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An interview: Remembering Shahenda Maklad (1938-2016)
 
 
شاهندة مقلد في احتجاجات عام 2012 - Courtesy: Zeinab Mohamed, Twitter
 

On April 30, 1966, Salah Hussein was assassinated by members of a feudalist family in Kamshish, a village located in Monufiya governorate in the heart of the Nile Delta.

An educated son of the village, he engaged in leftist politics and in nationalist anti-colonial struggles pre-1952. He later switched the focus of his activity to a family of landlords that had long subjected the village to a rule of terror and oppression, in the midst of which, he was shot dead.

He was survived by his widow Shahenda Maklad, who was barely 27 when he was killed. Maklad became a local and national leader, defending the rights of farmers and taking up many grassroots causes. She is the founder of the independent Peasants Union, and under her helm, Kamshish became a symbol of struggle against oppression, and also a source of guidance and inspiration for other villages.

On June 3, 2016, Maklad passed away after a battle with cancer.

Remembering her, Mada Masr republishes an excerpt of an extensive interview conducted with her by Yasmine Moataz, a social anthropologist who just completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge, and Reem Saad, associate professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo. A longer version of the interview, conducted in 2009, first appeared in the Review of African Political Economy in 2011.

Reem Saad: Tell us the story of Kamshish and its significance in the farmers’ struggle in Egypt?

Shaneda Maklad: On April 30, 1966, martyr Salah Hussein was assassinated by the feudalists. His funeral was transformed into a demonstration that called for a trial against feudalists. In the years to follow, April 30 became a day of remembrance and commemoration, on which Kamshish farmers and activists meet and discuss pertinent farmers issues in Egypt, as well as drafting an agenda for action.

RS: Who is Salah Hussein?

SM: Salah Hussein was my husband. We got married in 1957. He was the local leader for farmers struggle in Kamshish, and led them through various battles against feudalism. Historically, Kamshish had small land ownerships, and consisted of small and medium farmers households. It was relatively recently that Kamshish had large ownerships and witnessed the emergence of feudalism. One of Kamshish’s men betrayed the Orabi revolution in the late 19th century, which increased his social mobility, from being a small farmer to a large landlord, seizing land and forcing people to give their land away, including members of his own family. This was when the farmers’ struggle and resistance started to emerge in Kamshish.

In 1951, martyr Salah Hussein, my husband, and one of the village sons, joined the armed resistance against the British in the Suez Canal area. Together with his fellows, Salah decided to fight feudalism in Kamshish, with the belief that the first step to liberating Palestine was to liberate Egypt and to get rid of feudalism first. Armed resistance was common at the time. So, the first step was to form an armed resistance group from the village, and for this, they needed to recruit people. Salah and his fellows started to make small tests, through which they could identify potential fellows for their resistance plan. The first thing they did was to ask school pupils to take off the hats imposed on them by the feudalists, and to pray side-by-side with them. It was through these small rebellious acts that Salah and his fellows were able to form a small group of activists, who were commonly called “Al-talaba” (the students) in the village.

However, as the revolution took place in 1952, the idea of armed resistance became irrelevant. Yet the political cause has remained to date.

Right before the issuance of the 1952 agricultural reform law, Salah started to use mosques, wedding ceremonies and funerals as venues for calling people to claim their rights, their land, to refuse obedience, and to end existing inequalities. New forms of passive resistance emerged. Kamshish farmers started to respond to Salah by disobeying the feudalists. This was followed by a series of small battles. One of the things they did, for example, was to sabotage a canal route dug by the feudalists in the middle of their lands to ensure that his land was well-irrigated. The feudalists knew, so they shot at the farmers, and injured 17 farmers, and of course, the canal route remained in the middle of the lands.

After this event, the feudalists remained in power, and nothing changed, so Kamshish people felt that the revolution did not help them in any way. Salah and his fellows knew they had to introduce the taste of victory among Kamshish people, so they decided to break a dam built by the feudalists to ensure that his land was irrigated before Kamshish farmers. They went armed and broke the dam, and when the feudalists came to check what was going on, they pointed their weapons at him, and he got scared and left. This incident stimulated resistance among Kamshish people.

To counter the farmers resistance, the feudalists recruited outlaws to threaten the farmers; they were armed and used to stand in the middle of the route to control Kamshish’s streets and to threaten its people.

One day, the people decided to get rid of these outlaws, so they left them shooting until they ran out of bullets, and then they attacked them, all the village attacked them, and killed all four of them. That was in 1953. As a result, a curfew was imposed on the village, and [police] limited Salah’s residence to Alexandria.

