Mohamed Sid Ahmed is an Egyptian journalist and left opposition leader. He is a member of the secretariat of Tagammu‘, the National Progressive Unionist Party, and is a representative of the party’s Marxist component. He was an editorial writer with al-Akhbar from 1965 to 1968 and chief political analyst of al-Ahram through 1976. He is the author of When the Guns Fall Silent (1976J, and other books. He was imprisoned several times between 1959 and 1974, and narrowly escaped arrest in early September 1981. He spoke with MERIP editors Judith Tucker, Joe Stork and Penny Johnson, and with Selma Botman, a friend of MERIP, in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 19, 1981.

How do Egyptian Marxists understand and explain the upsurge of Islam as a political force today? What is the attitude of your party, Tagammu‘, to this phenomenon in Egypt?

Let me explain a little bit our experiences throughout the years. Take the moment of Arab nationalism. The Marxist movement in Egypt was initially not sufficiently aware of the progressive aspects in the pan-Arab nationalism of the Nasserist period. In 1952, there was a range of stands toward Nasser. Some regarded his rule as a military dictatorship, even fascist at one extreme. Others noted the regime’s relations with Marxist elements, so did not regard it as a reactionary coup. But pan-Arabism was not an issue in our debate over what stand to take toward the free officers. Those of us who were for the officers were for them on the basis of their contacts with Marxists, not on the basis of pan-Arabism. In 1956, events imposed upon the Marxist movement an awareness of the importance of pan-Arab nationalism. Now the issue of Islam comes up in a similar way.

There’s been a lot of debate in our party about the relationship between pan-Arabism and Islam. One point of view is that Nasser could politically and ideologically marginalize the class critique on his left and the religious critique on his right and keep the bulk of the people with him. This was possible during the critical stage of decolonization, when the aspirations of the masses were toward national independence and sovereignty. The appeal of pan-Arab nationalism, not specific to each separate country, is linked to certain changes that occurred in the structure of imperialism in the Middle East throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Up to World War II, British imperialism dominated Egypt, Sudan and Iraq, French imperialism the Levant, and so on. Parallel imperialisms, one beside the other. After World War II, imperialism was based more on military bases and pacts, led by the United States. This gave a new structure to imperialism, less concrete and immediate than it had been in Egypt or in Iraq or elsewhere. And there was the issue of Israel, which catalyzed the anti-imperialist thrust of the pan-Arab movement.

Today, pan-Arabism alone is no longer sufficient. The Arab world is a different world today. There is fabulous petroleum-based wealth, and also the Palestinian camps — the very poor and the very rich. The class approach becomes indispensable even for pan-Arab nationalism. The Nasserists in Egypt, and other nationalist forces, can no longer hold vis-a-vis the Marxist left the attitude they adopted two decades ago. This is expressive of a certain change in the structure of imperialism, the relative weight, that is important in determining policies. This also applies tothe religious dimension. In Nasser’s time we witnessed the imperialist manipulation of religion, such as the Islamic Pact of Saudi Arabia. And this was also true for the Muslim Brothers, up to a certain point.

It is important to say up to what point. The Muslim Brothers participated in the anti-British campaigns. They seem to have enjoyed a popular reputation as an anti-imperialist force.

With the masses, yes. But the leadership was always very equivocal. Isma‘il Sidqi, one of the most reactionary of King Farouq’s prime ministers, was my uncle. I remember February 21, 1946, a day of large clashes with the British. Isma‘il Sidqi had become prime minister the day before, on February 20. And February 21 he met with Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Brothers, privately in our home. The next day the Muslim Brothers came up with slogans of compromise, to give Isma‘il Sidqi a chance. For the masses, it’s the Islamic identity which expresses anti-imperialism. Alienation in religious terms offers more motivation than a Marxist analysis of imperialism. It’s in the cultural domain. They have never spelled out very clearly the character of the Islamic state they’re for.

But at that time, as today, whatever the equivocations of the leaders of the movement, religion served as a vehicle for popular anti-colonialism.

One aspect of petro-wealth is that it has boosted class disparities in the Arab world, and restructured the Arab world’s organic links with the West. The cultural epicenter of the Arab world was not the most developed geologically. On the Mediterranean — Egypt, Syria and so on, the part of the Arab world around Israel — nationalism and socialism had been European- inspired. Now the oil-producing part of the Arab world comes into prominence, bringing with it religious modes of political expression. Left and right are our categories. In these societies, everybody expresses himself in religious language.

