20 - 26 June 2002
Issue No. 591
1952 - 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
History was thereWhere were you on 23 July 1952? Al-Ahram Weekly continues its interviews with public figures on their recollections of the Revolution, political commentator, activist and Al-Ahram columnist Mohamed Sid-Ahmed speaking to Amina Elbendary
When the Free Officers took power in Egypt on 23 July 1952, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed was in prison. It would not be the last time, and "I was in prison" was a kind of refrain during our interview.
Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, Murtada El-Maraghi, Fathi Radwan, Naguib El-Hilali, Ismail Sidki
The young Sid-Ahmed was heavily involved with a small splinter group of the 1940s Communist movement, and he explains that "I went into prison in 1950, and then my father kept me there, which is the first interesting story. My father never visited me in prison -- for him, the idea of seeing his son in prison was totally unacceptable, so my mother and sister used to come instead. He had retired from work at the time, but he was still a member of parliament, and he had been governor of Port Said and governor of Suez. When the Wafd Party came to power, it felt that an opponent or person associated with Sidki Pasha [first cousin and brother-in-law to Ismail Sidki Pasha, former prime minister of Egypt] could not be governor of a critical city like Port Said, so they had him replaced by somebody loyal to the Wafd. It was Nahhas Pasha [Wafd prime minister] who had him removed, giving him the title of Pasha."
"For my father, prison was a world beyond his imagination. I had walked out of the house one day and did not come back, not telling him where I was. In 1949, I went to Paris and then came back to Egypt and lived underground. My family believed I was abroad, but they heard nothing from me until I was arrested and tried in 1950 for being a communist. The prison sentence was two years, finishing in May 1952. That was right after the events of 25 January, the Cairo Fires. My father was convinced that if I left prison under these conditions I'd finish up with a ten-year sentence, and he didn't want me to be exposed to these political circumstances. He preferred to have the minister of the interior keep me in detention at least until the situation improved, that was the logic of his thinking."
"He did, however, visit me once in prison, and then he asked me 'What are you going to do? Are you going back to university?' I said, 'I'll ask the Party.' 'Because,' I said, 'I don't want to promise you something and then not do it.' He had the government and I had the Party. Naguib Pasha El-Hilali was prime minister at the time and the minister of interior was Murtada El-Maraghi, who had been my father's second-in- command in Port Said, so they knew each other very well. Thus, my father went to El-Maraghi asking him to keep Mohamed in, and the minister of interior repeated this to Naguib El-Hilali."
"Ironically, nobody was aware at the time that Nabil El-Hilali, the prime minister's son, was also a member of our party -- he was one of the best protected because of his status. So Nabil passed on this information, and we decided in prison that I would not meet my family, that I would refuse the visit without explaining why, because explaining why would involve admitting how we knew."
"My father categorically denied that he had prolonged my stay in prison until he died. It was impossible for a father to say to his son 'I kept you in prison,' impossible, since apart from this issue I had very good relations with my family. I never had any problems with my parents, neither with my father nor with my mother. It was not a personal issue at all. Rather, it was a sort of belief that history was there, and that the normal place to be is there, and whatever the price you have to be there."
The months leading up to July 1952 were turbulent, and the political atmosphere was tense, especially after the Cairo Fires in January. Mohamed Sid-Ahmed and many fellow Communists received the news of the Revolution in detention camp, and, perhaps ironically, they were also to spend some of the most glorious years of the Revolution in another detention camp.
"We were moved from prison to Hakstep Camp, some of the Communists who were to be released after finishing their sentences becoming detainees until everybody was released in July. Perhaps the reasoning at the time was that Communists and dangerous people were to be kept in camps, I don't know, I have no information. The fact is that people were kept in detention, only being liberated on 26 July."
