David Breen

Hands Off the Egyptian Workers

(February 1954)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 3 No. 6, February 1954, pp. 2–4.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Egypt has hit the headlines again but this time not because of anything that happened in Egypt itself but because of its effect on British home politics. First there was the Tory “revolt” which Churchill himself had to placate, then, on the other side, Bevan’s trip to Egypt.

Egypt is one of the trump cards of British capitalism. British capital to the extent of some £200,000,000 is invested in the country, mainly in branches of the economy that do not compete with the British export trade, viz., transport mortgage companies, land holding companies banking and so on. The British textile industry exists in the face of Japanese, Indian and other competition solely because it monopolizes the market for high-grade expensive cotton fabric which can be made only from long-stapled Egyptian cotton. British exports can find a market in Asia because the Suez canal cuts transport costs by one half on an average: from the Persian Gulf, by 80 per cent; from the West coast of India, by 77 per cent; from the east coast, by 51 per cent. British air and shipping companies need the services of Egyptian installations. The British army has one of the best equipped bases in the world in the Suez Canal Zone in which £500 million is reputed to be invested. The considerable British investments in the other countries of the Middle East – investments in oil, railways and harbour facilities in Iraq, investments in oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, investments in railways and cotton plantations in the Sudan besides many small investments dotted about the Arab East, all depend directly on what happens to British investments in Egypt as Egypt generally leads the Arab world.

Until recently British capitalism defended its interests in Egypt both directly through the army and the British controlled police force and indirectly by shoring up the semi-feudal, landowning class and by preventing the development of a home industry in Egypt which would have served as a solid foundation for a national movement led by the Egyptian bourgeoisie. But, although British imperialism succeeded to a large extent in arresting the growth of a native capitalist class powerful enough to gain economic independence through its own struggle, it could not prevent the development of a militant working class, which, together with an increasingly discontented and radical peasantry, constitutes a threat to the capitalist relations of production as such, be they foreign – or locally-owned. It is this class conflict which now brooding menacingly behind the scenes, now crashing out into open struggle as during the strike wave of 1946, that determines the course of events in Egypt and, strange as it may sound, in Britain itself. This is what can make a Tory speak up.

On January 26th, 1952, Neguib took power. It was not a very difficult thing to do as the state machine was crumbling anyway. In February 1950, less than two years previously, workers’ pressure had forced the government to decree a fifty per cent, increase in the cost-of-living allowance. The promise was not honoured by the bosses, foreign and local alike The workers came out onto the streets only to be met by the police who were thus prevented from arresting the bosses or not obeying the law! Street fighting broke out in many places, the severest fighting taking place it the “Sugar Company” in Upper Egypt and at the 10,000 hand Muharram Bey textile plant near Alexandria.

By itself, the Egyptian working class would not have been able to undermine the class structure and neutralize the state machine as they did during 1951. This time it had a revolutionary peasantry behind it for, the Korean war had led to tremendous stock piling all over the world, which, when it ceased, led, by 1951, to a huge slump in cotton prices and so in the Egyptian peasant’s cash income. Egypt’s cotton acreage was cut by 40 per cent, the rest could not be sold because of the world textile recession. Without the cash income from cotton, the Egyptian peasant could neither pay his rent nor his taxes. Inexorably, the tax and rent-collectors drove the peasant to the the wall: he must have income, he must have land! One and three-quarter million landless peasants, 1¾ million peasants with less than half an acre of land together with a further 2 million holding less than 1¼ acres – altogether 90% of the agricultural population – found themselves face to face with the 1½ per cent, of landowners who own more than half the land of Egypt. The fabric of Egypt began to tear. The peasants stopped paying rent, landowners’ farms went up in smoke, at Sirw in the North East Delta the peasants divided some big estates amongst themselves – if the peasant movement were allowed to revitalize the Egyptian proletariat which was then on the retreat, it would have meant the beginning of the end of Capitalism in Egypt.

