Samah Selim: Translator’s Introduction to Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn

Arwa Salih. The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student Movement Generation in Egypt.

Trans. Samah Selim. London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, Forthcoming 2017.

Translator’s Introduction[1]

Arwa Salih was an Egyptian communist who came of political age in the early 1970s; in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the end of the Nasser era, and the beginning of Anwar Al-Sadat’s transitional regime. She belonged to the transformative political moment instigated by the radical student movement of that decade and the political generation known as ‘the generation of the seventies’. She was a member of the central committee of the Marxist-Leninist Egyptian Communist Workers Party, the major Marxist group of the decade, and quickly acquired a reputation amongst her mentors and comrades as a gifted and fiery young cadre. Though she was known amongst her peers as a talented writer, her extant published work is scant for reasons that partly have to do with the nature of the underground political work of the times (she wrote mainly for the ECWP’s paper) and the fact that she was a woman in a world of men. Apart from the present short book, she published an Arabic translation of Tony Cliff’s 1984 Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation. The only other published material available to readers is a short and hastily edited selection of her papers made in 1998, one year after her death. The volume includes an excerpt from her memoirs, a long poem, and a study of the novelist Son’allah Ibrahim’s fiction.[2]

This checkered and truncated writing career haunts Salih’s poignant self-interrogations in The Stillborn. In fact, the entire book (written in 1991 and published with a new introduction in 1996, twenty-five years after the 1971-72 Tahrir Square student demonstrations that rocked the nation) is a kind of haunted house in which Salih explores the question of failure: the failure of the national liberation project, the failure of communism and of her generation’s political movement, and her own personal failure as the subject of a utopian history. Throughout her adult life Salih suffered from severe clinical depression and episodes of schizophrenia. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, she committed suicide in 1996, just a few months before The Stillborn appeared in print.

The spectral nature of Salih’s legacy refracts the broader history of the Egyptian left of her generation. Edited and published documents are few and far between, and scholarly studies of the post-67 student movement quite rare[3]; a state of affairs which is partly due, again, to the underground activities of the movement as a whole and its sectarian character, but also to its representing an unfinished, or ‘stillborn,’ historical project. To this day, it remains a contentious, fragmented and unofficial or secret history; a bricolage of stray documents, oral archive, memoir and occasional essay, not to mention ongoing polemic and personal enmities. Its status as unfinished history is also why it poses a series of urgent and seminal questions to today’s post-2011 moment. Salih’s book -the questions it elicits, the critique it constructs and the history of failure that it proposes- returns to haunt the generation that gathered in the same iconic Liberation Square to make the revolution of 2011.

The book excited much controversy –scandal even- when it was first published. It went out of print soon after Salih’s death, and the press itself closed down. Almost twenty years later, in 2016, it was re-issued by the Egyptian General Book Organization, a Ministry of Culture organ, as part of its popular and cheaply priced ‘family library’ series. The irony of this fact is remarkable, but so is the timing of the book’s republication: three years after yet another grand failure in the history of the Egyptian left which witnessed an unprecedented state massacre of civilians, a massive wave of detentions and arrests, a complete shutdown of public space and discourse and breakdown of the rule of law, an open geopolitical alliance with Israel, and a rush to full integration into the neoliberal market regime of the IMF and World Bank. And yet in spite of this official twenty year disappearance, Salih and her book never went away. Both the woman and her razor-sharp critique of her generation of intellectuals and militants remained a constant, subterranean presence in the political imagination and the recriminations, polemics and debates of those twenty intervening years.


The Stillborn is impossible to classify in terms of form and genre, a fact that Salih herself alludes to in the 1996 introduction. It is not memoir, though experience and memory are at the core of its form and critical project. It is not history, though every sentence, every instance of analysis and critique is imbued with historical knowing. And finally, it is not an essay in political economy or sociology, though one of the main strands of the book is a coherent class and gender-based analysis of the failure of both the national liberation project and the Marxist project in Egypt. It is none of these things and all of these things. Salih’s critics of course used the fact of the book’s wayward and polyphonic modality against her. But the book’s complex and shifting modal form can be read as a rich instantiation of a gendered epistemological project, one in which a biopolitics of experiencing, knowing and feeling become the bedrocks of self-interrogation, social analysis and political critique.

