Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (502)
In support of Taha Hussein
On 3 March 1932, Egyptians awoke to news that the minister of education had demoted Taha Hussein, dean of the Faculty of Letters at the Egyptian University and one of Egypt's literary giants, to the post of supervisor of elementary education. The decision, taken against a background of friction between Hussein and the Sidqi government, caused an uproar, not least among the university's students. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* revisits the scenes of demonstrations backing the famed writer
It would have escaped no one's attention that the decision by Minister of Education Helmi Eissa Pasha to turn Dr Taha Hussein, dean of the Faculty of Letters at the Egyptian University, into a supervisor of elementary education was clearly an act of revenge. Not only did the transfer violate a contract transforming the university into a public institution in 1925, specifically that provision stating that Hussein would be kept on as professor in the Faculty of Letters, but the job to which he was posted entailed inspecting primary schools, for which he was eminently unsuited for Hussein was blind.
Egyptians were naturally eager to learn the inside story. They would have to wait more than a month, however, when they were able to read the suit Hussein filed against the government demanding compensation for arbitrary dismissal.
The story began when the Shaab, or People's Party, founded by Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi, decided to publish a party newspaper. The newspaper's founders needed a prominent figure to act as editor-in-chief and their sights fell on Hussein. They offered every inducement, but he refused, claiming that he preferred to remain in his university post and that he had long since stopped engaging in politics. Sidqi eased the pressure and asked the university dean simply to write the editorial for the inaugural edition. Again, Hussein declined, responding, "For me to write in the Shaab will harm us all and benefit no one. It is not in the interest of the government that people know that its employees write for its newspaper. Nor is it appropriate for a faculty dean to lend his services to the government press and thereby expose himself to the scorn of colleagues and students alike."
It was not long before the university official and the Sidqi government collided again. Hussein relates part of the story. On 9 January 1932 the minister of education told him that he wanted the university to confer some honorary titles on certain "eminent Egyptians" to mark a forthcoming visit of King Fouad to the university. Hussein asked who might be the candidates for such distinction and he was told that they were Yehya Ibrahim, Tawfiq Rifaat and Ali Maher. The first of these was the speaker of the senate, the second the speaker of the chamber of deputies and the third a minister, Hussein observed, adding, "In addition, all of them belong to a certain political party [the Shaab] and two of them are members of the university's board of directors." He told Helmi Eissa, "For these reasons, the university cannot approve honourary titles for these individuals. Nor does it please the university to bestow titles by ministerial decree." He went on to say that he hoped the minister would change his mind and not embroil the university in politics, "for it is still young and it has the right to exist for all Egyptians and for knowledge alone". Eissa was furious and declared that he would put his proposal directly to the board of directors "to see who would approve and who would not". "The two parted as bitter enemies," the newspaper added.
For another part of the story we turn to a confidential letter from British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Percy Lorraine to the secretary of the Foreign Office. Lorraine relates that Hussein had nominated four foreign professors to receive honours during the royal visit. One was British, a second French, a third Italian and a fourth German. The Belgian ambassador to Cairo protested -- his country was not represented in spite of the many contributions of Belgian professors to the nascent university. Eissa seized upon this opportunity to disparage Hussein. The dean of the Faculty of Letters, he told Sidqi, had overlooked the Belgians deliberately because of his animosity towards Monsieur Gregoire, the former dean of that college. Although the minister had smoothed the Belgian ambassador's ruffled feathers by appending a passage to the speech he delivered during the royal visit in which he paid tribute to the university's Belgian scholars, the damage to Hussein had been done. Soon afterwards, the decision to appoint Hussein as primary school inspector was announced, setting in motion one of the most important political and academic battles of the 1930s.
No sooner did news of that transfer break than students of the Faculty of Letters declared a strike. Al-Ahram reports, "They assembled outside their classrooms to protest against the transfer of Professor Taha Hussein, dean of the faculty, to the Ministry of Education." At the same time, University Director Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed proposed a compromise which was that Taha Hussein be allowed to continue teaching at the university. The ministry refused on the grounds that "the professor must devote his full time to reviewing the Arabic language curricula and textbooks, some of which have not been modified for years."
