Chronicles of an uprising
considers the long shadow cast by the 1977 uprising
Um Mohamed knows nothing about the 1977 uprising. She does know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to feed her family. She contemplates some chicken claws piled on a tray on the street in Bulaq Al-Dakrour, a low- income quarter of Cairo: "these horrible things are the only kind of meat I can afford to feed my family. My husband only finds work a few days a month if we are lucky, and my sons do little better. And as if my life were not difficult enough the price of basics such as sugar, beans and rice keep rising." Earlier this week, and on the day we spoke, Minister of Social Solidarity Ali Meselhi told Al-Wafd daily that subsidies on bread would be reduced. Cement factories in Helwan have been in uproar for weeks now.
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Two days that shook Egypt: people take their anger on to the street in downtown Cairo, the casinos of the Pyramids Road and the Ramses Train Station; court proceedings in the late 1970s
A sense of déjà vu ?
Thirty years today the government abruptly raised the prices of staples, including refined flour, rice, sugar, petrol and cooking gas. The result was mass fury. It began when workers in Helwan went on strike and took to the streets on 18 January, signalling the start of the two- day 1977 uprising, derisively described by President Anwar El-Sadat as an "uprising of thieves".
The day before, Abdel-Moneim Qaysouni, the deputy prime minister, had told parliament it was imperative that the government reach an agreement with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
According to an article in Time magazine at the time, "foreign investment has been frightened off by uncertainty or, as in the case of a proposed $150 million Ford Motors plant, wiped out by the Arab boycott. Agriculture is so feeble that Egypt must import two-thirds of its food at a cost of $1.5 billion a year. Government foreign currency reserves are dwindling as world food prices rise, while the standing army of 850,000 men consume a third of the nation's $10 billion budget."
"To help pay his bills, Sadat has requested loans and aid from foreign governments. Arab oil states were prepared to advance $2 billion, and the US $1 billion. In return, the contributors and the International Monetary Fund had insisted that Egypt devalue its pound and cut subsidies to conserve funds for capital investment."
The measures were more than Egypt's poor could tolerate. Workers in Helwan were soon joined in Tahrir Square by students who marched on parliament, and Attaba Square where Central Security Forces soon began shooting tear gas in an attempt to break up the demonstrations.
But the momentum was not to be broken so soon, nor so easily. News of spontaneous demonstrations came from as far south as Aswan and as far north as Alexandria, and it took the army, a curfew, two days and the government's backing down on the price hikes to finally bring the country back under control.
On 19 January, Prime Minister Mamdouh Salem was adamant that the price increases had to go ahead, arguing in Al-Ahram newspaper that, "these measures are economically difficult for some sections of the populace who must realise their necessity." The next day, Al - Ahram 's banner announced that, "The decisions to raise prices have been revoked". The government had done a U-turn.
The events of 18 and 19 January left 47 dead, 630 injured, and over 600 people arrested, according to official figures. Unofficial estimates put the numbers far higher. The demonstrations would also colour political life and economic policy for decades.
"I am a firm believer in the theory that Sadat's trip to Jerusalem and the famous speech he gave there were a product of the regime's quickly losing the legitimacy it had built up with the 1973 War. The events of January had placed Sadat in a position which offered few options. To regain legitimacy for the regime, it became necessary the Egyptian/Israeli conflict be resolved in any way possible," says Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
But the road that would eventually end in Camp David was not the only path the beginning of which was signalled by the 1977 Uprising.
"The government learned its lesson in 1977," says Hussein Abdel-Razeq, head of the Tagammu Party and author of The 18/19 January Uprising of 1977. In a paper presented yesterday at the Tagammu Party, Abdel-Razeq highlighted the lengths to which the government had gone as it tried to hide news of the impending price hikes from the public. It was a stratagem that did not work, and the government concluded there would be "no more across- the- board comprehensive liberalisation or shock decisions, and since then the approach has been one of gradualism".
Both Abdel-Razeq and Said underline the significance of the anti-democratic stand taken by the state in response to the 1977 Uprising. They point to Law 2 of 1977 which allows for life sentences to be handed down to those who instigate or participate in demonstrations.
"Measures were taken in the form of a series of laws that over the years have limited the scope for independent popular political action. Until the early 1980s, the left was the main victim of these measures," explains Said.
