The Passionate Life of an Egyptian – Communist and Jew

A journey of almost a century through the history of Egypt, from monarchy to republic, from British occupation to national independence and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. And how to be an Egyptian, a Jew and a communist at the same time.

‘Does your homeland stick to the sole of your shoes when you leave?’ Albert Arié was thinking of Danton and the French Revolution which so enthused him at the Cairo Lycée when he turned down a deal with the police: give up your Egyptian nationality in exchange for freedom and expulsion to Israel. The communist, Jewish Egyptian would pay a high price for his convictions. He was incarcerated in prisons and camps for more than a decade, from 1953 to 1964.

In an autobiography published in 2022, some months after his death, he recounts an extraordinary life.1 With his peerless memory, he brings alive whole slices of Egyptian history that had fallen into oblivion, reviving the memory of so many dead militants who gave their lives, in every sense of the word, for their ideals. Taking part in an event in Cairo on 18 March to mark the publication, I was able to gauge the interest stirred in a new generation by this experience. One could even perhaps dream that one day the names of these forgotten figures from Egyptian history – Chohdi Atiya al-Chafei and Chehata Haroun, Zaki Mourad and Mohammad Sid-Ahmad, Didar Fawzi and Henri Curiel – might be given to streets and squares, as happened in France with worker or political militants.

Albert Arié, known as Titi to his friends, was born in 1930 in a cosmopolitan Cairo which was an uneven mix of foreigners and locals, Muslims, Jews and Christians, former Ottoman citizens and European passport holders. He was educated at the French lycée in Bab el-Louk, which opened to him a vast world of global culture and politics without ever impinging on his love for his country. As Jean Jaurès put it: ‘A little internationalism takes you away from your homeland, a lot brings you back.’ Mixing with Marxist teachers, and above all the second world war whose twists and turns he followed passionately despite his youth, consolidated his political education. ‘My generation,’ he wrote, ‘came to Marxism to the sound of the cannons of Stalingrad.’ So, it was more or less natural that Albert should join one of the proliferating communist organisations which, for all their squabbles and splits, played an active role in the anti-British struggles which stirred the Egyptian people, especially in the winter and spring of 1946 with the creation of a National Committee of workers and students, and the mass demonstrations against the presence of the British occupiers, the detested colonisers.

The Birth of Israel

The Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the creation of Israel led to intensified pressure and weakening of the communists because of their support for the UN plan to partition Palestine. That support had nothing to do with the Jewish role in the communist movement, as some have written, but stemmed from the USSR’s decision: in 1947 it was out of the question for a communist organisation to oppose the Soviet Communist Party. The communists also promoted the idea that the real battle with imperialism was taking place in Egypt and that Egyptian military intervention against Israel above all allowed King Farouk to divert the people from the struggle against the British, which was true enough but did not prevent the King from accusing them of Zionism, an ideology they had always resisted. Moreover, it was this same monarchy which throughout the 1930s and until 1948 tolerated the presence and activities of Zionist organisations in Egypt.

The arrest of most communist adherents in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948-9 pushed Albert, barely 18 years old, into a key role in the party’s clandestine organisation. His days were full. In the morning, he followed his studies at the university; in the afternoon, he worked in his father’s shop, New London House, which sold sports kit among other things and which, despite its Jewish ownership, was frequented by army officers and Muslim Brotherhood leaders. And in the evening, he would pick up two different members of the party leadership who had evaded the roundup and could only meet in this precarious way, and drive them around in his car all night, enhancing his political education by listening to their discussions.

Repression eased with the arrival in power of the big nationalist Wafd party in 1950. The communists took part in the armed struggle against British troops on the Suez Canal, set about organising the working class, and developed contacts with army officers aghast at Egypt’s defeat by Israel, which they blamed on King Farouk. It was in that same year that Henri Curiel, leader of the main communist organisation Hadeto (Arabic acronym for the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, MDLN) was stripped of his nationality and deported to Italy against his will. He told the policemen that the government had changed with the arrival of the Wafd, but they replied: ‘The government, yes, but not the police.’ Successive powers, first the King and then the various presidents, took over the services of the anti-communist political police created by the British. Before becoming a national practice, the removal of militants’ nationality was initiated in the early 20th century by the British against ‘seditious elements,’ often Greeks, Armenians or Jews, as documented by [the work of the historian Rim Naguib – >https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/42065/Rim-Naguib].