The transformative ten years between 1967 and 1977 form the historical background of Salih’s analysis. The stunning Egyptian defeat in the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was a devastating blow to the ‘revolutionary’ order of the 1952 regime, and to Arab nationalism and the Palestinian national struggle. But it also opened a window for grass-roots popular mobilizations in a political space that had been co-opted and monopolized by the Nasser regime for almost two decades. Student and worker strikes proliferated; there was an explosion of open and impassioned political debate in the press and a creative burst in all kinds of cultural expression. Nasser’s sudden death in 1970 and his replacement by Anwar al-Sadat took place against the background of the continuing occupation of Egyptian lands. In 1971 Sadat’s purge of Communists and Nasserist cadres and officials, and his ‘corrective revolution’ sparked a realignment of the old left and a breakdown of the populist ‘social compact’ of the Nasser era.

The student movement of the 1970s was born in this transitional moment, the movement of a generation who had come of age in 1967, who had no history of accommodation with the regime, and for whom the most urgent issue was the liberation of Sinai and the national struggle against US imperialism. The demonstrations and strikes of 1972-73 were organized around the demand that Egypt go to war to reclaim its sovereign territory, and challenge Israeli –and by extension US- imperial designs in the region. Student strikes and protests through the first months of 1972 galvanized public opinion and mobilized a wider popular movement. In the face of this unrest, Sadat, who had yet to establish a basis for his legitimacy as Nasser’s successor, relied on a strategy of deferral: ‘the state of not-war and not-peace’. The regime stuttered and stalled in the face of the popular challenge to its legitimacy while cracking down ferociously on the universities. Hundreds of student activists were arrested and detained and many were tried and sentenced on trumped up charges.

But the strikes and demonstrations continued unabated throughout 1973 and spilled out of the university campuses into Egypt’s streets, squares and factories. Sadat’s surprise military campaign in October of 1973 was as sudden as it was effective as far as the domestic situation was concerned. The stunningly successful crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian ground forces and their rapid advance to the strategic Sinai passes made Sadat an instant national hero and gave his regime the legitimacy it had lacked. Sadat used his new position to negotiate an abject cease-fire with Israel, consolidate his domestic power, and in a mere few years, break relations with the Soviet Union and take Egypt squarely into the American camp. This process ultimately led to a rapid and unregulated neo-liberalization of the economy (the ‘Open Door’ policy), and to the deeply unpopular 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

The Bread Intifada of January 1977[4] was a major turning point in the regime’s broader assault on the social compact of the Nasser years. Sadat deployed the army to crush the largely spontaneous mass protests that erupted in the wake of the regime’s removal of basic food subsidies in line with World Bank and IMF demands. Scores died and hundreds were injured in the clashes, and the regime hastily conducted mass arrests of protestors and activists, writers and intellectuals across the broad spectrum of the left. Though Salih never explicitly mentions the Bread Intifada in the book, its ghost looms large in her analysis of the communist movement’s historic inability to meaningfully connect with labor and grass roots movements in Egypt.


Egypt’s thriving communist movement reached its apogee in the 1940s at a time when the colonial political system with its fractious power-sharing arrangements between the British, the monarchy and the liberal parties was at a breaking point. The post-WW II order was characterized by mass protests that brought together a broad alliance of trade unions, left-wing nationalist groups, student and peasant organizations and the communist parties against the British and the Palace. The 1952 revolution, with its developing populist and anti-imperialist positions posed a new kind of problem for the communists in particular. On the one hand, here was a self-anointed revolutionary regime that seemed to be taking the country down the path of radical social and economic reform, and offering demonstrable victories against western imperialism. On the other hand, the regime’s syncretic and statist vision of Arab socialism and its class structure were inimical to the most basic Marxist understanding of class struggle and revolutionary mass mobilization.

