Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Man Apart

I can’t believe that the extraordinarily sprightly and kindhearted Ahmed Abdalla is no longer with us on this earth. He passed away earlier this week, and his funeral procession from Sayyeda Nafisa mosque took place yesterday afternoon. Thus departs a great Egyptian patriot, citizen-scholar, and man of commitment, leaving behind much grief and a yawning sense of loss.

Ahmed Abdalla Rozza was born on 15 January, 1950 to a working class family in Ain al-Sira, the Masr al-Qadeema neighbourhood to which he remained wedded throughout his life, save for the decade of 1974-1984 when he was working on his doctoral thesis in England. He was the most prominent leader of the student activist wave of 1972-1973, and went on to forge a productive career as both an astute political analyst and an uncompromising independent activist. He had a mirthful, loquacious manner and spoke Arabic, English, and French beautifully. Above all, he was that exceedingly rare specimen of intellectual who neither disdains nor romanticises ordinary people. Instead, he lived among them, understood them, loved them, shared their burdens, and did his utmost to alleviate them.

“A Dynamic Element”

Ahmed Abdalla attained national prominence when he was only 22 years old, in his final year at the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science. On 13 January, 1972, Anwar Sadat delivered what soon became a notorious address in which he claimed that the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistan war prevented him from delivering on his promise that 1971 would be a “decisive year,” meaning the year when troops would liberate Egyptian territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Memorably, Sadat attributed his inaction to “the fog” created by the South Asian war.

The speech outraged college students and spurred them to action. They joined several existing groups into the umbrella Higher National Committee for Cairo University Students (HNCCUS), and Ahmed Abdalla was elected president. For one year, HNCCUS became easily the most vital popular organisation in Egypt, a vehicle through which students negotiated directly not simply with top university administrators but the highest officials of state, from ministers to parliamentarians to the president himself via a slew of emissaries. Buoyed by the first, intense wave of student and labour activism of February 1968, and a new regime still finding its bearings, students literally became a vanguard social movement, exerting real pressure on the regime to act on the two cardinal issues of occupied territory and democratisation.

These extraordinarily young and extraordinarily articulate students went head to head with very powerful people, upstaging intellectual elites with pretensions to societal leadership (see Higazy cartoon, top, Rose al-Yusuf, 21 February 1972). For a little over a week, students and state elites engaged in intricate bargaining sessions, including a heated debate between parliamentary deputies and a 200-strong student delegation inside the parliament building. Students escalated their activism, inaugurating a sit-in at Cairo and Ain Shams universities. The state then took off the velvet gloves. At dawn on 24 January, the Interior Minister gave the order for security forces to storm the university and arrest students sitting in Nasser Hall. Hearing of the capture of their colleagues, the thousands of college students coming for classes that morning flocked to Tahrir Square and staged a sit-in there, where they were well-supplied with food and blankets by sympathetic onlookers and citizens. Recalling these events, I can’t resist noting the parallel with the outpouring of popular support for today’s vanguard social sector.

Abdalla was arrested and appeared before a university disciplinary board, which released him with a warning. He responded by intensifying his activism for the rest of 1972-1973. At that moment in Egyptian history, university campuses were humming dens of collective action and consciousness-raising, featuring creative and feisty wall magazines (the grandparents of the contemporary political blog), endless debates and meetings, a steady stream of pamphlets and communiqués, and the formation of bonds with social institutions beyond the university gates.

Authorities studiously recorded and pored over the contents of Abdalla’s personal wall magazine, The Rough Copy (al-Muswadda), as is evident by lawyer Adel Amin’s valuable compilation of State Security documents on student activism during 1972-73 in his book, The Egyptian Students' Intifada (2003, right). Here is a December 1972 assessment by State Security Intelligence of the intrepid, outspoken, and dangerous Ahmed Abdalla:

“This student was one of the leaders of the January 1972 movement...and led the call for sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations. He was arrested with the students occupying Nasser Hall, interrogated by the prosecution, and then released. He remains at the peak of activism, a dynamic element around whom revolves the majority of resistant elements in universities. He continues to carry out his activism, establishing numerous links with these elements and writing wall magazines that attack the state and political leadership and some Arab states and their regimes. The aforementioned and his supporters also seek to unify the student movement in the different universities and to extend its activism to other mass sectors, especially the professional unions. He is also active in the conferences convened at the Economics faculties and other university faculties and had the leading role in designing and steering these conferences. He and his group focus on recruiting first-year students in the Economics faculty, considering them a new asset that must be won over to their side.”

The final crackdown on the student movement came in June 1973, when the chief State Security Prosecutor placed Abdalla first on a list of 56 defendants referred to trial, charged with a slew of the familiar crimes that have long ensnared Egypt’s past and present honourable activists: spreading rumours and false information, repeating seditious slogans, engaging in criminal conspiracy, and inciting assembly, demonstrations, and (my favourite) resisting the authorities. The list included luminaries such as Kifaya leader Ahmed Bahaeddin Sha’ban, rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam Abdel Fattah, writer and critic Safinaz Kazem, the people’s bard Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, journalist Hani Shukrallah, and the late Arwa Saleh.

