A Diwan of contemporary life (358): History of the Egyptian Left

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxx at xxxxxxxxxxx.xxx
Fri Oct 13 14:32:34 MDT 2000

Abu Nasr: Note this--revolutionary cheers, Xxxx



Al-Ahram Weekly On-line 5 - 11 October 2000, Issue No. 502

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

 A Diwan of contemporary life (358)

Communism sprouted in Egypt in 1921 at the hands of Joseph Rosenthal, a
tradesman whose nationality was in question -- Swiss or Russian or
Italian or German or, as he himself claimed, Egyptian. The Interior
Ministry's files characterised him as an "anarchist." Rosenthal started
his movement under the  name of the Egyptian Socialist Party. It was
renamed the Communist Party on 21 December 1922 after getting rid of
Rosenthal at the request of Russian Bolsheviks. The Communists were
behind a series of labour strikes and violent confrontations with the
police in 1924. The government cracked down on them and put their
leaders on trial, effectively ending the movement until the rise of the
Soviet Union in World War II revived it. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * traces
the fortunes of the first wave from reports published by Al-Ahram

A short-lived experiment

One of the most striking features of the Saad Zaghlul government, which
held office between 28 January and 24 November 1924, is the unusual
frequency and intensity of the clashes between it and the press. From
what has been described as "the people's government," one would have
expected the exact opposite; that the relations between it and the press
would have been much more harmonious than ever before and that the press
under that government would have enjoyed an unprecedented level of

It is noteworthy that the two most important studies on the first
Egyptian Communist Party (1923-24) -- The Development of the Nationalist
Movement in Egypt: 1918-1936, by Abdel-Azim Ramadan, and The History of
the Egyptian Communist Movement: 1900-1940, by Rifaat El-Said -- relied
upon Al-Ahram as their principal primary resource. There were sound
reasons for this.

Not only did Al-Ahram enjoy a high degree of credibility, but also, with
correspondents detailed to cover events in the police stations and the
courts, it was well poised to furnish in-depth information on the life
of Egypt's first and last open communist party. To illustrate: when, on
24 March 1924, the chief public prosecutor wanted to supplement his
knowledge on the Egyptian communist movement his first inclination was
to turn to the Al-Ahram representative in Alexandria. As Al-Ahram
boasted on the occasion, the journalist was able to submit to the
prosecutor "a general overview of the history of the socialist movement,
which later developed into the communist movement, because we have
monitored its development, written about it frequently and presented the
facts about its activities at a time when public awareness of the party
was very minimal."

In addition, most of the members of the Communist Party turned to
Al-Ahram as a forum for their views, whatever their divergences. Thus,
Joseph Rosenthal the spiritual father of the Egyptian communist
movement, Salama Mousa the moderate socialist who was apprehensive of
the consequences of the transformation of the Socialist Party to the
Communist Party, and Husni El-Orabi who felt entirely the opposite all
aired their positions on the pages of Al-Ahram.

The period in which the radical left became active in Egypt (1921-24)
coincided with major developments in the Egyptian nationalist movement.
The second exile of nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul at the end of 1921,
the promulgation of the Declaration of 28 February 1922 recognising
Egypt's independence, the drafting of a national constitution the
following year, the parliamentary elections that, in 1924, produced the
first truly popularly elected legislature in Egypt's history and the
stormy events under the Zaghlul-led "People's Government" throughout the
rest of that year left most newspapers, particularly the political party
press, little breathing space to cover other developments in the
political arena. This was not the case with Al-Ahram, which never so
fully immersed itself in these critical events that it was unable to
cast more than a passing eye over other areas of concern. It is telling
that in the chapter on the "Political Trends in the Nationalist
Movement" in The Development of the Nationalist Movement in Egypt, 98
footnotes cite Al-Ahram as the source, while only two cite Al-Siyasa and
a sole footnote cites  Al-Akhbar. In his review of this period in The
History of the Communist Movement in Egypt El-Said footnotes Al-Ahram 38
times. There is no mention of any other Egyptian newspaper.

One is inclined to think that Al-Ahram's reputation for impartiality may
have lured the left-wing writers, as it had many advocates of other
political groupings, such as Mohamed Hussein Heikal, who contributed an
article to Al-Ahram on the communist movement in spite of the fact that
he was editor-in-chief of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party
mouthpiece, Al-Siyasa, the strongest political party newspaper at the
time. Yet, in the case of the Communist Party this was not the case.
>From the moment the creation of the Communist Party in Egypt was first
mooted Al-Ahram made its position very clear -- it was not in favour.

