Arwa Salih and the Lost Generation of Egyptian Communism

Two generations of Egyptian Marxists debated how they should respond to Nasser and the system he founded. Some were defeated, some were co-opted — and their failure still haunts the Egyptian left today, fifty years after Nasser’s death.

Egyptian Communist Party flags in Tahrir Square. (Wikimedia Commons)

In June 1985, the Egyptian Marxist Arwa Salih composed a letter to an unnamed comrade from her self-imposed exile in Ishbiliyya (Seville), a city that she likened to “Egypt’s deep south.” In it, she raged with fire and fury upon the “so-called disillusioned Marxists” of Egypt’s fifties and sixties generation, who had made second careers of commandeering the budding student movement of 1970–73, and with whom her generation had “wasted the most important years of our lives”:

If I were ever to get the chance to help come up with a party platform, I’d fight tooth and nail in order to set one condition for prospective members: a minimum age of 30 and a history of earning their bread by the sweat of their brow like the rest of God’s creatures. Then we’d see who gets to play vanguard over whom . . . On this note, I have to tell you that I’ve developed a sudden and very strange aversion to old people that sometimes borders on physical revulsion. They appear to me to be a kind of calumny on life. I’m reminded of something awful I once heard about a Japanese custom that when people get old, they pack up a very little bit of food, climb up to the top of a mountain and wait for death to take them. I can’t help but think it might be a good idea really.

Salih had been a veteran underground activist, a leader of the student movement of the early 1970s that threatened to topple President Anwar Sadat’s new and widely unpopular regime, an author of several books and translations of Marxist literature, and a former member of the Central Committee of the most radical leftist organization of the time, the Egyptian Workers Communist Party (EWCP).

She was in Seville because she was depressed, because she was disgusted with the actions of many of her former comrades, and because the resounding political defeat of the Egyptian left by the beginning of that decade had left her disillusioned with the possibility of revolutionary change.

Poisoned Milk

The causes for her despair abound, but they all stemmed from the failure of her generation of Marxist revolutionaries to resist the neoliberal onslaught of the seventies and the dismal postcolonial order it ushered in. At the center of her critique, which spans issues of class, sexism, sectarianism, patriarchy, Stalinist tendencies of hyper-secrecy, and factionalism, was the idea that part of the responsibility lay with the sixties-era Egyptian Marxists.

According to Salih, their chief contribution as tutors and mentors of the budding “third-wave” communist movement was to stifle and obstruct any possibility for it to develop independently:

The communists of the sixties generation took different positions on the [Gamal Abdel] Nasser regime and on a host of other questions besides. Not all of these positions were worthy of respect, emerging as they did from a cloistered clique of leftists ravaged by the Defeat of 1967. Instead of leaving us to our own devices — of giving us the space to work out our living reality and to let experience sift out left from right — they nursed us on their poisoned milk.

Broadly speaking, these “different positions” tracked the two sides of the bitter debate that had raged among communists interned in Egyptian prisons in the first half of the 1960s. One tendency argued that the Nasserist regime represented some kind of advance toward socialism, which therefore deserved the full support of Egypt’s communists, even as they were being tortured in prison. The other insisted that the antidemocratic actions of the state and the exclusion of workers and wider sections of the population from the management of society and the means of production made continued communist opposition to the capitalist state necessary.

In practice, these positions translated into a vote of yes, no, or boycott at a wide general meeting of Egyptian communists that would decide the party’s fate in 1965 after their release from prison. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the Communist Party of Egypt.

In the letter, Salih focuses her anger at the “unemployed leaders” — those who found themselves imprisoned, harassed, or denied employment after they refused to dissolve the party and join Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union (ASU) — who had regrouped to form new clandestine organizations, into which they recruited many young members of the student movement like herself. According to her, Marxism “was just an easy key to conquest” for these “mediocre” men who had “passively” opposed Nasser without offering any viable alternative — the surest ticket to power and to the status of exalted elders to the children of the seventies who would be their “prey.”

Interestingly, she did not extend her ire to those who had actively joined the ASU and the bloated ranks of the state intelligentsia — those who opted for “the performance of a half-chanting song inside Nasser’s cage” — for they were at least consistent.