The new regime however, understood only too well the threat posed by the communist movement to its existence. One of its first actions upon taking power was to violently repress a textile workers strike in the industrial town of Kafr al-Dawwar. Two strike leaders were summarily executed and the rest of the leadership arrested and replaced by regime supporters. The five years between 1959 and 1964 witnessed the roundup and incarceration of hundreds of communists. And yet many of these same communists emerged from their prisons to join hands with the regime that had fiercely attacked them. In 1965, the two main communist parties (HADITU and the ECP) voluntarily agreed to dissolve themselves and join Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union. The regime absorbed these intellectuals and former militants as ‘independent Marxists’ working for the greater good of the revolution and of Arab Socialism (and not incidentally, preserving good relations with the Soviet Union), and they in turn accommodated themselves to a reformist position within the regime’s political and cultural institutions and propaganda organs. They became a neutered Marxist intelligentsia that gave the regime the requisite stamp of left legitimacy without ever securing a stable and effectively independent political or ideological base. Meanwhile, those who had refused the decision to dissolve were left homeless; locked out of state jobs and publication, harassed, detained, imprisoned, and in many cases driven into exile.

This is the melancholy generation of the sixties that Salih returns to again and again in The Stillborn; those communist intellectuals and militants who were content “to sing half a song” in Nasser’s prisons, and whose petit bourgeois origins destined them to failure and defeat. This ‘official’ Nasserist left was inherited by Sadat in 1970. In spite of the first purges of his 1971 ‘corrective revolution,’ its leading lights continued to play their role as an institutional left flank until the regime itself brought an end to this historic accommodation as part of its move away from the Soviet camp and into the US one. The public break and the wave of arrests that began in 1975 after the Sinai Interim Agreement with Israel, and that took on epic proportions in 1977 in the wake of the Bread Intifada effectively destroyed the public political base that the ‘old guard’ Nasserist wing of the sixties left had paid so dear to establish inside the regime. They had become a casualty of history.

The seventies student movement also ended in a historic defeat, but for different reasons. This is what forms the bulk of Salih’s analysis in the book. The ‘third wave’ left[5] that emerged from the movement was independent, and much more ideologically and tactically radical than its immediate predecessor. The ECWP was the biggest, most militant and most influential of the Marxist groups that emerged around the 1972-73 student movement. Though Sadat’s declared ‘victory’ in the October War took the steam out of the nationalist wing of the broader movement, the Marxist groups continued to agitate on and off campus (and to a lesser extent in labor circles) throughout the rest of the decade. Sadat’s increasingly determined war on the left from 1975 on turned them into underground parties with various levels of secret organizational structure. This was the beginning of the vanguardism and structural ‘alienation’ that Salih so bitterly evokes in The Stillborn, and that she blames to a large extent for the tragic unraveling of the movement. The increasing state-sponsored Islamization of social and political life towards the end of the decade, and the 1979 Camp David treaty, were also nails in the coffin of the third wave communist movement in Egypt.


The tragedy of the (post)colonial communist militant doomed to repetition by the national liberation struggle is one of the major themes of The Stillborn. As Salih notes in the updated introduction, “the national struggle that haunts every sentence of the book” was a historical necessity for liberation-era communists. Palestine was a central site of this struggle, but there were others too: Algeria, Vietnam, Bolivia. The book’s first chapter details the ways in which both second and third wave communists in Egypt were hopelessly trapped in the logic of anti-imperial nationalist populism, isolated from “the only game in town” and forced to lead “a double-life” that destroyed both their integrity and “their ability to believe.” The historic contradictions of this double position was a tragic legacy to the seventies student left. It had destroyed the communists of the previous generation, and it would also prove to be their own undoing after 1973.