But then the judiciary stepped in. In the summer of 1973, judges ordered many defendants released on bail while awaiting trial, and upheld those decisions despite the president’s angry appeals. As Abdalla recounts in his doctoral dissertation-turned-book, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt, 1923-1973 (London: al-Saqi, 1985), “when the core of student activists was finally brought to trial, the chief justice who was to try the first group of defendants opened the proceedings with a speech assuring his defendants of the court’s impartiality and even of its patriotism.” In the lead-up to the October 1973 war, Sadat ordered a halt to all student trials and released all detainees.

Scholarship, Activism, Advocacy

Ahmed Abdalla opted to write his doctoral thesis at Cambridge on students and politics in Egypt, and its book form remains the single most valuable English-language contribution to the topic, second to none. It is a scholarly, historical oeuvre written in a staid, analytical style, with significant bits of auto-critique and reflection, scrupulous documentation, and many gems buried in the footnotes. There is no awkward tension between the scholar and the activist, no grand unsubstantiated claims, no self-exoneration, and—-just as important-—no irritating and pointless second-guessing or hand wringing.

Throughout his life, Abdalla miraculously and effortlessly merged analytical scepticism with ideological commitment. For me, he is a model of a thinker who had no truck with the fiction of objectivity, yet never allowed his political passions to blunt his analytical judgement. His example even suggests that—gasp!—each faculty can actually enrich the other. After his return to Egypt in 1984, he joined his erstwhile comrades in the burgeoning human rights movement, not because he harboured any illusions about the transformative potential of such an undertaking, but rather because he viewed it as a promising vehicle to forward democratic demand-making.

For Abdalla, human rights activism was not an ethical project devoid of politics (à la the professional human rights salariat), nor a lucrative cottage industry driven by personal entrepreneurship (à la perpetual cynics), nor a sinister foreign design (à la nationalists), but a deeply political undertaking that would further a modest yet highly significant goal. “The human rights movement is a political movement par excellence, and it should courageously present itself as such,” he wrote. “It should advertise itself as the largest reservoir of consensus politics.”

The language of human rights would be creatively deployed to transcend the historical animosities bedevilling Egypt’s opposition groups, perhaps even pave the way for some form of collective action between them. Though he retained the Egyptian left’s signature suspicion of Islamists, Abdalla thankfully steered clear from the vile stance of individuals like Rif’at al-Said, a putative leftist who takes great pleasure in collaborating with the authoritarian regime to repress and do violence to Islamists. However, by the mid-1990s, Abdalla’s take on human rights activism grew
dimmer, after the groups’ decision to accept foreign funding brought in powerful international institutions with their own agendas, agendas that were far removed from helping Egypt’s opposition groups overcome their collective action problems.

If activism and analysis coexisted in Ahmed Abdalla, so did advocacy and analysis. One of his most abiding concerns was the respectful, dignified depiction and treatment of ordinary people too marginalised to represent themselves, and too powerless to “talk back” to those who represent them. His first book is memorably dedicated to the denizens of his native Ain al-Sira: “To the People of Masr al-Qadeema, the illiterate who gave me knowledge; the poor who enriched my conscience.” He was a truly great and noble advocate for poor Egyptians, whose stock he shared, yet he never abandoned the critical stance necessary to dissect their life conditions and give them the tools to carve out a foothold in a power structure built on their exclusion.

Advocacy mixed with analysis was the driving force behind Abdalla’s energetic bid for parliament in the
2005 elections, and his years long focus on the vexing condition of child labour. Eschewing both the easy, moralising condemnation of the practice and indifference to it as yet another “social problem,” Ahmed Abdalla made the difficult choice of actually doing something about it. He established the Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies, both a research and information centre and an actual space where working children convened each week to, simply, live their childhood. They drew artwork, made puppets, played music, had a meal, and subjected their bodies to physical activity of a different order than the gruelling labour that marked the rest of their week. It was a place unlike any that I’ve ever been in, where the concrete reality of child exploitation coexisted with an utterly charmed environment full of laughter, love, and an aura of being blessed.

A Personal Note

I don’t remember the first time I met Dr. Ahmed, but I always remember his uproarious laugh and his moments of quiet, conversational reflection. He had a charming ability to be both hilariously funny and dead serious in one breath, and a devilish knack for teasing that apparently found in me an irresistible target! I do remember the last time I saw him; it was at the Shaykh Yassin concert in Ramadan outside Bayt al-Harrawi in 2000. It felt like spotting a loveable celebrity. We waved and smiled across the giddy crowd, in the moments of anticipation right before Yassin began to chant.

When I remember Dr. Ahmed, I always see him sitting in animated, relaxed conversation around a table on the scraggly lawn outside Markaz al-Jeel one friday, as the children played all around us and the setting sun turned a fiery orange. Dr. Ahmed’s maternal older sister was busy making sure that every child had eaten his koshari and cucumber; she was a woman of few words and enormous kindness whose death took a serious emotional toll on her younger brother. The day that I visited the Centre, I met a boy named Gharib, who worked in the tanneries. He held on to my hand tightly for the whole five hours I was there, leaving me only to take part in the karate lesson, but not before making me promise to sit and watch him kick. Dr. Ahmed kept playfully chiding him to leave me alone for a while and go eat his koshari, but Gharib only lowered his huge eyes bashfully and smiled.

Under a drooping tree branch we all sat, savouring the final hours of a purgative day.