Attia El-Serafi: 'The right to life'
In a week commemorating the anniversary of the 23 July Revolution Al-Ahram Weekly speaks with Attia El-Serafi, a trade unionist whose activism began in the 1940s.
The Free Officers, argues El-Serafi, capitalised on an already existing situation and were able to seize the moment. It was the 21 February 1946 March, he says, in which an estimated 100,000 workers and students took to the streets to protest against British imperialism and demand higher wages and better working conditions that paved the way for the wave of nationalist demonstrations in 1951/52 and, ultimately, for the July Revolution. That the Revolutionary Command Council was aware of this, he argues, explains why they moved so quickly against trade unions, quickly neutering their activities under the umbrella of the state controlled General Federation of Trade Unions.
“Don't bother to write down my address. When you get to Meit Ghamr ask anyone on the street and they'll bring you to my house. Everybody knows me here,” said conductor, communist trade unionist and writer Attia El-Serafi. A bustling Delta town on the road to Mansoura, Meit Ghamr turned out to be El-Serafi land, just like he said. A small boy met on one of the town's main streets led us to ‘Am El-Serafi's house. Although located on a main thoroughfare the non-descript three-storey apartment building seemed exceptionally quiet — possessed of that quality of silence rarely found outside libraries. On the first floor El-Serafi's grandson, a college student, sits in his room poring over his books, while on the second-floor El-Serafi is writing a newspaper article in the living room. A jovial septuagenarian with a twinkle in his eyes and an attractive, if unusual, kind of candour, El-Serafi gets straight to the point. “Why would an English-language paper like Al-Ahram Weekly be interested in what I have to say? I am a simple worker, like millions of others, so why did you come? Or, maybe a more relevant question is whose idea was it to send you?” Told that labour lawyer Youssef Darwish suggested the profile, El-Serafi relaxes visibly. “Darwish is a comrade. We go back a long time. He was a leading cadre and organiser in the communist movement but we belonged to different tendencies. He was one of the founding members of Al-Fagr Al-Gadid , the New Dawn group, in the 1940s, while I was a member of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), the group founded by Henri Curiel, the celebrated leader of the largest and, arguably, the most effective of the communist organisations.” The DMNL had been instrumental in organising some of the militant workers' strikes and anti-occupation marches of the post-World War II period — the most significant of which was 21 February 1946 march, in which an estimated 100,000 workers and students took to the streets to protest against British imperialism and demand higher wages and better working conditions. It was the 21 February protest which set the tone for the wave of nationalist demonstrations of 1951/52 that preceded and paved the way to the 1952 July Revolution. “Gamal Abdel-Nasser's group of Free Officers did not overthrow the monarchy and liberate the country from British imperialism single-handedly, whatever the history books tell us. They capitalised on events and seized the moment,” El-Serafi explains. “But history isn't the product of one discrete moment, rather, its course is contingent on a long and complex process of development.” The process which led to the Egyptian revolution, was launched by the workers taking to the streets and fighting for their country's freedom and their rights, says El-Serafi. “Colonel Nasser was perfectly aware of the workers' revolutionary role. This is the reason he was so afraid of us, why he rapidly proceeded to dismantle Egypt's free trade unions. To keep his grip on power he needed to control the workers.” “Under the monarchy Egyptian trade unions were truly independent, this is what made them powerful and effective. Many of the leading trade unionists were either members of a communist party, or affiliated to one of the various communist tendencies,” El-Serafi recalls. “It was the communist influence that radicalised the workers, instilling in them the belief that social equality would only be realised through class struggle.” For El-Serafi communism represents a working class ideology, a historical and intellectual framework linking theory to practice. But for him, unlike for many bourgeois intellectuals, practice always came first. It was part of his working class background and came with the territory. “I started to work as a conductor for the Zifta-Meit Ghamr United Bus Company when I was 17. I understood early on that union activism was the workers' only defence against exploitation and social injustice. So I became an activist and a union organiser soon after I started working, even before I reached the legal age of 21.” Like millions of children growing up in the impoverished Egyptian countryside in the 1930s El-Serafi's most enduring memory of his childhood is hunger — one of the recurrent themes of his autobiography, A Militant Egyptian Worker's Path . “As a youth during World War II I used to spend a lot of summer evenings near the railroad tracks to watch the trains go by. One night I saw a convoy of Italian prisoners of war who were begging for food. I gave them my dinner, two loaves of dry bread. It was an instinctive gesture of solidarity because I knew what it feels like to be hungry.” Poverty dogged