The result, believes Abdel-Razeq, has not only been the marginalisation of the left, but also the creation of a politically apathetic generation. "If we are to believe government figures, over 75 per cent of registered voters do not vote in any elections. Of course people do not join political parties. Since the 1976 parliamentary elections a disassociation between political parties and the populace has settled in."
With the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Abdel-Razeq points out does not prioritise socio-economic issues, the result has been a political void. This is important when considering the similarities, or lack of, between then and now.
Professor of Economics at Cairo University Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil explains that, "1977 was not just a response to economic pressures."
"It was a spontaneous event that was made possible by the political build up of the left throughout the 1970s."
It was, too, the end of an era. "It was the left's last sigh. Not only did the authorities learn to implement their policies -- such as price hikes -- in a creeping manner, but, as well, 1977 ushered 25 years of anaesthesia into Egyptian political life. Instead of collective action and confrontation, people learned to alleviate economic pressures through non-confrontational means. Migration outside of Egypt is one such tactic, and it is noteworthy that labour migration began to peak in the late 1970s. Another has been petty corruption as a means of supplementing income."
But it seems that as the government finally moves into fourth gear in terms of economic liberalisation, the tables might be turning.
"Today the situation in Egypt is worse than in 1977. Prices are out of control, the value of wages and salaries has been eroded, the polarisation of wealth is obscene and the state is clearly biased in favour of the wealthy," says Abdel-Razeq. "At the time , unemployment was just beginning to become a problem, unlike today, when it is a priority concern and the state has withdrawn its support from most services. Education is in shambles, and corruption is eating the system from top to bottom."
Abdel-Fadil suggests that the latest bout of worker activism signals that the methods developed over the last quarter of a century to cope with economic pressure are "eroding".
"We are starting to see the problems that would have occurred in the mid-1970s if the liberalisation policy had passed unchecked."
Abdel-Razeq considers possible scenarios: "I do not expect an uprising similar to that of 1977 but rather unruly breakouts. This is because in 1977, even though the left did not instigate or direct the demonstrations, they had leadership figures that could intervene. Today, there is no such leadership."
Except, of course, for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were not a viable political actor in the late 1970s. As Said points out, "they are the political force that currently has extensive outreach and enjoys respect on the street and are ready, in the case of a spontaneous outbreak, to take control of the reins."
Novelist Mahmoud El-Werdani recounts a day spent walking with angry people
On the morning of 19 January, I left the place where I was staying in Manial and walked onto the street, to be met with the sight of people gathering around each other spontaneously and shouting angry slogans. It was unexpected and at first I felt surprise, then amazement. But as I spent my day walking across the city watching throngs of people express their rage, I realised what I was seeing was the release of pent-up frustration, humiliation and anger.
I had never seen, nor have I ever seen, the Egyptian people so angry. The day before, I had slept through most of the day and it was only when I turned on the TV at night and found an unscheduled broadcast of a popular play starring Adel Imam that I felt something was wrong. I went onto the streets, and while there was tension in the air I could not quite place it. I could not sleep all night and when, in the morning, I saw the angry crowds I realised that the whole of Egypt, from Aswan to Alexandria, had risen in fury.
I walked with the crowds to the Pyramids Road and saw things I will never forget -- people carrying a couch out of a casino just to sit in the middle of the street. There were children scrounging for anything they could get their hands on. People went into casinos and carried out everything they could move, chairs, vases, bottles of whiskey and food.
Then I went to Ramses Street where a throng of people had found a big log of wood and were using it to try and force open the door of a bank. At that point there were no police in sight. By the end of the day, I saw hundreds of people in Sayeda Zeinab attacking a police station. I heard some shots from the direction of the station and people ran away, only to come back and attack again.
Party headquarters were attacked, for people were violently angry at symbols of the regime. I also saw people within the throngs trying to organise the mass of people into demonstrating, but it was impossible.
People felt they had been humiliated and lied to. They had been waiting for something to happen since the 1973 War but they never imagined it would be an increase in prices. People were expecting prices to fall. They were hungry.
