Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Shahinda Maklad (1938-2016): ‘Egypt’s people will never be shattered’

Obituary by Faiza Radi

Obituary:Shahinda Maklad (1938-2016): ‘Egypt’s peo
Obituary:Shahinda Maklad (1938-2016): ‘Egypt’s peo
Al-Ahram Weekly

Shahinda Maklad, an icon of the Egyptian progressive movement, died of cancer on Thursday 2 June. She was laid to rest on Friday in Kamshish, the Delta town which witnessed her life-long struggle against the exploitation of Egypt’s impoverished small farmers. While no high-level state official attended the burial, Maklad’s constituency, the Kamshish farmers, joined her funeral procession in the tens of thousands. Paying their final tribute to the activist, the masses rhythmically chanted: “Farewell to Um Nagy, beloved of the farmers.” 

Also present were former minister of labour Kamal Abu Etta and George Ishak, Maklad’s long-term friend and a co-member on the National Council of Human Rights.

“Shahinda was a farmers’ rights activist [not only in Kamshish] but in all of rural Egypt,” said Ishak.

Maklad often stressed that her struggle on behalf of farmers’ rights was homegrown. She learned her politics early from her father, Abdel-Hamid Maklad, a talented oud player and remarkably progressive police officer who refused to enforce orders to suppress popular demonstrations over the Arab defeat in the 1948 war and who smuggled arms to the Kamshish farmers after they were brutally assaulted by members of the Al-Fiqi clan, the town’s large landowners. Following a wave of arrests by the local authorities Abdel-Hamid Maklad sent late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser a telegram saying: “If you don’t free the farmers of Kamshish who were imprisoned for opposing feudalism then detain me with them.” In lieu of arrest Abdel-Hamid Maklad was transferred from the northern Delta capital of Shebin Al-Kom to increasingly remote southern towns: from Manfalout, to Al-Fayoum, to Beni Sweif, to Assiut, to Qena. 

Maklad was 17 when her father died in 1955. In his last and perhaps most poignant advice to his daughter he enjoined her to be ready to die in defence of her beliefs.

The outstanding courage and determination Maklad showed throughout her life seemed to originate from this axiom.

“After my father’s death,” she reminisced in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, “I fought my first real battle over what, I believe, is the most essential form of personal freedom: the right to choose my own husband.”

Maklad and Salah Hussein — her cousin and childhood hero — had fallen in love but her mother objected to the match. Hussein was poor and had been in and out of jail for organising the Kamshish farmers. Willing to risk frequent arrest and jail sentences, for Maklad Hussein represented the ideal of a daring and committed activist. Determined to marry the man she loved the 19-year-old chose a convenient day to flee Shebin Al-Kom and join Hussein in Alexandria, where the authorities had exiled him.

Even after Maklad and Hussein were married her family still tried to separate them.

“They wanted a conventional middle class marriage, embellished with the standard material trappings. We had none of that.”

The young couple lived in a modest flat furnished with a bed, a sofa and a stove, the latter a “modern” appliance which Hussein regarded as a sign of conspicuous consumption and initially refused to buy.

“Salah wanted to live his life exactly like the fellahin. He believed adopting a different life style would alienate us from village reality. I agreed but in the end I caved in and bought a stove — just to make life a little easier.”

The couple’s marriage also defied conventions by being centred on political work.

“Our home was like a revolutionary cell,” recalled Maklad. “We were forever planning meetings, writing articles and reports or organising around some struggle.” Organising was new to the young woman but because the farmers’ cause had been her own since the days of her childhood it resonated deeply.

“Although I never owned land or worked on the land I have always felt that my life was with the poor farmers,” she explained.

Her official political career began in 1958. The government had called for elections to establish the committees of the National Union (NU) which were to allocate 50 per cent of their seats to workers and farmers. In Kamshish, the people’s campaign platform focused on the demand that the government implement the land reform by reviewing the landholdings of the Fiqis who owned most of the village.

