Double podcast episode on the 1977 Bread Intifada, in which hundreds of thousands of working-class Egyptians rose up against the government’s termination of food subsidies. We speak to Egyptian journalist and revolutionary socialist, Hossam el-Hamalawy, about the uprising, the decade of worker-student militancy leading up to it, and its relevance today.
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- Part 1: Background, the 1967 War and disaffection with Nasser, worker and student struggles from 1968 to 1977
- Part 1.1: Bonus episode in which Hossam discusses Nasser’s repression of the Egyptian labour movement, and the extent to which Islamists and Islamic religious authorities participated (or didn’t) in the 1977 uprising – available exclusively for our patreon supporters
- Part 2: The Bread Intifada, the wildcat strikes, riots and factory occupations
- For more information on the Bread Intifada, reading Hossam’s 2001 Master’s thesis on the subject: https://arabawy.org/111742/1977/
- See also Lafif Lakhdar’s ‘The development of class struggle in Egypt’ in Khamsin: Journal of revolutionary socialists of the Middle-East, issue #5: https://libcom.org/library/development-class-struggle-egypt
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia and Stone Lawson.
- Thanks also to Hossam el-Hamalawy for agreeing to speak with us. You can check out his website and his account on Flickr, which contains an archive of his photography from 2003 to the present all available under Creative Commons for use free of charge. And, if you want to support his work, you can leave a tip via his PayPal.
- Photograph used in episode graphic courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
- Music used in this episode under fair use was “Build Your Palaces” by Sheikh Imam. Available to stream here. We attempted to find copyright holders but were unsuccessful; if anyone has any information about this, please email email@example.com.
Matt: On January 18th 1977, Egypt erupted into a huge popular uprising against the government’s removal of food subsidies. For two days, hundreds of thousands of people across the country were variously involved in strikes, riots, occupations, looting and sabotage while around 70 people were killed and over 500 injured. Described by the President at the time, Anwar el-Sadat, as ‘the uprising of thieves’, the Egyptian people called it by a different name: ‘the Bread Uprising.’ This is Working Class History.
Matt: Just before we start, a quick note that we’re only able to continue making these podcasts because of the support of our listeners on patreon. If you like what we do and want to help us with our work, join us on patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you can get benefits like early access to episodes, exclusive bonus content, discounted books, merch and more. Link in the show notes.
In order to talk about the 1977 Uprising, it’s important to put it in the context of social tensions which had been growing in Egypt in the decade leading up to it. As such, this episode will mostly focus on the increasingly radical struggles of workers and students in Egypt leading up to 1977, while the next episode will look at the events of the uprising itself.
For these episodes, we spoke to Egyptian journalist and revolutionary socialist, Hossam el-Hamalawy. As Hossam explains, many countries around the world were affected by the post-1968 wave of radicalism and rebellion: Egypt was no exception.
Hossam: When uprisings happen, they don’t just happen out of the blue. They usually are preceded by a long process where dissent and anger is brewing, on the one hand. And on the other hand, the people, or the masses have been struggling and getting into small fights here and there, whereby they are gaining experience, they are tweaking their own strategy and tactics related to the struggle.
So when an uprising explodes, it is usually a climax of a long process that started before it. In the case of Egypt, I would say that the 1977 uprising was the climax of a process that started in 1968. The Arab world is not disconnected from the rest of the world, and basically whatever was happening was feeding into the political climate in our region. In addition, too, our region was also exporting radical ideologies and radical hopes for liberation elsewhere.
Matt: Much of the radical protest which took place in Egypt came as a result of its defeat to Israel in the 1967 War, where Israel would go on to occupy Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights in Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This made a significant dent in the popularity of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his brand of Arab Socialism.
Hossam: So, in 1967, Egypt suffered one of its worst military defeats in its modern history, if not its whole entire history, where in six days the Egyptian Army, as well as other Arab armies were completely smashed by the Israeli Army, and Sinai was occupied. The Golan Heights in Syria were occupied. The rest of the Palestinian Territories that were not occupied in 1948 were swallowed by Israel. So it was a catastrophe on all levels. It wasn’t just a military catastrophe, it was an ideological and political catastrophe because for two decades the radical Arab nationalists, mainly led by Nasser in Egypt, and the Ba’ath in Syria and Iraq were basically promising the liberation of Palestine. They were promising socialism and equality. They were promising liberation. And in the name of these noble goals, they repressed their own people using the most horrific militaristic dictatorial tools for social control. And when it was showtime they failed miserably.
Matt: Conventional histories of the Middle East often claim that the defeat of secular Arab nationalism in 1967 saw the Arab world turn en masse to Islamist politics. However, as Hossam explains, this is not quite the case; indeed, many in the Arab world were instead radicalised further to the left.
Hossam: If you refer to the classical literature about Middle Eastern politics, the right wing historians usually will tell you that after the failure of the secular Arab nationalism in 1967, the Arabs started flocking towards Islamism as an alternative. This is not really accurate characterization. When the 1967 defeat happened, the masses started to radicalize further to the left, further to the left of the regime, and further to the left of the existing Arab communists, at the time.
Matt: As Hossam explains, there were very practical reasons for this move beyond the Communist Parties of the Arab world at this time.
