29 Apr. - 5 May 1999
Issue No. 427
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Focus Special Travel Sports People Features Living Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A Diwan of contemporary life (283)
An anti-British student movement was one offshoot of the nationalist revolution touched off by the arrest and exile of Saad Zaghlul and other leaders in the spring of 1919. Student unrest died down after Zaghlul's release only to flare up again when classes resumed in October of the same year. The protests began with engineering students who were soon joined by students of other colleges as well as secondary and preparatory schools in Cairo and the provinces. Girl students jumped into the fray as well. Although the protesters' grievances appeared strictly related to academic matters, they had nationalist overtones. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * scrutinises pertinent reports published by Al-Ahram and tells the story
"We're students! We live on scraps of bread and sleep without a blanket." With this chant, Egyptian students proclaimed their determination against the threats of the British occupation authorities. It was their chant at the peak of the 1919 revolution in the spring of that year, and it was their chant again in the autumn when the student protest movement regained momentum following the summer vacation.
The events that began once the academic year resumed form a little known chapter, not only in the history of student activism in Egypt, but in the history of the nationalist movement as a whole. In Al-Ahram, the story unfolds from the beginning of October to December 1919. Such was the scale of events that the newspaper devoted a special column -- "Students and Schools" -- to covering it, a column that on the average took up at least a third of the space of the newspaper's second page.
When they returned to school that autumn, students found themselves the object of a disciplinary campaign waged by the British authorities. Students had been at the vanguard of the national uprising that erupted in March earlier that year in response to the British authorities' arrest and banishment of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. The authorities were intent upon forestalling a repeat of student unrest and the academic climate was reminiscent of an earlier clamp-down on students. In 1908, another period, though less intense, of nationalist activism, the Ministry of Education had introduced the "conduct and application" act, in accordance with which students could be expelled from school for failing to pass in these two subjects.
The first manifestation of discontent in October 1919 came from the School of Engineering. The measures that were being implemented by the British school officials were, to the minds of the students of this school, closer to punitive actions than to organisational regulations. Specifically what sparked their unrest involved the setting of exams.
Because of the student strikes the previous spring, school authorities decided to defer the first round of the final annual exams until September. Few students showed up for the exams. However, instead of holding those exams again in January 1920, school officials set that month as the date for the second round of final examinations. This meant that the majority of students were deprived the opportunity to sit for the first round of the final examinations of their previous year. As Al-Ahram reported, the students complained that "the examination was set to punish students, particularly as the exceptional restrictions and impediments that have been introduced have made success in that exam virtually impossible." As a result, the students moved "to refrain from resuming our studies, while maintaining regular attendance so that our intentions are not misconstrued. We will continue in this manner until our demands are met."
The minister of education was caught between the students and the British authorities. He appealed to the students to resume their studies while the ministry considered their demands. At the same time, however, the minister sent Mr Cook, a highly placed British official in the Ministry of Education, to negotiate with the students. Mr Cook told the students that the British high commissioner had introduced the extraordinary restrictions and that there was no hope of annulling them before the commissioner's return. In response to this attempt to appease them, the students resolved to continue their no-study strike. The British authorities' measures, they complained, would destroy the future careers of many among them under the very eyes of the minister of education himself.
Students of the School of Agriculture faced similar circumstances and they added their voice to that of their colleagues in the School of Engineering. In addition to demanding the opportunity to sit for the previous term's final examinations, they insisted that the Ministry of Education "issue a clear declaration that it will keep the grading scale the same as it has been for the past two years." The British education authorities had announced that they intended to raise the pass mark from 50 to 60. Unlike the engineering students, the students of agriculture did not declare a no-study strike. However, they threatened that they would do so a week later if the Ministry of Education did not consider their demands.
Within 48 hours students from the schools of engineering and agriculture were joined by students of the Teachers' College. In March they went on strike in response "to the call of our country." Now, they announced, there was nothing to keep them from declaring a strike "in order to eliminate a hurdle that has been cast in our path for no crime we have committed, unless the love of one's nation and selfless dedication to the service of one's nation can be considered a crime!" That same day, Al-Ahram featured an article by a student of the college of medicine on the occasion of the appointment of a new British dean. In an acerbic tone, he remarks, "Whereas medicine course had once been four years and three months, if students did not fail any exams -- and it was rare that they passed -- the course has now been extended to five years and the system of examinations has been changed. These developments are all the more curious when one considers that the Faculty of Medicine is not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education."