El-Serafi's youth though his parents, who were both skilled workers, had started out on their married life in relative comfort. “My father, Usta Ali, worked as a chef for a rich family and was making good money. And Usta Hanem, my mother, had learned her trade as an apprentice of Usta Warda — Meit Ghamr's famous Jewish seamstress, who served the town's well-heeled residents.” An ambitious and hard-working young woman, Usta Hanem soon became a skilled seamstress, her reputation extending beyond the town of Meit Ghamr and into the neighbouring villages. Usta Ali suddenly died, a few months after his son's birth, and the family's fortune took a rapid down-turn. Devastated by her husband's early death and physically frail, Usta Hanem gradually lost her health and, with it, the ability to work full time. This was disastrous for a seamstress, whose reputation depends on both dexterity and speed. Usta Hanem lost most of her clients. She and her son subsisted on the income of occasional patch-up jobs, which she supplemented by raising chickens in the backyard. Still, Usta Hanem was remarkably single-minded about providing her son with an education, though she herself was illiterate. “No matter how poor we were, and no matter how many times I flunked she persevered and invariably found new schools for me,” El-Serafi recalls. When he was five she dispatched him to one of the town's most renowned kuttab (the traditional religious school) where he received an excellent grounding in classical Arabic. A bright child, with an inquisitive mind, El-Serafi quickly learned to read and write though he had no access to books or newspapers. “Since we had no reading materials at home or at school my friends and I walked around town and read the posters and the stores' names and ads. That's how we acquired reading fluency and speed. When I got older I started to pick up discarded newspaper pages off the streets in order to read the news. In a sense, the street became my private library.” Money was scarce and Usta Hanem had no choice but to transfer her son to a cheaper, less reputable kuttab . Though the school catered to the town's most destitute students, El-Serafi recalls standing out as the poorest child. “I only had one galabiya , if it got dirty or torn I didn't go to school. In the end it was torn so badly it had no sleeves left but I still had to wear it and the kids mocked me all the time.” If things were bad at the kuttab they got worse at the prestigious Preparatory School where his mother managed to enroll him after knocking on many doors. “I had to wear short pants and a shirt. My mother got a pair of shorts from a neighbour but she couldn't find any shirts. So I went to school wearing shorts stuffed with the bottom of my one and only galabiya. I looked so ridiculous that the students started calling me ‘cabbage'.” The ridicule, compounded by the teachers' undisguised contempt, became unbearable. “I attended the classes but my mind was elsewhere. Naturally, I flunked.” Unskilled, but bright and well-versed in classical Arabic, El-Serafi proceeded to look for work. It wasn't easy, but eventually an acquaintance helped him get a job as a conductor for the Meit-Ghamr-Zifta United Transport Company. “I stumbled into union work as soon as I started the job. The workers were in the process of drafting a complaint against the company, which they had problems formulating. This is where my education paid off. I wrote the complaint, it was published in one of the major newspapers and the company responded immediately.” After this initial success El-Serafi joined the United Transport Workers' Union and, despite his youth, became a member of its secretariat. This represented a turning point. As a union organiser El-Serafi was in the position to address the kind of social inequality he had experienced throughout his young life. He threw himself into union work with a passion. “I was obsessive,” he recalls. “I organised my schedule rigorously in order to educate myself, in addition to doing union work. I read everything related to workers' issues: the labour code, labour history and the transport company's contracts. I realised that the union's negotiating power was at least partially based on knowledge, and I was intent on acquiring it.” As a result of the young man's budding expertise in labour issues the bosses branded him as “the red conductor”. Unfamiliar with the term El-Serafi investigated and received his first introduction to communist thought. “It was a revelation,” he says. “I discovered that there was a theory that actually articulated, in scientific terms, what I was battling to achieve through union activism. It was my teacher in the union, bus driver Abdel-Hamid Hamouda, who defined communist thought in the simplest yet most compelling of terms. ‘Communists', he said, ‘believe in the workers' right to struggle against exploitation by his fellow human beings. They believe in the workers' right to life'.” This revelation was the second turning point in El-Serafi's life. After having invested in trade unionism, he became a committed communist. But unlike trade unionism communist agitation had become illegal. In 1946, in the wake of the historic 26 January 1946 anti-occupation march and following months of industrial action by the mostly communist-led textile workers of Shubra Al-Kheima, the Sidqi government outlawed communist parties. On 11 July 1946 leftist and labour newspapers and labour associations were closed, and many workers and intellectuals were arrested and