Forty years have passed since January 1977. On the 17th of that month, a World Bank and IMF-mandated removal of subsidies on foodstuffs like bread, sugar and rice was abruptly announced. Millions took to the streets to protest. On the afternoon of January 19 the new policy was suspended, and on January 20 it was canceled, but by then 79 protesters were reported to have died, 556 were injured and around 1250 arrested.
Arguably the peak of class conflict in Egypt’s modern history, the protests, like many events in our history, have not been properly historicized or documented, leaving us lacking in knowledge of their political and social contexts. I found only seven Egyptian films that have touched on the riots, some only in passing, with the first made almost a decade later.
The awakening of the bourgeoisie
The film that most comprehensively reflects on the uprising is Mohamed al-Naggar’s Al-Hagama (The Burglar, 1992), written by Osama Anwar Okasha. A woman (Laila Elwy) takes advantage of Richard Nixon’s 1974 visit to Cairo to stage a robbery, gets caught and sentenced. But before the end of her jail term, police take her to a student protest on January 19, 1977, to bolster arguments that the uprising was staged by thieves and troublemakers.
With a soundtrack of songs by Shiekh Imam, The Burglar contains societal elements often depicted in Egyptian cinema of the 1970s, like luxurious consumption, the nouveau riche and real-estate tycoons, but it also points to prison conditions, increasing class awareness, intimate relations between the state and businessmen, the fat cats’ fear of the masses’ fury and the idea that the “big guy” might have to flee the country.
In reality, Anwar Sadat had to cut his winter vacation short in Aswan and return to Cairo to restore order. As The Burglar follows the rise of contractors and import-export businessmen, we see conversations expressing fear that the protests are damaging profits. A burglar turned businessman comments angrily, “Those who can’t eat a piece of the cake now may now never be able to.”
These men also discuss how their boutiques are being raided, and it’s true that any sign of being upper class in the streets during the riots was dangerous. Akher Sa’aa magazine mentions in its February 19, 1977 issue that Fouad al-Mohandes, a popular comedian, was attacked in his new expensive car. Mohandes was one of the people who called the protests a thieves’ uprising.
The Burglar openly suggests that the police pushed convicts into the protests and forged evidence to persuade the public that it was indeed a thieves’ uprising. This accusation was spread by state media and popular magazines.
The “thieves’ uprising” and Egypt’s Tony Montana
Just as during the January 25 revolution of 2011, the threat of looting was used to turn public opinion against protesters. State media pushed the narrative of the lumpenproletariat looting casinos and private property, in an attempt to undermine their political agency and suggest oversimplified class struggle. Yet administrative buildings, ministries, governors’ houses, police stations, headquarters of the ruling party, the Parliament and public transport were targeted by rioters as well as state-affiliated outlets selling subsidized products.
That didn’t stop Sadat from asserting that the protests were a plot fueled by political opponents taking advantage of the misfortunes of the poor. On June 18, 1977, he gave a speech to Public Transportation Authority workers where he preached the inevitability of sabotage: “This is not a popular uprising. This is a thieves’ uprising,” he declared. “They are among you. Discard these elements.”
Tarek al-Arian’s Al-Embrator (The Emperor, 1990) is a silly yet interesting copy-and-paste version of Scarface (1983). But instead of footage of Cuban refugees arriving in the US, the opening sequences show the 1977 riots and newspapers headlines claiming that the protests were infiltrated by saboteurs. As in The Burglar, the main characters of The Emperor are interrogated, with police pushing Zeinhom (Ahmed Zaki) to confess that he was a looting a nightclub’s safe. When he refuses, he is detained as a political prisoner, and the plot of Scarface ensues.
Before and after the uprising, Sadat defended his open-door policy, a step he had high hopes for after the 1973 war. The “prosperity” it brought about was much discussed by the media, and Sadat declared several times that wealth was guaranteed for every citizen. The policy opened up markets, welcomed private investment, attracted capital from Asia and the West, and included a slight withdrawal of the state from welfare provision. So in fact it made the rich richer and the poor poorer.
The only film that has presented Sadat’s point of view of the protests, neutrally basing itself on his autobiography, is Mohamed Khan’s three-hour biopic Ayyam al–Sadat (Days of Sadat, 2001). In it, Sadat (also Ahmed Zaki) envisions that raising prices by a couple of piasters will be a smooth process. He dismisses the opposition, especially students, as childish and unworthy. His fatherly attitude continues during the riots. “This is not the nature of the Egyptian citizen,” he tells his wife Jihane (Mervat Amin), as they sit in the garden of their villa.
The experience of the underprivileged under the open-door policy comes up in Daoud Abdel Sayed Kit Kat (1991), an adaptation of Ibrahim Aslan’s novel Malek al-Hazin (The Heron, 1983). But the film, arguably Abdel Sayed’s masterpiece, ignores the context of the novel, which takes place on the night of January 18 and 19, 1977, as the narrator sees how the downtrodden residents of Imbaba do not even pause for a moment to celebrate. Barely mentioning the riots or politics directly, Abdel Sayed’s comedy centers attention on a blind unemployed man (Mahmoud Abdel Aziz), his poverty and human struggle, while mentioning severe price hikes, opportunities in the Gulf and real-estate tycoons transforming old houses into posh apartment buildings.
Aslan stated during a 2003 interview that films are restricted in ways novels are not. “So my encounter with cinema has to be unbiased,” he said, adding that he approved Daoud’s script, which turned a secondary character into protagonist for “cinematic and censorship reasons.”
