Monday, 27 January 2020

Taha Sa'ad Uthman (1916-2004) - obituary (2005)

Taha Sa'ad Uthman (1916-2004)
Written By: Anne Alexander
Date: April 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 24: Summer 2005  

Taha Sa’ad Uthman, who died in November 2004, combined the role of trade union activist and historian of the workers’ movement throughout most of his life. A pioneer of Egyptian labour history, he also played a central role in building independent trade unions during the 1940s, as president of the militant textile workers’ union in the Cairo suburb of Shubra al-Khaima.

Born in 1916 near Bani Suwayf, south of Cairo, he had a better-than-average level of education having studied at a vocational secondary school, and was first employed in Shubra al-Khaima as a foreman in Henri Pierre’s textile factory. However, although better paid than the other Egyptian workers, the foremen only earned around an eighth as much as their European co-workers, and this injustice convinced him that “struggle is the only way to win your rights”. He saw the power of strike action when workers backed a strike by foremen demanding equal pay with the Europeans. Uthman was quickly drawn into union activities, becoming president of the newly established textile workers’ union in 1937.

This was a period when the trade unions were beginning to break free of the influence of patrons among the nobility and the main nationalist party, the Wafd. A certain level of education – whether formal or self-taught – was crucial to the new generation’s bid for independence, as it reduced the activists’ dependence on non-workers. Taha Sa’ad Uthman was among many trade unionists who used the written word as an organising tool - founding newspapers, writing agitational leaflets and producing pamphlets – a tactic which also depended on a certain level of education among their audience. The new methods of organising were crucial not only to the growth of the trade union movement, but also to its rapid politicisation. Nationalist and left-wing ideas were deeply embedded in the culture of many of the independent unions and the textile workers in particular played a central role in the mass strikes and protests demanding the evacuation of British troops from Egypt between 1945 and 1952.

Taha Sa’ad Uthman’s first books appeared in 1945. He wrote a life of Fadali Abd-al-Jayyid, another of the textile union leaders who stood for parliament with the union’s backing in 1945. The same year he also published a history of the struggles of the mechanised textile workers of Cairo. Although these two works were only the first of many (according to some accounts he had published as many as 80 books and pamphlets by the end of his life), they encapsulate much of Uthman’s approach to history. Besides the three volumes of his memoirs, the main focus for his writing was biographical, recording the lives of his generation of trade union leaders for the benefit of newer activists. For Uthman, writing history was always about equipping future generations with the lessons of the past, as he explains in the introduction to his short pamphlet about the trade union lawyer Yusuf Darwish. “My intention is not to glorify Yusuf Darwish, but I hope to prepare the new generation of militants who are ready to work and sacrifice for the sake of the Egyptian toilers and the Egyptian working class, and for the sake of the future goal which will achieve the abolition of the exploitation of man by man.”

For Uthman, the authenticity of workers’ experience is crucial to writing labour history. Joel Beinin, co-author of Workers on the Nile, one of the key texts in English on Egyptian labour history, recalls Uthman speaking at a conference in Cairo in 1987. Uthman complained that well-meaning intellectuals who wrote about the workers’ movement “missed the spirit of life and the details that might appear insignificant but whose influence is great on the course of events and their outcome and the fighting spirit of the working class”. A genuine history of the Egyptian working class movement could only be written primarily by giving voice to those who actually took part in events. It is for this contribution that Uthman’s work deserves to be celebrated.

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