Hossam: The Arab communist movement, whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere, was heavily Stalinized, and was mainly moving within the orbit of Moscow. So this meant that the Arab communists wasted several opportunities to push for the struggle forward for social liberation and for the achievement of socialism. But they always opted for alliances with their own regimes and their relation towards the regimes was always a function, more or less, of the regimes relations with the Soviet Union.
So this meant that the Egyptian Communist Party, for example, dissolved itself in 1964 and called on its members to flock and join the Arab Socialist Union that was founded by Nasser. Arab communists everywhere were just getting into alliances with the so-called, the most progressive sections of our local bourgeoisie. So this meant by the time that 1967 happens, and the masses started looking for an alternative, they were really angry, not just at Nasser, but they were also angry at the communists, who, for years, were advocating support for Nasser, and support for Arab nationalism.
Matt: Following its defeat in the 1967 War, then, and three months before the first barricades would go up in the streets of Paris, Egypt would begin its own 1968. In order to deflect blame for the defeat, Air Force leaders in the Egyptian Army were put on trial but, ultimately, given very light sentences.
Hossam: So this angered the Egyptian students, who started protesting on the campuses, and then they took to the streets and they started fraternizing with the workers who were also protesting in Helwan. Helwan is south of Cairo, and it is a historical hotbed for industrial militancy, and that’s where our steel mills historically have been located. So the workers from Helwan, in addition to the students, took to the streets and they were chanting against the army. But they were not chanting against Nasser. Nasser still had political credit, at the time. And obviously, the police, in its usual fashion, responded by live ammunition against the protesters. And it was a horrific scene of repression.
The repression started against the workers in Helwan, who left their steel mills, and they took to the streets, and they were chanting against the military court judges who gave the light sentences to the Air Force Generals, and they were chanting against the Air Force Generals themselves. They were comparing the light sentences that were given to them to the enormous loss of life of Egyptian soldiers. So the police opened live ammunition against the Helwan workers. I cannot now remember exactly the number of casualties in terms of deaths, but it was a horrific bloodbath. So the workers in Helwan, they sent delegations to the protesting students in Cairo, and to be more specific, at Ain Shams University, which is the second largest university we have in Egypt, after Cairo University. And that’s where the student protests started.
So the Helwan workers’ delegations, when they went to the students and they told them what happened, and briefed them on the situation, anger boiled even more, and you started to have joint protests between the workers and the students. And these protests were initially, they were trying to march over the parliament. They couldn’t make it all the way over there. And in Helwan, they stormed the police stations from where the soldiers and the officers opened fire on the workers, and they demolished the entire police station.
However, Nasser was shocked. He could not believe that these things could happen, that the Egyptians were rebelling against him. So he made some concessions that he adopt as the 30th of March Manifesto, where he acknowledged that there is no democracy in Egypt and we will give more freedoms, and we will do this, and we’ll do that. He gave some rosy promises, which of course nothing happened.
Matt: The February 1968 protests were a rebellion on a scale which Egypt had not seen since the 1950s, when Nasser himself had come to power. And with its slogan of “There’s no socialism without freedom”, the rebellion paved the way for further dissent which took place in November that same year.
Hossam: What was the trigger of the protests, in November ’68? Which was a much more militant show of dissent against the regime than in February. That trigger started in Mansoura. Mansoura is one of the important urban centers in the Nile Delta. And the trigger was, it was a government decision aimed at reforming secondary education in Egypt. So school students took to the streets in Mansoura, and they were met also with repression. And the police also fired live ammunition at them. And the news started to trickle everywhere. And this time the bulk of the protests were in Alexandria, not Cairo. I mean, Cairo did witness protests, but the real militant protests were in Alexandria. Alexandria is the second biggest city we have in Egypt and it’s a coastal city, and of course, it has its historical and political significance.
So the students in Alexandria battled the police for several days under heavy rain, and the police opened also live ammunition against the protesters, dozens were killed. And at some point the Egyptian Army sent in choppers to fly on a very low height, so as to intimidate the students. And for the first time you started to hear strong anti Nasser chants, chants that were not there in February ’68.
The movement was repressed right away by the police and by the Army intimidation, but also Nasser had to make some concessions in exchange, not just repression. So, for example, he pushed the Egyptian Army to increase its operations against the Israeli occupation in Sinai. And there were some famous battles around that time. And I would say that, and others also would argue, that that main attention, or sorry, the main goal was to give the impression to the public that we are fighting the war of liberation. So please do not split our ranks, do not cause any internal problems regarding this. But there is also something else that we have to put into consideration, which was, Egypt and the Arab world were not disconnected from the rest of the world. And the radicalization that was happening in Egypt after the defeat was a radicalization largely to the left.
Why? Because all of the models of success, quote unquote, of course, that were in front of the masses at the time were left leaning. People were comparing the Egyptian Army’s dismal performance to the Viet Cong’s, for example, in Vietnam. And they are like, “You know, the Vietnamese can stand up to the Americans, why can’t you stand up to the Israelis?” The killing of Che Guevara, for example, also was something that impacted Egyptian students. He was regarded as an icon and people were making comparisons between a self-sacrificing guerrilla fighter and those rich socialists who are preaching socialism, but at the same time, they are living as parasites on the lives of the masses.
