Youssef Darwish: The courage to go on
Six decades on, and the motive is the same. The fight is against injustice
Profile by Faiza Rady
Early autumn, and the downtown street where Youssef Darwish lives is deceptively quiet. It is almost anonymous given the city's intrusive and, oftentimes, overwhelming chaos. Darwish's apartment is functional, almost austere. The sober choice of furniture, the arrangement of the space, denote a workplace as much as a home.
At 94 Darwish is still handsome, a soft-spoken man with silver hair and intense brown eyes. He welcomes me, offers a drink, puts me at ease. Yet despite this simplicity and genuine warmth it is difficult not to be in awe of a man whose contribution to the workers' movement helped shape and ultimately determine the course of Egyptian labour history.
A labour lawyer and communist organiser, with a remarkable record spanning well over six decades, Darwish's commitment -- in the face of all odds -- remains intact. For, like many of his former comrades, Darwish paid a high price for daring to be a Marxist cadre in Egypt.
In the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s he was regularly imprisoned for belonging to a "subversive" organisation that, the authorities claimed, was intent on "sabotaging the state".
"I was arrested so many times that when anybody tapped me on the shoulder I expected a state security agent had come to arrest me," recalls Darwish.
Mass arrests of activists, torture during interrogations, long jail sentences and repression on the outside took their toll over the years, decimating an already divided leadership. Hence their decision to dissolve the party in 1965.
The Communist Party of Egypt eventually resurfaced in 1975, though it hardly rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Long gone were the days when communists could mobilise tens of thousands of workers and students to march for independence from British imperialism and better wages and working conditions.
Yet Darwish remains undaunted. "I am still a communist and I am proud of it," he says.
Marxism, he explains in polished classical Arabic, cannot be dismissed because the Soviet Union has become history. He distills the most relevant of definitions: "A powerful ideology, not a passé fashion," says Darwish, "Marxism will survive as long as there are the exploiters and the exploited."
Such tenacity came the hard way, the result of an arduous process of political self-education. "I was the only politicised person in my family," he recalls. "My politics came from elsewhere."
His father was an illiterate but intelligent and highly-skilled artisan. Moussa Youssef Farag Darwish worked as a jeweller for many years before becoming a successful wholesale trader and Darwish's childhood and early adolescence were anything but privileged. Yet Moussa Darwish managed to provide his children with the best education available. He enrolled his son in one of the most prestigious French high schools in Cairo, l'Ecole des Frères, from which Darwish graduated in 1929. By then the 19-year-old had become a scholar. "I read everything I could lay my hands on. My passion for reading was part of the process that politicised me."
It is arguable that the young man's minority also contributed to this process.
As Egyptian Jews of the Karaite sect the Darwishes were regarded as outcasts by the wider Jewish community. Ostracised by the Orthodox Rabbinic establishment for their rejection of Talmudic laws (orally transmitted laws of divine origin according to Rabbinate belief), the Karaites, who accept only the Torah as a valid source of religious legislation, were dismissed as heretical.
Darwish does not remember experiencing anti-Semitism or feelings of ethnic and religious alienation in his youth, with one notable exception. He retains vivid memories of being beaten up by one of the gangs of Italian fascists that started to roam the streets of Cairo in their notorious brown shirts in the early 1930s.
Unlike the European, and mostly foreign- educated, Rabbinates the Karaites were Egyptians and defined themselves as wilad balad (native sons), an expression steeped in a populist, street- wise, working class culture. Established in Egypt for over 1,000 years the Karaites were, in fact, one of the oldest and most assimilated Jewish communities in the Middle East.
This was especially true in the secular Egypt of the 1920s and 1930s, Darwish's formative years. Instilled with the 1919 Revolution's slogan "religion is for God and the homeland for all", he became a fervent nationalist at a young age during a period when the struggle for independence from British imperialism took precedence over everything else.
"Egypt's nationalist leader, Saad Zaghloul, was my hero," he reminisces. "When he died in 1927 I wore a black suit for one month and continued wearing a black tie for a year."
Although an ibn balad -- a native son -- and a passionate nationalist, like many youths of his generation Darwish was also French- educated. France glittered seductively on the horizon and in the fall of 1930 Darwish left for Toulouse to study commerce.
It was in Toulouse that Darwish was first exposed to Marxist literature. "What really stayed with me from my readings in history were the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution. This paved the way for my interest in Marxism."
In 1932 Darwish received a degree in commerce and went on to Aix-en- Provence to study law. There he met a young woman, Andrée Lastérade de Chavigny, who introduced Darwish to the local cell of the French Communist Party.