“They had circumvented the law limiting land ownership by transferring land deeds to their entire clan. As a result policies redistributing land to the poor were never implemented,” recalled Maklad. “Our job was to change these conditions.”

The villagers had nominated her to run in the NU elections as one of their candidates. A charismatic and eloquent speaker, the young woman posed a threat to the Fiqis who had her arrested on trumped-up charges on the eve of the elections. “They accused me of planning to kill the mayor if he refused to vote for me. But their strategy backfired and I won the election.”

It took Maklad and her committee three years of hard work to have the land reforms enforced in Kamshish. In 1961 the Fiqis holdings were finally confiscated and the land was redistributed.

“This was one of the most memorable days of my life,” she said. The entire village came out to demonstrate their joy and for the first time in the history of Kamshish women led the demonstration. But the landlords did not lose gracefully. They burned their crops, leaving nothing but the bare land behind. “Still we rejoiced. We had come to the end of the tunnel — or so we thought.”

The future may have looked bright but the worst was yet to come. Maklad worked with her committee to provide basic services to the community, pressuring the state to turn the Fiqis’ mansions into schools and clinics. Hussein, who understood the former landlords had maintained their power base through a network of high-level patronage, sought to outmanouevre them.  He managed to reach the president. In a letter addressed to Nasser, Hussein warned him that the political power of the landowning class remained intact despite the country’s social transformation.

“The Fiqis killed him because of this letter. Salah had reached the executive at the highest level and that was too dangerous. They had to kill him,” said Maklad. 

“The day Salah was martyred he had gone to Kamshish. I had a feeling that something was going to happen. ‘Take care of yourself, Salah’, were the last words I spoke to him. He laughed it off, saying: ‘The feudalists’ bullets can’t kill me, don’t worry’. I stayed up late that night, waiting for him. Then at about midnight my cousin Nabil came, and somehow I understood. I knew Salah had died.”

Hussein was buried in Kamshish on 1 May 1966. As the whole village came out for his funeral procession, many people cried, grieving over the death of their comrade. But Maklad would have none of it. “I told them that I did not want anybody to cry at Salah's funeral. I said his funeral should be made into a demonstration rather than a day of mourning, so that Salah's spirit would live on. And it happened, the day became a political event in Kamshish and every year, on 30 April, we commemorate Salah's death by organising a huge farmers’ conference. The old people attend, but also a younger, educated, self-confident generation. Seeing them all, young and old farmers — militant, vibrant, ready to fight for their rights and their land, I feel that Salah's death has not been in vain.” 

Maklad continued the struggle. Following Anwar Al-Sadat’s rise to power he began the process of rolling back land reforms. An early ally of the Fiqi clan, Sadat’s immediate aim was to suppress farmers’ militancy in Kamshish and beyond. He exiled Maklad and 20 of the town’s best known activists from Kamshish. Undaunted, Maklad and her comrades continued their work underground by setting up a network of couriers to communicate with the town and maintain an organisational base even while in “exile”.  

During an upsurge of protests in 1975 Maklad and her group were arrested and jailed. After four months behind bars she was released for lack of evidence. The only incriminating paper state security unearthed in her house was a fragment of a poem written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. 

She was arrested again in September of 1981 when Sadat clamped down on opposition figures of all shades and colours. “I was jailed along with 1,651 other political prisoners,” recalled Maklad. 

After her release she resumed the struggle.

“She was the co-founder of virtually every opposition movement formed in the last few decades, including Kifaya, the National Association for Change and Egyptian Women for Change. The list is pages long,” writes Wael Nawara in The Monitor. “Her [trajectory] could be seen as a lifelong trip to Tahrir.”

And it was at the square that she spent the “18 days” of January and February 2011.

Of the uprising’s aftermath she said: “Salah used to tell me that the Egyptian people are like running water under a stable bed of mud. On the surface it looks tranquil but underneath runs a stream of flowing water. That is why they will revolt again. The Egyptian people will never be shattered.”

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