The Arab world changes through the 1970s, from a pattern of core and periphery to a bipolar world. The less developed region becomes the pole that sets the trend. This gives a new dimension to this religious issue. The masses become involved in politics, speaking the language of religion to express themselves politically. Before this, the language of political expression was European. Now the dominant issue is cultural, and this is the problem of the left.

This religious stand encompasses everything from fanatic and retrograde forces to enlightened and progressive forces. The problem is to decipher, to discriminate, to differentiate. The left can not adopt a sectarian stand toward the masses. We can not leave this arena to the fanatic forces. We should have our own presence within it, with people speaking its language.

We should encourage certain trends within the religious movements at the expense of others. There is the problem of how to put this all together — it is not an incidental that our party is, in a way, composite: there are Marxists, there are Nasserists, there are progressive religious elements, both Copt and Muslim. It is by accident of history that they are all together. Sadat, when he tolerated the existence of parties, only tolerated three parties, including one party on the left. He assumed that this would be a legal “Marxist” party. In fact, a caricature of Marxism in the control of his legality, which eventually would become a pole of repulsion for all the others. The party foiled this attempt by downplaying its Marxist component.

For the left in general it seems that a big problem is the way religion represents indigenous customs and values. The left is very much identified with Western values, Western concepts. How do you in the party surmount this difficulty?

That is a problem. Why should to be on the left be identified as the product of another culture? We should define our own left, in our cultural terms. There is the universal class stand, that’s one thing, but the left should find a way to become part of the tissue of the society itself.

What concrete decisions or steps has Tagammu‘ taken to accomplish this?

What I am talking about is ongoing thinking in the party. There also is resistance to this. Put it this way: The leaders of various trends have vested interests in resisting this merger. But there is the need to go beyond that, if you want to speak in pragmatic terms. Tagammu‘ is a legal party, but there are illegal parties in Egypt which adopted various stands toward Tagammu‘. Now the illegal parties are also Nasserist, not only Marxist. At the beginning, Tagammu’ looked very suspicious to them, like something orchestrated by Sadat more to contain the left than to allow it opportunities. As Tagammu‘ adopted progressively more radical stands and stood up to the official policies, it increasingly became a forum for all expressions of left opposition, lt was vital for Tagammu‘, first of all, to keep its constituent elements together, to justify itself ideologically in the hope that one day this framework could incorporate the various trends, set its own course, and not be completely a creature of the constraining factors that set it up.

Tagammu‘ has a secretariat for religious affairs, with Coptic and Muslim leaders. This feature was quite prominent, and Sadat, in the latest clampdown, prosecuted Tagammu‘ specifically on this aspect. He said we were encouraging sectarianism. What he really was referring to was that we laid out the facts in order to overcome them.

Are there progressive Muslims in Tagammu‘ who have links with the ‘ulama’?

Yes. There was a lot of bridge building. We were keen to find a common language with certain people, and distance ourselves from others. Tagammu‘ was much more daring in criticizing the religious groups for the religious strife, both Muslims and Copts, than Ibrahim Shukri’s Socialist Labor party, set up in 1978 as the ”official“ left opposition party. Tagammu’ had its own militants, lt could withstand Sadat’s campaigns against it, reducing it to a party of cadres, not giving it much opportunity to reach wide masses.

Shukri’s party then adopted a more critical stand, went beyond the limits that Sadat fixed for them in criticizing the Camp David process. So Sadat stopped treating them as his majesty’s opposition. But they only had a newspaper and writers, not people for organizational work. And the party was exposed to the danger of just disappearing into thin air. That’s why they moved to the religious groups, and why they would not dare go as far as we did in criticizing them. There’s an ideological consideration: We were more secular; their reference point was the former Misr al-Fatat, a party of the petty bourgeoisie which had had links with the Germans in the struggle against the British.

Were there debates within Tagammu‘ to make a commitment toward a national front, or a popular front including these religious elements? What was done to try to forge such a front?