"We were not alone in Hakstep. We had Wafdists with us, including Saad Zaghloul Fouad and Ali El-Zir, and then we had Fathi Radwan from Al-Hizb Al-Watani (The National Party) and Ibrahim Shukri from Misr Al-Fata (Young Egypt). I don't remember there being Muslim Brothers there, but probably there must have been. We were about 200 in all. We were not the only Communists in prison, our group numbering about eight, but we boycotted all the other organisations, the other Communists were the worst in our opinion. We accused them of 'Titoism' -- a political label -- but what we were really accusing them of was of working with the police and of being traitors to the working class. That's why we spoke to members of the other groups, aside from the Communists, and this is how, for example, I got very friendly with Adel Hussein who was with Young Egypt at the time. I didn't have that many people to talk to."
So how did all these political detainees from every conceivable position on the political spectrum receive the news of the Revolution or of the army's movement?
"On the morning of 23 July we heard the radio and we knew, and of course the camp became very excited. There were different interpretations of what this meant. The people from the Democratic Movement for National Liberation [MDLN/HADETU then the largest Communist organisation], who had relations with the Free Officers, received messages to the effect that 'they belong to us, they're ours, and we're in power. It's just a question of time.' We, on the other hand, thought of the officers as neo-fascist. There was a whole spectrum of opinions towards the Free Officers, judging them on a scale from fascism to socialism.
"There was a feverish atmosphere in the camp, with some expecting to be liberated at once, and so on. And then there were others who said that the most important thing was to behave correctly and not to provoke the new regime. The camp divided into two groups. The first group held that we should be prevented from talking to the prison authorities, since it was felt that we would jeopardise the possibility of being released. The second group said that everyone in the camp should be involved in making representations to the authorities. I was chosen to speak to the camp authorities on behalf of our group. We decided to be very polite: our strategy was to go to them and say 'if you are real democrats, and if you respect democracy, release us.' That was our message."
"Around 25 July two officers came to the camp. We were released on 26, the same day that the King left Egypt. Everybody was released but me because of my papers; I could not be freed until they had verified that my papers were in order at the university to decide whether or not I would be conscripted into the army. I was the only one sent to the expatriate prison on Ramses Street, passing one night there before I too was released."
Coming out of prison immediately after the 1952 Revolution, was this son of an aristocratic family who had wholeheartedly embraced Communism going home to a different family atmosphere and to a different Egypt?
"I did not go home afterwards. My parents were not in Egypt. After they had visited me, they went to France, and they weren't expecting me home. They used to go to the health spa in Vichy. I rented an apartment in Heliopolis with Tewfik Haddad, Fouad Haddad's brother, who was with us in the Party. I used to visit my parents in Zamalek at the beginning of every month to collect money: 30, 50 then 70 pounds. I used to take 6 for myself [the rest went to the Party], and my mother would give me an extra pound for the taxi and would prepare food because she knew very well that I probably didn't even take the 6 pounds. But I didn't integrate with the household; I used to come only once a month."
Sid-Ahmed's recollections of this period of his life are dominated by his memories of his membership of the Communist group. He was, therefore, almost isolated from the changes overtaking his family and the class to which they belonged.
"My father was very affected -- he was literally killed -- by the Revolution, though not immediately, of course. He died in 1955. I mean, all the adventures he had had with us, his children, had been extremely bad -- my disappearance for four years, my sister's romantic adventure with another communist, my younger brother being arrested at 15 and going back to university with an informant sitting beside him -- all this affected my father very much, but it didn't kill him. What killed him was the day they took his land by implementing the post-Revolution land-reform law. Our land was near Zefta in Gharbiyya province. I remember coming to the house one day and finding an uncle of mine there, Abdel-Hamid El-Shawarbi, one of the richest men of Egypt at the time. He told me, 'our days are over, these days are yours.'"
It was mainly through the prism of the Communist group to which he belonged, itself headed by a domineering Jewish revolutionary, Odette Hazan, that Sid-Ahmed first reacted to the Egyptian Free Officers and to their Revolution.
