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Workers Vanguard No. 1028

9 August 2013

Egypt: For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The Bankruptcy of Bourgeois Nationalism

Part Two

(Women and Revolution pages)

Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1027 (12 July).

By the end of the 19th century, there were stirrings in Egypt of struggle for independence from British rule as well as for basic rights for women. But it was the proletarian October Revolution of 1917 in Russia that galvanized mass struggle for social and national emancipation in Egypt and elsewhere in the colonial and semicolonial world and inspired workers internationally in the fight to overthrow capitalist rule.

Under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the workers of Russia rallied behind them the peasant masses and seized state power. The Revolution overthrew bourgeois rule, sweeping away the tsarist autocracy and the state church, and pulled Russia out of the interimperialist carnage of World War I. In the course of a bloody three-year Civil War against imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary White armies, Soviet power was extended to largely Muslim Central Asia. The workers state’s victories there held out the possibility of emancipation for the downtrodden masses of the Muslim East, especially women. An Egyptian observer reported at the time that “news of success or victory by the Bolsheviks” in the Russian Civil War “seems to produce a pang of joy and content among all classes of Egyptians” (quoted in Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq [1978]).

Shortly after the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks, true to their word, published secret treaties from the tsarist archives. Among these was the 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty in which Britain and France agreed to carve up the Ottoman Empire between themselves, notwithstanding their promises of self-determination to the Arab subjects of the Ottoman sultan. The revelations helped fuel a series of national revolts and popular uprisings from North Africa and the Near East to South and East Asia.

In Egypt, a group of nationalist politicians led by one Saad Zaghlul formed a delegation (Wafd) to present a petition calling for Egypt’s independence at the 1919 Versailles Conference, where the victorious imperialist powers were dictating terms to defeated Germany following the end of World War I. When Egypt’s British occupiers responded by arresting Zaghlul and sending him into exile, the country exploded in strikes and protests. As a result of the massive upheaval, Britain agreed to putative independence—with conditions that left military control of the country and the Suez Canal in British hands. In 1924, the Wafd formed a government under a constitution imposed by the British.

The 1919 revolt marked the decisive entry of the working class into Egyptian political life. In 1919, under British prompting, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Sheik Mohammed Bakheit, issued a fatwa against Bolshevism. Delighted, the British published it far and wide. But this backfired as it piqued the interest of the population in something so deeply hated by their brutal colonial overlords.

In 1921, the Egyptian Socialist Party was founded, becoming a section of the Communist International in 1922 and changing its name to the Communist Party of Egypt. The party played a leading role in organizing the newly militant working class, including in the industrial districts of Alexandria and Mahalla al-Kobra. One of the party’s leaders, Joseph Rosenthal, a Russian Jew who had become a naturalized Egyptian citizen, organized the General Union of Workers. By 1923 the union had 20,000 members. The party’s program called for the nationalization of the Suez Canal, repudiation of all state debts and capitulation agreements with foreign powers and an eight-hour workday.

When the Wafd came to power in 1924, one of its first campaigns was to savagely crush a series of militant strikes demanding shorter hours, higher wages and improved working conditions. Saad Zaghlul’s government declared the strikers “transgressors and outlaws” and went after the Communists with a vengeance, interning the entire leadership and deporting foreign-born Communists. The pro-Communist Confederation of Trade Unions was disbanded and a series of anti-labor laws was introduced. As a result of intense repression, by 1925 the Communist Party had effectively disappeared as an organization, later re-emerging in a period marked by the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Comintern.

Nasser and the Myth of “Arab Socialism”

The end of World War II triggered a renewed upsurge in the nationalist movement in late 1945 and early ’46. By that time, the Wafd was a spent force, discredited and weakened because of its failure to end British occupation. The upheaval was marked by huge strikes involving textile workers, transport workers, Suez Canal and Alexandria port workers and many others. In this cauldron of social struggle, the Communist-influenced National Committee of Workers and Students (NCWS) as well as the left-nationalist Wafdist Vanguard attracted mass followings. The government under King Farouk clamped down heavily on protesters in February 1946, when British armored vehicles drove into crowds, killing many.

Leading Egyptian Communist Henri Curiel described the period as one in which the “masses were still ready to follow us. But we no longer knew where to lead them” (Gilles Perrault, A Man Apart [1987]). The emergence of the NCWS, the growing militancy of the student movement and the radicalization of the Wafdist Vanguard all spoke to the revolutionary potential pregnant in this upsurge. In 1951, trade unions organized demonstrations calling for cancellation of all treaties with the British, extension of democratic liberties, abolition of the political police and friendship with the Soviet Union. It was becoming increasingly clear that the ruling class was incapable of solving the political and economic crisis of Egyptian society.

