HISTORY / Bob Feldman : A People’s History of Egypt, Part 11, Section 1, 1945-1946

Egyptian students demonstrate on February 21, 2012, to mark anniversary of 1946 student and worker uprising. Photo by Mai Shaheen / Ahram Online.

A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt

Part 11: 1945-1946 Period/Section 1 — Worker and student struggles lead to general strike.

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | October 17, 2013

[With all the dramatic activity in Egypt, Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog “people’s history” series, “The Movement to Democratize Egypt,” could not be more timely. Also see Feldman’s “Hidden History of Texas” series on The Rag Blog.]

A September 1, 1945, report by M. Audsley — the Labor Counselor at the UK Embassy in Egypt — indicated what life for most Egyptian workers was like when the leaders of the Egyptian student movement were calling for the formation of a national committee to push for full Egyptian independence from the UK:

The Egyptian workers live in unhealthy and overcrowded dwellings — they are so overcrowded in many areas that the workers occupy the dwellings in shifts as in a factory; they sleep in the streets and in any odd corner; servants and their families sleep under staircases, in sheds and in gardens or in the more modern buildings which are often not sanitary… Their level of wages is below the subsistence standard… There is no unemployment insurance, no provision for old age and similar state benefits…

Demanding full independence from the UK and the immediate evacuation of all British military forces from Egypt, the Egyptian student movement next called for and organized a massive general strike at a public meeting in Egypt on February 9, 1946, in support of these demands.

Selma Botman described in Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952 what then happened on that date in Egypt’s history:

On February 9 [1946] students called a massive strike. They marched by the thousands…from the university grounds in Giza toward Abdin Palace, chanting: “Evacuation! No negotiation except after evacuation!” When they reached the Abbar Bridge, which they needed to cross to reach the palace, they clashed with the police. The police opened the bridge while students were crossing it, causing the deaths of over 20 students by drowning and 84 serious casualties. In protest against the police’s behavior, demonstrations erupted in parts of Mansura, Zagazig, Aswan, Shabiz al-Kom, Alexandria and Cairo…

Then in Cairo, on February 18, 1946, “40,000 demonstrators came together in Abdeen Square while 15,000 others grouped at the university, where pamphlets were distributed attacking British imperialism,” according to Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa‘at El-Sa’id’s The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988; and “along with these demonstrations, representatives of both the workers and students met and formed the National Committee of Workers and Students [NCWS]….with the aim of leading the struggle against the imperialists and their agents.”

This committee then called for a general strike in Egypt on February 21, 1946, in support of the following three goals:

  1. “to struggle for national independence and to combat the military occupation and economic, political, cultural and colonial domination”;
  2. “to eliminate the local agents of colonialism, i.e., feudalists and big financiers connected with foreign monopolies;” and
  3. “to unite all the anti-colonialist nationalist forces to support mass demonstrations and strikes, and to forge contacts with international anti-colonialist democratic movements.”

The NCWS’s February 21, 1946, demonstration and general strike in Cairo began peacefully. But then the Egyptian “protesters were insulted by the behavior of British military personnel” when “several military cars came through the crowds,” according to Selma Botman’s The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970; and the British troops next “opened fire” on the Egyptian demonstrators, according to Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952.

In response, “demonstrators attacked foreign shops, clubs, and the British military camp” and “at the end of the day, there were 23 dead and 125 wounded,” according to The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970. The dead Egyptian victims were “given martyrs’ funerals” while anti-imperialist nationalist demonstrations “spread to Giza, Shubra al-Khayma, Bab al-Sharqiyya, Misral-Jadrda, Abbasiyya, Helwan, Port Said, Ismailiya, Zagazig, Mansura, Zift, Mahasla al-Kubra and Tanta,” according to the same book.

The Egyptian student committee then decided to make February 25, 1946, “a day of general mourning for those who had been killed” on February 21; and on February 25, “a general strike took place” during which “clashes with the police led to the deaths of 28” more “demonstrators and the injury of 342” more, as well as “two British soldiers” also being killed and four UK soldiers being injured, according to The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970.

Another day of mourning was held in Egypt on March 4, 1946, to commemorate the additional anti-imperialist nationalist martyrs; and on March 4, 1946, “newspapers were not printed, coffee shops, stores, and factories were closed down, and schools and universities remained silent,” while “clashes in Alexandria left 28 more dead and hundreds wounded,” according to Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952.

When the British government announced on March. 8, 1946, “their intention to evacuate the Cairo, Alexandria, and Delta zones” of Egypt “and set up military camps only in the region of the Suez Canal, the NCWS, with the rest of the [Egyptian] left, took this proclamation as their victory over the forces of imperialism,” according to The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970.

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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