Spirits of 1968
In May 1968, student protests in Paris challenged the foundations of the social order in the heart of the industrially advanced West. Al-Ahram Weekly investigates what remains of the wave of student activism that swept the world 40 years ago and recalls events at the time in Egypt
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Students climbing the fences outside the Egyptian parliament building on 24 February 1968, while a Faculty of Engineering student, who had been carried by the students into one of the windows, addresses the angry crowds. In the next window Anwar Sadat is listening to the students
THE EGYPTIAN 68: On 20 February 1968, and while Cairo University students were preparing for a general meeting the following day to discuss the political situation following the June 1967 defeat of the Egyptian army at the hands of the Israelis, news of the lenient court sentences handed down to Air Force commanders for their role in the defeat triggered a wave of angry protests that reverberated across the country.
In the industrial suburb of Helwan outside Cairo, workers demonstrated on 20 February to protest the sentences, and there were many injuries as police tried to disperse the demonstrators. The following day, news of what had taken place in Helwan was discussed at an angry meeting of students convened in the main lecture hall at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts.
Those present at the meeting formed a committee charged with negotiating student demands with the university administration, top among them being the demand for freedom of assembly and expression, the lack of which was seen as one of the causes of the defeat. The negotiations, however, came to nothing, and on 24 February demonstrators from Cairo's two universities succeeded in breaking the police siege of the campuses in Giza and Abbassiya, and angry students were able to reach the parliament building in Qasr El-Aini Street in downtown Cairo.
The photograph on this page shows students climbing the fences outside the Egyptian parliament building, while a Faculty of Engineering student, Ezzeddin Abu-Serie, who had been carried by the students into one of the windows, addresses the angry students. In the next window Anwar Sadat, then parliamentary speaker and president of the republic in 1970, can be seen trying to persuade the students to send a delegation inside to negotiate with him.
Salama Fahmi Salama, in 1968 an engineering student who was present at the gates of the parliament, recalls that "Sadat said, 'give me a list of the names of your representatives, and I shall let them in to talk to them.' The answer to this offer was, 'how can we be sure that you won't arrest them?' He said, 'I promise on my word of honour that none of them will be harmed.'"
The student delegates then entered the parliament building, and the rest of the demonstrators returned to campus. However, that same evening 61 students were arrested, including Abu- Serie, standing in the window. The students then continued to occupy the university campus, demanding the release of the arrested students, while the government announced the suspension of classes and security forces placed the remaining students occupying Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering under siege.
On 28 February, a parliamentary delegation arrived at the Faculty of Engineering asking the students to come to parliament to discuss their demands. Salama recalls that at the parliament "the regime's top officials, including the minister of the interior, Shaarawi Gomaa, and the minister of higher education, Labib Shoukair, were present, along with Sadat. I spoke on behalf of the engineering students, saying to Sadat that 'you pledged on your word of honour that none of the students would be harmed, but they were all arrested on the same day. What kind of honour that?' Sadat became angry, saying that he would not allow language of that sort, but another student asked him, 'who are you to allow or not to allow'".
"I began to air the grievances we had discussed during the occupation: the lack of democracy, the yellow press, the military controlling everything in the country, and the necessity of mobilising the people for a people's. I said that we had lost faith in everything, and that we needed change. And of course I demanded the release of our colleagues."
At the end of this period of negotiation the students were promised that their demands would be broadcast on radio news bulletins that evening. Though this did not happen, the protests did achieve some gains, including the removal of the police post on the university campus and the release of the arrested students in an amnesty announced by President Nasser four days later.
A significant step towards greater freedom of expression, at least with regards to university students, had been taken. The debates continued on university campuses until the end of the 1967-68 academic year. At the beginning of the 1968-69 year, however, reform proposals for the secondary education system triggered fresh clashes, beginning in the Delta town of Mansoura, where four people were killed by the police on 22 November 1968. The following day, two engineering students at Alexandria University, both of whom were originally from Mansoura, called for an emergency meeting at the University's engineering faculty to discuss the Mansoura events.
One of these two students was Khairat El-Shatir, then a first-year student and now deputy leader of the Moslem Brotherhood, who is presently serving a seven-year prison sentence, handed down last month by a military tribunal.
For five days in November 1968 Alexandria was embroiled in waves of violent clashes on the streets in support of the students occupying the campus and demonstrating in the streets. These clashes threatened to extend to the rest of the country, and on 28 November the army was brought in to restore order. Tanks surrounded the university campus, and military helicopters hovered threateningly over Egypt's second city. The students ended the occupation of the university, their actions having led to the highest casualty figures recorded for such clashes in recent history.
According to a report by the minister of justice at the time, "16 civilians, including three students, were killed; 167 civilians received hospital treatment for serious injuries incurred during the clashes, and 247 policemen and officers were injured." Hundreds of students were arrested for 45 days, and 46 were presented to court.
This time the regime had learned the lessons of February's demonstrations in Cairo, and the crushing of the movement came swiftly and was much harsher. No one was left in any doubt as to the price to be paid for protesting against the regime in wartime.
Unlike the February 1968 protests, the November events were bitterly attacked in the press, which claimed that the Alexandria students had been manipulated by the Israelis. By 1969, preparations for war had effectively silenced all opposition, and it was not until January 1972 that Egypt's students rose up again, this time against Sadat and in protest against his procrastination in waging war to liberate the territories occupied in 1967.