The 1952 military coup led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers Movement, which overthrew King Farouk, was meant to stabilize the country and stem the tide of the upsurge. The U.S. ambassador in Cairo predicted that the new junta could “save Egypt from the red tide” (quoted in Raymond Flower, From Napoleon to Nasser [2011]). One of the Free Officers’ first acts upon coming to power was the grisly public execution of two leaders of a textile workers strike. They were arrested, condemned to death for “a grave crime against the state” and hanged on factory grounds. The Communists were banned, strikes were outlawed and a corporatist regime was set up to place the trade unions under state control.

Initially, Nasser’s Free Officers leaned toward the Western imperialists, who promised economic aid and financing for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. But the trickle of funds from the U.S. fell far short of what Nasser had anticipated. Frustrated, he appealed to the Soviet Union, souring relations with the West. In 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, which generated revenues on the order of $100 million annually. Eager to make Nasser pay for this affront to their interests, Britain and France invaded Egypt, with Israel as a junior partner. But the invaders were forced to withdraw under pressure from the Soviets as well as from the U.S., which feared that its imperialist rivals would reoccupy a region it wished to dominate.

Standing up to the tripartite invasion won Nasser, with his nationalist rhetoric and socialist pretensions, wide adherence throughout the Near East and beyond. In the Spartacist tendency’s first article on the Near East in 1968, at a time when much of the Western left was hailing Nasser as a revolutionary, we addressed this myth:

“In the absence of a viable national bourgeoisie, many ex-colonial countries have seen the development of single-party dictatorships—led by the civil and military intelligentsia, based on national and social demagoguery—which seek to build the economic and social base for native capitalist exploitation. To do this in the face of world imperialism and domestic underdevelopment requires central control and the nationalization of major sectors. But statification of the economy by a bourgeois regime in no sense alters the capitalist character of a society. In this case it is merely symptomatic of the underdevelopment of the economies involved.”

—“Arab-Israeli Conflict: Turn the Guns the Other Way,” Spartacist No. 11, March-April 1968

Nasser carried out an extensive nationalization of industry that allowed increased opportunities for employment, expansion of education, free health care and increased social benefits. Nasser’s limited land reform, intended to pressure large landowners to invest in nationalized industry, rallied poor peasants behind him, though it affected less than 10 percent of the cultivable land. Billions in Soviet aid were instrumental in furthering industrial development, including the gigantic Aswan High Dam, and helped improve the standard of living for sections of the population. Women benefited from job opportunities and education and were granted the right to vote—whatever that meant under military rule. Free birth control was made available through thousands of family planning centers, part of the regime’s aim to control population growth, which was straining the country’s limited resources.

By the mid 1960s, however, Egypt was in deep economic crisis. The promised prosperity never materialized. Instead, the “workers’ socialist gains” were served up in the form of IMF-dictated austerity measures delivered through rifle butts as widespread sit-ins and wildcat strikes were suppressed. Israel’s swift victory in the June 1967 Six Day War left the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan shattered and large parts of their territories occupied by Israel. This humiliating defeat exposed the fragile foundations of Nasser’s bourgeois regime and triggered an explosive mass reaction. Demonstrations of workers and students engulfed the country from Alexandria to Aswan. The regime was so discredited that Nasser’s right-hand man and army chief, Abdel Hakim Amer, committed suicide. Nasser himself offered to resign. The 1967 defeat signaled the downward spiral of Nasser’s “Arab socialism” scheme, though he did not live to see its final demise at the hands of his successor, Anwar el-Sadat.

Nasser was a bourgeois-nationalist strongman of the era when the U.S.-led Cold War against the Soviet Union allowed him some latitude to maneuver and seek funding from one side or the other (or, in Nasser’s case, both). Still, Nasser could not free Egypt from the control of the imperialists or transform the country into an industrial power. As the failure of both the Wafd and Nasser regimes testify, the indigenous bourgeoisies of the colonial and semicolonial world are incapable of achieving qualitative modernization in the imperialist epoch.

Stalinist Betrayal over Nasser

By the time Communism had again become a factor in the Egyptian working class in the early 1940s, the Soviet Union had undergone a political counterrevolution, bringing to power a parasitic bureaucratic caste led by J.V. Stalin. The Stalinists repudiated the Bolshevik program of international socialist revolution in favor of the nationalist dogma of “building socialism in one country.” This was a flat denial of the Marxist understanding that socialism—a society in which class divisions disappear in conditions of material abundance—can be built only on an international basis through destroying capitalist imperialism as a world system and surpassing its level of technological/industrial development and productivity.