"At the beginning, and for a long time afterwards, I was very impressed by the theory our group developed concerning the Free Officers and their Revolution, and this was inspired by two things, the Jewish element undoubtedly playing a role and being antagonistic by definition. The theory said that the Free Officers constituted a military junta, like those at the head of regimes in Latin America, and the fates of Khamis and of El-Baqari [two workers from Kafr El-Dawwar hanged at the beginning of the Revolution] confirmed this theory, supporting our view that the Free Officers were an anti-working class fascist junta. We stuck to this line, only beginning to change it during the Conference of Non-Aligned Countries at Bandung [in 1955]."
"My views at the time were distorted in a way because my introduction to this world was artificial through the atmosphere of the Jewish Communist community. We also had a distorted perspective because of the enmity of our organisation to the Wafd. You know the famous theory of Lenin -- that the most dangerous group in Russia was the Kadets, because they could seduce the working class? Stalin later argued that the European Social Democrats, the British Labour Party in particular, were the most dangerous groups for the Communists for this reason. This logic was also predominant with us, and it gave us a false image of how things stood, even as the National Trend within the Communist movement of the time turned towards parties like the Wafd, or at least distinguished them from the more reactionary parties. But I was brought up to think, like Lenin, that the most dangerous group for us was the Wafd, and we wholeheartedly embraced an anti-social democracy line."
Odette Hazan left Egypt in 1954, and perhaps her departure caused changes in the group's politics.
"Our view of the Revolution and of the Free Officers began breaking down at the time of the Bandung Conference. And then the nationalisation of the Suez Canal was an apotheosis, causing us to embrace the Free Officers 100 per cent. However, we were uneasy because we were aware that in embracing the Free Officers we were uniting with the bourgeoisie, because we didn't abandon the theory that the Free Officers represented the interests of the bourgeoisie, even if they were the progressive bourgeoisie. And yet until then we had refused to unite with Communists. It was a ridiculous situation, and that's when the various Communist groups started to come together."
"With Bandung came the change in our stand, because of the Czech arms deal, the supply of weapons to Egypt from the Soviet bloc and the recognition of China. These were signs that we were moving from one camp to another, as was the anti-Baghdad pact, and so forth. We couldn't look at the Free Officers as a junta anymore -- that theory was breaking down, and it needed to be replaced.
"We also began to change our view of Nasser. At first, we thought of him in the worst possible terms, that he was carrying out diabolic, bourgeois policies à la Machiavelli. My view now is that Nasser was very pro-Soviet and very anti-Communist. He was pro-Soviet because the Americans always let him down, but the closer he came to the Soviets the more dangerous the Communists became, and that explains the torture in the prisons and so on."
However, support for the Revolution did not entail contact with the Free Officers, Sid-Ahmed explains. "We never had any contacts with the Free Officers. The only contact I had with them was on the day of the Suez War, 29 October 1956. I went and offered one fourth of my inheritance money to Khaled Moheiddin."
However, this period of détente between the various Communist organisations and the revolutionary regime was a short lived one. Most Communist leaders were to be sent once more to prison and detention camp, and Sid-Ahmed himself spent 1959 to 1964 in prison. How does he look back on the Revolution?
"National-liberation movements never remain radical; there's a given point after which concessions have to be made to the colonial power. Some political forces consider such concessions to be treason, and, whatever the conditions, they boil down to that. So, actually, democracy is a very difficult thing to attain in our countries, for independence carries within it the elements of disappointment, and the hopes pinned on independence don't last in the long run."
"I thought the opposite when I came out of prison in 1964. I believed at the time that the balance of global power was moving from one camp to the other, that national-liberation movements, in addition to the Soviet world, were beginning to encircle the Capitalist world rather than the opposite, and that on these grounds we could justify our reconciliation with Nasser, abandoning the party and joining the one-party-system. When Nasser's party [the Arab Socialist Union] degenerated we lived with that degeneration -- until it degenerated completely. It was Sadat's visit to Jerusalem that finally showed that Egypt had joined the opposite camp."
