HISTORY / Bob Feldman : A People’s History of Egypt, Part 6, 1890-1917

Cairo street scene, early 1900’s. Image from mfish.

A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt

Part 6: 1890-1917 period — Early union-building and calls for economic reform.

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | August 13, 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 series on The Rag Blog.]

As long ago as 1890, some leftist activists and intellectuals who lived in UK- and Ottoman Empire-dominated Egypt were attempting to create a democratic political system that also distributed the national wealth of Egypt to its workers and peasants in a more equitable way.

In 1890, “the earliest formal presentation in Egypt of Marxist theory” was published in the influential Egyptian journal al-Mua’yyad,” according to Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa‘at El-Sa’id’s 1990 book The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988. And, according to the same book, “documents prove that communist cells existed in the Greek immigrant communities of Cairo and Alexandria as early as 1894.”

But as early as 1894, activists living in Egypt who wanted to see Egyptian society politically and economically democratized were being arrested by Egyptian government police. As The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988, also recalled, “an attempt by a Greek resident to distribute…leaflets was recorded in Egyptian newspapers on March 18, 1894” and “the police arrest record described the literature as `anarchist leaflet’ calling for the workers to celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871.”

Greek immigrant workers who lived in Egypt and worked for the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company went on strike for higher wages in 1895; and that same year a sponge merchant and labor organizer named Sakilarides Yanakakis (who also funded the communist movement in Egypt’s Greek immigrant community until the 1920s) was able to organize shoe workers (who were mostly workers of Armenian and Greek ethnic background) into Egypt’s first labor union.

After immigrating to Egypt around 1899 and becoming an Egyptian citizen (when around 25,000 people of Jewish religious background then lived in Egypt), another labor organizer, Joseph Rosenthal, also began organizing workers who lived in Egypt into labor unions during the first quarter of the 20th century. As Rosenthal recalled in an article he later wrote:

The first union in which I participated in its formation was the Union of the Cigarette Workers. After that I participated in the formation of several unions for the tailors, miners, and printers. These unions mostly belonged to foreign workers because the national workers at that time [in Egypt] were a minority in all crafts and fields relative to their foreign colleagues.

Between 1907 and 1917, the number of blue collar workers in Egyptian society then increased from 489,296 to 639,929. But “any efforts at organized labor” in Egypt “for improvement of its conditions were perceived by British intelligence and Egyptian security forces as…subversion and harshly put down by the government,” according to Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa‘at El-Sa’id’s The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988.

Egyptian students returning from Europe and Egyptian intellectuals who attempted to popularize socialist or Marxist ideas among people who lived in Egypt were subject to police repression prior to 1917. After Egyptian intellectual Mustafa Hassanain al-Mansuri wrote and published his book, Tarikh al-Mathahib al-Istirakiyab (“The history of socialist ideologies”) in 1915, “al-Mansuri was treated as a conspirator,” his book was confiscated, his house was searched, and “he was temporarily arrested,” according to The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988.

In the final chapter (titled “Egypt and Socialism”) of his book, al-Mansuri had proposed the enactment of democratic reforms within Egyptian society such as the following:

  1. The enactment of laws which guaranteed free elections;
  2. the dissolving of the Egyptian legislature every three years;
  3. a legislative representative for every 100,000 Egyptians;
  4. a law which prohibited polygamy in Egypt;
  5. the emancipation of Egyptian women after education was spread among them;
  6. acceptance by the Egyptian government of Egyptian women as government clerical workers;
  7. pensions for Egyptian senior citizens;
  8. free education for people who lived in Egypt; and
  9. social democratic economic reforms.

During the last three-quarters of the 19th century, much of the Egyptian state-owned land that Muhammad Ali had expropriated from the Mamluks and Waqf religious orders had eventually been granted by Muhammad Ali and his successors to “a new Turkish-speaking aristocracy that owned vast estates,” according to Jason Thompson’s A History of Egypt.

By the beginning of World War I around 44 percent of the land in Egypt was then owned by just 12,400 people whose average landholding was 50 feddans; and around 12 percent of these large Egyptian landowners were foreign.

In contrast, 11,190,000 people in rural Egypt — representing 91 percent of the rural landowning population — then owned less than five feddans of land. So a social democratic agrarian economic reform was especially needed in rural Egypt by 1915.

[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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