[This Essential Reading is the “Egypt” installment of a focused series on “The Left in the Middle East. Encompassing a broad range of entry points to researching and teaching the left, the series emphasizes communist and socialist components, while allowing authors to define the specific parameters of said emphasis in their installment.
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The first English-language accounts of Marxism in the Middle East were framed by the Cold War. In “Communism and Islam,” International Affairs 30, no.1 (1954): 1–12, Bernard Lewis argued that the authoritarianism and anti-Westernism of Soviet communism was, despite its atheism, potentially compatible with the values and practices of “Islamic civilization.” In contrast, Walter Lacquer’s Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956) portrayed communism as an ideology wholly foreign to the local culture. The Egyptian communist movement, in which Jews were prominent leaders, is the exemplary case for that view.
Refuting these Cold War perspectives, Ilham Khuri-Makdisi’s The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) argues that social democratic, anarchist, and Marxist currents in Egypt and the Levant were part of the global history of the radical left from the latenineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Through a re-reading of the late-Nahda period, she identifies two multi-ethnic transnational networks that circulated socialist and anarchist ideas through the press, theater groups, and labor movements in Beirut, Alexandria, and Cairo. In 1921 members of those networks established a left-oriented trade union federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in Alexandria, the Egyptian Socialist Party, and the first Communist Party of Egypt.
Marwa al-Shakry’s Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) similarly revisits the Nahda to link Darwinism, science, secularism, and the early Arab proponents of socialism: the Lebanese Christian emigré intellectuals in Egypt—Farah Antun, Niqula Haddad, Shibli Shumayyil—and Shumayyil’s Egyptian protegé, Salama Musa. Musa, although never really a radical, was among the founders of the Egyptian Socialist Party. Vernon Egger’s A Fabian in Egypt, Salamah Musa and the Rise of the Professional Classes in Egypt, 1909-1939 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986) examines Musa’s Fabian socialism.
In 1924 Egypt’s first nominally independent government (Egypt was still under British occupation and semi-colonial rule) suppressed the Communist Party of Egypt established three years earlier and the CGT, after which there was no organized expression of Marxism in Egypt for over a decade. Suliman Bashear’s Communism in the Arab East, 1918-1928 (London: Ithaca Press, 1980) is the first well-researched account of this initial period.
As a teenager, Rif‘at al-Sa‘id joined the Marxist Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL, 1947–55), formed by the fusion of the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation (EMNL, est. 1943)—led by the charismatic and controversial Henri Curiel—and the Iskra organization (est. 1942)—led by Hillel Schwartz. During the more permissive, though hardly liberal, regime of President Anwar al-Sadat (r. 1970–81), al-Sa‘id began writing histories of socialism and Marxism in Egypt. His pioneering books on the post-1940 history of the Egyptian left reflect the perspective of the DMNL: Tarikh al-Haraka al-Shuyu‘iyya al-Misriyya: al-Sahafa al-‘Ilniyya [The History of the Egyptian Communist Movement: The Public Press] (Cairo, 1987); Tarikh al-Haraka al-Shuyu‘iyya al-Misriyya min 1940 ila 1950 [The History of the Egyptian Communist Movement from 1940 to 1950] (Cairo, 1988); Munazzamat al-Yasariyya al-Misriyya, 1950-1957 [The Egyptian Leftist Organizations, 1950-1957] (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 1983); Tarikh al-Haraka al-Shuyu‘iyya al-Misriyya: al-Wahda, al-Inqisam, al-Hall, 1957-1965 [The History of the Egyptian Communist Movement: Unity, Division, and Dissolution, 1957-1965] (Cairo, 1986).
Sa‘id’s Arabic oeuvre is the foundation of Egyptian-Arabic historiography on Egyptian Marxism and also of what might be called its “pro-Curiel” school. Selma Botman’s The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1979 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988) is the first English-language contribution to this school. Tareq Ismael and Rifa‘at El-Sa‘id, The Communist Movement in Egypt, 1920-1988 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990) summarizes and extends al-Sa‘ids work with a more conventional scholarly apparatus. Gilles Perrault’s A Man Apart: The Life of Henri Curiel (London: Zed Books, 1987) is the English translation of the first half of his Un homme à part (Paris: Barrault, 1984)—an admiring and somewhat romanticized biography facilitated by Curiel’s friends and comrades to “set the record straight” after wild conspiracy theories circulated following his 1978 assassination in Paris by unknown assailants.
