HISTORY / Bob Feldman : A People’s History of Egypt, Part 11, Section 2, 1945-1946

Henri Curiel was the leading figure in the Egyptian communist movement in the 1940s.

A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt

Part 11: 1945-1946 period/Section 2 — Egyptian communist groups grow and face government retaliation.

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | November 15, 2013

[With all the dramatic activity in Egypt, Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog “people’s history” series, “The Movement to Democratize Egypt,” could not be more timely. Also see Feldman’s “Hidden History of Texas” series on The Rag Blog.]

In The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970, Selma Botman noted that some “young, modern, emancipated Egyptian women” in the 1940s “went on to become leaders of students’, women’s and leftist movements” in Egypt and “joined the budding underground communist movement.”

But according to Botman, during the 1940s Egyptian “communist women did not work primarily through existing women’s organizations” in Egypt “like Huda Shaarawi’s Feminist Union or Fatma Nimit Rashid’s Feminist Party, largely because of ideological differences;” but, instead, “set up a new group in 1944-45 called the League of Women Students and Graduates from the University and Egyptian Institutions [Rabitat Fatayat al-Jamia wa al-Maahid al-Mirriyya] which “included some 50 women.”

Four separate Egyptian communist groups existed in Egypt in the early 1940s, but the founder of the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation [al-Haraka al-Mussiyya Tahamar al-Watana], Henri Curiel, was considered “the leading figure in the whole of the Egyptian communist movement in the 1940s,” according to Botman.

In early 1945, Curiel’s Egyptian Movement for National Liberation [EMNL] had founded the Congress of the Union of Workers of Public Companies and Institutions (whose members were shopkeepers, tram workers, cinema workers, textile workers, and electrical industry workers in Egypt) that “was carefully monitored” by the UK-backed monarchical Egyptian government, according to the same book.

So, not surprisingly, when the EMNL “scheduled a mass meeting on May 1, 1946 to coordinate the diverse affairs of Egyptian labor,” the Egyptian government’s “Prime Minister Sidqi prevented the meeting from taking place,” according to The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970.

But on May 1, 1946 EMNL activists and other anti-imperialist Egyptian left nationalists still were able to form a new group, the Congress of the Union of Egyptian Workers, which then made the following demands for the democratization of post-World War II Egyptian society:

  1. the total evacuation of UK imperialist troops from Egypt’s Nile Valley;
  2. the same standards and labor laws for all Egyptian workers;
  3. factory closings in Egypt should be prevented;
  4. the firing of workers from their jobs in Egypt should be prohibited;
  5. all Egyptian workers imprisoned for their involvement in union or patriotic activities should be released;
  6. a 40-hour work limit without any reduction in pay should be established for all Egyptian workers;
  7. all Egyptian workers should receive at least one weekend holiday; and
  8. the first day of May should be established as an annual Labor Day holiday in Egypt.

And besides gaining some mass support from Egyptian workers by 1946, the EMNL, during the 1940s, “also made inroads” into the Egyptian army and among “a group of noncommissioned officers” in the Egyptian air force, according to Botman’s book.

Another communist group that existed in Egypt in 1946, Iskra, had been founded in 1942 or 1943 by an Egyptian leftist named Hillel Schwartz. Iskra, however, focused more on recruiting Egyptian intellectuals than did the EMLN group. Although Schwartz’s underground Iskra group had fewer members than Curiel’s EMNL communist group in the 1940s, it had a higher percentage of women in its membership.

As one of its legal front groups, the outlawed underground Iskra also had created in 1944 a House of Scientific Research [Dar al-Abhath al-Ilmiya] — which published Muhammad Hasan Ahmad’s Egyptian anti-imperialist left critique of the politics of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood group, The Muslim Brotherhood in the Balance [al-Ikhwar al-muslimun fi al-mizan].

According to The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970:

This book…expressed Iskra’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood… The organization was identified as fascist in outlook and as a potentially dangerous competitor. It was criticized for spreading divisive Islamic propaganda the aim of which was to separate Muslims, Copti, and Jews, and for weakening the nationalist movement against imperialism by refusing to participate in joint activity with other political groups. Moreover, it was condemned for diffusing the anticipated opposition by urging Muslim workers to cooperate with Muslim industrialists because of religious communality…

Coincidentally, however, when the Egyptian monarchical government’s Prime Minister Sidqi, “in retaliation against the unity of the people around the National Committee of Workers and Students [NCWS]” in Egypt, according to The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970, “moved against” the anti-imperialist Egyptian left and nationalist left opposition on July 11, 1946, “with the arrest of hundreds of journalists, intellectuals, political and labor leaders, students and professionals, on…trumped up charges,” Iskra’s House of Scientific Research was also closed down by the Egyptian government — along with 10 other Egyptian political, cultural, and labor organizations and all of the Egyptian left’s journals.

Prior to the July 11, 1946, repression of dissident Egyptian groups, a third Egyptian communist group, the Popular Vanguard for Liberation, had set up a women’s committee to “politicize and organize women comrades” in Egypt, according to Selma Botman’s book, which hoped to accomplish the following political objectives:

  1. to distribute internal propaganda within the Popular Vanguard for Liberation Group to challenge male chauvinist ideology among leftist Egyptian men with respect to Egyptian women’s role in the fight for democracy and a socialist society in Egypt;
  2. to organize women factory workers in Egypt;
  3. to mobilize the wives and sisters of Egyptian leftist men to become more politically active;
  4. to watch for signs of male chauvinist behavior towards their sisters and wives by Egyptian men;
  5. to publicize the special economic and political problems faced by unmarried Egyptian women and Egyptian housewives in 1940s Egyptian society; and
  6. to agitate about the rising cost of living in 1940s Egyptian society.

In its July 11, 1946, crackdown on anti-imperialist left and nationalist Egyptian dissidents, the government  arrested 200 people but only ended up accusing 20 Egyptian left dissidents of “criminal” behavior and only 49 other imprisoned dissidents of “communist activities.”

Besides shutting down Egypt’s House of Scientific University in July 1946, the monarchical regime also shut down at the same time Egypt’s Committee to Spread Popular Culture, Egypt’s Popular University, Egypt’s Union of University Graduates, Egypt’s Center for Popular Culture, Egypt’s Twentieth Century Publishing House, and Egypt’s League of Women Graduates from the University and Higher Institutes, along with three Egyptian bookstores (including the al-Midan bookstore of leftist Egyptian Movement for National Liberation founder Henri Curiel).

In addition, newspapers of the dissident Egyptian groups were banned. And, according to a report of Egypt’s International League of Human Rights cited by The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970. “over 250 flats were literally turned upside down,” “every paper, every book was examined,” and “bedrooms were forced open and wives and sisters undressed, were terrorized with armed policemen pointing guns at the bed.”

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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