MERIP notes with deep sadness the passing of Ahmed Abdalla Rozza on June 6, 2006, at age 56. A former Egyptian student leader, Abdalla was an independent scholar and activist who wrote frequently on Egyptian politics and sociology, authoring several articles for this magazine in the 1990s. He was a tireless advocate for Egypt’s lower classes, a widely respected analyst and a good friend to many progressive scholars of Egypt in the US, Europe and Japan.
Born in Cairo’s working-class ‘Ayn al-Sira district in 1950, Abdalla was part of the large cohort of Egyptian lower- and middle-class youth who entered Egypt’s universities with the expansion of higher education under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime. As he later detailed, this generation became disillusioned with “the revolution” and the stagnation of political life in Egypt after the 1967 defeat. Student uprisings in 1972–1973 pushed for a more militant Egyptian stance against Israel — then occupying the Sinai — as well as for the realization of the Sadat regime’s unfulfilled promises to end political repression. Abdalla, studying at Cairo University at the time, was elected president of the Higher National Committee of Cairo University Students, an independent, secular group. The committee played a key role in demonstrations and sit-ins, at one point mobilizing 20,000 students to occupy Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. President Anwar al-Sadat himself acknowledged Abdalla’s leadership, declaring famously in February 1972 that he “would not sit down [to negotiate] with Rozza.”
Abdalla was arrested several times, the first when the state security police stormed Cairo University to break up a sit-in in Nasser Hall. This was the first security raid on the campus in its history. He was imprisoned in the spring and summer of 1973, completing his undergraduate degree, in political science, from his jail cell.
Sadat ordered Abdalla’s release, along with the other student detainees, in the lead-up to the October 1973 war. The following year, Abdalla left Egypt to pursue a graduate degree at Cambridge University, working his way through with a succession of menial jobs. His doctoral dissertation on the Egyptian student movement became his first book, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt (1995). Despite his academic successes, he was unable to obtain a teaching position at an Egyptian university when he returned in 1984, having been blacklisted because of his earlier activism. He supported himself modestly through freelance journalism and lecturing abroad.
Following his return to Cairo, Abdalla participated regularly in academic conferences and joint intellectual endeavors. Among the books he published in Arabic are two edited volumes, The Army and Democracy in Egypt (1990) and The Concerns of Egypt and the Crisis of Youth Consciousness (1994), both with contributions from other prominent scholars of his generation. His singly authored works include The Workers of Egypt and the Issues of the Age (2002) and The Question of Generations: The Challenge of Egyptian Youth Over Two Centuries, released just last year.
Abdalla was also active politically, supporting the work of various human and workers’ rights NGOs, and political reform groups. He believed that progressives should take advantage of the limited political opening under President Husni Mubarak, but remained fiercely independent of the various recognized opposition parties, which he deemed to be authoritarian in conduct as well as divorced from the masses. When Egypt’s courts allowed for individually contested seats in the fall 1990 parliamentary elections, he planned to campaign, but withdrew when the climate in Cairo turned more repressive as Egyptian troops joined the multinational forces challenging Saddam Hussein. (Most opposition forces boycotted these elections.) He did run in Egypt’s most recent elections last year, campaigning in his home neighborhood under the slogan “against the recession, against corruption, against despotism.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, Abdalla lectured and wrote (including in this magazine) without using his formal last name. He resurrected “Rozza” early in this decade, however, to distinguish himself from a prominent Islamist also named Ahmed Abdalla. Egyptian friends say the name’s use in his electoral campaign was also meant to recall his student movement days, when Sadat referred to him as “Rozza.”
Abdalla’s proudest achievement, however, was the center he established in ‘Ayn al-Sira in the mid-1990s, dedicated to working children. The al-Jeel Center for Youth and Social Studies provided children a hot meal and a place to play after work, as well as various classes to make up for the schooling they had to forego. He crusaded for the rights of child laborers, eschewing the blacklisting of establishments that employed children while arguing that the government should provide working children’s services and education. The Center also published a number of studies of working children written and directed by Abdalla and acted as a resource for scholars.
Warm, outgoing and witty, Abdalla was a strong presence on the Egyptian political scene whose absence will be sorely felt. MERIP will host a memorial tribute at the 2006 conference of the Middle East Studies Association.