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

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

MakramOne 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 freedom.

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.

Salama Moussa
Salama Moussa
Abdel-Azim Ramadan
Abdel-Azim Ramadan Rifaat El-Said
Rifaat El-Said
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 sons."

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 communism."

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 from 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 surgery.

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.


Dr Yunan

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

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