Then, a series of emerging battles began and it was all about land. The 1952 first agrarian reform law was not implemented in Kamshish because the feudalists managed to evade the expropriation of their land. [One of them], the Fekky [family], had seized people’s lands. However, on paper, lands were registered under the name of small farmers, so they couldn’t claim for lands they already had on paper.

In 1958, I ran for a seat in the local council, and I won. So I and other local leaders in the village got engaged with the committee to take the seized lands back. We conducted field visits to verify land ownership. This was a big battle, as they (the Fekkis) were giving bribes and we were sending telegraphs to Gamal Abdel Nasser. This battle continued from 1958 to 1962. The lands were put under sequestration, and then distribution to 199 beneficiaries.

We followed our own rules in land distribution and not the committee’s; we established a local committee whose members were knowledgeable of the real conditions, like who actually works on the land, who has six children and who doesn’t, so on and so forth. Then we moved to another discussion that dealt with the question of access to land and poverty. The question was: “Did we solve the problem of poverty by accessing the land?” The answer was no. So we thought of developing the movement by thinking of investing in new crops, and it was then that the idea of establishing a cooperative began, meaning cultivating the land together.

People started to join the cooperative, and a developed political mobilization movement emerged in the village. We wanted to transform the feudalists’ houses and lands into service centers for the village, and this was a step further in the movement. So they (the Fekkis) found no way out of this but to kill Salah. They made several attempts, and killed him on April 30, 1966. I often say that before Salah’s death, our enemies were the Kamshish feudalists, and after Salah’s death, our enemies became all the feudalists who escaped from the agrarian reform.

We held the first commemoration for Salah on April 30, 1968. Everybody came to Kamshish, members of all social, intellectual and political forces in Egypt. The Kamshish cause started to attract media attention. It became a focal point for activists from all over Egypt. We would hand write the invitations, and send them from various post offices across the governorates. We did not send all the invitations from one place for fear they would be easily tracked by the government.

I received numerous invitations to speak in different governorates so that the circles of Kamshish supporters become larger, to the extent that the security officers wanted to keep me away from Kamshish.

RS: It seems to me that Kamshish has had an impact on the political movement in Egypt, could you elaborate on that?

SM: This annual event has had a great impact on the student’s movement in Egypt for example. A number of Kamshish leaders became leaders in the student movements. Slogans for the Egyptian peasants’ movement emerged in Kamshish.

RS: Can you now tell us about peasant protest movements during the rule of President Anwar al-Sadat?

SM: Let me tell you a story first. When Egypt was defeated in the 1967 war, the reactionary forces blamed socialism for this. In 1968, and in response to such pressures, Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the lifting of sequestration, which had been placed on the properties of some of the former feudalists. There was a 40-feddan plot of land in Kamshish that belonged to a member of the feudalists family — the Fekky. This plot was placed under sequestration and distributed to 40 previously landless peasants. The land was neglected and barren, but they worked hard until it became productive again. At the time they got the land they were penniless. We helped them by setting up a cooperative and we raised money to buy an irrigation pump. When the land started producing, they started repaying the cost of the pump. Just as the land started being productive and their standard of living started improving, they discovered that they were going to be evicted. It was then that we entered into a battle and we said that no one has the right to trespass on their gains. But we wanted this to be their decision not ours.

We first complained to the members of the Socialist Union, but they did nothing, then we decided to go to Cairo and we solicited the help of lawyers. In short, we exhausted all legitimate and peaceful avenues to no avail. A court order ruled that the peasants would be evicted. A force came to the village to execute the order. They first went to a peasant called Sayed and asked him to sign the eviction order. He said to them, “You want me to leave the land you sons of dogs?” and raised his axe to hit them and they ran away. It was then that the decision was taken to “stand on the land.”

We joined the 40 tenants and their families and stood on the land on the day the force was coming to execute the evictions. We were about 200 people. It was like a battle ground. The only way to get to the land was through a narrow alley inside the village. When the forces tried to go through the alley, the women threw dirty water at them, then they started screaming, then pelted them with rocks. There were armed men, but they were hiding, and only as a last resort. Rumors started spreading that we were heavily armed. The officer in charge of the force contacted the minister of interior and told him, if you want me to storm the village you will have to send me reinforcements. At this point, the minister asked him to retreat with his forces. We remained on the land for 15 days. At the same time we were conducting a media campaign. It was due to these events that Nasser ordered that no peasant would be evicted because of lifting sequestration.

The peasants became regular tenants and they were not evicted. This decree benefited peasants on sequestered land all over the country, and this was one example of how the struggle of the people of Kamshish had a positive influence on Egypt’s peasants.