This is one main issue that triggered the clampdown — not the only issue, but an important one. Until then, Sadat believed that he could dismiss the religious element as an opposition force. He thought the religious issue could not be political. Suddenly all this was merging. It frightened him. He began to see that despite all his attempts to keep the opposition out of the streets, it was entering the streets from a completely unexpected direction. That doesn’t mean that it was entering from a progressive door. But it forced a realization that his whole purpose was bankrupt.

Sadat hoped that he could offer just enough opposition to be a cosmetic for the West, and just enough to see what the people were saying. Khalid Muhi al-Din could very well speak to foreign correspondents, but he was not permitted the opportunity to say the same thing to the Egyptian people. And he hoped that economic discontent could be handled without stirring up political connotations. Suddenly the religious ingredient merges these problems. This is where the situation became critical.

It was critical for Sadat. Wasn’t it also critical for the left?

Yes, that’s the problem — the relative strength of the various oppositions. To some extent, we were harassed while all doors were open to the religious opposition. So the problem was to integrate what is progressive in that movement and avoid letting what is retrograde and fanatical get the upper hand. It was not easy.

What lessons does the Egyptian left take from Iran on the religious question?

You know, we’ve been debating these questions we’re talking about here for some time. Our main concern, before the clampdown, was building up a front. The critical issues in this process concerned our stand vis-a-vis the religious upsurge. There are also other issues complicating this. In the front we also had a new right wing coming in. We had what I would call our Bakhtiars, the people who had decided it was time to move in opposition to Sadat, so that the Egyptian Bakhtiars would not suffer the same fate as in Iran. That was the logic of the secular right-wing opposition to Sadat, and it was a key issue.

I want to distinguish three key moments in the development of opposition to Sadat and the Camp David process. The first moment involved the left and, let us say, certain key players — former ministers, top journalists like Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal — people who opposed the separate peace from the very beginning. But, for many people, the separate peace was initially a lesser evil. They thought it might bring prosperity. Everybody read the January 1977 riots his own way. Perhaps this peace was a way out — not very attractive, but a way out. This was 1978 and 1979.

In 1980, two things occurred. Sadat himself prompted this religious strife, and I’ll tell you how. His slogan was the unity of the three monotheistic religions against atheism. By this, he specifically intended to circumvent, ideologically, the antagonism between pan-Arabism and Zionism. He intended to rally Nasserists and pan-Arabists against communism. But what he really did was the very opposite, because the peace involved only Sinai, and not the Palestinian issue. This was bound to cause a backlash, a backlash that incorporated, among other elements, this religious upsurge.

These religious groups in Egypt had a composite character, incuding retrograde elements. Islam, to them, poses the matter like this: Sadat is identified with the Judeo-Christian West, and the Copts are the trojan horse of this West in Egypt. The Copts are entitled to challenge this logic, and their pope, Shanouda, is a forceful figure. So Muslims and Copts are put on a collision course. This came out of the ambiguity of the peace moves. The Muslim groups previously simply asked for more shari’a in the state’s policies. And Sadat talked in their terms. He never said, “I went to Israel.” He said, “I went to Jerusalem, to the holy city, to al-Aqsa to pray on ‘Id al-Adha.”

Now, on the one hand, the Muslim activists see the Copts as wanting the Jews in as a guarantee for secularization. The Copts, for their part, have justified grievances, and they were dead afraid of this. So they stood up to it. The strife first took the form of Copts getting mugged. Then these incidents became more aggressive. At the same time, Pope Shanouda instructed all Copts not to go to Jerusalem to pray. This made Sadat angry. “He’s not a religious figure, he’s intruding into politics.” In short, the separate peace antagonized both sides. So, in 1980, we have this religious opposition, with all its complex features.

Then came the secular right opposition, reacting out of fear of events in Iran occurring in Egypt. Iran is Shi‘i and Egypt is Sunni. If Sunni groups in Egypt look up to Khomeini as an Islamic leader rather than as a Shi‘i leader, they’re not acting as religious people, but as political people. I’ve been in conversations where these people talked like this with complete class consciousness: “It is high time a responsible opposition emerges in Egypt which can be a viable interlocutor for the Europeans, for the Arab moderates, because even the American administration is apprehensive as to what could happen.” So, after 1980, it was not only the religious upsurge. There was an agreement among all to condemn Sadat’s policies, to condemn Camp David.