Thirdly, that this was also the time when the cultural revolution, or the so-called cultural revolution in China was happening. And while we today understand that the cultural revolution was basically a fight among the Chinese bureaucracy, and an attempt by Mao to solidify his position within the ruling clique in China, but for the rest of the world, they regarded what was happening in China as a student-led rebellion against bureaucracy, against counterrevolutionary elements in the regime.
So, someone like my father, for example, my father at the time was a TA, was a teaching assistant, at Ain Shams University. And he was one of the young senior ranking members of the so-called Organization of Socialist Youth, which was the youth wing of the regime’s party, the Arab Socialist Union. My father, after the defeat in ’67, went back home and tore down Nasser’s posters in his room, and put up Mao’s, because for him, Mao was an inspiration and he’s a true socialist, and what’s happening in China was what we need in Egypt. And my father was not alone at the time.
Matt: After 1968, groups of young communists started to popping up all over Egypt. However, in 1970, Nasser died suddenly and was replaced by Anwar el-Sadat who promised to liberate Sinai from Israeli occupation. In 1973, the Egyptian Army crossed the Suez and liberated a strip along the canal in what would commonly become known as the Yom Kippur War. While in reality the performance of the Egyptian Army during the conflict was actually quite poor, Sadat was able to use the war to lobby the American government into giving him some leeway, so as to assure them that Egypt was moving from the Soviet to the American camp. As a result, this allowed Sadat to present the war as a huge victory. However, as a consequence, with questions of national defence now seemingly resolved, social questions now began to take precedence.
Hossam: So the people were like, “Okay, so we fought the war, we liberated our land. Now, can we please now talk about our domestic situation?” And our domestic situation was not just bread and butter issues, because remember, I mean, this was a war economy, everything was geared towards the army. Everything was geared towards the war efforts. And if anyone objected to austerity measures or to cuts in wages, or to cuts in subsidies, they were told that, “We’re in a state of war and you should not be selfish, you should not be greedy.”
Now that the war was over, and Sadat was saying, and the days of the socialism of poverty, that’s how he used to describe socialism, ištrākīẗ al-ʾfqr. The socialism of poverty are over, and now we’re going to open up our economy, and the investments and foreign direct investments are going to flood into the country. And we will finally get to live like any Western capitalist advanced societies.
So this gave, boost, actually to the labor movement. The labor movement, prior to 1974, was not completely dormant even with the war. So for example, in 1971, in 1972, and in 1973, there were wildcat strikes here and there. So the Shubra El Kheima textile workers… Shubra El Kheima is a district in Cairo, that is also one of the historical hotbeds for industrial militancy. And the textile sector was largely concentrated in it. So the textile workers in Shubra El Kheima, they went on several industrial actions. The cab drivers in Cairo, they also went on strike. Shebeen el-Kom, which is located in Menoufia, is also another province in the Nile Delta. And it is one of the, also, historical hotbeds for industrial militancy.
These wildcat strikes were happening here and there, but not something that is generalized and consistent and sustained. But 1974, this started to change the rules of the game. Because on the one hand, the war was over. Number two, Sadat could not any longer ask the public to accept austerity, or to accept dictatorial measures, because we’re in a state of war. So there wasn’t this ideological hegemony or ideological excuse. Thirdly is that in 1974, that’s when Sadat started the infitah policy. “Infitah” means “open door.” So the open door policy was actually a package of neoliberal reforms. Very few people know about this, but actually, Sadat’s Egypt, and Pinochet’s Chile, were the pioneers of neoliberalism in the global south at the time. We started our neoliberal reforms at the same time, in 1974. With the infitah, this opened the door, not just for more austerity, but it also opened the door for more struggles. In 1975, this was the year of the industrial upturn in our history.
The trigger for most of the labor protests at the time were bread and butter issues, for sure. But there is a political, also connotation to it, which I will explain to you in a bit, but the Helwan workers went on strike, and the Shubra El Kheima workers went on strike in solidarity. Most of these strikes used to start over bonuses, over disparity in wages, where workers feel that their socialist managers are getting greedy, paid quadruples and tenfold their salaries. They felt that this shouldn’t be the case. They were striking over abusive treatment in the factories. As you can see, they were mainly bread and butter issues, but once you start striking over bread and butter issues, you are striking against the state managers. You are striking against state policies. So even when you struggle over economic issues, you get into a direct conflict with the forces of the state. So you start political generalization right away.
In 1975, all these events snowballed into the so-called Mahalla Commune. It wasn’t, of course, a commune, like the Paris Commune, or the commune like that socialist activists like ourselves would envision the future as, but it was dubbed as a commune, because for at least three days, the Mahalla workers were in control of their town, and were in control of their factories. And they were protesting in the streets. They stormed the houses of their managers, and they got the expensive artifacts and expensive clothes of their managers, and they hung them on the trees in their town, so as to show everyone what their socialist managers were really living, at the end of the day, compared to the average worker in Mahalla.
And the state went ballistic. The entire town was under siege by the Central Security Forces. By the way, our Central Security Forces were established by the regime in 1968, after they were inspired by how the CRS in France repressed the students. As you can see, it’s not just the radicals learning from themselves, but our enemies also, they learn from themselves all the time.
