egypt?

It is tempting to try to hear echoes and to compare the students joining ranks with workers and professionals with the waves of protests that swept Europe 40 years ago, the last popular uprising in the industrially developed West. Yet, do the recent attempts at organising protest in Egypt have the potential to present a serious challenge to the state, as did the 1968 events?

For Issa, “it is a very different state that we have here now when compared to the French state of the 1960s. Everywhere in the Arab world today we are in the midst of the ‘Arab- Zionist’ project. There is no democracy. There is no possibility of freedom of expression. There is no renaissance, no nahda. We are in the midst of crisis.

“The protest movement we have now is the rejection of the status quo and of all that exists, but it is a movement that is still looking for a direction. These protest movements cannot create change on their own: they will need time to develop. However, we have young people who reject the status quo and who are remarkably free of the influence of the media and the political parties. They are liberated from all that, and they have a true awareness of what is going on.

“The recent protests have exposed the weaknesses of the political parties, all of which are merely extensions of the ruling National Democratic Party, including the Nasserist Party whose vice- president I was until recently, when I resigned,” Issa adds. “The protests have opened the way for new social forces, but they still need to develop on the ideological front, though we have seen the power of mobilisation through the Internet.

“The most important developments in the last few years, however, have been the labour protests, which have come to include workers’ families in the protests. This is unprecedented, and every month workers manage to demonstrate and strike and obtain some of their demands. People speak of the Egyptian people as being dormant. But how could they be more awake? In Europe workers protest and fail to achieve as many of their demands. So, we have a strong labour movement, though under the shadow of client trade unions, that manages to achieve things for the workers.

“Yet, all this is different from Europe in 1968. The capitalist world economy is much stronger and more developed, and it has been able to absorb protest. The Egyptian economy and society are not strong, and therefore they are not so able to absorb protest: in fact, the regime is reproducing the crisis by devising solutions that only further it.”

The state, Issa continues , is currently unable to provide for the needs of millions of people, including the unemployed and street children who are outside society. “The state is unable even to provide fresh drinking water; it is unable to manage the city’s daily affairs, or to provide security. For many there is no education, no health care, and corruption is everywhere. Horizons seem blocked, and there is tremendous anger on the streets. But there is great dynamism in Egypt. There are protests and there are social uprisings.”

Asked about the role of political Islam, Issa says that in his view its role has always been to weaken the existing regimes, but that on its own it does not constitute an alternative to them. In 1968, the Muslim Brotherhood was unable to mount effective political protest: having suffered heavy blows at the hands of the state in 1965- 1966, the movement’s older members were in prison or exile and its younger members were mere shadows of the student movement.

Today, all this has changed, yet Issa feels that the Brotherhood does not have the power to be an alternative, but is always used by others for their own purposes. “Historically this has meant pre-1952 politicians such as Sidqi using them against al-Nahhas. The British used the Brothers; the King used them; Nasser used them against the political parties and then killed them; Sadat used them against the Nasserists and Communists and armed them. Then they assassinated him when he turned against them.

“Furthermore, their agenda has lost them legitimacy on the ground,” Eissa says. “Any regime is a coalition between various social and political groups. We saw that with the Wafd in 1919, and under Nasser there was such an alliance. But the Brothers do not do this: they do not form alliances. Their latest programme, which excludes women and Copts from top posts, leaves no room for alliances: you’re either with them or against them. Thus, they negate Egyptianess.

“They want to create a ‘council’ composed of men of religion. This is an idea from Ottoman times! We live in a totally different era. Their programme has totally alienated them from the people, which is why when the state attacks them everyone else looks on.”

Ultimately, not much remains perhaps of the furor of 1968. In Europe many of the gains that protestors achieved are being eroded and many of the movement’s figures have been incorporated within the capitalist industrial machine. In Egypt the social forces that came to the fore in 1968 have largely been swept to the side or absorbed within the establishment.

Despite the obvious differences, which analysts such as Issa are quick to point out, there are faint echoes. Contemporary protests are often global in inspiration too. The globalizing moment spins off its counter-forces much as it produces its mechanisms for hegemonic global control. There is definitely less ideology, in fact there is probably a rejection of ideology, but there is also the lack of fear and the corrosion of authority reminiscent of 1968 and its attacks on all idols. Like 1968 there are young people and new social forces joining hands — there is a dynamic that promises change and veers towards uncharted waters.

1 Comment »

That was a great post. I will have to bookmark this site so I can read more later.

Comment by Study Abroad Asia — September 16th, 2008 @ 6:38 PM

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