Autobiography of a Stillborn Generation

The letter is one of two items of personal correspondences appended to the end of Salih’s text, al-Mubtasirun, an eclectic and excoriating critique of the Egyptian Communist movement in the latter half of the twentieth century, authored in 1991 but only published five years later. The text tracks the evolution of Salih’s thought and experience as a woman in the communist movement and provides an exceptionally lucid insight into the issues of class, race, gender, and empire that have animated a new generation of Marxist and postcolonial scholars in recent years.

Salih was a revolutionary activist, who maintained an unwavering belief “in the truth of Marxism” throughout her life. She was first introduced to left-wing activism as a fifteen-year-old, reeling, along with the Egyptian nation, in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel. (She immediately found herself in an abusive romantic dalliance with a comrade twenty years her senior.) By 1970, she had emerged as a leading cadre in the student movement that swept Egypt’s university and city squares demanding an end to the military stalemate. That upsurge threatened to unravel Anwar Sadat’s young transitional regime.

For the next few years, Egypt’s youth led a large-scale movement, greatly supported by most sections of Egyptian society, against Sadat’s policy of “no war, no peace,” which as well as doing nothing to reclaim lost territories, also ensured that students could expect to be conscripted rather than employed on graduation. The latter was an ironic reversal of the fortunes of their parents under Nasser’s social compact, the promise of which Salih’s generation was soon to be thoroughly disabused.

In October 1973, just as the movement had begun to extend beyond student campuses and to dovetail with a spate of industrial action in factories and workplaces (then still state-owned), Sadat initiated the war against Israel. A combination of his initial success in crossing the Suez Canal, shrewd dealmaking after subsequent military reversals, and verbose propagandizing allowed Sadat to emerge from the war as a victorious leader, with significant national achievements under his belt.

This was more or less sufficient for Sadat to consolidate his power and set about implementing a series of far-reaching political, social, and economic policies that rolled back every notable hallmark of life and politics in Nasser’s Egypt. This policy shift came partly at the behest of the IMF, but it was also partly in line with shifts already visible since 1966 (when Egypt first turned to the IMF for monetary assistance to solve its impending bankruptcy, though the IMF’s offer was rejected that time).

The Lost Revolution

In January 1977, police and military forces swiftly repressed the “Bread Intifada,” an extension of the student and worker movements of 1971–73 and 1974–76, which had seen mass protests and riots across the country. By 1979, however, Sadat was gallivanting in Jerusalem, Israel and Egypt were at peace after the Camp David Accords, and Infitah — Egypt’s open door to private capital — was well underway. From the bleak vantage point of January 1980, the 1977 revolt, which activists of the seventies generation had dubbed the Lost Revolution, must have looked like Arab Socialism taking its final, dying gasp of breath.

The central theme of Salih’s book is precisely this steep rise and swift demise of the protest movement and a search for the causes of that trajectory. Its title offers a preview of her answer and recalls Antonio Gramsci’s morbid predictions for the space “where the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born”: in Arabic, al-Mubtasirun means the “premature” or “stillborn.”

For Salih, the seventies revolts were premature undertakings by a stillborn generation, who could not parlay their successful political mobilization on nationalist platforms into a meaningful defense of the social and economic questions which as Marxists had initially animated them. Employing a mix of literary criticism, theory, psychobiographical sketches, and personal testimony, the text reads as a searching and painful attempt to sequence the Egyptian left’s genome in order to pinpoint the originary “defect.”

Salih offered the book as an attempt to unlock “the conundrum of the national liberation struggle.” It is both an incisive indictment and a sympathetic consideration of Egypt’s second- and third-wave communists — the first wave covered the decade 1920–1930 — and their vexed relationship to “the national question” (and by extension with Nasserism, for the two were virtually interchangeable).

Prisoners of Nostalgia

When writing the preface to al-Mubtasirun in 1996, five years after its original composition, Salih opted to leave its contents intact, offering instead a characteristically scathing critique of what she herself had written, especially the “nationalist certitudes” of the book’s first part. Rereading the text, she was shocked to find in her own generation of communists a political consciousness that belonged “to the very past that she had set out to critique — condemn even.” By this, she meant that for “all the bitterness” they felt toward Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime, her generation were also “fast prisoners of their nostalgia for that time.”

They were, it turns out, neither the “repudiation” of the Nasser era nor the “representatives of the working class.” The working class, in fact, had “no interest” in their leadership, beyond the question of the struggle for national sovereignty (in relation to Israel), and was, in any case, not about to sweep the Nasserist regime off its feet, for that was precisely what Sadat appeared to be doing.