Clearly, the government was bent on war. As its next salvo it nudged Abdel-Hamid Said, a noted parliamentary representative reputed for his rigid conservatism, into attacking Hussein. In a letter to the minister of education, Said enumerated what he regarded as Hussein's many sins. Firstly, there was that picture in Al-Ahram in which the famous professor was surrounded by his students "with males and females sitting side by side". He also accused Hussein of urging his colleagues not to teach in Al-Azhar "as part of his campaign against that great Islamic academy". Worse yet, he charged, the scholar was known to advocate views that clashed with the Qur'an. His hostility to Islam was apparent in "many of his teachings, evidence of which can be found in his book on pre-Islamic poetry, which created an uproar throughout the country when it appeared". Said took the occasion to remind the minister of the motion put before parliament in 1926 to destroy that book, to file charges against its author for his defamation of the religion of the state and to dismiss him from the university.
In the opposing camp, on 9 March, students from the Faculty of Letters staged a sit-in in the School of Geography auditorium. "They were joined by students from the colleges of medicine and science. Among the speakers was a female student of the university."
Meanwhile, the board of the Faculty of Letters met. According to British Foreign Office documents on that meeting, professors were divided. The French wanted to lodge a mildly- worded protest with the Ministry of Education whereas Egyptian and British staff members advocated a tougher stance. The latter group prevailed, as can be seen from the resolutions the board adopted. Published in Al-Ahram the same day, their statement read:
"The Faculty Board of the College of Letters is astonished to have learned of the transfer of Dr Taha Hussein through the press and that this decision was taken without consulting him or the board of directors of the university.
"Compounding the surprise of this board is that it knows of no cause for this transfer apart from what was circulated in the press concerning matters that should fall under the jurisdiction of this board. It was reported that Dr Taha Hussein showed favouritism to professors of foreign nationality, that he was an incompetent administrator, that he was academically inadequate and that he was out of touch with students. All of these charges are groundless. "The board declares its full confidence in the dean of the Faculty of Letters, Dr Taha Hussein, and it declares its admiration for his scholastic works.
"The board is further astounded and dismayed [by the transfer] because Dr Taha Hussein is the most senior professor in the university and because his continuation as professor was one of the conditions stipulated under the contract transforming the former university into a government university.
"The board and Dr Taha Hussein's colleagues hold that the transfer of a dean or professor without referring to the Faculty Board and without cause pertaining to the performance of his duties does not conform, in form or substance, with the autonomy, security and dignity of academic research and education."
With the latter paragraph the faculty cast its opposition within the context of university autonomy rather than merely on its support, however wholehearted, for one of its staff members. Indeed, the statement went on to appeal for an urgent meeting of the university board of directors for the purpose of drafting an employment code containing guarantees for the freedom of academic research and safeguards for the dignity of the teaching staff. It further urged that this code be passed and put into effect as quickly as possible and applied to the case of Dr Taha Hussein.
Over the following days, tension rose as student protests spread to most colleges of the university. Al-Ahram relates that the entire Faculty of Law went on strike except for final year students. "However, their brothers burst into their classrooms and dragged them outside, after which they all proceeded together to the College of Letters. The same occurred in the Faculty of Science. As for students of the Faculty of Medicine, all went on strike except those working in the hospital. The entire student body has decided to continue their strike until Dr Taha Hussein returns to his post in the college."
Perhaps due to the strain of events but certainly in keeping with his lengthy record in the defence of freedom, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed felt he had no choice but to tender his resignation. In his letter of resignation, published in Al-Ahram on 11 March 1932, the director of the university expressed his sorrow over the transfer of Hussein. "To my knowledge, this professor is irreplaceable, at least not at present, not in the courses he offers to students, nor in his lectures to the general public and not in that academic environment which he created around himself and into which he breathed the spirit of literary research."