The infection had also spread to preparatory and secondary school students. That day, too, Al-Ahram published the list of their demands. Like their seniors in the Teachers' College, they refused to be intimidated by the British authorities. In the spring, they declared, they had gone on strike "of our own accord and out of our patriotic sense of duty. We are prepared to heed that call again at any time." The students further objected to the policy of some school administrations to summon students and ask them to submit a formal apology for having taken part in the demonstrations earlier that year and to promise not to engage in any political activities in the future." The secondary students further demanded that the baccalaureate exam that was scheduled for January 1920 be considered the first round for the examination they missed in 1919, and not the second round. The education authorities should also ensure that sufficient places are left vacant in the higher education colleges in order to accommodate the students who pass the baccalaureate exam. Finally, they should be exempted from paying the school fees from the period of October 1919 to the time of the examination in January 1920.
As the student movement gained impetus over the course of that autumn, it is difficult to find a single segment of students that did not take part in the protests against the disciplinary campaign inflicted upon them by the occupation authorities. Much evidence suggests a high spirit of solidarity binding the diverse sectors of the student population. For example, the meeting between Mr Cook and the engineering students evoked a spate of objections around the country. Students from the Tanta religious institute declared, "We strongly protest Mr Cook's threats against the students of the School of Engineering." In Toukh, students of the technical training school went on strike, "in protest against Mr Cook's treatment of the engineering students." Also, students from the Al-Masai Al-Mashkura School telegraphed the prime minister to say, "On our first day back to school, we protest Mr Cook's threats against our brother students in the School of Engineering. We hope that you will respond favourably to their just demands."
In addition, the students created the Society for Student Solidarity. Comprising representatives from the schools of engineering, education, medicine, pharmacy, commerce, agriculture, law, fine arts, veterinary sciences, as well as Al-Azhar and the Nasseriya Teachers College, the first action of this society was to send a telegram to the prime minister expressing their regrets that the only solution the Ministry of Education could come up with was to threaten to cancel the exams scheduled for January. The society declared a one-day no-study strike.
If the students' demands appeared directly related to their grievances, they nevertheless had fundamentally patriotic overtones. In an open letter to the prime minister, students from the school of agriculture noted that article five of the education law of 1912 stipulated that the Arabic language was to be the medium of instruction. Although the article was "explicit and not open to interpretation," they continued, "some subjects are taught in English while attempts are being made to replace Arabic by English in other subjects." In addition, "we have observed that only foreign instructors are being assigned to teach certain sciences on the pretext that there are no qualified Egyptian instructors, in spite of the fact that there are many Egyptians who have specialised in these subjects in British and European colleges." Finally, they accused British instructors of conspiring against their Egyptian colleagues "in order to abolish Arabic entirely as the medium of instruction."
As the formation of the Society for Student Solidarity suggests, the students were highly organised and more cohesive than they had been in the spring. Al-Ahram reports suggest that the students would not hold a meeting before having taken certain measures to ensure its success.
Students from the School of Agriculture mourning Mohamed Abdel-Meguid Mursi, one of their colleagues shot during the students' demonstrations. In the background, the martyr's father is listening to his son's eulogy, delivered by a friendphoto: Al-Ahram
Females students, also subjected to the disciplinary measures imposed by the British authorities, were quick to join the protest campaign. It was only natural that the students of the Al-Saniya Teachers College for women were the first to be targeted for retaliation for their role in the protest demonstrations in the spring. In a letter to Al-Ahram, they wrote, "We, the students of Al-Saniya School, take this opportunity to inform our fellow Egyptians of our plight. We are vulnerable to expulsion for the slightest cause. The dean has threatened us that she and all the British teachers are in need of rest and are awaiting any pretext to close the school." Therefore, the students went on strike on 21 and 22 October, "to protest this maltreatment, tyranny and the contempt and degradation that are so painful to our hearts." They then voiced two demands. The first was that the British dean desist from threatening the students with closure. "She knows only too well how much we need the teaching profession in order to make a living and she has repeatedly said that our guardians only sent us to this school because they were unable to support us." The second was to use Arabic as the medium of instruction. Al-Saniya school officials, too, reiterated the oft cited pretext that there were no qualified Arabic speaking teachers. However, the students complained, the qualifications of some of the British teaching staff were not exemplary. "One of the teachers who is assigned to teach one of the most important subjects has openly confessed that she has not opened a book on this subject for eight years and that her knowledge of the subject is little better than that of the recipients of her instruction." The students appealed to the Egyptian people to "rise to the call of justice and rescue the innocent and oppressed young women who seek to advance the cause of their nation while fettered in the chains of despotism."
As tensions in the schools built up without resolution, it was only natural that they would spill outside the walls of academe. In Alexandria, the wave of popular uprisings emanating from Abul-Abbas Mosque between 24 October and 21 November 1919 proved this. The clashes between demonstrators and British armed forces in the port city claimed several lives, arousing the anger of popular opinion throughout the country.
On 27 October, students of the Khedivial school staged a demonstration on the school grounds "to demonstrate our sympathy and national solidarity with our compatriots in Alexandria," as they announced. The school's dean came up with a rather novel disciplinary measure. He made the students arrange themselves in rows in the hallway and one by one, "ordered every row to go outside and stand several minutes under the blazing sun before lunchtime."