The Stalinist bureaucracy’s search for “peaceful coexistence” with world imperialism—a corollary of “socialism in one country”—led to the transformation of the Communist International from an instrument for world proletarian revolution into an agency for Soviet diplomatic maneuvers. But while the Stalinists had betrayed the program of the October Revolution, they had not overturned the socialized foundations of the Soviet workers state. While calling for workers political revolution to oust the bureaucracy, Trotskyists remained steadfast in unconditional military defense of the degenerated workers state against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution as part of their revolutionary proletarian internationalist program.

The Stalinists, searching for allies among the emerging bourgeoisies of the colonial and neocolonial world, resurrected the old social-democratic/Menshevik formula of “two-stage revolution.” This meant supporting an allegedly “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” national bourgeoisie—in fact, a class of brutal exploiters—while postponing proletarian revolution to the indefinite future, i.e., never. As seen as early as 1927 with the crushing defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution, which was sealed by the Guomindang (Nationalist) party’s massacre of tens of thousands of Communists and other militants, the end result is not “democracy,” much less socialism, but defeat after defeat for the toiling masses and the slaughter of leftists, workers and peasants. The Soviet bureaucracy sacrificed Communist parties around the world in pursuit of alliances with bourgeois “anti-imperialists.”

In the anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s in Egypt, the refounded Communist organizations were supported by the dominant and most militant sections of the working class. But the Stalinists’ program subordinated the proletariat’s class interests to bourgeois nationalism. Pro-Soviet and anti-Zionist, the movement was greatly shaken when, after two decades of conciliating and promoting Arab nationalism, Stalin changed tack and supported the United Nations’ partition of Palestine and the creation of the Zionist state of Israel. Compelled to endorse the partition plan, the Egyptian Communists suffered a serious erosion of influence.

In the wake of the partition, confronted with an explosive climate of inflamed nationalism and anti-Semitic pogroms, the Stalinists adapted to the reactionary tide. The Communist organizations had been built largely through the efforts of Jews like Henri Curiel, who founded the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation, which fused with another group in 1947 to become the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL). DMNL militants had courageously defended Jewish shops against pogromist mobs incited by the Muslim Brotherhood. But in 1949, when a new Communist Party of Egypt was formed out of a merger of a DMNL faction and other groups, it excluded Jews—and women—to avoid “sexual dissolution, moral dissolution,” in the words of Fuad Mursi, one of its founding members. The number of Jews in the movement began to decline, largely the result of the deportations of leftists, among them Curiel, who was deported to Italy in 1950.

Nasser’s repression of the working class and his virulent anti-Communism did not prevent the Egyptian Stalinists from pledging their full support to him, claiming he would achieve the tasks of the “national democratic revolution.” “The fact is,” one Communist leader would later say, “that we and the others all met on the platform of fascination with Nasserism” (quoted in Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa’at El-Sa’id, The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988 [1990]). Even with many of them jailed, tortured and executed, the Stalinists continued to foster illusions in the “anti-imperialist” leader. Prominent Communist Shuhdi al-Shaf’ie continued to support Nasser even while being bludgeoned and hauled to his death. Meanwhile, Moscow continued to lavish arms and funds on Nasser as he repressed the working class and persecuted Communists.

In 1965, the Communist Party capped its capitulation to the regime by formally dissolving itself and liquidating into Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union (ASU). In a telegram to Nasser, who had just been “re-elected” president, the party declared that “the most beautiful thing we present to you on this historic occasion” was the news that its representatives had just decided to “put an end to their independent organization because of their belief in your call for the unity of all the socialist forces in one revolutionary political organization, and that this one party under your leadership is the substitute for our independent organization” (quoted in The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988).

Dissolving their party and joining Nasser’s ASU was consistent with the Stalinists’ historic orientation. The various organizations in Egypt at the time that claimed to be communist shared the perspective of two-stage revolution from their inception, seeing the national struggle as their primary political task. Never promoters of working-class independence, they politically chained the proletariat to bourgeois nationalist forces. Nasser succeeded in isolating the Communists by implementing the nationalist core of their program—ending British occupation, land reform, nationalization, promoting government-controlled economic planning—as well as alliance with the Soviet Union. This was passed off in Stalinist jargon as “the non-capitalist road.” Even as he destroyed their organizations physically and politically, Nasser used the Communists as propagandists and consultants.