"In the last analysis, all this shows that we have lived through an experiment in the twentieth century of passing from one world system to another, the whole thing degenerating into a caricature of bipolarity. At the time, though, I believed that people carry history within them, that history is there, and that some people embody history. For me, Nasser was such a figure. Once we had accepted this proposition, we could accept being imprisoned by him."
"Later, people who were opposed to Nasser would say where is your pride? How can you allow yourselves to be treated like that by Nasser for years and still support him? You are more honest, more genuine and more devoted to him than his own collaborators!
"My answer was that Nasser embodied history better than we did. I remember once in prison my friend Ismail Sabri Abdallah had been beaten up dreadfully, and then thrown into a room and left on the floor for a week. Later, we were set to work moving rocks, and I told him, 'one day we'll come out of here, and we'll take revenge.' And he said to me -- even under those circumstances -- 'one day we'll come out of here, and we will support him.'"
Mohamed Sid-Ahmed explains how he justifies the Nasser regime's anti- democratic policies.
"You can't jump over many stages and achieve democracy instantly. The Tower of London -- how many heads had to be chopped off there before democracy was achieved in England? The idea of giving up taking power by force, giving it away instead as a result of a vote, needs a very high degree of maturity. The temptation to get out the easy way out is so deep, and it is an integral part of man. To overcome that, to prefer the civilised way of giving up power rather than of giving in to temptation, is a very difficult issue."
Was the Revolution a disappointment?
"The positive aspect of the Revolution was that it tried to achieve something, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, or the High Dam. There were large achievements that were major moments in twentieth-century history."
"But as for social justice and so on, it was a false social justice, and it was a travesty. It represented the redistribution of social power from a minority of feudal landlords to a middle class or a lower-middle class, but it didn't break through to something fundamentally different. Yes, there were more opportunities, and yes, education was extended, and such things count. But it did not achieve a break through or a fundamental change.
"It leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, Egyptians today are not what they were 30, 40, 50 years ago. Perhaps they wouldn't have been the same without the Revolution either. Perhaps without the Revolution the net result would have been more positive, perhaps. There's no proof of this, or of the opposite.
"If the Zionist project is one expression of localised imperialism, then the Revolution lost in 1967. It became enslaved to foreign authority, for colonial power still dominates, and globalisation is a very contemporary form of this problem. The world is much more complex than we think. Leonard Binder's description of Nasser's Revolution as 'a moment of enthusiasm' is an apt description, I believe. There was something -- a large event took place, even with all its defects."
Would Sid-Ahmed agree with Egyptian social scientist Anouar Abdel-Malek, who considers the Bandung Conference to have been the Third World's awakening?
"In a way that's true, yes. Certainly the Egyptian Revolution did a lot. There are different levels at which we see things, different layers of our awareness of fundamentals. It's not true that we move only from simple to complex structures; rather, the more you look into complex patterns, the simpler they become at another level. Thus, it's true that there have been great moments in our lives, which is why I say we have been through the 'grand boulevards' of history. But these moments are difficult to define. However, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal was certainly a major event at the time it happened, and in a way the High Dam was linked to that.
"These were Nasser's best years. But the nationalisation programme was spoiled by the lack of a social dimension. It was pure capitalism, and it turned into a redistribution of wealth rather than a breakthrough into something beyond. I mean, even the people who carried out the programme were not aware of the social significance of it."
With the luxury of hindsight, if Mohamed Sid-Ahmed could live through the Revolution again would he take up the same positions?
"Probably. I would not accept to betray my ideals. I could not do that. I remember, for example, something I told my mother one day when she visited me towards the end of my time in prison. She said, 'they say that if you write certain things they'd release you, so why don't you try?' I told her 'probably one day I'll come out, and I'll write more than what you're asking me to write now, the only difference being that I won't write it under these conditions.'
"That's the problem -- not what I write, but under what conditions I write. Because if you betray yourself, you can't stand on your feet again. You will always have a problem: there will always be something in your past, a bleeding wound, something you cannot afford to live with."
Letter from the Editor
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