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Working on the ground

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Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran

During the seventies, our generation fought some glorious battles under the slogan “Absolute democracy for all, absolute dedication for the nation”. Those battles occurred when we were in college. They started with a wave of student and worker protests against what was known at the time as “aviation verdicts” which resulted in the innocence of a great number of military officers in the cases concerned with the 1967 defeat. The protests were also in objection to what the protesters considered a failed system unable to achieve victory.  Taymour Al-Malawany, the leader of the students’ protests at Alexandria University in 1968, shouted: “Why do you attack the saddle and leave the donkey?” and Dr.EsmatZein Al-Deen a professor at the university shouted “Down with Abdel Nasser”.  This was the beginning of a new stage of the fight against the regime and all of its sectors.

This wave of resistance continued until 1977, and it was successful in achieving many goals. According to certain analysis, it was what pushed Al-Sadat to initiate the October War and to postpone any concessions made to achieve peace with Israel. The protests were also successful when they reached their peak in January 1977 in reigning in the wildness of the economic openness (infitah) policy and prevented the execution of the IMF recommendations at the time. Lastly, the seventies generation succeeded in achieving some sort of democracy  that enabled some kind of free speech and the development of a number of political groups and movements.

The seventies protest wave was mostly known for its investment in the “national case” concerned with demanding the liberation of Sinai. This showed through our generation’s writings which tied together democracy, social justice and the founding of a country that can go through a war. The revolutionary forces disregarded the idea of Al-Sadat initiating a war, and that is why they were confused in 1973. This led to some of its members to criticize political decisions following the military victory. Some even criticized the size of the victory and demanded the continuance of the war to achieve a victory that would enable us to apply all of our conditions. This led to the isolation of the revolutionary forces as most people looked forward to peace with Israel and the resulting stability.

I believe this is when the revolutionary forces decided to start its work on the ground. Since these forces mostly adopted a socialist view, they targeted the working class given that it was the group that would benefit the most from the revolutionaries’ demands.  There was also a focus on student groups. Some believed that the isolation was caused due to the revolutionaries’ focus on the “national case” rather than the country’s social and economic interests.

However, the conflict continued and no one was able to form a connection with the working class possibly due to the continuous blows to the socialist groups by the police since these groups were considered illegal. When the battle between the security apparatus and Islamists began, the socialists and the police formed a truce. The only condition was for the socialist and liberal groups’ work to be contained within their headquarters, which led to the intensification of their isolation. Some of the members transferred their work to the NGO sector since it was legal, safer and could be used as a back door for their political motives. This led to new problems concerned with paid work, foreign funding, and oppression.

Yet, with this new civil society came field work instead of socialist talk about “connecting” with the people, which always took place in hotels. In these fancy hotels, people “on the ground” seemed very distant and the concept of working with them was mysterious. However, these isolated groups were supposed to help the people by educating them about their rights or equipping them with the necessary skills to face life’s burdens. This is why NGOs are divided into human rights organisations and developmental ones. This kind of help is of course different from handing people things such as the distribution of oil and sugar.

So, the socialists’ problem of “connecting with the people” quickly turned into civil society’s problem of “working on the ground”.

During the 25 January revolution, these problems dissipated as people filled the squares ready to connect to any political group. However, the shock came after the first referendum in 19 March 2011 when the Muslim Brotherhood were successful in influencing the vote and achieving a 78%win.  The same happened for the parliamentary and presidential elections. This is what sparked the conversation of returning to the field and working on the ground as people blamed the political parties that were unable to connect with the people.

In the next article, we will delve deeper into the idea of working on the ground and what it means.

About the author

Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party

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