The year 1965 saw the annihilation of another Communist party on the eastern end of the Islamic belt. In one of the most savage massacres in modern history, over a million Indonesian Communists, workers, peasants, intellectuals and sympathizers, along with ethnic Chinese, were slaughtered at the hands of General Suharto and Islamic reactionaries with the direct aid of the CIA. Here was, once again, the bloody result of “two-stage revolution.” The Indonesian Communist Party—then the largest in the capitalist world—had paved the way for the massacre by pledging its full support to the “progressive” nationalist regime of Sukarno, disarming the workers as part of a policy of “national unity” with the Indonesian bourgeoisie and its military. Deceived and disoriented, the working class could neither defend itself nor come to the rescue of its leaders when reactionary military leaders turned on them. (See “Lessons of Indonesia 1965,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999.)

Ostensible Trotskyists and “Arab Socialism”

Also seizing on Nasser’s “Arab socialism” was a trend of political revisionism that began to assert itself in the Trotskyist Fourth International under the leadership of Michel Pablo in the early 1950s. According to this revisionist current, various non-revolutionary forces around the world—from Stalinists to social democrats to Third World nationalists—were propelled by events to take a revolutionary course, thus negating the need for Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard parties. In the Near East, Nasser and other militarists were painted as liberators of the Arab working class and peasants, with the role of “Trotskyists” relegated to that of their cheering section. In 1965, Livio Maitan, a leader of the Pabloite “United Secretariat of the Fourth International,” proposed that countries like Egypt that had carried out extensive nationalizations could become workers states without a social revolution.

Gerry Healy’s International Committee (whose descendants today operate as the Socialist Equality Party of David North) initially appeared to be orthodox defenders of Trotskyism, sharply attacking the liquidationist politics of the Pabloites. But by 1967, they were also enthusing over the “Arab Revolution,” eventually carrying this to its logical outcome by acting as paid press agents and finger-men for one or another Arab bourgeois regime. In that capacity, Healy & Co. hailed the 1978 execution of 21 members of the Iraqi Communist Party. (See, for example, “Northite Blood Money,” WV No. 523, 29 March 1991.)

The Spartacist tendency emerged out of the struggle against the Pabloite degeneration of the historic party of American Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party, and went on to break with Healy & Co. over their own revisionism. As we have always insisted, the idea of a trans-class “Arab Revolution” was a mystification that impeded the task of forging Trotskyist parties as the necessary leadership for proletarian revolution—the only road to national and social emancipation.

Feminism: Obstacle to Women’s Liberation

While the modernizing impulse of the early nationalist movement in Egypt placed the question of women’s emancipation on the agenda, the bourgeois-nationalist leadership’s developing hostility to women’s equality would help spur the rise of a distinct feminist current. Women’s liberation first became an issue in Egypt in the nationalist ferment at the end of the 19th century. In 1894, a Coptic lawyer, Murqus Fahmi, published a book titled The Woman in the East. Criticizing Copts and Muslims for secluding women, he attributed Egypt’s backwardness to the conditions of women and the family. Another early proponent of women’s rights was Qasim Amin, a lawyer and appellate court judge of Kurdish stock. He called for abolishing the veil, giving women primary education and reforming laws governing polygamy and divorce. Amin’s proposed reforms were modest and colored by a cautious definition of Islamic practice rather than its abandonment. Nonetheless, they evoked a storm of attacks from other nationalists and religious leaders.

Amin was inspired by his experiences as a student in France, where he had been exposed to the writings of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. In his works, namely The Liberation of Women (1899) and The New Woman (1900), he espoused a Western model of development. Arguing that there can be no improvement of the state of the nation without improving the position of women, Amin concluded that their liberation was a prerequisite for the liberation of Egypt from foreign domination.

In contrast, Mustafa Kamil, founder in the 1890s of the short-lived National Party, opposed women’s rights as a diversion from the struggle against British domination, a “foreign” idea identified with Western culture. While Amin stood for a slow withdrawal of British domination and the buildup of a native Egyptian ruling class, Kamil appealed to the Ottomans for aid in expelling the British. The aim of these early nationalists was to remove the obstacles to the exploitation of Egyptian toilers by a native ruling class. They accepted the class structure of society and the institution of the family as they existed, proposing limited reforms at most.

Women became a visible factor of political life during the 1919 upheavals. Facing off against armed British soldiers, some 300 veiled women organized by Huda Shaarawi poured into the streets of Cairo to protest the arrest of Wafd leaders. The daughter of a wealthy slaveowner and the wife of a leading Wafd member, Shaarawi was one of Egypt’s first feminists. In her autobiography, Harem Years, she recounted coming of age among the upper and middle classes, where the sexes were kept apart. Guarded by castrated slaves, women were secluded at home and carried their seclusion with them when they went out by veiling their faces. Shaarawi is best known for her dramatic public unveiling in 1923 at the Cairo Railroad Station upon her return from a feminist conference in Rome, the first time an Egyptian woman had shunned tradition so visibly.