Free Officers and comrades

On 23 July 1952, the Free Officers overthrew the hated and corrupt King Farouk and declared the republic a year later. Hadeto supported them, but relations remained conflictual, as an anecdote recounted by Albert shows. Hadeto was secretly printing the Free Officers’ statements in the early 1950s – mainly on Egypt, but there were also some denouncing the American war in Korea, which at the time was rare outside communist circles. Despite this, the political police staged a raid and confiscated the equipment. Among those arrested was an Armenian whose job it was to deliver the tracts to the Free Officers, and who was stunned to discover, when he saw pictures of the new leaders in the papers, that the contact he had been handing the material to was none other than Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Officers’ strongman. The impounded roneo machine ended up in the Museum of the Revolution, without any indication that it had been seized from the communists.

Hadeto, unlike some other communist organisations, felt it had to support the Free Officers because they were nationalist and anti-imperialist. Some of the Officers were communists – the movement brought together all tendencies, including the Muslim Brotherhood. But the early support was soon abandoned. One episode struck home, the trial and execution of two militant workers in 1952 after a strike. More significant still was the position of the international communist movement. Stalin was still alive, the Soviet world view was binary, and tended to see the Middle East as a zone of confrontation between ‘old’ British colonialism and the ‘new imperialism’ of the US. Already in principle distrustful of any military coup, Moscow detected an American hand behind Nasser.

Nasser was, moreover, suspicious of any popular dynamic which he did not control. He took over and adopted all the demands which had been advanced by the popular movement for at least 20 years: real national independence, agrarian reform, social rights for the workers, and a greater place for women in society. But he clamped down on, indeed repressed, the movements which had borne those very demands. And he reduced the various organs that he created – the single party, unions, women’s movement, etc. – to transmission mechanisms closely monitored by the political police, and which proved incapable of resisting the counter-revolution unleashed by Anwar Sadat from 1970.

Life in the camps

So the communists were plunged into opposition and tried, with little success, to create a broad front including the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood, against what they denounced as dictatorship. In 1953 they were hit by a wave of arrests which almost totally crushed them, and Albert was arrested. Dramatic times – for it is dramatic to be deprived of family and friends just for defending political ideas – but also the best time of his life, he admitted, as it allowed him to get to know his country and its citizens better, those ‘down below,’ the oft-despised little people, rubbing shoulders with watchmen and thieves, policemen and criminals, militants and assassins.

If he experienced the worst of human nature, he also recounts some admirable moments of solidarity which enabled resistance through hunger strikes, mobilisation against bad treatment, and keeping in touch with the outside world. In the camps, he takes part in a subsistence agriculture project and the establishment of a popular university, with one section dedicated to literacy, the only condition of enrolment being to bring your own pencil and paper. Prison guards and common criminals came to learn to read and write, and some of them later continued their studies in primary and secondary schools.

This resistance was fuelled by the families of detainees who, thanks to funds collected by Henri Curiel and his group of exiles in France, were able openly or clandestinely to pass food, books and newspapers to the inmates. In one of my last meetings with Albert in Cairo, in 2019, he told me about the central role played by my mother as liaison in operations to transfer funds, much to the annoyance of the police who never manage to identify her. Among the great exploits was the delivery of a radio which allowed the detainees, clustered around it in the dark, to keep across what was going on in the country. Thus, they were able to hear the famous speech by Nasser on 26 July 1956 announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, a step enthusiastically supported by the communists from their prison. But if some of them were freed, others such as Albert himself had to wait another six years. From this dark penal tunnel, he drew a lesson: no cause can justify the suppression of the state of law and justice, degrading conditions, and torture in prisons.