charged with spreading communism. El-Serafi and his cell went underground, meeting at a comrade's house, or in a field. “Many of our meetings were educational. We read and discussed history and theory and used Marxist analysis to interpret current events. We also prepared pamphlets that we hid in a religious magazine, published by Al-Azhar, and distributed at mosques after Friday prayers. Such simple schemes enabled us to reach and influence a lot of workers.” In 1949 there was a fresh wave of arrests and El-Serafi was caught in the net. In May of that year he was arrested and accused of “communist agitation”. He was, along with many, tortured whilst in custody. “There is a mistaken belief that there was no torture under the monarchy. What is true is that most intellectuals were spared, but the workers were tortured — just like they were later under Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat. Having spent a total of 10 years in jail I am, unfortunately, in a position to know.” The torture started on the second day of his arrest and El-Serafi remembers all the details. “The first time they tortured me for two hours. They kept asking me about DMNL leaders and members of my cell but I denied any knowledge. It was an endurance test that I had to win somehow, from moment to moment.” The police beat him for days, which turned into weeks and eventually months. Then, two months after his arrest, the torture stopped and he was transferred to a jail. He was released in June 1950, when the king granted political prisoners a general amnesty. Undaunted, and strengthened by the knowledge that he had not been broken, El-Serafi returned to his political work. It was a time of nationalist mobilisation and strikes and Cairo transport workers were playing a major role. As a prominent DMNL member and, by 1951, president of the Zifta and Meit Ghamr Bus Workers' Union, El-Serafi was at the forefront of the workers' struggle, which combined nationalist demands with demands for improved working conditions and better wages. Then came the 23 July Revolution. “The workers welcomed the revolution wholeheartedly,” recalls El-Serafi. “And so did the DMNL, at least initially. But then the Free Officers, led by Nasser, killed workers at Kafr Al-Dawar. This happened only three weeks after the revolution.” On the night of 12 August, 1952 some 500 workers at Misr Fine Spinning and Weaving began a sit-down strike and locked themselves inside the mill, writes Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin. On 13 August, army troops arrived, shots were fired and four workers and one soldier were killed and many others wounded. The following day a military tribunal charged two workers, Mustafa Khamis and Mohamed El-Baqari, with premeditated murder. After a kangaroo trial both men were hanged. “They killed Khamis and El-Baqari because they wanted to frighten the workers,” says El-Serafi. “Which is why El-Sadat warned the workers that if he had to, he would ‘erect a scaffold in front of every factory'.” After Kafr Al-Dawar the Free Officers moved quickly. In December 1952, without prior consultation with the unions, they passed new legislation imposing compulsory arbitration on all labour disputes and issued a degree outlawing strikes. “Although working conditions and salaries were improved the new legislation made the unions redundant and put an end to any organised labour action,” comments El-Serafi. “The revolution's legacy to the workers was the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions, which is still oppressing us. Nasser gave the workers bread, but he took away their freedom.”
The restrictive new labour legislation provided yet another turning point in El-Serafi's life. It signalled the end of independent trade unionism in Egypt, forcing the still defiant El-Serafi back underground. He continued his work on the union committee of the Zifta and Meit Ghamr Bus Workers' Union which — on a local union level at least — retained a measure of independence.
Such defiance came at price. In 1953 El-Serafi was once again arrested for “communist agitation” and “labour incitement” and duly tortured. He spent the next three years in jail.
“Nasser released the communists in 1956 because he needed our help during the Suez War. He understood we were disciplined, had outreach and knew how to mobilise the workers. And we did, of course.”
After the communists had done the job there was another major clamp-down. In 1959 El-Serafi was once again arrested and during his interrogation the cycle of torture continued. He was released in 1964.
“I never managed to stay out of jail for too long,” says El-Serafi. “I was under state security surveillance for years, but they didn't manage to break me. In January 1977 they arrested me again during the “bread riots”, when people took to the streets because the Sadat administration had removed state subsidies from basic food staples. Then I was only jailed for one year. As I got older the sentences got lighter. In 1990, facing the same charges, I served only six months of hard time.”
El-Serafi is still going strong. A prolific writer, he has published 10 books and is currently writing his memoirs. He is a regular contributor to Al-Ahali , the paper of the leftist Al-Tagammu Party. Labour issues remain a central part of his work. He serves on the Tagammu's labour committee and continues to “agitate” in Meit Ghamr.
So is he still a communist?
“Yes,” he says, without pause, “because I still believe in the workers' right to life.”
photo: Sherif Sonbol