After reiterating the Faculty of Letters' charge that the sudden transfer violated the contract between the Ministry of Education and the old university, El-Sayed recounted his attempt to propose a compromise. He relates that in his meeting with the prime minister on the matter, he had gained the impression that Sidqi approved of his proposal. However, the cabinet turned it down and insisted that the transfer would be implemented "in its entirety and to the letter". El-Sayed concluded by saying that he could not countenance that behaviour which he feared would endanger "all distinction between university instruction and other types of instruction".
The Sidqi government did not relent. Two days after El-Sayed tendered his resignation Eissa gave his answer. It was brief. The minister expressed his great regret over the resignation of Lutfi Bek, but he had no choice but to accept it "with my sincere gratitude for all the effort and dedication you have given to the university". This was followed by a second letter to the assistant director of the university, Ali Ibrahim, informing him of El- Sayed's resignation and asking him to assume the responsibilities of director.
Then, as was the custom of the Sidqi government, it wielded the heavy stick. The university board of directors convened and issued a warning to the students, which it divided into a majority dedicated to their studies and a minority that sought to obstruct them. It continued:
"As it is the duty of the university to enable students to pursue the studies that brought them to enroll in the university's colleges, it deems it a matter of principle to announce the following:
"Firstly, students from one college may not enter the premises of another.
"Secondly, any student that incites other students to strike or hinders them from the regular pursuit of their studies, whether inside the college or out, shall risk disciplinary action."
The government also took the usual measures to repress demonstrations. Al-Ahram reports that, on the morning of 11 March, students from the Faculty of Medicine declared a two- day strike. "While they were assembled inside, the police arrived and took up positions outside the college doors and in front of the main entrance of Qasr Al-Aini Hospital. No one was allowed to enter the buildings without a pass. Nevertheless, many succeeded in gaining entry through various other entranceways. When the police finally learned of these, they locked some and posted forces in front of the others."
Meanwhile, in the university's housing quarters, students from the faculties of law and letters rallied and chanted slogans calling for the preservation of the autonomy and dignity of the university. They then decided to go to the Faculty of Medicine to attend a "silent demonstration" there. Al-Ahram relates: "Some took the tram and others went off by car. When they reached Abbas Bridge they learned that the police had blocked the gates to the faculty. The demonstrators therefore veered off and headed down Manial Street where some took the ferry to the other bank and climbed over the college walls. Among these were some of the women students of the university who were applauded long and enthusiastically by their brother colleagues."
Inside the Faculty of Medicine, students issued a list of resolutions. They condemned the blockade of their college and police assaults against students. They called upon faculty boards to meet in order to study the current plight of the university in the wake of the resignation of its director. They appealed to the press to invite graduates of European universities, members of the old Egyptian university and former ministers of education to contribute possible solutions to the university's predicament with respect to the Ministry of Education. It was also resolved to send an open letter to the deans of the faculties of medicine and law and to all university professors urging them to do their part to protect the dignity of the university and to show their solidarity with the director of the university in the interest of safeguarding the sanctity of knowledge. Finally, they resolved to continue their strike until steps are taken to resolve the situation.
The demonstrators also issued a statement to the public in which they declared that "from the moment they rose up to defend the autonomy of the university" they remained determined to avoid clashes with the police. "Even yesterday, when they were met with provocation, they adhered to their resolve to exercise self-restraint and maintain calm." The purpose of their movement, they stressed, was purely to serve the advancement of learning of which they demanded their due right "within the bounds of reason".
It was not long before the students received the first concrete answer to their appeal. On 13 March, the representative of the International Federation of Universities in Egypt met with the strikers and told them that the federation headquarters in Paris was keeping track of developments and wanted a separate statement. The lengthy statement they produced provoked the consternation of both the government and officials in the office of the British high commissioner.