This tragic history outlined in the book is paired however with farce: the spectacle of the upward trajectory of the socially mobile petit-bourgeois intellectual whose opportunism leads him to assume all kinds of untenable, even mercenary positions (Salih uses the terms ‘intellectual’, ‘militant’ and ‘Marxist’ interchangeably in the book). This is where the book does some of its most interesting work. Salih performs a kind of surgical operation on the figure of the (male) militant/intellectual across the two generations. The first chapter, “The Intellectual as Pessimist,” opens with an acerbic description of the ‘nihilism’ of the disillusioned militant emerged from his cell into the light of day; an attitude that she is at pains to distinguish from any kind of principled political philosophy, historical or otherwise, and that she defines as a kind of jumbled moral “bag of tricks” that the ‘liberated’ and upwardly mobile former militant uses to justify his opportunism. This ‘nihilism,’ and the resulting treason of the (sixties) intellectuals, is yet another bitter legacy to her own generation. [6] In the chapter, she discusses the momentous historical moment in which the student movement emerged (1967-1973), and the multi-layered story of political opportunism in the complex negotiations of the years following the October War, that brought an end to the movement, to revolutionary politics, and to the national struggle all at once.

In Chapter Two, “The Afterlives of the Student Movement Generation,” Salih builds on her description of this legacy as a vicious farce in which the unemployed and bitterly disillusioned ‘fathers’ of the sixties generation preyed upon their ‘children’ and instructed them in domination and venality. This point bears some explaining. The third wave communism that emerged from the student movement was tutored by the independent sixties era Marxists. These are the “unemployed leaders” that Salih refers to at the opening of the chapter; those communists who had refused the voluntary party dissolutions of 1965 and who as a result were at best shut out of state employment, at worst, sentenced to varying prison terms over the next few years. By the turn of the decade some of the most brilliant amongst them had returned to public life and began to form shifting and secret groups into which they recruited many of the young men and women organizers of ’72 and ‘73. The group that eventually became the ECWP was notable for making a total break with the ‘official’ Nasserist left and undertaking a radical analysis of the bourgeois-technocratic bases of the regime. At the same time, the Stalinist structure of the various groups, their hyper-secrecy and their tendency to score-settling and sectarianism blocked the emergence of a real democratic left consciousness amongst the students. In Salih’s estimation, this was the “poisoned milk” that destroyed her generation of Marxists, and ushered it into a new and ruinous postcolonial world order.

In the chapter, Salih offers a blistering critique of the Stalinism and sectarianism passed on to the student leaders of third wave communism by their sixties generation mentors and discusses the destructive legacy of the vanguardism that was partly imbibed from the same source, and partly a product of the political conditions of the times which forced any kind of revolutionary organizing underground. She blames this vanguardism for the movement’s total alienation from the everyday world of politics and the realities faced by “ordinary people”. But the petit bourgeois class origins of the intellectuals were also to blame for this state of affairs in her analysis. Her analysis of the complex class structure of the postcolonial Egyptian intelligentsia is indeed central to her broader critique of the communist movement and its historic failure. Both generations were victims of their genetic appetite for social mobility.

Nasser’s ‘new class’ of technocrats and functionaries rose from the diverse ranks of the Egyptian petit-bourgeoisie to become a propertied bourgeois aristocracy of sorts thanks to the lucrative nationalizations and state contracts of the 1960s. Their rebellious ‘children’ meanwhile, were able to comfortably fall back into this class base when the student movement fell apart. Others managed to parlay their militant past into new forms of social capital: foreign university degrees, jobs in international NGOs, gainful employment in the new and lucrative Gulf media industry. The rest either languished in some forgotten corner of irrelevance and despair, became buffoons at the tables of the new elite, or managed to make quick money in the rushed and chaotic pillage of the national economy that was Sadat’s Open Door. What all of these militant afterlives shared was the ‘nihilism’ that becomes, in Salih’s reading, the general condition of Egyptian society by the end of the decade.