According to Ramadan and El-Said, the origins of the Communist Party
date to escalation of the labour movement following World War I. Wartime
had brought a large increase in the ratio of Egyptian workers to replace
the many expatriate workers who, for various reasons had to return to
their native countries when the war broke out. With the end of the
constraints of wartime and prospects of economic growth, labour was
naturally restless and eager to claim its rights.

Many of the Egyptian labour activists belonged to that category of
middle class Egyptian intellectuals who studied for a period of time in
Europe where they were exposed to socialist ideas. In fact, a group of
these young idealists banded together to found a magazine -- Al-Sufur --
to advocate their ideas. The founders were described by Al-Ahram as "an
elite of educated Egyptian youth who obtained their higher academic
degrees in Europe." Many of these European-educated intellectuals were
also among those who, in 1921, responded to the call of Joseph Rosenthal
to establish the Egyptian Socialist Party.

Rosenthal was a curious and controversial figure. Egyptian security
files listed him as Russian -- perhaps because of the Bolshevik
revolution -- but other reports variously claimed that he was Swiss,
Italian or German. Rosenthal himself insisted he was Egyptian. According
to his file at the Ministry of Interior, Egyptian security began to put
him under surveillance early in the century. In 1913 he was classified
as an anarchist. In 1921 he was joined by such figures as Salama Mousa,
Ali El-Enani and Aziz Mirham, and together they began to propagate their
party platform, which advocated 'the just distribution of the fruits of
labour among the workers in accordance with the law of 'to each
according to his own ability'."

 The founding of the Socialist Party was greeted with vociferous
objections from conservatives. It also coincided with a marked increase
in labour strikes, the longest of which, the strike of the Suez
Petroleum Refinery workers, lasted 113 days. By June 1922, however,
tensions within the party had reached the stage where most of the
Egyptian leadership, foremost among which was Salama Mousa, broke away
from the party, discontented with the prospect that under Rosenthal's
influence the party was drifting too far towards communism. Indeed, the
following month the remaining Socialist Party leadership began
publication of Al-Shabiba, which took as its logo the hammer and sickle.
Its first edition featured an article by Lenin.

On 21 December 1922, the party officially changed its name, becoming the
Egyptian Communist Party after getting rid of Rosenthal at the request
of Russian comrades. The party then began to promulgate its demands: the
evacuation of British forces from Egypt and Sudan, the nationalisation
of the Suez Canal, the abolition of the privileges accorded to
foreigners under the capitulations system, an eight-hour working day,
recognition of the Soviet government and, finally, the nationalisation
of private property.

As 1923 got under way the Communist Party leadership accelerated its
activism among the working classes, acquiring thereby sufficient clout
to be able to obstruct the efforts of a government-sponsored labour
conciliation committee. The party contended at the time that it rejected
the government's attitude towards remedying the conflicts between
workers and employers.

It is curious that under Egypt's first post-independence "people's
government" a new wave of strikes erupted, instigated to a large extent
by the Egyptian communist labour organisers. Zaghlul, as newly elected
"leader of the nation," was not one to brook such manifestations of
discontent. He described the workers' occupation of factories as
usurpation, took stern measures to suppress the strikes and arrested a
number of Communist Party leaders. Among these were Mahmoud Husni
El-Orabi, Sheikh Safwan Abul-Fath, El-Shahat Ibrahim, Anton
Maron,Mahmoud Ibrahim El-Sukari who were accused of "propagating
revolutionary ideas against the principles of the Egyptian constitution
and seeking to change governmental institutions through violence,
intimidation and illegal activities." The trial of these individuals
dealt the first fatal blow to the Communist Party. The second came in
the form of the Wafd Party's establishment of labour unions of its own,
headed by one of that party's top leaders, Abdel-Rahman Fahmi.

Initially Al-Ahram viewed the first Egyptian communists as a collection
of foreign and Egyptian idealists. With the renewed outburst of labour
unrest in Alexandria in February 1924 the newspaper had to change its
opinion. "There has been a powerful eruption of the socialist movement
recently turned communist," it pronounced, citing as manifestations of
this development the workers occupation of the Alexandria Spinning and
Weaving Company.