But as to what should replace Camp David, you had a whole spectrum of stands — including an American replacement of Camp David, what people used to call Camp David II. This includes very prominent people. Hilmi Murad, the vice president of the Socialist Labor Party, for instance, told the BBC that American military facilities in Egypt need not be opposed in all circumstances. Some of these people wanted to be his majesty’s opposition — if not for Sadat, for the Americans.

How is the Egyptian left thinking about these problems?

I think we were more in a race to be present among the oppositions than to be critical of them. We were the first to oppose Sadat, and we were the first of the parties to be suppressed. We were the triggering factor of this whole opposition phenomenon. Then the others took the fruits, in a certain way. So the problem was to re-equilibrate. Our thinking was oriented in the direction of building the national front, of proposing a program for this front, or at least compelling the other parties to take stands on certain issues. This was still in process when the government became aware of it. This triggered the clampdown.

The religious groups are larger, in terms of members. Does this give them certain advantages over the Tagammu‘?

Yes, although it’s very difficult to make comparisons. Take the secular parties. There’s no doubt our party is the largest party in Egypt in terms of cadres? I’s a fact. Sadat’s party is no party. The so-called majority is the power of the state, not a party. When Sadat became head of the majority party — to replace the one headed by the prime minister — 320 members of Parliament passed from one party to the other party in two minutes. It has no program, nothing. The right-wing parties don’t have the organizational legacy that we have.

What about the religious groups? There are no parties as we understand the meaning of a party. There are splinter groups. When Dhahabi was killed a few years ago, the Takfir wa al-Higra surfaced and the regime began to be aware that these groupings were in Egypt and abroad. (Sheikh Muhammad Husayn Dhahabi, former minister of awqaf and al-Azhar affairs, was kidnapped and assassinated in July 1977 by Takfir wal-Higra.) They thought that they had liquidated this group. Then it turns out that in the Mecca affair there were a lot ot people from Takfir wa al-Higra. Egyptians were even executed. So, it was a phenomenon bigger than they anticipated.

There were a lot of splinter groups and not all of them political. The mode of political expression is not ours. You can’t define them in terms of what we refer to as an organization, lt is very difficult to differentiate between religious piety and political militancy in the name of religion. The lines are especially difficult when so many people express themselves through this religious mode.

It’s been said that many of the Islamic fundamentalists have come from the countryside to Cairo, where they’re displaced and alienated. They see things they’re not accustomed to and don’t like. So they go to the mosque and the mosque takes care of them. What’s behind the mosques, but the fundamentalist groups. So it seems the people who are attaching themselves to the fundamentalist groups have no way even to be exposed to the thoughts or activities of the left, to Tagammu‘. How will the left deal with the fact that people coming into Cairo, coming to the universities from the provinces, are instinctively going for protection to the mosques?

That’s precisely the problem. You are expressing our own justification for the Tagammu‘ decision to relate openly to the masses who express their problems through religion and religious institutions. That’s our idea, to break through to this public, to enter debates with them, to try to isolate the more retrograde elements, to expose them to another way of thinking which is is not opposed to the religious approach, but does represent an alternative.

Are there concrete steps you have taken?

Throughout the month of Ramadan, both last year and this year, Tagammu‘ was very active at the nightly gatherings that follow the days of fasting. It’s difficult to prevent these gatherings from happening, and people come to them. We would begin with one sheikh talking, and then our activists would speak. Our shaikhs were very successful in these meetings. We have two sheikhs, including a very prominent one, Sheikh Mustafa ‘Asi, in our secretariat. He’s in prison now. The authorities considered him extremely dangerous for taking that stand, for being a sheikh in the secretariat of Tagammu‘. And they also locked up his Coptic counterpart, Milad Hanna. They labeled him as an extremist, a dangerous man, a Coptic fanatic. Really, he is more of a social democrat.

How do you deal with the religious right?

We went through two moments. The first moment was with the Camp David agreements. We felt isolated. We didn’t expect we would be isolated. We didn’t believe Sadat could get away with alienating the whole Arab world, and so forth. But we were isolated then, at the first moment. Then suddenly things turned around. Not only because we had opposed it. The reasons were heterogeneous. Our problem, then, was how to infuse some homogeneity, some consistency, to give it a common program, something progressive and not retrograde. Because we were the most outspoken in the previous stage, we were persecuted while the others were treated very well, especially the Socialist Labor Party. There was the problem for us of getting back into the streets while the others had all the doors 22 open and we had all the doors closed. So that’s where we stood, how we’ve lived these three last years.