A week later, at 2.00pm on Sunday, 2 November, students from the Al-Saidiya School declared a one hour strike, after which they intended to return to their classes. Their strike, they announced, was "to mourn and to protest the atrocities that have been inflicted upon the people of Alexandria." When the hour-long strike ended, however, "the dean prohibited the students from re-entering the building and locked the door, at which point the students shouted nationalist slogans. The following day, the students found police stationed in front of the school and a sign posted at the entrance: "The school is closed pending instructions to the contrary."
The same day, students of the Al-Tawfiqiya School joined ranks with their peers from Al-Saidiya and the Khedivial school. They, too, declared a one-hour no work strike in expression of their "sorrow and censure" of the events in Alexandria.
The wave of student strikes soon spread to the provinces. On 6 November, students of Tanta Secondary School declared a strike to protest the maltreatment of demonstrators in Alexandria. Their school was also ordered temporarily closed. In addition, Al-Ahram reports that three fourth year students were expelled for having "sent a strongly worded telegraph to His Excellency the Prime Minister on behalf of their fellow students."
If forcing students to stand outside under the blazing sun was a form of cruel and unusual punishment, it would not be the only novel punitive measure to be introduced by school officials that year. Al-Ahram reports that when a group of students from the Tawfiq School in Tanta staged a protest against the events in Alexandria, "the dean inflicted an unusual punishment upon those whom he held responsible. He shaved the heads of the students with a razor, thinking that would dampen their fervour. Unaccustomed to such treatment, several students fell ill."
The news precipitated such an outcry in the newspaper that the dean of that school felt compelled to defend himself. He sent a letter to Al-Ahram in self-defense saying that six students had attempted to incite the other students to strike. "When their efforts failed, they failed to report to school without informing the school or their parents. When they returned to school they were punished for their misconduct." The dean did not deny that the punishment was "to cut their long hair," although he refused to admit that the punishment caused several students to fall ill. By way of editorial commentary, Al-Ahram published the dean's letter under the headline: "A strange punishment and an even stranger apology."
Students in Zifta were a little more cautious. Before staging a demonstration, they sought permission from the local police commissioner "in order to prevent any possible unrest." The commissioner rewarded them for their caution by arresting the delegation of students that came to him. In response, "the rest of the students marched to the local jail to protest the treatment of their colleagues who had been forced to bear such degradation in their attempt to support the nation."
Throughout November, student anger continued to blaze throughout the provinces. In Beni Suef students of the teachers' institute declared a strike for an indefinite period. In Fayoum, secondary school students and students of the school of education met in Qaytbek Mosque to call for a strike. In Assiut, the secondary school students staged a no-study strike "to protest the harsh maltreatment to which they have been subjected." In Minya, students of the teachers' college also went on strike.
Back in Cairo, the confrontations between students and school officials extended to the schools for girls. When students of the Al-Saniya School declared a no-study strike on 10 November, the dean "pronounced the threats that we have become so accustomed to hearing and we have begun to wish that the skies would cast down lightening and tear us to shreds. If such maltreatment and intimidation is to be the reward for our patriotic sympathies, then, for the sake of our cherished nation, we shall find it a sweet and blessed reward. Yet, as though such was insufficient, the noble Ministry of Education found it in its heart to close our school for a period of a week in order to mete out further retribution against us!"
The confrontation between school officials and students in the Teachers College for Women in Bulaq struck a more personal note. When the father of one of the students came down from Damietta to see his daughter, "the dean asked him to reproach his daughter for her excessive nationalist sentiments." When the father refused to comply, the dean "expelled the daughter and one of her schoolmates from the school. When their fellow students discovered this, they felt that they had no other alternative but to declare their solidarity. In response, the dean expelled the entire student body, including six students from the provinces." Al-Ahram called upon "the entire nation" to voice its support for these "industrious, educated and patriotic" students.
Towards the end of November, as the rioting in Alexandria abated, schools began to reopen. However, that did not bring an end to the retaliatory measures against students. On 22 November, the dean of the Al-Tawfiqiya School expelled 15 students for inciting other students to strike. As the wave of retaliatory measures spread to other schools, students from the various secondary schools and higher institutes in Cairo and Alexandria called for "a meeting in the usual place." The "usual place" was the university grounds in Cairo and the Abul-Abbas Mosque in Alexandria. Al-Ahram took the occasion to caution British officials against their excessive zeal in seeking retribution against the students "whose veins pulse with the fervour of youth and who see their actions as serving a noble cause and not intended to harm anyone." The British education authorities must have heeded Al-Ahram's advice for by the end of 1919 the "Students and schools" column in the newspaper had disappeared.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.