During the preparations for King Fouad's visit to the university, it said, the minister of education ordered the transfer of the dean of the Faculty of Letters to a position in his ministry. This decision was taken without consulting the faculty board or the board of directors of the university. Moreover, "The ministerial action on this matter was taken with an astounding degree of haste to the degree that it was issued at 1.00pm on 3 March and the professor, the subject of the action, only learned of it from Al-Muqattam newspaper." The transfer, the statement continued, came as a blow to students and staff alike in the university. "Dr Taha Hussein, in addition to being the dean of the Faculty of Letters and a professor of Arabic literature, is the best loved figure in the university among professors and students alike. Furthermore, he is the leading expert on Arabic literature, not only in Egypt but in the entire Middle East. No other person meets his rank in the realm of literary life, independent thought and true scholastic enquiry."
If anything, this statement hardened the determination of the Sidqi government to apply its customary heavy- handedness. In parliament, the government launched a smear campaign targeting Hussein and using a Shaab Party representative, Ahmed Wali El-Guindi, to set the stage with a number of pre-prepared questions for the minister of education to answer. The first, intended to impute financial impropriety, questioned the money Hussein spent while attending conferences abroad. The minister answered: LE50.344 while attending a conference on Syrian antiquities in Beirut and Damascus in 1926, LE181.995 during an Orientalist conference in Oxford in 1928 and LE150.937 to attend another Orientalist conference in Vienna in 1930. On two of these occasions, the minister added, Hussein brought his wife with him.
In response to a question on Hussein's translation of textbooks produced by university staff, the minister said that the Faculty of Letters produced seven books in French, of which the dean only translated one, and that consisted of a mere 60 pages. "As for the others, he contributed nothing. Nevertheless, he received an honorarium of LE480 for this work."
Eissa went on to say that Article 16 of the 1928 law on university staffing stated that the minister of education had the right to appoint all members of the teaching staff. By extension, he argued, the minister had the right to transfer members of staff and that the opinion of the faculty of board or university board of directors was purely advisory. By way of justification, he added, "Higher education inculcates higher culture in order to produce those men who will be charged with the management of the vital affairs of the nation. This process cannot be remote from the supervision and authority of parliament, which can only occur if the minister of education is responsible for this under law to the authority of which the university is subject."
Supporters of Hussein and university autonomy could not let the farce pass without comment. El-Sayed invited Al-Ahram to his home for an interview in which he stressed that he had tried to keep politics out of the university. "I, as well as professors and students, sought to contain the crisis within the university. Unfortunately, I fear that the many political statements issued by the government are taking matters beyond the bounds of a question that relates to the university alone. Certainly, neither the university nor the government need that."
Called on by an Al-Ahram reporter without an appointment, Hussein denied that he had received any form of compensation for the translation of textbooks produced by foreign professors. The work he had done had been done free of charge although "I asked the university to pay a fee of LE10 to the secretary who read the works to me and transcribed the translation." Regarding the conferences he attended abroad he said that some of those he attended was in deference to the pleas of the minister of education who felt that Egypt should not be represented by foreigners alone. "I don't know what else to say apart from the fact that I did not go to those conferences alone. The government or the university undertook to pay the expenses, but the university or the cabinet should be asked whether I was the one who wanted to go to those conferences or whether it was they who asked me to go."
Hussein also gave an interview to Al-Jihad, a mouthpiece of the Wafd Party. The substance of the interview so infuriated the minister of education that he appointed his secretary-general to summon Hussein for a hearing. Hussein refused to go. He was a professor at the university and the order to transfer him to the ministry was invalid. Only the university had the power to bring action against him and he was thus prepared to submit to the investigation once he was restored to the university.
As student demonstrations mounted, the Sidqi government met on 30 March 1932 to take their final decision. Grounding its action in the accusations levelled by Shaab Party MP Abdel- Hamid Said, it moved to "dismiss Taha Hussein, employee in the Ministry of Public Education, from government service". But if Sidqi and his cohorts thought they had rid themselves of Taha Hussein they were deluding themselves. Governments come and go but intellectual luminaries remain enshrined in their national history, which has indisputably been the case with the famous dean of the Faculty of Letters.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.