Communists and conscripts
The year 1977 was the peak of Sadat’s antagonism toward the (then much stronger) leftist movement, following the 1976 elections. The state carried out dawn raids and gave Islamists more of a platform to practice politics in universities and civil society to counter the left. A critical element of the riots was the force that physically confronted protesters: The Central Security Forces, made up of often semi-illiterate, underprivileged young men of strong physique funneled to the Ministry of Interior to do their military service in the police, were deployed in huge numbers and equipped with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.
Former Interior Minister Nabawi Ismail wrote in his 1991 memoir that almost all the country’s forces were deployed on the streets, to the extent that by January 19 most were exhausted and couldn’t continue to fight the huge numbers of protesters who were beginning to turn to violence. Sadat ordered the deployment of the army, and squads of military police, special forces and infantry roamed the country to quell the dissent.
“My brother, the soldier / Your people are hungry and suffering”
Atef al-Tayeb’s Al-Barii (The Innocent, 1986) is not about the uprising, but it reflects on conditions inside Sadat’s detention centers and brutality against students, communists and writers. It’s one of the few prison films where we only see leftists, and no Islamists, being tortured. The Innocent discusses the two important sides in the uprising: the arrests of leftists and the rise of the conscripts. Tayeb’s masterpiece describes how Central Security Forces conscripts are chosen, tamed, trained and put face-to-face with the masses.
According to several protesters, including Ahmad Bahaa Eddin Shabaan in his book 48 Hours That Shook Egypt (2009), the chant “My brother, the soldier / Your people are hungry and suffering,” was used to try to win the soldiers’ sympathy. Tayeb’s film also examines the idea that a conscript can move from brainwashed to consciousness of his oppression.
The arbitrary arrests of 1977 are also discussed in Essam al-Shamaa’s Al-Fagoumi (2011), a biopic of colloquial Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, whose work was informed by the riots. Released months after the 2011 revolution, it has an optimistic, direct and theatrical approach to the struggles of Negm and his lifelong collaborator Shiekh Imam. It includes context such as tensions between people over the prices of essential goods. The people in Negm’s neighborhood get into a fight and looting starts, but a wise old man appears out of nowhere to shout that they must direct their anger at the government. The film then cuts to show the archival footage of the riots.
Al-Fagoumi highlights the Islamists’ apathy towards the bread riots, arguing that the elevated social status Sadat gave them meant they didn’t need to show anger over the price hikes. In the film, a once secular family, who had joined in medical corps during the 1967 war, has transformed into two veiled women controlled by two bearded capitalist men, who stop their relatives warning Negm that police are coming to arrest him.
Al-Fagoumi also puts the riots in the context of the student movement’s long-term resistance in response to injustices such as the Palestinian cause and Sadat’s foreign policy, as well as internal social affairs.
What would an important man do?
When the uprising ended, there was a violent backlash by the state, including a campaign of arrests of secular activists and politicians. The big case, number 1844, saw 176 defendants appear before the State Security Court headed by Judge Hakim Saleb. Despite being arrested during or shortly after the riots, the defendants were charged with plotting against the state since 1973.
The prosecution argued that around 80 of them established underground groups, primarily the Egyptian Communist Party, to overthrow the government and achieve “communist rule by force,” while capitalizing on the uprising. Charges leveled at others varied from possessing flyers or posters belonging to the party, leading protests or joining illegal groups. The trial took two years and on April 19, 1980, Saleb’s historic verdict acquitted the majority of the defendants. The verdict, which was published as a book by the senior Tagammu Party member Hussein Abdel Raziq in 1984, said thousands were arrested during the two days and quickly released due to lack of evidence, that it would have been impossible to mobilize the masses and plan a popular revolution in such a short time, and that most interrogations the prosecution based its accusations on were made outside the prosecution’s premises, in Qalaa Prison or the State Security headquarters, making suspects feel unsafe during questioning. The verdict was celebrated as a victory for the left, but by that time the only political fight the state met with was that of their previous allies, the Islamists.
In Mohamed Khan’s Zawgat Ragol Mohem (An Important Man’s Wife, 1987) the 1977 demonstrations highlight the clash between police officer Hesham (Ahmed Zaki) and his wife Mona (Mirvat Amin). The uprising is the last scream of the wife’s romantic generation, symbolized by Nasserism and the songs of Abdel Halim Hafiz, against the opportunistic, repressive husband, symbolized by Sadat’s policy and the police. Hesham is one of the state security officers responsible for the controversial arbitrary arrests of 1977. In one scene, he is questioned by a lower ranking officer about the validity of the arrests, and how it will weaken the charges in court. Hesham, whose narcissism admits no mistake, ignores the officer.
The nadir of the couple’s struggle takes place when the court issued the 1980 verdict, which is used to incredible effect in the film. (To understand Khan’s unique approach to handling the events, read the 10th paragraph in Andeel’s eulogy.)
For the Egyptian left, the 1970s, with all its radical societal changes, was a crucial epoch with 1977 marking its peak. Since then, the movement has refrained from reflecting its narrative of the riots through popular culture — apart from some of the above-mentioned films — leaving its heritage to be mocked and dismantled by films written by scriptwriters like Youssef Maaty, where leftists are drunk grumpy individuals reciting political rhetoric while sitting unemployed in downtown Cairo bars.
Likewise, six years later the 2011 revolution is left uncelebrated in the media and popular culture. Currently counter-revolutionaries call the uprising “25 Khasair” (25 losses) instead of “25 Yanayir” (25 January). It will be interesting, after 40 years, to see what terminology popular media will use to describe what happened in January 2011.