Salih’s exploration of property and possession as the fundamental lynchpins of successful upward mobility in postcolonial Egypt includes a biting analysis of love, marriage and the family. She discusses the social and sexual mores of the bourgeois couple and the class structure of the family as one important element of the (petit) bourgeois intellectual’s social pathology. It is this social pathology that is the subject of Chapter Three – “The Intellectual in Love” -the shortest, most aphoristic and perhaps the most furious of the book’s three chapters, with property (the will to possess) and the symbolic violence of sexual relations being the twin poles of analysis of the bourgeois male’s brutal and brutalizing attitude to love. The ghosts of Salih’s own experience as a woman militant are most visible in this section of the book. It is also the chapter where her subsequent exploration of kitsch as a metaphor for this experience is already discernible, for example in her description of the sexual rituals of sadomasochistic repetition, and the huckster roles of mastery and possession that the intellectual is obliged to enact as an escape from his own spiritual emptiness.

And yet Salih does not speak here from an explicitly feminist position or in the language of sexual liberation of second wave feminism. Her position in this regard is in many ways an ambivalent one. As mentioned earlier, the explicit object of much of the book’s critique is the masculine subject, and the critical perspective she offers is shot through and through with a radically gendered experience. But Salih never fully addresses the structural implications of this perspective, except in this last, short chapter, and there, in a very specific way. The thorny question of feminism’s relationship to third world liberation era Marxism is clearly visible here. Salih’s translation of Tony Cliff’s Trotskyist work on women’s liberation (see above) is indicative of the way in which her generation of leftists considered feminism to be an adjunct to class struggle, and not a distinct form of politics (an attitude still strong on today’s Egyptian left). Her choice of Arabic title for the book is even more telling: On the Critique of the Feminist Movement. As she points out in The Stillborn, the left feminism of the sixties and seventies in Egypt (in both its state and non-state forms) was a staid affair, and one that was deeply implicated in the existing petit-bourgeois family structure and its engines of respectable social mobility. There was never a fully independent feminist movement in Egypt for a variety of structural reasons, let alone a sexual revolution, a fact that may go some way in shedding light for the Anglo-American reader on the language of sexual vice that is so central to Salih’s analysis of the pathology of love in Egyptian bourgeois society, including, more to the point, in left and progressive intellectual circles.

The updated introduction and particularly the two letters appended to the end of the volume mark a dramatic shift into a personal mode. In the former, Salih attempts an answer to the question of why she became a communist. The move is both a form of private retrospection, or ‘rendering of accounts’ and a launching point for the book’s interrogation of her former comrades; the much broader question of how “to assess the truth of who we used to be.” To accomplish this, she turns to the notion of kitsch deployed by Milan Kundera in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Revolutionary kitsch, Salih tells us, is the key to untangling the disastrous imbrication of ‘private motivation’ and ‘the call to duty’ that shapes the militant psyche. “The dangerous leap of faith” into thin air that the militant undertakes in order to realize the categorical agreement of being which is the ‘dream’ of revolution lands her in the deadening space of ideology; a space that refuses “the human being as a world unto herself, alive with contradiction.” The result of this landing is an alienation so complete, that madness or cynicism (i.e. ‘nihilism’) is the only possible outcome.

The letters –the first written in Cairo in 1988, the second written from her self-imposed exile in Spain in 1985- take this line of questioning even further. In these private letters, Salih constantly uses the tropes of loss, lack and impotence to reflect on her inability to live the utopian modes-of-being of a properly Marxist project. Again and again, she attempts to reach into the substratum of ideology in order to touch its emancipatory essence: a form of deep ethical knowledge and praxis beyond theory and party lines. The letters are full of the vocabulary of crushed dreams, lost illusions and shattered selves. As such, they serve as an important background to the stringent analysis and the terse, captious tone of the rest of the book.

In her posthumously published fragment of memoir, Salih tells the story of the destruction of her ‘lost book’; the diaries that she had written both before and during her time as a member of the ECWP. Upon quitting the party, her comrade and lover of the time had gotten her to hand over the papers on party orders, supposedly against her possible arrest. Twenty years later she discovered that he had lied to her; that it was him, and not the party, who desired to “spare her the humiliation” of discovery.