RS: Tell me now about the time when the government repealed socialist measures and switched policies.

SM: Ever since 1968, there were attempts to repeal the tenancy guarantees that were part of Agrarian Reform Law, but we resisted and these attempts were halted. When Sadat came to power in 1970, this issue re-emerged. At that time I was heading the peasants’ bureau in the Tagammu Party, and this was a crucial issue that we continued to fight against. Tenancy guarantees were much more important than the redistribution part of the agrarian reform, because it touched upon the lives of many more people. We continued to resist, but the new law was finally issued in 1992 and it was a real catastrophe. It was a main issue we dealt with since we declared the Peasants Union.

RS: When was that?

SM: On April 30, 1983, in Kamshish. Before that I went to villages all over Egypt, together with my colleagues, and we introduced the idea and discussed it with villagers from everywhere. The union started defending the rights of tenants. We also dealt with other problems, such as resisting the abolishing and replacing of agricultural cooperatives with village banks.

RS: Tell us about the new development that the 2005 Committee for Defending Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries came in response to.

SM: After the tenancy law was passed and they got rid of the tenants, we knew that they were now set on getting rid of all small farmers. When they lifted subsidies, abolished facilities for marketing and abolished all forms of cooperatives, all these policies were directed against small farmers. Also, after 1997, agrarian reform beneficiaries were particularly targeted. A wave started in the late 1990s and continues until now, whereby the old owners are using their power to recapture the land from the beneficiaries, even though the latter paid all dues. But there are now numerous and increasing cases of old owners colluding with local officials to forge papers and issue eviction orders and, in complicity with local police forces, they succeeded in getting the farmers off the land. In some places there was resistance, but in others the peasants were helpless and the land was taken away.

RS: Now let’s move to April 30 this year [2009], when the title of the meeting was “Peasants and Change. Tell us what you think is happening at this present stage.

SM: All things are related. It is not possible that you fix one aspect and leave the rest. You cannot say you want a pro-peasant agrarian policy when you do not have proper industrialization, political rights or rights of association. That is why we still say we need change. Change is what will allow social forces to defend their rights. The gains that people obtained in the Nasserist era were received as gifts from Nasser: He would give workers their rights, he would give peasants their rights, he would distribute the land. People lived that era only as recipients. That is why when the land was being taken away from them they were incredulous. They were saying, they are the ones who gave us the land, why are they taking it from us now? I think that when this happened, peasants realized that they were the ones who had to defend themselves. This realization is now clear in the protest movements that are taking place everywhere. I do not see these movements expressing narrow economic demands, I’ve seen men and women workers speaking with greater political awareness than most political leaders. This is what’s new now; people now realize that they are the ones who will have to defend themselves and they do this with a realization that all things are interrelated.

RS: How do you see the difference between working with peasants and working with intellectuals?

SM: There is a big difference. Intellectuals fight with each other a lot, but peasants do not have this disease. Peasants may, at times, feel discouraged or are too cautious. But at the time of the battle I have always found them next to me. And by the way, intellectuals are at their best when they cooperate with peasants. I have never seen any group as loyal, sincere, patient and believing in their cause as peasants. For 44 years, a convention is being held in the memory of Salah. This has not been done even for Nasser. I am now 72 and don’t know if this will continue after I die. But the fact that it is continuing, and with this momentum, must tell us something.

RS: How many times were you in prison?

SM: Three times, in 1975, 1979 and 1981, and I went into hiding for a year. This was all during the time of Sadat and it was all because of opposition to his policies. The last time I was arrested I was accused of being the women’s officer of the Egyptian Communist Party. I laughed at the prosecutor and told him, “Where are you getting these accusations from? When have I ever had anything to do with women’s activities?”

RS: But you do now. Has there been a change in the way you think about this?

SM: My first activity with women was when my colleagues insisted that I join a women’s NGO that was founded in the 1980s. I was embarrassed and agreed to join and I am still with them. Now I am heading “Women for Change,” and I think it is a very good group and is doing useful things.

You are asking if my position changed on working on women’s issues. I don’t know. In general I could never differentiate between political activity and women’s activity. I do not see women in isolation. And even all my women-related activities are political. I cannot imagine a free woman in a society that is not free. Yes, there are certain rights that women specifically are deprived of, but she does not struggle for them alone; she does so alongside men. In fact I never felt oppressed by any man, neither my father, nor my husband and my brothers, or with anyone. It did not happen to me so maybe I cannot feel it.

N.B: The original interview can be found here

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Yasmine M. Ahmed