What do you think the impact of the arrests, the assassination?

Let me tell you something I’m becoming more and more aware of. Things are looked upon in a false perspective here. Sadat, with his partial peace, has actually fostered a contradiction between peace with Israel and social peace in Egypt. He’s made out of this issue of peace with Israel such an identity question in Egypt that you can’t reconcile both. His attempt has not been a step forward, but a real step backward in terms of comprehensive peace.

Is the crackdown on the religious opposition going to polarize the political situation much more, and have the effect of marginalizing Tagammu‘?

It’s complex. It seems that more people voted for Mubarak than used to vote for Sadat. Now maybe 8 or 10 percent voted in the referendum, compared to 3 percent before. Everybody suddenly becomes aware that the country is on the verge of civil war. Before, why should people go out of their way and vote? They know that it’s going to be 99 percent in favor whether they go or they don’t. And it’s not easy to move around in Cairo. But this time there was a certain sense that it meant something. So, it means that the religious people are not the only people in the field.

One distinction from Iran, for example, is the Nasserists. In Iran, Mossadeq’s National Front disappeared nearly 30 years ago. But Nasser was alive ten years ago. Nasser still means something for a lot of people. Now, with the backlash, this will become a factor. The Islamic groups are important, but they are not alone.

Could you reflect on the differences between the situation in the 1940s, when the Muslim Brothers were very strong and had many adherents and had a definite political role, and the situation today?

From what angle? Our awareness is one difference today. I would say that we were sectarian then, in a certain way. We were too intellectual. And there was the monotheism of the Stalinist era. We just dismissed the Brothers as being without good ideas, and that was it. They did not exist for us as a political audience or as political enemies. Today we are much more sensitive, we would not dismiss their significance. Of course, we oppose very strongly certain of their stands, but we do not just dismiss them.

Do the main elements of the religious forces in Egypt consider Tagammu‘ to be an enemy, an ally, or a force at all?

Look, they are told in official propaganda that we are atheists and so on. But the party does not project the image of atheism. In a certain way the regime’s approach backfired. Whenever the regime attacked us, the other opposition forces assumed we couldn’t be all that bad. This propaganda does not affect us as it used to. If you are persecuted by the officials, it’s good for your standing among other opponents of the regime.

Do you think that secretarian tension in Egypt has acquired a certain momentum and dynamic of its own? Granted, there was a degree of political manipulation involved in setting this off, and it is related to the treaty, but has it acquired a certain intensity at the popular level now which is beyond the control of the state.

It’s not healthy. I remember, in Cairo, people who are not at all affected by such things talking about “dirty Copts,” people you wouldn’t expect this from at all. There is a certain difficulty in talking with people and convincing them otherwise. “Ah, but you know these Copts are like Jews,” they say. Where did this come from? This separate peace produced a backlash. When tensions go up, there is militancy on both sides, of a very backward sort. For the Copts, it’s defending a beleaguered community. On the Muslim side it’s more offensive, because it’s all over the region.

When you talk about dealing with religiously motivated political forces and say, “Well, they’re not all retrograde, you know. There is this element of popular opposition.” This is true, but you get an uneasy feeling, having experienced Iran, that there’s a very unequal relationship, that the left is trying to insinuate itself within these forces, but invariably on their terms. Is this an accurate perception of the dilemma of the Egyptian left?

Yes, but I would say something more. First of all, we had a very outstanding position, and this was well known since the very beginning. We were the most consistent with a position that everyone now holds. As I told you, we stood up to these groups concerning certain aspects of the religious opposition. We criticized the Muslims while the other parties didn’t. Probably, if we had to do it over again, we would have elaborated much more on the negative aspects of what happened. We would have been more daring in criticizing certain aspects of their stand. But there is still the problem that some have more facility for getting into the street than others.

How to cite this article:

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed "“The Masses Speak the Language of Religion to Express Themselves Politically”," Middle East Report 102 ( ).
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