This is where Neguib stepped in. He promised agrarian reform to the peasants following it up a few days later with the severe warning that refusals to pay rents and other such “unlawful acts” would be met by strong police and military action (September, 1952). The peasantry was temporarily isolated from the working class. As for the latter, it was to learn immediately that Neguib’s coup did not mean that their conditions would be improved in any way. When Farouk was deposed and the head of his cabinet Hafez ’Afifi with him, the workers at ’Afifi’s plant in Kafr ed-Dawwar struck in sympathy and to underline the fact that their demands had not been satisfied (August, 1952). Workers in Alexandria came out in support of the strikers. For Neguib this was an admirable opportunity to show whose man he was. The strike at Kafr ed-Dawwar was smashed by the police, and many strikers killed, while one of its leaders, Khamsi, was hanged as an example. The workers of Alexandria were treated to an army parade.

At first Neguib tried to play ball with imperialism. But internal unrest soon drove him to find an external scapegoat, viz., Britain and the British occupation of the Canal Zone. By their continuous anti-British agitation Neguib and his Junta thought they could confine the deep anti-imperialist sentiment of the Egyptian masses to an illusory nationalism which would indeed serve to camouflage the class nature of that sentiment. But once embarked, there was no turning back. Neguib must go on and turn the British out of the Canal Zone, or go down in the revolutionary struggle of Egyptian workers and peasants. He has no choice. The Egyptian workers and peasants are by nature anti-imperialists.

The British Tory government can see the dilemma and the inevitability of its evacuation, but true to its nature, is trying to stall and hesitate, manoeuvre and hedge as much as possible, while at the same time taking the rod to the “rebels,” those die-hard sabre-rattlers who would so render Neguib’s position untenable that he would either be forced towards anti-imperialist action of another calibre e.g., economic expropriation of the Persian model or be replaced by a more uncompromising social force. The Labour leadership would have behaved similarly, or perhaps would have made political concessions with greater alacrity; after all Labour does pull out when faced with a “respectable ” national movement like the Indian one which would never dream of interfering with the operations of British capitalism in India.

But what about the so called Left? Hasn’t Bevan anything to say to the Egyptian workers and peasants? Nay Bevan remains silent; he too seems solicitous for the interests of British Capital in Egypt. After all, as Jennie Lee, his wife, writes in Tribune (8/1/54): in Egypt “Property relations are as yet unchanged. There is no clear picture of how social reforms are to be financed and carried out.” Yet, despite the fact that the structure of Egyptian society has remained pretty much what it was before, Jennie Lee “cannot see anything but darkness and confusion for Egypt if Neguib should lose control of the situation.” Does Jennie Lee sound much different to the reactionary Economist (30/9/52). “The worst thing that could happen to Egypt is the overthrow of the new movement (led by Neguib) by a newer movement,” or Neguib’s “behaviour in the last few weeks, and that of Aly Maher Pasha (his first Prime Minister) has been the only piece of cheerful news from abroad for a long time.” (23/8/52).

Not even the “reputed” “left-wing” of the Labour Party leadership has anything in mind but to cheat the Egyptian worker and peasant of their rightful property. The sole quarrel between the Left and Right in British foreign policy is the question of expediency: is it better for Britain, i.e., British investments in Egypt, i.e., British capitalism, to try to impose its will on Egypt or is it better, taking into account the relation of forces, to make concessions here and there and so secure the continued exploitation of the Egyptian industrial and agricultural worker. The Labour Party has shown itself quite willing to use force in imposing British imperialism on the colonies – e.g., in Kenya; quite as willing, in fact as the Tories in British Guiana and in Buganda. Only when faced with a mightier opposition, as in India, or, possibly, in Egypt, has it made concessions, be it in name only

We, the rank and file of the Labour Party and of the trade union movement, must expose this deceit and demand that British capitalists withdraw their army from Egypt immediately, that British landholding companies divide their property amongst the tillers thereof, that British plants be made over to their workers. We must force the antedeluvian Tory Blimps to shut up and force Bevan to speak and show himself as just one more sham, one more, excuse for British imperialism and the exploitation of the Egyptian workers.

Hands off the Egyptian workers!

Last updated on 16 February 2017