So the Central Security Forces laid siege on Mahalla, and the regime sent in choppers also, to intimidate the workers, and fighter jets were even flying at very low heights to intimidate the workers. You know, this is like a military tactic. Basically, this is war. I mean, when you talk about class war, this is literally class war, where you have fighter jets against strikers, unarmed strikers. Although the protests were violently dispersed, but this was not the end. I mean, you can say that the beast has been awakened, the Egyptian working class, I mean, was awakened.
In 1976, the following year, the strikes continued, and they spilled over to most of the other sectors in the economy, and of course, to the student campuses, there is a very symbolic event that happened in 1976, that just shows you to what extent the regime had lost its legitimacy.
Every few years, Sadat, or our presidents, former presidents, they used to have a plebiscite, where it’s not elections. It’s like, you go and vote. “Do you want Sadat to continue as the President or not?” People would go and vote yes and no, and of course each time, Sadat would win by 99%. So, after a plebiscite where Sadat basically won it by 99%, the Cairo Public Transport Authority workers, these are the bus drivers and the technician workers, they went on strike, and they brought the capital to an entire halt, to a complete stop in less than 24 hours, after supposedly Sadat had won the presidency by 99%, which shows you what sort of legitimacy that this guy has.
Student protests were all over Egypt at the time, and the students marched over the Parliament. There are also some very iconic pictures of the Parliament under siege at the time. So when January 1977 came, and the uprising happened, and we will discuss this in a bit, what was the trigger, your listeners and our comrades everywhere, they have to understand that ’77 did not just happen out of the blue. There was an entire decade that preceded it, where dissent was brewing and snowballing, where the masses were getting into small fights here and there, where the students were gaining more and more experience in organizing, and learning more about how the tactics of the class struggle should be conducted.
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for in this episode. In Part Two, we talk more about the events of the Bread Intifada itself, available now for patreon supporters.
As always, we should say that it’s only because of the support we get from listeners like you that we’re able to produce this podcast. Anything you can spare to keep us going is greatly appreciated, and in return you get early access to episodes and exclusive patron-only bonus content, such as the one for this episode, in which Hossam discusses the position of Islamists and Islamic authorities to the uprising as well as Nasser’s attacks on the Egyptian workers’ movement. Patrons also get access to discounted books, merch and lots of other things as well. So if that sounds like something you’d be interested in, join us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory.
If you want to learn more about the Bread Intifada, we recommend you check out Hossam’s Master’s thesis, which we link to in the show notes. You’ll also find links to his website and his entire photography archive from 2003 to the present where all his photos are available under Creative Commons License for use free of charge. And, if you want to support his work, you can leave a tip via his PayPal.
The song in this episode was ‘Build Your Palaces’ by radical Egyptian songwriter, Sheikh Imam. Links to stream and download in the show notes.
We also want to say a huge thank you to all our patrons, and a special thank you to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia and Stone Lawson. It’s you guys who make the whole Working Class History project possible.
Anyway, that’s all we’ve got time for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.
Matt: Welcome back to our double-episode on Egypt’s 1977 ‘Bread Intifada’ in which we speak to journalist and revolutionary socialist, Hossam el-Hamalawy. If you haven’t listened to Part One yet, it’s probably best you go back and listen to that first as it goes through the struggles which set the stage for what we talk about in this episode.
Matt: When we left off in the previous episode, Egyptian President, Anwar el-Sadat, had begun introducing his “infitah” or “open door” policy of neoliberal reforms against a backdrop of growing political and social unrest. These reforms, and opposition to them, would come to a head in January 1977.
Hossam: When January 1977 arrived, it was time for the government to declare its new financial budget, and everyone was expecting the so-called flow of wealth from the West, you know what I mean, to flood it, to flood the country, as Sadat was promising them. Instead, on the night of the 17th of January, the government decided to, by “shock therapy,” as Sadat called it, to shock the public, into lifting all the subsidies, or most of the subsidies, from the basic commodities that the Egyptian people were dependent on.
In Egypt, we call bread “aish,” and aish is also Arabic for “living.” This just tells you how much important is this item in the food basket of Egyptians.
So the government shocked the public into announcing that they are lifting the subsidies, and they were doing away with all the subsidies, and the prices of bread and the basic commodities, that Egyptians were dependent on, increased by more than 100%. So, the reaction came immediately. A few protests started on the night of the 17th, in the working-class neighborhoods, in Cairo. But on the following day, the entire country went on strike, not organized by any political group, or by any trade unions.
The people took to the streets, students, workers, all sectors of society that was oppressed by the state, took to the streets. They were confronted by the Central Security Forces, who opened live ammunition, but still could not repress the revolt. And in scenes that were more or less repeated decades later, on the Friday of Anger, the 28th of January, 2011, which was the third day of the Egyptian Revolution, the police disappeared from Cairo. They were so smashed, that the Central Security Forces basically just fled.
The people were chanting social slogans related to their living conditions. They were chanting political slogans against the regime. They were chanting against a dictatorship. They were demanding political freedoms. They were chanting against the Central Security Forces, and demanding that it would be dissolved. The entire country erupted.