Members of the Marxist tendency serially known as New Dawn, Workers’ Vanguard, and ultimately the Workers and Peasants Communist Party, motivated in part by their antipathy to Curiel, tried to counter what they considered distortions of the history of the Egyptian left. Ahmad Sadiq Sa‘d, al-Yasar al-Misri fi A‘qab al-Harb al-‘Alamiyya al-Thaniyya, 1945-1946 [The Egyptian Left in the Wake of the Second World War, 1945-1946] (Cairo: Madbuli, 1976) and Abu Sayf Yusuf, Wathaʼiq wa-Mawaqif min Tarikh al-Yasar al-Misri, 1941-1957: Madda li-Tarikh Munazzamat Taliʻat al-ʻUmmal, 1941-1957 [Documents and Positions from the History of the Egyptian Left, 1941-1957: History of the Workers’ Vanguard Party] (Cairo, 2000) present collections of articles in their historic organs and other documents.
The smallest, but most pro-Soviet orthodox tendency, took the name of the Communist Party of Egypt but was generally known as al-Raya, after its newspaper Rayat al-Sha‘b (People’s Flag). It was antagonistic to Curiel and to the participation of Jews altogether in the communist movement. Mustafa Tiba presents their perspective in al-Haraka al-Shuyu‘iyya al-Misriyya, 1945-1965: Ru’ya Dakhiliyya [The Egyptian Communist Movement, 1945-1965: An Internal View] (Cairo: Sina lil-Nashr, 1990). The leader of al-Raya, Fu’ad Mursi, authored its foundational theoretical statement, Tatawwur al-Ra’smaliyya wa-Kifah al-Tabaqat fi Misr [The Development of Capitalism and Class Struggle in Egypt] (Cairo: Kitabat al-Misr al-Jadid, 1990; the first 1949 edition was never openly circulated) modeled on Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia.
By the 2000s, former members of the several communist organizations unearthed their archives, making many more documents available. The Center for Arab and African Studies (Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya wa-l-Ifriqiyya) convened a “Committee to Document the History of the Egyptian Communist Movement until 1965” whose most prominent member was ‘Asim al-Dusuqi. They produced at least two volumes entitled Wathaʼiq al-Haraka al-Shuyuʻiyya al-Misriyya [Documents of the Egyptian Communist Movement], vol. 1, 1944-1952 (Cairo: Dar al-ʻAlim al-Thalith, 2007) and vol. 2, 1953-1954 (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 2011).
Except for Khuri-Makdisi and Perrault, the aforementioned books focus on intellectual and institutional history. In contrast, Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman’s Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882‑1954 (Princeton University Press, 1987) treats socialist and Marxist currents, along with other political tendencies, as part of the social history of the working class.
The formation and subsequent splintering of the DMNL and its position on the partition of Palestine remain subjects of political controversy in Egypt to this day. Because Curiel and Schwartz were Jews, the question of Palestine has often been polemically linked to the role of Jews in the movement—a subject which has received disproportionate attention in both Arabic and English. The main English-language books treating this topic are Irmgard Schrand, Jews in Egypt: Communists and Citizens (Münster: Lit, 2004) and Rami Ginat, A History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2011). Ginat’s title is unfortunate, since Jews were always a minority in the movement and only the al-Raya group, which excluded Jews, thought that a socialist revolution was on the agenda. My own work inadvertently contributed to the disproportionate attention to Jews in the communist movement, although Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965 (University of California Press, 1990) sought to de-exceptionalize that topic through a relational history of Marxist currents in Egypt and Israel.
Just as Khuri-Makdisi situated the circulation of socialist ideas in early-twentieth-century Egypt in a broader context, Roel Meijer’s The Quest for Modernity: Secular Liberal and Left-Wing Political Thought in Egypt, 1945-1958 (Amsterdam: Institute for Near Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Amsterdam, 1995) examines Egyptian Marxism in its heyday (roughly corresponding to the dates of Meijer’s book) as a modernist current of thought responding to the limits of liberalism.
Nasserist Arab Socialism appropriated the role that Egyptian Marxists assumed was theirs. Rami Ginat’s Egypt’s Incomplete Revolution: Lutfi al-Khuli and Nasser’s Socialism in the 1960s (London: Frank Cass, 1997) considers this development through an intellectual history focused on Lutfi al-Khuli, who had been a communist until 1955. He was an independent Marxist when he was imprisoned in 1959-60 but joined the Nasserist establishment in 1961 while maintaining ties to some of his former comrades.
