The debacle suffered by the Egyptian left at the polls in 1987 — 2 percent of the vote as compared to 4.5 percent in the 1984 parliamentary elections — provoked a soul-searching debate in Tagammu‘, the legal party of the left.

But even if the elections were free and not rigged, as the left had good reason to claim, their results would not have been an accurate yardstick by which to measure the true impact of the left on Egypt’s contemporary history. When Nasser met the editorial board of the Marxist review al-Tali‘a in 1969, he chided those of its members who had run for leading positions in the only existing political organization at the time, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). “You are authorized to preach socialism like St. Peter preached the Gospel,” Nasser said. “You are not authorized to build a constituency for yourselves at my expense.” Marxism, he used to say, is useful as far as it is “a factor of enlightenment and correction.” In other words, while it offered a more comprehensive world view than that of his own ideology of pan-Arab nationalism, he would not tolerate its becoming a platform for a contending leadership.

Communists under Nasser were for many years persecuted, imprisoned and tortured. In 1964, on the eve of Khrushchev’s visit to Egypt to inaugurate the High Dam, they were all released. A few months later, they dissolved their organizations and joined the ASU. Were these two events in fact closely related? Could Khrushchev have interceded with Nasser for the release of the Communists, while signaling to them that it had become imperative not to inhibit Nasser’s development into a “revolutionary democrat”? This would conform to the “non-capitalist road” thesis developed by Soviet theoreticians under Khrushchev.

This might explain the Communists’ decision to disband their independent organizations and work within Nasser’s ASU. While many Marxists acquired prominent positions in the media, in the field of culture and in the state and party apparatuses which influenced public opinion, the left as such did not gain independent political clout.

Moreover, the left’s relinquishment of independence inevitably impaired its consistency with every new turn in official policy. When Sadat became president, he ousted many of Nasser’s closest associates from power in May 1971 and appointed two leading Communists as ministers for the first time ever. As Sadat turned more and more to the US as the main interlocutor in the aftermath of the October 1973 war, left-oriented political figures — not only Marxists — were gradually dropped from government. However, Sadat continued to use all available forces, including the Marxists, to undermine Nasserism.

When he abandoned the ASU for a multi-party system in 1976, Sadat allowed the creation of only three parties: left, center and right. He portrayed the left party as Marxist in the hope that Nasserists and other political trends on his left would not accept subordination to a Marxist leadership and would instead join his own center party. The left party outmaneuvered this game. It downplayed its Marxist component and shared leading party positions with representatives of a variety of left-oriented trends: Nasserist, pan-Arab, social-democratic and enlightened religious, both Muslim and Copt. Hence the name Tagammu‘ (“rally”).

After Sadat’s Jerusalem trip and his separate peace with Israel, his stand and not that of the Marxists became a pole of repulsion. The Tagammu‘ was frequently harassed, but its credibility was consolidated — if not in electoral terms, then at least as a pole of attraction for an ever wider spectrum of opposition forces. Finally, in September 1981, Sadat jettisoned the multi-party system itself and clamped down on the entire opposition. One month later, he was assassinated by Islamist extremists.

Underground Islamist organizations have become a growing challenge, not only to the regime but also to the left. During their first encounter after he became president, Mubarak warned Khalid Muhi al-Din, the Tagammu‘ leader, that “they will I kill you before they kill me.” Mubarak lifted the restrictions which had paralyzed Tagammu‘ throughout the last years of Sadat’s rule and authorized its newspaper, al-Ahali, to resume publication. Not because Tagammu‘ was the party of the left, but rather because it was a secular force and, as such, could help offset the polarization of political forces into a neo-Sadat establishment at one extreme and Islamist revivalism at the other.

This manipulation of the left was hardly conducive to reinvigorating it as an independent electoral force in the street. Its failure to stem the Islamist tide led the regime to look to the “moderate” trends within the Islamist movement itself, notably the Muslim Brothers, as a more effective rampart in face of the threat of radical Islam. A questionable proposition, it nevertheless explains why, in the 1987 parliamentary elections, the authorities turned a blind eye when the Muslim Brothers formed an alliance with two other parties in flagrant violation of the electoral law prohibiting the creation of multi-party electoral lists. Thanks to this alliance, the Muslim Brothers is second only to the ruling National Democratic Party in the number of parliamentary seats held.

The heated debate inside Tagammu‘, following its poor showing in the 1987 elections, went so far as to question the very identity of a party that rallied within one organization various ideological trends bound only by a common program. A number of other basic questions were raised as well: Can the party structure be more than transitory? Can this structure survive an extension of democratic freedoms to include, for instance, the right to create a legal Communist and a legal Nasserist party? Is the party held together only by external contingent factors or by more fundamental considerations?

In a world where socialist ideals, especially in underdeveloped societies, attract a much wider range of forces than the working class only, could a party of the left based on a plurality of schools of thought be better equipped to serve the strategic aims of national and social emancipation? This might be more in keeping with the rethinking of Gorbachev’s perestroika. But how, in such conditions, could the party be protected from the clanger of external manipulation, a sine qua non for independence, consistency, the ability to acquire mass following and to cope successfully with the pitfalls of the multi-party “democratic” game as played in the Third World?

How to cite this article:

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed "The Egyptian Left After the Debacle," Middle East Report 150 (January/February 1988).

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