It reached the extent that Joseph Tito, who was the leader of Yugoslavia at the time, he was scheduled to meet Sadat in Aswan. He canceled his trip. He wouldn’t dare travel to the country. And Sadat himself was in Aswan at the time. Aswan is a historical touristic city in the south of Egypt, and Sadat was there in one of his many bazillion zillion rest houses and palaces, waiting for Joseph Tito. Sadat saw the banners, the official banners that were put up by the government to welcome Tito, and to welcome Sadat, and all of these arches victory. They were all burned down by protestors.
His military plane was ready to take off to take him outside the country, and flee out of Egypt, especially that he begged the Egyptian Army to go and to repress the revolt in the streets. The Minister of Defense was so scared about sending in the army, unless mutinies would happen, from the conscripts. It was only after Sadat promised the Minister of Defense that he would scrap all those new liberal decrees, that the army finally agreed to send in its special forces, not even the regular forces. They sent in the mechanized special forces, and the so-called Thunderbolt troops, the Sa’ka troops. These are like our Green Berets, or the special forces in the Egyptian army, who are relatively more trained, and relatively higher paid. So their loyalty would not be a question as much as the conscripts, if they get sent in to repress the protests.
Matt: Like in many armies, conscripts in the Egyptian military were – in contrast to their middle or upper-class officers – usually from working-class or peasant backgrounds, young men who had been taken from their families for three years. As such, in the face of mass working-class revolt, the loyalty of the conscripts could not be assured, causing a huge problem for the Sadat regime.
Hossam: Sadat almost collapsing in a nervous breakdown and preparing to leave the country by a military plane destroys the entire taboo and entire myth of the invincible pharaoh that each Egyptian ruler, since the beginning of history has been always trying to portray himself. And it also breaks the taboo many of the other Egyptian rulers have always claimed that Egyptians are an obedient nation. They always follow the ruler. We built the first pyramids, which is a symbol of slavery because we worshiped our own rulers who we thought that they were gods and blah, blah, blah. And Egyptians will never revolt against authority. Egyptians are a very docile nation.
This is the kind of shit I used to hear when I was in the 1990s as a student activist. And not just from like, you know, foreign Orientalists from the west, it’s from Egyptians. Because you self internalize all of these negative ideas about yourself. Because it’s easier to internalize them than to take the risk, to confront authority.
Matt: In response to Sadat’s lifting of subsidies, there was a huge wave of wildcat strikes throughout Egypt: in Helwan, by 9am, thousands of workers had walked out and were demonstrating through the district, quickly being joined by workers from other factories. At the same time, workers were striking in Shubra El Kheima, with some workplaces being occupied. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, workers from the Naval Arsenal walked out, and were joined by workers from other factories, before marching to the university district where they were joined by thousands of students. Scenes like this were playing out all over the country.
Hossam: The events started, as I said, by scattered protests on the night of the 17th of January, and they were all wildcat protests here and there. They were not organized by any political group, but comes the morning, and the entire country is on strike. Was it called for by any trade union? Actually, no, because in Egypt we did not have independent trade unions, per se.
Matt: This was because Nasser had smashed the independent labour movement when he came to power. Hossam goes into this in a little more detail in our bonus episode.
Hossam: So when 1977 came, that structure of course did not step in and support the Egyptian workers. On the contrary, Egyptian workers were striking and were mobilizing and were demonstrating despite the disapproval of their union officials at the time. So these protests that started in the morning they were on the campuses and on all the Egyptian campuses at the time, but also in Shubra El Kheima, which is this district north of Cairo where there is the textile mills. In Shubra El Kheima, in Helwan which we spoke about earlier. In Ghazl El Mahalla, in the Nile Delta provinces in Alexandria, literally all the urban centers.
The protests during these two days were largely spontaneous, but in anything that is spontaneous, even when people act spontaneously, they act based on what they were doing in the previous years. So, in 1977, there isn’t a trade union leader or trade union leaders who came out and issued a general directive, for example, to their base cadres: now, take to the streets and do a strike. There wasn’t as a unified student body, although students were still relatively much more independent and much more organized than the workers at the time, that basically could have mobilized the entire students just like that in a single direction or to tell them what to do or what not to do. It was a spontaneous uprising. But again, it was the same students who marched on the parliament a year before. They were the same students who were organizing in solidarity with the Helwan and Mahalla workers in 1975. They were the same students who were organizing in solidarity with the Cairo public transport strikers in 1976. So, anything that they were doing during the uprising, even when it is spontaneous, it was also based on their organizing experience.
Matt: Protests continued throughout January 18th. By the evening, demonstrators were expressing their anger towards the regime with strategic acts of sabotage and destruction: numerous headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union were burnt down, luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were looted and destroyed, and railway lines were blocked using burning tyres and broken streetlights. Police stations were also attacked, with demonstrators in Suez even managing to seize arms and ammunition.
Hossam: So the workers took to the streets. Initially, they occupied the factories but then they flooded to the streets and that’s when the looting and the attacks against property started, which Sadat later tried to portray the events as just some crazy mob rioting that was aimed at looting public and private property. However, if you look at the performance of the different groups, the students were not part of the destruction and the sabotage that happened. The industrial workers were not part of the sabotage and the attacks. Actually, workers protected their own factories and they controlled it briefly for these two days. And when they took to the streets, there were even some scenes that were documented later about the protests, the protesters gently moving the vegetable carts that belongs to the street vendors so as to make way. They did not attack any private or public property. They did not attack or set fire to any buildings. But most of those who carried out the looting and the attacks were the urban poor.
