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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Commemorating Curiel's assassination / Al-Ahram 1998


Al-Ahram Weekly On-line

Al-Ahram Weekly On-line 1 9 - 25 November 1998 Issue No.404

Commemorating Curiel's assassination

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Last week, I attended a seminar held under the auspices of the Sorbonne and Paris-8 University to mark the 20th anniversary of Henri Curiel's assassination. The most famous founding father of Egyptian communism in the forties, Curiel created the Egyptian Movement of National Liberation (Hameto) in 1942, and became the first General-Secretary of the Democratic Movement of National Liberation (Hadeto) in 1947. He was expelled from Egypt shortly before the 1952 Revolution and, though he never returned, remained deeply involved in Egypt's problems, its internal political life as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict, for the rest of his life.

With the help of a group of communists of Jewish origin who left Egypt for France at approximately the same time he did, Curiel was active in a number of Third World causes, notably his strong support for the Ben Bella regime in Algeria (even donating the family mansion in Zamalek, which serves as the Algerian Embassy in Egypt), and his championship of many national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which, in practical terms, often took the form of logistical assistance. He remained committed to these causes until his assassination by unknown assailants in 1978 on the doorstep of his home in Paris. Although his murder became something of a cause célèbre, the French police have to this day failed to solve the case.

As a militant in the Egyptian communist movement, I was never part of the Curiel group. In fact, I only met him once, and then under somewhat bizarre circumstances. Shortly before the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, a rebellion broke out in Hadeto under the leadership of the late Shohdi Attiya El-Shaf'i and Anwar Abdel-Malek, the now internationally renowned scholar, who accused the movement's Jewish leaders of distorting its identity at a time the country stood on the brink of war with the Zionists in Palestine. The two men created a counter-pole to the leadership which they called the Revolutionary Faction and which attracted the bulk of Hadeto's student and youth membership body. To consolidate the Faction's position, Shohdi decided to issue a lengthy manifesto which, for obvious reasons, had to be printed in secret. The site chosen was an empty apartment in the Immobilia building belonging to an ambassador on post abroad who happened to be the father of one of the Faction's student recruits. Somehow the news was leaked to the Hadeto leadership, who decided to raid the apartment and confiscate the document. I was among the Faction members in the apartment when the military section of Hadeto, led by Curiel himself, carried out the raid.

We tried to burn the document before it was seized but the flames got out of hand and smoke began to appear at the windows. People gathered in the street and the fire brigade was called. We finally managed to put out the fire, call off the fire brigade and disperse the crowds without anybody realising what was really at stake. The poor ambassador's apartment was in shambles, but Curiel could congratulate himself on a mission accomplished. As we left, Curiel singled me out to ride with him in his car. We had a rather heated discussion which I cannot recall in any detail. What I do remember is that he struck me as being closer to my idea of a Jesuit priest than a communist activist.

Paris is obviously not the proper place to resolve old quarrels within the ranks of the Egyptian communist movement, if only because all the parties involved cannot be made available concomitantly in a foreign capital. But Paris is certainly a convenient place to initiate new forms of common action with the Curiel group on the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is not to say that the conflict can be totally dissociated from the history of the Egyptian communist movement.

Indeed, I have my own theory on the relationship between the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the one hand, and the course followed by the Egyptian communist movement, on the other. The theory, which has been challenged by many in the Egyptian Left, is that much of what Egyptian Marxists attributed to communism was in fact motivated by other considerations of which they were largely unaware. There was first what I call a "Jewish moment" in the communist movement, a period when the course of events in the movement was determined to a great extent by the identity problems of the then existing leadership. This lasted until the creation of Israel, which ushered in a second moment, seemingly in reaction to the first, where the movement acquired pan-Arab traits. Ultimately, the Egyptian communists dissolved their organisations and joined ranks with Nasser, overcoming years of misunderstandings with his regime, including long prison terms and torture that claimed among its victims Shohdi Attiya El-Shaf'i, who had been the first to rebel against the Jewish leadership.

For the Egyptian communists, the pan-Arab dimension took precedence over the internationalist dimension of communism, demonstrating that not because a given conflict acquires priority status at the global level it automatically acquires the same privileged status at regional levels. Although the main contradiction at the global level was between communism and capitalism, at the regional level it was between Zionism and pan-Arabism. That is why the confrontation between the two ideologies was not overcome despite the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the end of communism as a world pole and the unfolding of a peace process in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is inadmissible, in such a context, that conflicts inherited from the forties in the Egyptian communist movement should still stand as a barrier in the way of a common effort to isolate the forces that are most hostile to an equitable and peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, first and foremost Israel's super-hawks with considerable representation in its present Likud government.

For these reasons, I decided to take part in the Curiel seminar. The group around him have an established status in Europe and can be instrumental in promoting initiatives that would further engage European NGOs and other European activists in Middle East problems. Actually, it is wrong to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict as a Middle Eastern conflict, because this ignores the fact that the Jewish problem which initially triggered the process first arose in Europe, with the pogroms in East Europe and the Holocaust under Hitler. Europe cannot absolve itself by its financial compensations to Israel nor by its staunch backing of Israel's existence. Europe will remain responsible for the tragedies it has provoked as long as the conflict is not resolved equitably.

There was a time when I believed Europe could play a key role in the search for an equitable solution to the conflict by first acknowledging that the Palestinians are as much victims of persecution today as the Jews were in the past. But I came to realise that putting the persecution of Jews and that of Palestinians on an equal footing could be counter-productive, in that it could be seen as implicitly denying the exceptional character of the Holocaust and give rise to accusations of negationism by many Europeans. Accordingly, I reformulated my proposal in line with the example offered by Israel's "new historians".
I proceeded from the premise that a prerequisite for definitive peace is to treat the opponent as a subject, not an object, of history. Negotiations between states tend to treat the other party as an object. Even cheating is legitimate in state negotiations. This does not apply to a debate at the NGO and, more generally, the intelligentsia, level. In order for criticism of the Other to be credible, protagonists must be ready to exercise self-criticism. This is the methodology followed by Israel's "new historians", for whom all the previous Israeli historiography has presented a mythical Israel, good only for propaganda purposes. Some of these historians, though believers in Zionism, have gone as far as to question Israel's legitimacy as a state, in terms of a thorough analysis of the concrete unfolding of historical events. The Curiel group is well placed to develop debates of this nature. At the final session of the seminar, my proposal to encourage a process that would generalise what Israel's "new historians" have initiated was endorsed.