Equally significant was his encounter with Borsher, a German Marxist who had fled Nazi Germany and started a secret communist cadre school at his house in Aix. "That's where I got my formal training. For me it was most important to clarify the collusion between imperialism and foreign and local capital."
In 1934 Darwish returned home, a freshly-baked lawyer and a committed Marxist. Seeking political allies the young lawyer went to the headquarters of Ittihad Ansar Al- Salam, the Federation of Peace Partisans (FPP), an internationalist democratic and pacifist organisation.
The Cairo branch of the FPP comprised a colourful, multinational group, among them Paul Jacot, a Swiss national with links to European communist parties, who took Darwish and two other young Egyptian Jews, Ahmed Sadiq Saad and Raymond Douek, under his wing. It was Darwish's simplicity that initially broke the ice: "They liked me because I accepted the most menial of jobs," he recalls.
At the beginning of their association, in the mid-1930s, the group remained anonymous and worked together informally. Later they became known as Al-Fajr Al-Jadid, (the New Dawn), after the name of the magazine they started to publish in May 1945.
Initial contacts with labour leaders came about by accident. Douek's brother introduced Darwish to Youssef El-Mudarrik, a labour activist with a Marxist background. Then Darwish met Mahmoud El-Askari, the charismatic general-secretary of the General Union of Mechanised Textile Workers in Shubra Al-Kheima and Cairo, who in turn introduced him to Taha Saad Othman, the union president. These chance meetings paved the way for New Dawn's close collaboration with the trade unions over the following decades.
Darwish threw himself into the job with the indomitable energy that has characterised his life's work. But it was not easy. "The workers," says Darwish, "did not trust intellectuals because they had a history of trying to control the unions. We really had to prove ourselves."
As the group's labour organiser Darwish helped the union establish a school in 1942 at which he taught accounting and French. "It was important for them to learn French because many of the bosses were foreigners."
Darwish's commitment paid off that same year when he was appointed legal counsel for the Shubra Al-Kheima union, representing some 20,000 workers. He worked for minimal, often no, fees and to make ends meet moonlighted in trade litigation. Eventually Darwish came to represent 67 out of a total of 170 trade unions.
This first formal association between the communist movement and organised labour represented a breakthrough for New Dawn, leading to the formulation of a progressive platform and a common struggle.
That said, Darwish believes that communist influence on the unions was possible only because the workers had been radicalised through their long history of industrial actions. Still, what New Dawn contributed to the labour movement was a powerful working class ideology with an internationalist dimension.
The union acted on Darwish's suggestion to send an Egyptian delegate to the founding congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), held in Paris on 25 September, 1945. The textile workers' candidate, Youssef El-Mudarrik, was endorsed by 102 unions representing some 80,000 workers and the bulk of the costs of his trip to Paris was paid from donations by impoverished rank-and-file workers.
New Dawn acted to promote workers' participation in parliamentary politics as independents, establishing yet another precedent in labour history. Darwish played a major role in supporting the campaign of Faddali Abdel-Jayid, who ran for a parliamentary seat in Shubra Al-Kheima in January 1945.
Abdel-Jayid lost, receiving only 749 of the 7,306 votes cast in his district. "He lost," Darwish says, "because this election, in particular, was blatantly rigged. But what really mattered was the workers' decision to go beyond trade union activism and present their class demands as a national political agenda."
In 1945 the textile workers' union developed their political platform in the programme of the newly established Workers' Committee for National Liberation (WCNL). At roughly the same time New Dawn organised a secret communist cell that included trade union cadres Mahmoud El-Askari, Youssef El- Mudarrik and Taha Saad Othman. As a result of Marxist influence the WCNL's programme was radicalised and the working class designated as a political vanguard. The WCNL thus assumed "the right and the duty of the working class to lead the nation in the struggle for liberation because of the failure of all other forces since the 1919 Revolution."
New Dawn's working class organising, along with the agitation of three other major communist tendencies -- Henry Curiel's group Al-Haraka Al-Misriya li'l Tahrir Al-Watani, (the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation) (EMNL); Tahrir Al-Shaab, (the People's Liberation) led by Marcel Israel; and Iskra led by Hillel Schwartz -- alarmed the authorities. Following a wave of strikes and anti-occupation marches in 1945-46 the government of Ismail Sidki Pasha passed an anti- communist law in 1946, effectively banning any Marxist organisation.
New Dawn's response was to formally disband and then resurface as the Workers' Vanguard for National Liberation (WVNL). If the Sidki government's stated aim was to protect "our quiet and gentle working classes" from the satanic manipulation of "outside agitators" they fell short of their goal. In 1946, 47 per cent of the WVNL membership was made up of workers.
During these years of intense political activism Darwish fell in love with Iqbal, a Jewish comrade. They married in 1947.