But it wasn’t crazy violence. It wasn’t misguided violence at the end of the day. People do not attack targets that are random. They attack the symbols of oppression. So yes, if the urban poor they go on the attack and they storm police stations, it’s for very obvious reasons. These are torture factories. The workers… Sorry, the urban poor and the protestors they did throw rocks at public buses and at public trains and this might puzzle a little bit your listeners or some people, but if you see pictures of those public buses and public trains, especially in the 1970s, these are not human public transportation means. This is where the Egyptian citizen is humiliated on a daily basis by riding in a sardine tin as we call it in Egypt where you find people on top of one another. And in the Egyptian pop culture and in movies and in songs, you always find references to how on a daily basis the Egyptian is humiliated in the means of the public transport.
So, when people attack the public buses, they were attacking the machines where they are humiliated and tortured on a daily basis, basically. That’s how they viewed it. They attacked government buildings, obviously, because this is a symbol of authority. They attacked the nightclubs because the nightclubs that’s where the filthy rich Egyptians used to go and party and get drunk and do this and do that and live a lifestyle which the average Egyptian can never afford in a lifetime.
There were some funny photos actually at the time of like veiled urban poor women, like strong Egyptian women, like coming out of the nightclubs, carrying bottles of liquor, from the nightclubs. It’s not like they would get drunk, but everyone was like looting everything that they can put their hands on than the elites, you know, were doing.
So, there was violence indeed and some looting and some destruction during these two days but the violence was not random. It was limited and confined to the symbols of wealth and oppression and tyranny. One of the Egyptian bourgeois intellectuals, who was walking on the second day of the uprising. And instead of seeing those events as a form of resistance and as having potential for developing into a real chance for liberation, socially and politically, he was looking with all sadness at those bare footed, urban poor kids who were throwing rocks at buses and other public property and private property. And they were part of the looting and destruction.
And that intellectual, he asked one of the kids, “Why are you destroying your country?” And the kid replied back, “It’s not my country, it’s theirs.” This just sums it up. This kid, destroyed the whole nationalist logic, the whole patriotic bullshit. This kid is much more intellectual than this miserable self-described intellectual who was all weeping about the burning of the country and the destruction of the country.
Yes, people are alienated. These five star hotels and five star night clubs, it’s theirs. It’s not mine. These fancy shops that were selling western brands that you can find in Paris and New York and elsewhere, which, you know, very tiny group of Egyptians would afford, this is theirs, not ours. So it is this story of this urban poor kid, which I came across in one of the very few sources that documented the events and which I mentioned in more details in my research, it always sticks out. And I always remember because you will always find parallels everywhere.
Matt: As mentioned earlier, as well as walking out on wildcat strike, many Egyptian workers also occupied their factories. In some cases, these occupations shut down production; in others, they restarted production without their managers. However, as Hossam explains, these occupations still took place within the limits of Nasserist political horizons.
Hossam: These factory occupations and when workers were running their factories, these were experiments that did not last for long and they were affiliated or they were part of industrial actions that would last for a few days before they are crushed right away by the State’s forces. But literally in every single factory that witnessed industrial actions, workers, whether it’s in Helwan, whether it’s in Mahalla , whether it’s Mansoura, whether it’s in Shubra El Kheima, in Alexandria, in Cairo, the workers would occupy the factory, shut it down on themselves, barricade themselves inside so that the Central Security Forces would not storm the factory. But then here’s the interesting thing. They would continue with the production, but they would continue with the production and they would be the ones supervising it. Now, maybe socialists like you and I, we would see the seeds for the socialist society that we want in the future in these actions from below but we also have to be accurate and realistic about the limitations of the Egyptian industrial actions at the time. The ideology of Nasserism and the ideology of Populist Nationalism did not lose its sexiness at the time. Even when people got disillusioned by Nasser after 1967, it wasn’t a complete disillusionment. And actually, with the neo-liberal transition under Sadat that started in 1974, many of the Egyptian workers including the strike leaders, they felt nostalgic to the Nasser days where even with the repression, but the public sector was a steady, secure job where you got a contract or you got health insurance, where you got housing, where you got all sorts of rights. It’s not a perfect world. It’s definitely far below what we want as socialists, but compared to the neo-liberal reforms that happened later, it was a paradise of course.
So, part of why workers continued with the production during these occupations were not necessarily because they believed that they were building, let’s say workers councils or they would have building an alternative society. They regarded the public sector company as a socialist enterprise and they regarded the factory as something that belongs to the people. So, if we strike, this means that we will be hurting our own people. This was one of the contradictions in the consciousness of the Egyptian industrial action movement that continued by the way all the way to the 1990s. When workers confront the State, their biggest weapon or their most effective weapon is strike.
So we have to be a little bit realistic about these occupations at the time as much as this is definitely a step forward. Any form of organized industrial actions always gives you a potential for developing these industrial actions into something much more militant in the future. So I’m not trying to denounce that. But at the same time, it did have limitations related to the ideology of the industrial strike leaders. They were Populists and the radical Communists who existed among them were Stalinist in the end.
