Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Hussein El-Shafei (1918-2005)

By Samir Sobhi

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Hussein El-Shafei

Hussein El-Shafei led the Cavalry Corps in the first hours of the July 1952 Revolution. Having first secured key areas in Cairo he moved on to Alexandria where his troops surrounded King Farouk's palace, forcing his abdication. With El-Shafei's death only two members of the Revolutionary Command Council remain alive, Zakaria and Khaled Mohieddin.

El-Shafei was born in Tanta in 1918 and graduated from the Military Academy in 1938. He was one of the founding members of the Free Officers movement which led the 1952 Revolution. He was appointed minister of war in 1954 and served as minister of labour and social affairs during the merger with Syria. He became vice- president in 1961.

As minister of social affairs, El-Shafei introduced radical social insurance reforms. His ministry introduced pensions to widows and launched the Winter Charity initiative, a campaign providing the poor with clothes and blankets. Egyptian artists, including the actress Faten Hamama, took part in the mercy trains, focus of the countryside money- raising campaign El-Shafie organised for the benefit of the poor.

In 1968 El-Shafei presided over the Revolutionary Court which prosecuted those accused of corruption in the wake of the 1967 defeat. President Anwar El-Sadat appointed El-Shafei as vice-president in 1971, a post he held until he was replaced by then-Air Force Commander Hosni Mubarak in 1975.

El-Shafei, who enjoyed close links with the Muslim Brotherhood before 1952, believed that the state's task was to promote equity and justice among the people. As a leading member of the 1952 regime, he sought reconciliation between Islam's egalitarian ideals and socialist ones, arguing that the July Revolution stood for socialism not only at home but throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. A staunch enemy of colonialism, El-Shafei often quoted the famous words of Gamal Abdel-Nasser: morale is stronger than nuclear bombs.

El-Shafei was a member of the Revolutionary Command Council that ruled Egypt immediately following the 1952 Revolution. He was also secretary-general of Egypt's first post-revolutionary party, the Liberation Authority (AL). In November 1953 he toured the Suez Canal zone, then under British army control, and delivered a series of defiant speeches. After inaugurating several AL offices in the zone El-Shafei delivered a speech: "We can see the dangers ahead," he said, "and you live in the danger zone. We will be with you. We will be the first to struggle and the first to fight."

To a gathering of AL supporters he declared that "the hands that dug the canal are the same hands that will dig the tombs of the canal's occupiers". At the time 80,000 British soldiers were stationed around the canal.

The British didn't like El-Shafei's tone. A British commander phoned up the Egyptian communication officer the next day: "Go tell Colonel El-Shafei I don't want him to continue this tour and am afraid for his life given the uproar he's causing." El-Shafei replied that it was the British commander who should fear for his life and went on to Ismailia to deliver yet another defiant speech.

President Hosni Mubarak joined senior officials at El-Shafei's military funeral held on Saturday.

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