1947 was also the year that witnessed the UN debate on the partition of Palestine. Since the beginning of the debate the Workers' Vanguard had defined Zionism as an imperialist racist project. At the time Darwish joined a group called Jews against Zionism. "We denounced the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine but the government closed us down while Zionist organisations continued to function freely."
Following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in May 1948, however, the government started to clamp down on everyone in sight. Zionists, communists, Muslim Brothers, workers and activists of all shades were rounded up and placed behind bars.
Darwish describes King Farouk's jails as infinitely more humane than anything that followed. "Under the monarchy there was no torture in jails. Egypt had democratic institutions and political opposition was real. We were able to organise freely."
After 1948, however, the monarchy was losing ground fast and the Sidki government began to bare its fangs in earnest. Jailed between November 1948 to November 1949, Darwish enjoyed only a year of freedom before he was re-arrested in November 1950. He was not released again until April 1953, once again throwing himself into activism -- for which he naturally had to pay a price. After Darwish and his comrades established the Egyptian Workers and Peasants Party (EWPP) in 1957 the government closed down his law office and arrested him yet again.
This time around the gentle lawyer was charged with attempting to assassinate President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The outlandish ploy ultimately failed as a result of public pressure. "It was the workers who got me out. They sent Nasser more than 10,000 telegrams demanding my release."
Upon his release Darwish faced another kind of setback -- more painful, perhaps, because it came from within his own ranks. In January 1958 Egypt's various communist tendencies were negotiating to merge into the Communist Party of Egypt (CPE). Using the pretext that the Nasser regime was hostile to the movement because it equated Jews, Zionism and communism, Al-Raya, the smallest and most Stalinist of the Marxist groups, required as a precondition of unification that the party leadership be purged of all cadres with "Jewish origins". Al-Raya specifically targeted Youssef Darwish, Raymond Douek and Ahmed Sadiq Saad. All three had converted to Islam.
Under mounting pressure they accepted Al-Raya's conditions. After having spent decades of their lives building the movement they joined the rank-and-file.
"Al-Raya's condition was racist of course, and it contradicted all the egalitarian principles that had attracted us to Marxism in the first place. But we bowed to the pressure for the sake of unity."
That unity, however, was not to be. In July 1958, six months after its creation, the CPE split into two factions, the CPE and the CPE-HADETU ( Al-Haraka Al-Dimoqratiya li'l Tahrir Al- Watani ).
But time was running out. In December 1958 Nasser decided to end communist agitation by arresting all known activists. "We had a brilliant lawyer, Ahmed El-Badini. Arguing our case, he said: 'How can you criminalise communists? Don't you know that half the world has communist governments?' His defence cost him a year in jail."
Nasser's jail regimen included torture and murder. "Abu Zeid, a worker from Shubra Al-Kheima, was buried alive." Prominent activist and Iskra member Shohdi Atia, was beaten to death. Farid Haddad, a Palestinian physician whose practice had been devoted to helping the poor, was also beaten to death.
Darwish recounts the horror. "Some things I can't even talk about. At one point I couldn't take it anymore, I stopped eating. Then a guard whispered to me: 'you have to eat, don't you know they want you to die.' These simple, humane words gave me the courage to go on."
Unexpectedly, the torture stopped as a consequence of Nasser's trip to Yugoslavia. "On a visit to parliament with [Yougslav leader, Josep Broz] Tito, Nasser was stunned when MPs honoured Shohdi Atia with a minute of silence. Things changed after that."
In May 1964 Darwish and his comrades were released. They had spent more than five years in jail.
Meanwhile the leadership had been holding secret negotiations to dissolve the party. "I was totally against this decision, but there was not much I could do since I was no longer a cadre. Several of us tried to organise again, but some of our own people threatened to inform on us."
Although devastated, Darwish remained undefeated. He opened a law practice and joined the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. As the secretary of the association he travelled across Europe, lecturing on the Palestinian cause.
Arrested once again in 1973, and once again charged with "communist agitation", Darwish was released after three months for lack of evidence. The CPE then asked him to lie low, for a while, and leave for Algeria.
"I left with the idea of staying for six months. But I ended up staying away for 13 years, until 1986."
In Algeria Darwish acted as a political consultant to the government and worked as a lawyer for Sonatrach, an oil company. In 1980 he went to Czechoslovakia to work for the CPE's paper Peace and Socialism. "I repeatedly asked to come home but the party kept saying it was too dangerous. Eventually it became clear they wanted me out of Egypt."
Did they invent a pretext to marginalise a popular former cadre who enjoyed widespread support among the labour movement?
Darwish does not say.
Was the struggle worth it, then, in spite of everything?
"It is," he says simply, "a struggle for justice."
photo: Sherif Sonbol