In the following passage, she returns to her time in Spain; a halcyon period when her lifelong struggle with alienation and loneliness found an outlet of sorts in the freedom of physical estrangement: “I used to walk for hours, and talk to myself the whole time. The world I observed around me was so much more human than what I’d been used to back home. Gardens and public love…long walks down lighthearted streets where teenagers exchange kisses without fear.” It was a solitude that gave her the permission to acknowledge her profound bitterness against the party, and against “the intellectual as a species, in all its varieties.” Walking became her last refuge upon her reluctant return to “the ugliness of life” in Cairo, a hallucinatory state of waking dream that cut her off once and for all from the world around her. In one of the most moving passages in the fragment, she describes how, on one of these walks, she stopped on Six October Bridge in downtown Cairo to gaze at the water below, when two young men pass by and laugh at her:

            “Are you going to do it, or what?”
            I waited till they’d moved on, and jumped.


Generation and inheritance are useful tropes for thinking about the global decline of the left in the second half of the 20th century. The 1970s launched the neoliberal era that swept across the planet and seemingly culminated in “the end of history” in 1989. Except that it turned out history had not ended after all, and the second decade of the 21st century witnessed mass uprisings against the new world order of the global bourgeoisie. Everyone who lived and fought, laughed and cried on Egypt’s streets in 2011 tasted “the sweetness of the moment of pure freedom, of unbearable lightness,” of which Salih writes twenty years earlier. The uprising of 2011 was just such a leap of faith, and one who’s painful and furtive afterlives are only just beginning to unfold. In the original introduction, Salih declares that she wrote her book precisely as a warning to the future; “to draw for future generations the portrait of an inheritance that they must repudiate.”

The legacies of compromise, cynicism and violated innocence that played out in and after the student uprising of 1972-73 ultimately took the form of kitsch. The general devastation into which Salih’s generation emerged from their closeted, self-consuming circles led them to pose as victims weeping over the ruins instead of honestly facing the role they had played in the catastrophic outcome of the revolution. They grimly fell back into picking up their pieces in confusion and private shame, and turned to nostalgia (the present as ‘historic error’) and personal rituals of empowerment in order to exorcise a failure that must, above all, not be named. But legacies are ambivalent things. The hundreds of thousands of young men and women who took the streets in 2011 were also haunted by the ghosts of the past; their language, their songs and symbols, their remembering of bygone battles all drew on a history rich with the struggle for freedom. And yet that moment of unbearable lightness was also followed by utter ruin on a new and perhaps unprecedented scale. And so the same questions will surely return to haunt this generation as it did the ones before: Who were we? What was our experience? How do we assess the truth of who we used to be?


[1] I would like to express my deep gratitude to the friends and comrades who offered invaluable ideas, assistance and support during the various states of this project: Mohammed Ezzeldin, Biju Mathew, Hassan Saber, Yasser Abdel-latif and Magda Magdy.

[2] Saratan al-Rawh [Cancer of the Soul], Cairo: Dar al-Nahr, 1998.

[3] See Ahmed Abdalla, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt, 1923-1973, American University in Cairo Press, 2008. Abdalla was one of the leaders of the 1970s student movement. The book is based on his Cambridge University PhD thesis. See also Gennaro Gervasio’s excellent PhD dissertation: Intellectuals and Marxism in Egypt. A History of the Secular Opposition, 1967-1981, (Istituto Universitario Orientale, Napoli, 1998), published in 2010 in Arabic translation.

[4] Dubbed ‘riots’ in the western press and referred to as ‘the Intifada of Thieves’ in the state-controlled Egyptian press.

[5] The term is Gennaro Gervasio’s, the first wave being the pre-1952 movement and the second wave that of the 1960s.

[6] Salih uses an interesting mixed metaphor of Cold War maps and players to describe second wave communists’ positions towards the Nasser regime, which in some sense reflects her understanding of history as grand theater (an understanding she revisits and revises as a form of kitsch in the book’s updated introduction.)