So, the kind of communism that they were also preaching and calling for was more or less a radical version of Nasserism. Communists and Nasserists were in the same bed most of the time. It even reached the extent that the ones who were doing the political education in the Arab Socialist Union under Nasser who were “educating the masses into Arab socialism,” they were all ex-Communists who used to lead the Egyptian Communist Party. But for them, Arab socialism was not really different from what they were preaching.
So the kind of policies that they were advocating was mainly like a return to what Nasser was doing a decade earlier, which might be a little bit more progressive maybe than the neo-liberal reforms that was being presented at the time but it is a State capitalist project where those factories at the end of the day are run by State bureaucrats where workers would have representation in the management, but it’s symbolic representation, it’s bullshit.
So these factory occupations were happening on a regular basis from 1975 until the uprising in 1977. And workers would take control of the factories. They would kick out the management from the factories and they would continue with the production until the Central Security Forces come in and they would smash them.
Matt: Like in many places around the world during the post-1968 cycle of struggles, Egyptian students were heavily involved in the 1977 uprising, attempting to build links with workers and other sections of society, as they had in previous years.
Hossam: Oh, of course. The protesters, the student protesters were chanting the famous slogan, iḥnā al-ṭlbẗ mʿ al-ʿmāl ḍd ḥkūmẗ rʾas al-māl: “We are the students with the workers against the Capitalist State”. And there were all sorts of chants that the students were chanting to try also to win over the conscripts of the Central Security Forces during the first day of the uprising before they were completely smashed. So would be chants like, the conscript is oppressed in the army and it doesn’t eat bread and they wear rags. But of course, I’m translating those chants. But in Arabic, they rhyme more beautifully. I can assure you.
And in Egypt, and I guess like Britain and elsewhere, we have a strong football culture. And when people take to the streets, they chant the same football chants but then they start changing them and modifying them into the political targets. So instead of chanting against the fans of your adversary in the football field, you’re actually chanting against the police, your adversaries in the government and elsewhere. And from the start because these neo-liberal decrees, it hit hard everyone. I’m talking here everyone like middle class and below. And most of those students, they came from those backgrounds. Remember that the industrialization that Nasser embarked on during his reign, it expanded not just the Egyptian working class but it also expanded the Egyptian student community. So yes, the students and the workers they fraternized from the start of events.
Matt: As can be imagined, the media response to the uprising was unsurprisingly negative, blaming communists both in Egypt and abroad for the revolt.
Hossam: When the 1977 events happened, so the media went ballistic. Sadat went ballistic. He started accusing the communists of orchestrating those events. The media dubbed it as conspiracy run by communists, who are puppets for the Libyans, who are puppets for the Soviets, who are puppets for every single thing your country can imagine on the face of this earth, but they can’t be true Egyptians. Because true Egyptians can never rebel against their own beloved leader and destroy their own country like what they did. If you go back to the newspapers at the time and you check the headlines, it would be all in red. And it would be like accusing the communists of setting Egypt on fire. And actually when I talk to veteran communists at the time, they would tell you that the government gave us so much credit for the events that we wish if we were the ones that instigated it and led it.
For example, a veteran communist I know, he told me that he was asleep at his house and he woke up, when the protesters were in the streets like chanting. I mean he woke up from sleep, not knowing what was happening, few minutes later, he got detained. Other communist leaders who were for example, at the time they were conscripted in the army, so they could not have taken part in the protests. Others were like, “Oh my God, what’s happening.” You know, they have been calling for a revolution for a very long time and when it finally happened, they were like taken by surprise and they were totally unprepared.
Because going back again to the problems of Stalinism in Egypt, while Stalinists under Nasser and before Nasser, who were always putting the national question, and let’s postpone talking about socialism until we get our liberation from the Brits. Let’s postpone talking about working class action. It’s time now to build Egypt with the help of Nasser and blah, blah, blah.
So there isn’t any communist organization, for example, that raised a slogan “Down with Sadat!” during 1977. That’s like the hilarious thing, you have your own uprising and not a single organization, put forward the slogan, “Down with Sadat!” The ceiling for demands for all of them was scrapping off the new liberal decrees. They failed to grasp the moment.
Matt: While the uprising was successful in forcing Sadat to back down on his neo-liberal reforms, the fact that it didn’t continue to push for wider social or political concessions from the regime (or even to topple the regime itself), meant that the Egyptian state was given space for its counter-attack.
Hossam: The uprising took place on the 18th of January, the 19th of January. By the 19th of January, the police had already been completely smashed in Cairo at least, which is the capital. And Sadat had to U-turn and to back down and to scrap off the new liberal decrees so as to appease the masses. And then he sent in the army, which largely were special forces and the mechanized infantry in order to crush whatever protests were still happening.
So by the third day, the uprising was already losing steam until it was completely crushed after three days. And this was followed of course with a state onslaught. When uprisings fail, you don’t go back to square one, you actually face much, much, much worse situations. So the government, Sadat decreed several laws that stifled dissent. He decreed a law in 1979 that basically did away with the independence of the student unions.
