Youssef Darwish (1910–2006) was born to a Karaite Jewish family of modest means in the Cairo neighborhood of ‘Abbasiyya. His father was illiterate, but made sure that his children received a first-rate education. In France to study commerce and then law, Darwish met the Communist Party of France in the heyday of Stalinism. Returning to Egypt in 1934, Darwish was instrumental in a succession of Egyptian communist groups.
Through his work as a labor lawyer, Darwish was a main link between these groups and the working class — particularly with regard to worker activism in the nationalist struggle against the British occupation. In 1945, textile workers formed the social base of the Workers’ Committee for National Liberation. A staunch nationalist himself, Darwish did not sign the committee’s program because he was not a worker — reflecting his commitment to building the leadership of actual workers rather than those who claimed to represent them. Soon, militant textile workers in Shubra al-Khayma joined with nationalist students to form a National Committee of Workers and Students. This committee organized a general strike and demonstration on February 21, 1946, demanding full evacuation of British forces from Egypt.
Willing to get his hands dirty with unglamorous tasks, Darwish devoted himself to the practical daily work of serving as legal counsel for dozens of trade unions representing tens of thousands of workers. I met several former trade union leaders in his home, long after he ceased to be active in this arena. They clearly retained deep respect and affection for him.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, Darwish was arrested repeatedly. Nonetheless, he found the time to marry his wife, Iqbal, in 1947. He had two children, Mugahid and Nawla.
Darwish, unlike the great majority of Egyptian communists, opposed the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. He was a prominent leader of the Workers and Peasants Communist Party established in 1957. When the three main currents of the Egyptian communist movement united in 1958, one current demanded that Jews be excluded from the leadership of the new party (the fact that Darwish and others had formally converted to Islam was considered irrelevant). Over the objections of many workers, and though they opposed this demand in principle, Darwish and the other Jewish members of the new party acceded in the name of unity.
Most communists were jailed from 1959 to 1964. Although he was one of the oldest in jail, Darwish was respected for his perseverance in the face of torture and privation. The nationalist achievements of the Nasser regime and its alliance with the Soviet Union resulted in a decision to dissolve the two Egyptian communist parties (there had been yet another split) in 1965. Opposing the dissolution out of a belief that the working class needed its own political party, Darwish became active in efforts to reestablish a single Communist Party of Egypt.
For this he was arrested yet again in 1973. After the 1973 war, he and Iqbal left Egypt for Algeria. The Communist Party was officially reestablished in 1975. From 1980 to 1986, Darwish served as its representative to the Cominform in Prague, and then returned to Egypt. Renewing his ties with workers, he advised the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services in Helwan. Darwish was dismayed that the Communist Party supported the regime of Husni Mubarak against political Islamists. Consequently, he split and helped establish the People’s Socialist Party. However one judges the efficacy of this action, it expresses his lifelong understanding that democracy and social justice cannot be granted by elites but must be won through popular struggles.