I never felt scared. As the day progressed I realised that what was happening was something to be happy about. And then the army descended onto the streets. I was in the Giza Square area and it was a frightening sight: tanks on trucks and armoured personnel vehicles. I saw how sad people on the street were to see the army they felt was theirs -- the army that had achieved victory in 1973 -- turn against them. And I could see the shame on the soldiers' faces that they had to carry out their orders.
I returned to my house in the Pyramids district to find my mother in a state -- the police had come round looking for me and she told me to leave immediately. The curfew was in effect but I found a taxi, only to discover that the other passenger was a police officer. I got out without being discovered and spent the next five months in hiding. My name, along with many others, was eventually dropped from the list of suspects. Eventually it became clear that this was a list that included dead people and others not in the country.
Despite the fact that the demonstrations erupted against a backdrop of political work done by Egyptian communist organisations, they were incapable of organising the hundreds of thousands of citizens who took to the streets. These masses of people found themselves on their own, without leadership, yet look at their slogans.
"We want a free government, life has become bitter"; "they eat chicken and drink whisky and we eat fuul ", were all spontaneous slogans. If there had been a capable leadership, the history of Egypt post 1977 would have been very different.
Lawyer Rahma Rifaat remembers Cairo running over with people
On 18 January I was heading to Ain Shams University where students at the Faculty of Engineering had organised a week of activities focussed on the democratic rights of students. We were all taken by surprise when we found a majority of students pressing for demonstrations to protest against the price hikes. It seems people had gone out to buy their bread on 17 January and found prices had risen. The pro-active reaction of people took us all by surprise. I left Ain Shams to head to my university, the Faculty of Medicine at Al-Azhar, and found the same attitude. In the end, the students' demonstration converged on Midan Al-Geish, it was not until we reached Bab Al-She'riya that we received news that workers in Helwan had started demonstrating at daybreak and had arrived in Tahrir.
Everything was out of control, there were enormous numbers of people everywhere and they continued non-stop till late into the night. Each time we passed a police station people would attack it. When political activists assumed some control the slogans would be politicised and when they lost control the slogans became curses against the regime's figure heads.
I left Attaba Square at mid-night leaving demonstrators and security forces exchanging blows to head to my home in Hilmiya Al-Gedida, usually a 15-minute walk. It took four hours that night, the streets were so full of people. The police came looking for me at 6am and my brother told them I was not home. They were so overworked arresting every known activist they could find that they did not have time for a proper search. After they had gone I put on a disguise and left the house and went to Giza Square where Cairo University students had gathered. The army was on the street and the rooftops of the buildings leading to the square had been taken over by young men who were throwing the oddest things at the soldiers, including shoes and pots.
The curfew took effect at 4pm and I went to a friend's house close by -- it took all our cajoling to get her younger brothers and sisters off the street and stop their war against the army. People were in a state.
For six months after 20 January I was on the run. Then I was arrested and spent another six months in jail -- the events of 1977 took a year of my life. But I learned an important lesson and that you cannot anticipate how people will behave. There are theories about why people took to the street from Aswan to Alexandria but at the time we were all amazed.
The court case
HUNDREDS were arrested in the wake of the 1977 riots, and the government blamed the uprising on the alleged plans of a "secret communist party". On 21 January Al-Ahram 's banner announced, "The uncovering of a secret communist organisation behind the damaging riots; the investigation of 500 suspects in Cairo".
In the official documents of the case published in 2002 by Adel Amin, a lawyer who worked on the case in 1977, alleged members of the underground Egyptian Communist Party, The Egyptian Communist Workers Party, Eight January and Al-Tayar Al-Thawry (the revolutionary trend) were all implicated in instigating the demonstrations, rioting and destruction. Reading through the list reveals names that today signify some of Egypt's more important intellectuals, including writers, filmmakers, lawyers and politicians. One hundred and seventy six suspects were charged and the trial began on 16 April, 1978, ending two years later, on 19 April 1980, with all suspects acquitted.
The final ruling by Judge Hakim Saleeb contained the following statement: "There is no doubt... that the serious events that took place on 18 and 19 January 1977 were the direct result of one thing, the issuance of economic decisions to increase prices... it is not within the realm of mind or reason that these events be explained as the result of any other reason except those decisions."
Sadat refused to ratify the ruling and there were re-trial proceedings in 1982 and then 1991/92. These proceedings have been suspended indefinitely.