He purged the civil service from any leftist elements and he threw himself more and more within the camp of the U.S. and the Arab Gulf countries seeking their financial support in order to try to come out of the crisis that he’s in. He increased his anticommunist propaganda to a great extent. And moreover, you cannot really separate his obsession with trying to reach a settlement with Israel. From all of this at the end of the day, it was his infamous trip to Israel. And he came within the same year as the uprising. It was after the uprising because he was desperate, he needs help from anyone at the end of the day.
Matt: The infamous trip to Israel which Hossam mentions is Sadat’s official visit to Israel in November 1977, the first of its kind by any Arab leader and one which was deeply unpopular throughout the Arab world. In fact, it would also be one of the factors motivating his assassination by members of Islamic Jihad four years later.
Back in 1977, however, the inability of the Bread Intifada to push beyond simply repealing the unpopular neoliberal decrees signalled the end of a high watermark in Egyptian radical politics.
Hossam: So more or less this signaled not just the end of the uprising, it also signaled the end of that leftist wave. The history of the left in Egypt is divided into waves: so, the first wave, usually we get referred to it from 1918 to 1924. The second wave, which was the strongest communist wave we had in Egypt was from the late 1930s all the way to 1964, when our genius communist leaders went and they dissolved their own party to join Nasser. And then the third wave was from 1968 and historians usually would refer or would mark its end by the collapse of the Soviet union in the 1990, which is true. But in effect, it was clinically dead after 1977, because you had your chance for a revolution and you failed. And the Egyptian people are not stupid. They are not going to follow the leftists if the leftists are not delivering. So they followed you for an entire decade and you did not deliver.
So you cannot also separate the rise of Islamism later, you cannot separate it from the failure of the left. There isn’t something intrinsically religious about Middle Eastern people. That’s very racist and Orientalist way to think of. That same Egyptian people for two decades, they gave their support for secular forces, which failed them at every single event.
They supported the Arab nationalists, and they got us defeated in 1967. They supported the Communists and they did absolutely nothing except trying to opportunistically further themselves and self-promote and do self-promotion with elements of the regime. And when it was an uprising time in 1977, they did not do anything, they failed.
So of course people had to start looking for other alternatives. So, they gave that support for the Islamists for the next two decades. So this is really the tragic end of 1977 and the third communist wave in Egypt. But at the same time as socialists, we understand that, we are part of a long tradition. We are part of a long tradition of victories and defeats, and we have to learn our own history quite well and come up with lessons learned from it because revolutions are inevitable. The victory of the revolutions are not inevitable. Revolutions, they can either be victorious or they can get defeated. But with the nature of capitalism, capitalism is bound to always get into cyclical economic crises. And when these economic crises happen, the regimes and the ruling classes, they start attacking the social gains of the exploited classes in society. And this is bound to trigger forms of resistance that may differ from one country to the other or from one epoch to the other. Now, will these resistance movements manage to deliver, this is not inevitable. If we are organized well enough before these revolutions breakout, we will be able to help and be part of that event and to be a force that at least pushes it forward, and not backward like what the Stalinists in Egypt did.
Matt: Though lasting only a few days, the 1977 Uprising marked the high point of Egypt’s post-1968 struggles. As Hossam points out, however, those struggles were inseparable from the broader post-1968 rebellions, both within the region and globally.
Hossam: The revolt was crushed after two days, and roughly more than 70 people were killed, hundreds who were injured. But again, was this a revolt happening out of the blue? No, it was preceded by an entire decade of struggles. Did that uprising happen within a regional and global vacuum? No. If you look at the rest of the region at the time, which is also very reminiscent of what happened later, in the Arab Spring, Tunisia had a two-day workers’ national uprising in January 1978. Iran had its revolution in 1978-79.
In the rest of the region, there were all protests and social upheavals that were happening around the same time. And in my humble view, you cannot separate the Egyptian 1977 from those regional uprisings, and you cannot separate them from the defeat of the Americans in Vietnam in 1975, from the Portuguese revolution in 1974, from the collapse of fascism in Spain in 1975, from what was happening in the rest of the world.
The entire world was already on fire from 1968, all the way till the late ’70s. Workers and students from 1968, all the way to 1977, were going on their mass strikes, and dissent was brewing. This was happening everywhere.
Matt: That’s the end of our double episode on the 1977 ‘Bread Intifada’. We also have a bonus episode where Hossam talks about the attitudes of Islamist groups and religious authorities to the uprising, as well as more detail on the repression faced by the Egyptian labour movement during the Nasser years. So if you want to listen to this, plus get various discounts on books and merch, then join us on patreon.com/workingclasshistory. And obviously, if you can’t spare any money then you can help spread Working Class History by sharing our work and giving us a five-star review on your favourite podcast apps.
If you want to learn more about the ‘Bread Intifada’ and post-1968 radical politics in Egypt, then you should check out Hossam’s Master’s thesis; see the link in the show notes. You’ll also find links to his website and his entire photography archive from 2003 to the present where all his photos are available under Creative Commons. And, if you want to support his work, you can leave him a tip via his PayPal.
The theme music for this episode is ‘Build Your Palaces’ by the radical Egyptian songwriter, Sheikh Imam. Links to stream and download in the show notes.
And, finally, thanks to all our patrons for making this show possible and a special thank you to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia and Stone Lawson. We wouldn’t be able to make these shows without the support that all of you give us.
Anyway, that’s all we’ve got time for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.