|Sultan Ahmad Fuad became King Faud I in 1922. Image from Wikipedia Commons.|
A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt
Part 8: 1922-1923 period — Socialist and labor activism flourish despite foreign-dominated monarchy.
By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | September 2, 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 1922 “the British decided unilaterally…to allow Egypt formal independence…because of the realistic possibility that the 1919 Revolution could recur,” according to Selma Botman’s Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952.
Yet despite obtaining its formal independence from the UK on February 28, 1922, “Egypt of the pre-Nasser period was dominated by foreigners: the British controlled the upper levels of the military and the government, and people of various European nationalities owned and operated the banks, hotels, textile factories, and insurance companies,” according to the same book.
Although the UK-selected Sultan Ahmad Fuad was now officially the king of a formally independent Egyptian monarchical government in March 1922, the UK government still “retained the right to maintain the security of British imperial communications through Egypt (i.e., the Suez Canal),” according to Jason Thompson’s A History of Egypt; and during the next few decades “more than once Royal Navy warships appeared before the palace windows in Alexandria when the British wanted a controversial decision to go their way…”
A “strong British military presence remained in Egypt, not only in the canal zone but also in Alexandria and in Cairo, where the British army barracks stood in the middle of town on the site now occupied by the Nile Hilton Hotel,” and “a British high commissioner…was quite willing to intervene,” according to the same book.
Despite the monarchical government’s censorship policy, during the next few years “between 15,000 and 20,000 workers” in Egypt “were influenced by” the anti-imperialist Egyptian Socialist Party’s labor activism, according to Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa‘at El-Sa’id’s The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988.
Party activists mobilized workers, organized meetings, and recruited new members in the Alexandria and al-Mahulah al industrial districts of Egypt; and one of the Egyptian Socialist Party’s founders, Joseph Rosenthal, organized 3,000 Egyptian workers to become members of the General Union of Workers (Itihad al-Naqabot al-‘Am) before being expelled from the Egyptian Socialist Party in December 1922 for opposing the party’s decision to accept the Comintern’s requirements for being affiliated to the Comintern.
Between August 1921 and April 1922, Egyptian workers in 50 different Egyptian workplaces were mobilized to fight for improved labor conditions in 91 separate strike actions. Tram workers in Alexandria went on strike for 42 days, Cairo’s tram workers went on strike for 102 days, and workers at the Shell Oil Refinery in Egypt went on strike for 113 days.
By late 1922, the Egyptian Socialist Party had recruited around 400 members in its Alexandria branch and about 1,100 members in its branches in other Egyptian cities; and the General Union of Workers — that Egyptian Socialist Party members led — now had about 20,000 members.
After affiliating with the Third International’s Comintern, the Egyptian Socialist Party then changed its name to the Egyptian Communist Party; and, led by a Central Committee which Hosni al-‘Arabi’ chaired, adopted the following program for the democratization of Egyptian society in its January 1923 meeting:
- nationalization of the Suez Canal;
- the liberation and unification of Egypt and the Sudan;
- the repudiation of all Egyptian state debts and foreign capitulation agreements;
- an 8-hour workday;
- equal pay for Egyptian and foreign workers in Egypt;
- abolition of land tenancy agreements in which Egyptian peasants had to pay 50 percent of the crop on rented land to large landowners;
- the cancellation of the debts of all Egyptian peasants who owned less than 10 feddans of land; and
- the restriction of landownership by individual landlords in Egypt to no more than 100 feddans.
To prevent the development of an anti-imperialist leftist movement of workers and intellectuals in Egypt during the early 1920s, however, a “special bureau” had been established by the UK-backed Egyptian Ministry of the Interior in 1921 “to monitor the activities” of the Egyptian Socialist Party; and “in their opposition to socialist activists the British found allies within the Egyptian bourgeoisie and religious circles,” according to The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988.
In addition, a Constitution for Egypt, “written by Egyptian legal experts who were sympathetic to the king and the British,” was also decreed on April 19, 1923, which set up an Egyptian Senate and Chamber of Deputies — with members elected only by Egyptian men, “except for the two-fifths of the Senate who were appointed by the king” of Egypt, according to Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952.
This same Egyptian Constitution of 1923 also “gave excessive power to the monarch, who was granted authority to dismiss cabinets, dissolve parliament and appoint and unseat prime ministers,” according to the same book.
And besides holding excessive political power under the April 1923 Egyptian Constitution, “the royal family of Egyptian King Fuad also “owned about one-tenth of the arable land in Egypt” in 1923, according to A History of Egypt. Yet, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Egyptian monarchical government’s minister of finance and communications in 1923, Joseph Cattaui, was of Jewish religious background.
[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.]