Off to Jerusalem on the 9.45

Drawn by what was going on in Palestine, Albert went there twice before the creation of Israel. But he swiftly realised that Egypt was his only homeland: he was born there and that was where he wanted to die. He would remain Egyptian through thick and thin. Although he was only 15, he joined the Jewish Anti-Zionist League. Unlike other Jewish communities in the Arab world, the Egyptian Jews had very diverse origins. Some had been there for centuries, some had arrived more recently in the 19th century, and some were citizens of the Ottoman Empire. They did not dream of Palestine. Outside a small Zionist minority, nobody felt the need for a Jewish state or to translate the incantation ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ into reality, when it sufficed, as Gilles Perrault nicely put it in his biography of Henri Curiel, to take the 9.45 morning train from Cairo to get there.

If the arrival in power of the Free Officers did nothing to change the situation of the Egyptian Jews, the intensifying conflict with Israel from 1954-55 threw them into jeopardy. Israel tried to use them as a fifth column, as illustrated by the Lavon affair, when in July 1954 Mossad organised attacks on American and British interests in Egypt, to be blamed on nationalists and thus compromise relations between those two countries and Cairo. The network was dismantled and some of its members executed, others imprisoned. In such an atmosphere, many elements in the state apparatus and the media fuelled suspicion of the Jews, indeed sank into antisemitism. A number of Jews were arbitrarily arrested, stripped of their possessions and deported from the country, denounced as Zionists. In an unpublished paper written in French, Albert recounts the story of one of his Ashkenazi Jewish friends, Israel Frounkine. ‘I learned that his comrades had persuaded him to leave Egypt, because there was no place for Jews in the Egyptian communist movement. I thus collided for the first time with a concept of communism of which I was unaware. Unfortunately, it was not the last.’

Albert countered that attitude with things that happened in the camp: ‘One of the young men from the Lavon affair had been lashed directly across the face by one of the guards, a brute by the name of Abdel Latif Rushdi. The Palestinians [there were many Palestinians from Gaza, including communists, in the camps] had asked all the politicals to stand with the Zionist detainees. In an ironic twist of fate, Hassan el-Gebali, the Palestinian communist leader who defended him, was assassinated some years later in Gaza by the Israelis.’ For Albert, everybody deserved to be treated humanely whatever his ideas.

And after…

It is not so easy to reconstruct yourself after prison. The country has changed, friends have left, fellow detainees disperse. But Albert managed to rebuild his life, to apply his ‘agricultural expertise’ to set up a company exporting fresh produce. He married and had two children, Samy and Hany. With the ‘The Drop of Milk’ association2 he dedicated himself at the end of his life to working to preserve the Jewish heritage, a heritage he believed was forgotten unfairly because it is an integral part of Egyptian history.

For any journalist arriving in Cairo, especially for the French, Albert’s city-centre apartment, with a view of Tahrir Square, was an indispensable stop for being brought up to speed with what was going on in the country, and Titi shared that role of guide with his friend, the Jewish lawyer and communist Chehata Haroun. I for one headed for his place on each of my trips to Cairo, and we could converse at length not only about Egypt, but also about Europe, the situation in Vietnam or Poland, or about French history which he knew better than anyone; he did not hesitate to take his interlocutor to task if he forgot this or that episode in the history of the Third Republic.

Albert distanced himself from the Egyptian communists because, especially in the 1980s, they plunged into a dogmatism detached from reality and saw the end of the Soviet Union not as the failure of a bungled experiment, but as the result of a ‘grand Zionist conspiracy.’ Despite everything, he remained true to his ideals to the end. And he adopted the words of his friend Claire Hazan, also born in Egypt but forced into exile, on her deathbed:

We had great hopes and dreams of a better world in which social justice would prevail, and even if we were not able to fulfil our dreams, others will follow us to accomplish what we failed to achieve.

1Albert Arié, Memoirs of an Egyptian Jew (in Arabic), Dar Al-Shourouk, Cairo, 2022.

2[This association – >https://www.facebook.com/groups/189099621661090] was established at the start of the 20th century to help impoverished Egyptian Jewish children, notably by giving them milk for breakfast. It later developed philanthropic activities. In 2016, it changed its status to focus on preserving Egyptian Jewish heritage.