The three major currents in the Egyptian communist movement united as the Communist Party of Egypt on 8 January 1958. The party soon split into two factions— one more supportive of the Iraqi Free Officers who ousted the Hashemite monarchy on 14 July 1958 (which kept the CPE name) and one more supportive of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser (which reverted to the name, DMNL). The efficacy of Egyptian communism was further weakened when the Nasser regime arrested and imprisoned nearly every known Marxist activist on 1 January 1959. Most of them were tortured in prison and five died there.
Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, ended the systematic torture of political prisoners and encouraged torture survivors to speak out to highlight his regime’s supposedly more “democratic” character in contrast to Nasser’s. This authorized a literature of prison memoirs. Some authors sharply condemned the Nasser regime. Others with a more Arab nationalist orientation tended to be more forgiving. Tahir ‘Abd al-Hakim, al-Aqdam al-‘Ariyya, al-Shuyu‘iyyun al-Misriyyun: Sanawat fi Sujun wa-Mu‘askarat al-Ta’dhib [Bare Feet Egyptian Communists: Years in Torture Prisons and Camps] (Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun, 1978) represents the former view, while ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis, Rasa’il al-Hubb w-l-Huzn w-l-Thawra [Letters of Love, Sadness, and Revolution] (Cairo: Ruz al-Yusuf, 1976), the latter.
In 1965, after the communists were released from prison, both communist parties dissolved themselves. Nothing satisfactory has been written that fully explains that decision. The dissolution of the communist parties and Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War prompted the emergence of an Egyptian new left.
The Syrian philosopher, Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm’s Self-Criticism After the Defeat (London: Saqi Books, 2011) is among the most influential reassessments of Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism after the 1967 war and a foundational text of the Arab new left. The student-based Egyptian new left that flourished in the 1970s until a wave of repression in 1980 and 1981 was part of the regional new left, although it is less well-known than the intellectual center of gravity of the movement in Beirut.
The last chapters of Ahmed Abdalla, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt, 1923-1973 (London: Al-Saqi Books, 1985) present an account of the Egyptian new left by one of its public icons. Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student Movement Generation in Egypt (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2017) is a more personal, gendered, and critical memoir by a leading member of one of the largest organizations of the 1970s: the Egyptian Communist Workers Party. Hanan Hammad perceptively analyzes her life and oeuvre in “Arwa Salih’s The Premature: Gendering the History of the Egyptian Left,” Arab Studies Journal 24, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 118–42. Gennaro Gervasio’s “Marxism or Left-Wing Nationalism? The ‘New Left in Egypt’ in the 1970s,” in The Arab Lefts: Histories and Legacies, 1950s-1970s, ed. Laure Guirguis (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is based on his Italian doctoral thesis, which has so far been published only in Arabic as al-Haraka al-Marksiyya fi Misr 1967-1981 [The Marxist Movement in Egypt 1967-1981] (Cairo: The National Center for Translation, 2010).
Alongside the new left, the Communist Party of Egypt reorganized in 1975, although it was never legalized. In 1977 some members and former members of the CPE and others formed the one leftist party the Sadat regime was willing to authorize, the National Progressive Unionist Party (Hizb al-Tagammu‘ al-Watani al-Taqaddumi al-Wahdawi, know as the Tagammu‘). Husayn ‘Abd al-Raziq, a CPE member and editor of the Tagammu‘ newspaper, recounts some of the party debates of the 1980s through its history, al-Ahali: Sahifa Taht al-Hisar [al-Ahali: A Newspaper under Seige] (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alam al-Thalith, 1995). The Tagammu‘ and its members published a great deal. One of the more valuable documents of the party’s early years is Husayn ‘Abd al-Raziq’s Misr fi 18, 19 Yanayir: Dirasa Watha’iqiyya [Egyp in 18 and 19 January: A Documentary Study] (Beirut: Dar al-Kalima, 1979)—an account of the Egyptian “bread uprising” of January 1977.
Journalists and photographers with a Marxist or left perspective, including Mostafa Bassiouny, Jano Charbel, Hossam el-Hamalawy, Gigi Ibrahim, Faiza Rady, and Fatma Ramadan chronicled the events of the popular uprising of January 25, 2011 with a rare focus on workers collective action. Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny’s Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2014) is based on extensive first-hand reportage and research and reflects the perspective of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialist organization and the British Socialist Workers Party. For a somewhat different perspective, see Joel Beinin, Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2016).