For Salih, the movement’s rapid surge and flop could be traced to a long tradition among communists of couching social and economic demands in nationalist terms. They had, she argued, elevated the mantra that the “main enemy was imperialism” to the status of divine scripture, effectively rendering nationalism as the only real “struggle in town” — or at least, “the only one of real interest to the masses”:

Even more importantly, this same generation was never able to imagine itself escaping the borders of the established political map that it eventually came to see as a pipe-dream: to the east the socialist camp, to the west the capitalist one and in the middle, at the very beating heart, the national independence movements of the Third World . . . in reality, we were nothing but bonded habitants of the Cold War map. We stood at its margins though — a communist opposition that built its one moment of glory on a transitional regime’s inability to resolve the national question, a tiny Marxist faction on a political map whose broader leadership and goals were nationalist. In spite of all our Marxist nattering then, the language through which we chose to read our world (or which history chose for us) was nationalist, as was our historical consciousness.

Salih understood that the very real threat posed by imperialism underpinned this prioritization of nationalist causes. But she also saw that Egypt’s communists had stretched the old Comintern theses on the national and colonial questions to perform gymnastic feats in their defense of the worst excesses of Nasserism. According to those theses — and indeed to Nasser’s very own Philosophy of the Revolution — revolution in countries like Egypt would unfold in successive stages, the first political (for sovereignty and self-determination) and the second social (eradicating class inequality).

By the time of al-Mubtasirun’s publication, the problem had crystallized in Salih’s mind as ultimately stemming from the importance of nationalism to Egyptian communist discourse. The preface gestures to her ultimate conclusion that there was no ready solution to the book’s conundrum: at the same time as revolutionary struggles were indelibly tied to nationalism, nationalism could no longer nurture the seeds of revolutionary liberation. Is this a kind of post-nationalist ‘nihilism’?” she asks, “at the present moment, absolutely.”

The Histories of Egyptian Communism

Though it smacks of the Cold War chess-mapping language of the time, Salih’s reading of the Egyptian Communist movement’s malaise is a useful corrective to much of the existing historiography. Indeed, the Cold War framework of interpretation had largely stressed the importance to Egyptian Communism of priorities set by foreign states: for Walter Laqueur and Shimon Shamir, the Soviet Union was the relevant actor; while for Anouar Abdel-Malek, new economic ties to the United States and West Germany in the sixties helped explain the state’s repression of the communist movement.

Others have attributed the dissolution of the Egyptian Communist Party in 1965 to a voluntary decision by Egyptian communists to stand down their organization, whether because of repression (Rifaat al-Said, Tareq Ismael), genuine belief in Nasser’s project of Arab socialism (Mohammed Shafi Agwani), or the cynical mobilization of the post-1956 “worldwide neo-revisionist current” (Mahmoud Hussein, the pseudonym used by the authors of a major work, Class Conflict in Egypt 1945–71). According to the last of these arguments, that current encouraged Egyptian communists to “follow, unabashed, a path to which their opportunism predisposed them anyway, namely, to confuse the bourgeois with the proletarian class interests within the framework of a nationalist movement.”

Salih’s argument recalls the conclusion to Joel Beinin’s landmark study of Egyptian and Israeli Marxism, Was the Red Flag Flying There? Beinin maintained that “the economist and reductionist Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals” had bequeathed “an inadequate understanding of nationalism and its political power” to Egyptian Marxists:

Basing themselves on the writings of Stalin and Mao, they had an instrumental view of national-liberation struggles as a necessary preliminary stage that would inevitably be superseded by the politics of class struggle.

This drove them to help legitimize the political discourse of nationalism, in the process “creating the conditions for the delegitimization of their own internationalist and class-based political project.” Like Beinin, Salih had concluded that Egypt’s Communists were “caught up by their embrace of the nationalist movement and ultimately destroyed by it,” for they could never outbid Nasser, nor his ghost for that matter, for nationalist legitimacy:

When the Nasser era had faded into a hazy, indistinct past, we discovered that we had lost our way and that there was nothing to clutch at in the darkness but nostalgia. We were stripped down to our nakedness as we confronted a present that in no way conformed to our revolutionary prophecies. So we began to wail and cry over these dark times as compared, of course, to Nasser’s era; he who now seemed to rise like an ancient idol, smiling at us, half-pitying and half-mocking across the decades.