The newspaper went on to appeal to the government to "take all necessary
measures to prevent the recurrence of this phenomenon in other areas of
the country and to put an end to communism in Egypt before it has the
chance to spread." It explained, "The experiences of Russia and Italy
have demonstrated to the world that the dissemination of this ideology
poses danger to society, particularly in those countries in which it
runs rampant. In Russia, communism caused the collapse of the Empire of
Peter the Great, demolishing the largest empire the world has ever seen.
It has brought the working classes and weak into the clutches of the
mobs and rabble. Law and justice have been overturned and all prosperity
has been devastated under the rule of a lowly band of 600,000 that has
come to govern the fate of the 180 million who make up the Russian
nation. In Italy the communist poison entered through the socialist
window to jeopardise the very existence of the Italian nation. However,
the Italian people arose under the banner of fascism to repel the
threat, as a result of which the commerce and industry thrive once more
and life in the country has been restored to its full vigour."

Nevertheless, the newspaper did not wish to raise the public alarm
unduly. The communist peril in Egypt was caused by a handful of
immigrant Russian workers, "and the government is undoubtedly fully
aware that these refugees are not only a burden on Egypt but a threat to
its order and security and that it is in our interest to purge the
nation of them."

Al-Ahram expounded on its anti-communist position in two editorials
published in two successive editions under the headline, "Communism
targets Egyptian capital." The nature of the economy in Europe differed
fundamentally from that in Egypt, the newspaper contended. In Europe the
economy is less dependent on manual labour than it is on machinery. In
Egypt, however, "labour is capital. A shortage in labour equals a
shortage in capital, and when this occurs, Egypt cannot compensate for
the shortage through the power of machinery and equipment as they do in
Europe." From this economic theory, the editorial drew the conclusion
that "those who incite the Egyptian workers to strike and obstruct
production are paralysing part of the nation's wealth, which is the
property of the workers more than it is that of the owners of capital."

Violent confrontations between strikers and the police prompted Al-Ahram
to dedicate extensive space on its pages to letters from opponents of
the communist labour organisers. On 4 March 1924 the newspaper featured
a lengthy letter to workers from Abdel-Aal Hassouna, whom it introduced
as a prominent foreman. Hassouna warned workers against the influence of
the communists, who he described as "a collection of individuals who
banded together not to work towards your betterment but rather to sow
dissension between you and your companies, who fled their native
countries where they had already wreaked great destruction... The
communists are foreigners who came to our country to dupe the workers
and collude with certain unions. My fellow citizens, the communists have
come to incite the workers to strike, but why should we listen to them?"

Several labour unions were quick to disassociate themselves from the
communists. The handicrafts workers union issued a communiqué, published
in Al-Ahram, stating, "that ideology cannot lead workers to the
fulfilment of their aims and aspirations." Also, at a meeting of the
unions for the tramways, Mina Al-Basal, water works and cardboard boxes
companies, the participants sent a telegram to the prime minister
declaring their support and  "absolving themselves before God Almighty
from all connection with communism and those who advocate it."

Al-Ahram expressed fears about the possible consequences of the dispatch
of four Egyptian students to the Communist College in Moscow. "If those
students are left among the Bolsheviks in that institute for the period
it will take to complete their training they will absorb the principles
and teachings of Russian communism and return to Egypt as Bolshevik
proselytisers." Obviously the national public prosecutor shared the
newspaper's fears. He summoned the families of the students and asked
them to bring their children home. He warned that if they failed to do
so, "the government will forbid them entry into the country in the
future, because the country does not want communist agitators among its

At the same time, Al-Ahram warmly welcomed the articles from the former
Socialist Party members who had broken away from the party when it
appeared that it was about to become communist. These contributions, in
the opinion of the newspaper, were "testimonies from within," and one of
the most important was that of Salama Mousa, which appeared in Al-Ahram
of 8 March 1924. Beneath the headline, "Socialism and Communism and
their history in Egypt," Mousa wrote that a year after the founding of
the Egyptian Socialist Party, Rosenthal and the Alexandria group moved
to bring it under the Third International and change its name to the
Communist Party. "I felt it was my duty to alert the workers to the
dangers of that course, and wrote four or five articles for Al-Ahram in
which I explained the dangers of communism and the disasters it brought
to Russia. I held Rosenthal, alone, responsible for this course of
action, for he above all is aware of the perils of that ideology and
that it conflicts with the interests of our country because it spreads
alarm among the propertied classes upon whose sympathies we depend for
the advancement of the workers." Mousa relates that he, along with Ali
El-Enani and Abdallah Annan, tried to keep the Socialist Party intact,
but were unable to fight off "that wild and insane movement called

Al-Ahram also brought its anti-communist bias to the coverage of the
investigations and trials of the communists  who had been arrested
during the wave of strikes in Alexandria in February and March 1924. For
example it warned against the communists' attempts to disseminate their
views among the other prison inmates.