Around that time, Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), a classic bourgeois feminist formation. Made up primarily of women from wealthy and prominent families, its goal was to seek equal rights within the confines of existing class society. The EFU sought to reform personal status laws (marriage, divorce, custody, etc.), win the vote and the right to hold office, establish educational opportunities and secure other reforms that, while supportable, posed no threat to Islam or the institution of the family. Shaarawi died in 1947.

One of Shaarawi’s admirers, Durriyyah Shafiq, founded the organization Bint al-Nil (“Daughter of the Nile”) in 1948, amid the upheavals that engulfed the country after World War II. Bint al-Nil’s leaders were more militant than their EFU mentors. In 1951, Shafiq led 1,500 women in a demonstration that stormed the parliament, demanding political rights, equal pay and reform of the divorce laws. This action provoked outrage among Islamic conservatives who petitioned the king to keep women within their prescribed bounds. After she staged a hunger strike against Nasser’s dictatorship in 1957, Shafiq was placed under house arrest and her organization was banned. Her associates distanced themselves, calling her a “traitor to the revolution.” Isolated and demoralized, she committed suicide in 1975.

For a time, the Communist movement carried out special work among women. In the period after WWII, the NCWS included the Association of Egyptian Working Women, the first such organization in Egypt, headed by Communist textile worker Hikmat al-Ghazzali from the Shubra al-Khayma mill. Communists also launched the League of Women Students and Graduates from the University and Egyptian Institutes, which proclaimed that freedom for women “cannot arrive under the shadow of the imperialist” nor “under the shadow of enslavement and exploitation” (quoted in Selma Botman, “Women’s Participation in Radical Egyptian Politics 1939-1952,” in Women in the Middle East [1987]). However, for the Stalinists the question of women’s emancipation was subordinate to unity with the nationalists. They subsequently neglected this work, leaving the feminists unchallenged as defenders of women’s rights.

Nawal El Saadawi, a heroic fighter against women’s oppression, lays bare the heinous conditions of women in Muslim Arab society in her writings. She has been sacked, imprisoned, forced into exile and featured on fundamentalists’ death lists. However, while Saadawi in The Hidden Face of Eve recognized the “patriarchal class system that has dominated the world since thousands of years” as a root of women’s oppression, she rejects the understanding that eliminating that oppression requires the overthrow of the class system. As the book makes clear, she sees the struggle through the prism of feminism, as one of women against men. According to Saadawi, “the real reason why women have been unable to complete their emancipation” is that “they have failed to constitute themselves into a political force powerful, conscious, and dynamic enough to impose their rights.” This ignores the fundamental class divide in capitalist society: Hosni Mubarak’s wife Suzanne, who postured as a champion of women’s rights, and the textile workers of Mahalla al-Kobra stand on opposite sides of that divide.

Saadawi rejects the Marxist understanding of the working class as the motor force for historical progress. Searching for another agent has sometimes led her to support the very forces that oppress women. As well as serving for a time as a cabinet member in Sadat’s government, she supported Khomeini’s Islamic “revolution” in Iran in 1978-79. In her 1979 preface to the English edition of The Hidden Face of Eve, Saadawi vilified those in the West who accused the mullahs’ “revolution” of “being reactionary, of imposing on women the veil and the chador.” She claimed, “The Iranian Revolution has lifted the banners of Islam overhead, as banners of freedom from imperialist oppression.”

As we will detail in Part Three of this article, Khomeini’s movement made no secret of its reactionary program. More than a decade after it took power, long after leftists, union militants, Kurdish nationalists and others had been imprisoned and slaughtered by the Islamic regime, Saadawi along with numerous other feminists and self-styled socialists cynically backtracked on their support for Khomeini. She acknowledged that “Khomeini was terrible,” lamely claiming that the “revolution” had been “aborted” by the “colonial powers,” who are “much happier with a religious, fanatic revolution than a socialist revolution” (Progressive, April 1992).

While often courageous and defiant, bourgeois feminists can offer nothing to the deeply oppressed and exploited women of the working class and peasantry. Because it accepts class society, from which the oppression of women springs, feminism is incapable of attaining women’s emancipation. In late 2011, half a century after Nasser dissolved it, the EFU was revived. Now it seeks to “find powerful Egyptian women and convince them to run for election” (London Guardian, 1 December 2011). Tellingly, the EFU publication, L’Egyptienne, is published in French, accessible only to a narrow sliver of upper-class women.



Workers Vanguard No. 1028

WV 1028

9 August 2013


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Egypt: For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The Bankruptcy of Bourgeois Nationalism

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