A Dangerous Wager

Still, Salih enjoins us to be kinder in our assessment of that moment, reminding us that Egyptian communists were hemmed in by the nationalist and anticolonial consciousness which “history had chosen for them.” The limitations imposed on the movements of the Global South by the reality of colonialism were all too real. It is not that Egyptian Marxists simply lacked an adequate understanding of nationalism or unwittingly parroted Western Marxist theory: they were fully aware of the dangers inherent in the nationalist project.

Salih’s argument — and I should add, her self-critique — is precisely that Egyptian Marxists were not starry-eyed about the possible tension (or contradiction) between national and social questions. They went along with the reification of national sovereignty, either because their literary and political careers depended on it, or because they genuinely held the view — reasonable though not irreproachable — that the national struggle was more pertinent, the imperialist threat more perilous, than any other.

While her view of the former group may seem extremely cynical, the roster of Egypt’s ministers, university heads, and editors in the post-1967 period backs it up (examples include Louis Awad and Mahmoud Amin al-‘Alim). At the same time, members of the second, larger group had lived through the same experiences that inspired many colonized peoples — as well as theorists of colonialism like Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi — to believe that nationalism was the order of the day in the liberation era.

From their perspective, there was no option but to get behind it, even with the understanding that this was — as Memmi put it — “a dangerous wager. For there is less distance between nationalism and fascism than there is between nationalism and revolution.”

In any case, as a daughter of both Nasser’s revolution and the Third International, Salih was more inclined to grant agency to her elder comrades, even as she hoped they would climb a hill to die. She was also more sympathetic to their motives. As she put it: “There is nothing to be ashamed of here. Rather, it was entirely logical . . .”

What Salih found more shameful, perhaps, was her own generation’s failure to see through the shibboleths of the nationalist project — their inability to draw up a balance sheet and reckon with its bankruptcy, even as it crumbled before their eyes. This was still the case more than a decade after Nasser’s death and indeed remains so today.

In the end, Salih was ambivalent when addressing the question of what that generation could have done differently (since anticolonialism demanded nationalism), and cognizant of the impossible task facing those who would come after them (since nationalism was not easily wound down). Nonetheless, one of her “major concerns in writing the book was to draw for future generations the portrait of an inheritance that they must repudiate.” On this, she was “not prepared to compromise.”

“A Splendid and Full Existence”

For a few years after the Camp David Accords, Salih, then a member of the Central Committee of the Workers Communist Party, continued to write political essays and translate Marxist literature for circulation by her underground organization. By the mid-1980s, the crisis of the Left, and particularly of gendered abuse among — and at the hands of — her comrades, had completely overwhelmed her. She went into voluntary exile and spent the following five years fighting suicidal thoughts, seeking psychiatric help, and reckoning with her own experience of revolutionary commitment and activism:

I was ambitious. I wanted to live a splendid and full existence, to escape from the deadening boredom of middle-class domesticity, but I was crushed at every turn. I suffered but I was also utterly bewildered. Why was I being abused when I never dreamt of hurting anyone?

When she resurfaced in Egypt again in 1991, she had a translation of the Palestinian Trotskyist Tony Cliff’s book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation in hand. Tellingly, her editor, Salah Eissa, rendered the title of the Arabic translation as Critique of the Feminist Movement. According to Amina al-Naqqash, when Eissa refused to change the title, Salih threatened to pull the whole thing unless she was allowed to open the book with a statement clarifying that a male comrade had dictated the title for this canonical work of feminist Marxism. (In all fairness to the editor, his title was probably more faithful to the book’s content than Cliff’s original.)

Salih’s critique of gender relations among revolutionary Marxists in the latter chapters of the book — a stark reminder of the Egyptian left’s silence on the question in their public propaganda — is her most valuable and heart-wrenching contribution. To summarize it here would be an injustice to her legacy, and to the experience of all women revolutionaries then and today — al-Mubtasirun has been faithfully translated by Samah Selim as part of the new Arab List published by Kolkata-based Seagull Books.

Suffice it to say that, having decided that the class struggle would have to be subordinated to the nationalist cause, Salih’s comrades proceeded to assuage their guilt and their revolutionary credentials by subsuming gender and sexual liberation to the eternal vagaries of “the urgency of the class struggle.”

Salih could find nothing logical in this failing, however, nor could she muster any sympathy for it. Her assessment was resoundingly confirmed by the venal response of her comrades to the book’s publication in 1996, following which she was fired, harassed, and ostracized. The whole experience finally drove her to jump off the ledge of an eleventh-story Cairo balcony in 1997.