Some of the prosecutions never reached the verdict stage. For fear of
the international complications that would arise from the trials of
expatriates who, under the capitulations system, could call for the
protection of the consuls of their countries of origin, the Egyptian
government decided to expel some defendants from the country. Among
these was Sakilaris Pikaki, a sponge merchant in Mohamed Ali Square.
Although Pikaki was originally Greek, the Italian Consul intervened on
his behalf on the grounds that the island the man had come from came
under Italian rule following World War I. Pikaki, however, rejected the
intervention of the Italian government, insisting that he was Egyptian
because his island had belonged to the Ottoman Empire when he left it to
come to Egypt.

More interesting yet, was the story of Rosenthal, whose news Al-Ahram
covered under the headline, "The Lost Communist." On 24 July 1924,
Rosenthal was arrested and placed under detention in the Kom Al-Dikka
Barracks preparatory to being expelled from the country the next day, in
spite of his protests that he was Egyptian and had lived in the country
for over 40 years. Rosenthal was indeed put on the ship 'Nemesis'
leaving Alexandria. However, just over a month later the newspaper
reports that Rosenthal was still on board and that the ship was on its
return voyage to Alexandria. Every Mediterranean port the ship stopped
at refused to allow the man to disembark. Thus, when the ship reached
Alexandria on 9 September, "the governorate authorities dispatched a
police detachment to prevent him from coming ashore and to keep the ship
under surveillance."

This action, however, caused something of a stir. The ship's authorities
protested that they were not responsible for Rosenthal and declared that
they refused to leave the port in Alexandria until the Egyptian
government agreed to take him back into custody. In the interim,
Rosenthal took matters into his own hands, having managed to abscond
rom the boat and disappear into Alexandria. After a police search he was
found in a hospital in Alexandria, brought back to the ship and released
once again to the hospital when it was learned that he needed to undergo

The story of "The Lost Communist" comes to a conclusion on 3 November
1924 when Al-Ahram reports that Rosenthal signed a pledge that he would
henceforth refrain from propagating communism in Egypt and from
involving himself in labour affairs and that he would take the necessary
legal measures to establish his Egyptian citizenship. In return, the
government released him and lifted the expulsion order against him.
"This is the best solution to the issue in view of the many
complications that have arisen in many respects," Al-Ahram concluded,
and the following day it announced that Rosenthal had returned to work
at his store on Sherif Street.

While the Rosenthal saga was playing itself out, Al-Ahram readers also
followed the trials of his Egyptian colleagues in the Alexandria
Criminal Court. It must have come as a surprise that not all the
defendants were from Alexandria, or even Cairo for that matter. Some
came from Delta cities such as Zaqaziq, Shebin Al-Kom, Al-Mahalla
Al-Kubra and Tanta, while one came from Abu Qurqas in the depth of Upper
Egypt. Readers may also have been perplexed by what must have seemed
mild sentences compared to the uproar surrounding the case. Six
ringleaders were sentenced to three years in prison, while the other
defendants were sentenced to six months in prison with labour.

But one final incident occurred before Al-Ahram turned the pages on this
issue. As the judge was pronouncing the sentences, one of the spectators
in the courtroom shot out of his seat and shouted, "Long live
Communism!" Hussein Fawzi paid for his outburst. He was arrested, tried
and fined LE3, and ordered to apologise to the judge.

"He issued an immediate apology and promised never to repeat such an
error," reported Al-Ahram. Yet, Fawzi was not alone in taking heed of
the lessons learned in court, for the leftist movement virtually ground
to a halt for at least  two decades, until the rise in the power for the
Soviet Union following World War II inspired a renewed wave of communist
activity in Egypt.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History
Studies Centre.

                                       weeklyweb at ahram.org.eg


Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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