Watching events unfold as protesters attempt to unseat Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak I am reminded of the country’s rich revolutionary history and the suppression of the communist movement there. Many Egyptian communists were effectively expelled from the country in the early 1950s. Their leader, Henri Curiel, carried on working against colonialism from exile in France, forming a unique organisation, and putting his supporters in the service of anti-imperialist and anti-fascist struggles worldwide. February 2011
Henri Curiel was born in Cairo in 1914 to a wealthy Jewish family of Italian origins. There were a number of high-flying family members: his cousin was Eugenio Curiel, a physicist and anti-fascist militant who was murdered in Italy in 1945. His brother Raoul Curiel was a well-known archeologist and numismatist, who specialised in Central Asian studies. Curiel was also a cousin of Cambridge KGB spy George Blake, who later said that his encounter with Curiel as a teenager, when Curiel was older and already a communist, shaped his political views.
Building the Egyptian Communist Movement
Curiel became an Egyptian citizen as soon as he reached adulthood and was to become one of the country’s leading communists. He argued that the main task for Egyptian communists was to win national liberation via a multi-class national front.
To this end Curiel founded the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation (EMNL) in 1943 (which became the Democratic Movement for National Liberation – DMNL, by far the largest communist organisation in Egypt).
The fate of Egypt’s neighbour, British occupied Palestine, was a burning issue in the mid-1940s. The DMNL was staunchly anti-imperialist – it was its raison d’être – and it participated in demonstrations calling for the British to leave Palestine, while at the same time trying to ensure that the demonstrations did not take on an antisemitic character. When “anti-Zionist” demonstrators attacked a Jewish owned shop in al-Mansura the DMNL’s local members stood in front of the premises to protect it.
Egypt’s Jews were divided over their attitude to Palestine and there was bitter infighting. Curiel rejected Zionism but was equally opposed to the short-lived Jewish Anti-Zionist League which was led by a rival communist grouping.
In contrast to the anti-Zionists, Curiel argued that there was a Jewish national community in Palestine and that therefore the country was binational in character. While Curiel was initially in favour of a single binational state, when the Soviet representative at the United Nations, Andre Gromyko, supported partition in the face of the impossibility of reaching an agreement between Jews and Arabs on a single state in 1947, then this also became Curiel’s position.
The DMNL’s weekly newspaper, Al-jamahir (The masses) defended the Soviet position on the partition of Palestine and argued against Egyptian preparations to invade Palestine in order to strangle the Jewish state at birth. In March 1948, as Egypt prepared to invade Al-jamahir was banned. And then just before the invasion itself, in May 1948, martial law was declared.
Curiel and many other communists (and Zionists) were imprisoned. However, the DMNL did manage to release a statement in July 1948 which described Egypt’s attack on Israel as an “unjust racist war” directed by imperialism and traitors against Arab interests. It also accused Britain and the USA of inciting a “religious war” and turning a national anti-imperialist struggle into an “anti-Jewish racial struggle” in order to stabilise their control of the region.
In 1950-51 large numbers of communists were arrested in Egypt when the embattled monarchy embarked on an anti-communist campaign. Curiel was among those detained and was stripped of his Egyptian citizenship and deported to Italy as a foreigner in the summer of 1950. He was not alone and many other Jewish communists were freed from prison on condition that they leave Egypt.
Curiel ended up in Paris where he organised the Egyptian-Jewish communist emigres into a DMNL branch in exile, which became known as the Rome Group.
In 1952 Curiel got caught up in the internal struggles in the French Communist Party. One of its leaders, Andre Marty, was accused of being a police spy, and Curiel was dragged into the affair as Marty had once stayed with Curiel in Egypt. The French Communist Party newspaper L’Humanite smeared Curiel by accusing him of having contacts with a Trotskyite informer during the Second World War: in fact, the man in question, Curiel’s cousin, had never been a Trotskyist or an informer.
The Marty affair ensured that Curiel was banished to the outside of the official communist movement. But Curiel carried on regardless. He had a deep devotion to, and understanding of, anti-imperialism that was rarely matched by his contemporaries on the left.
In 1957 the Rome Group changed its name to the Groupe des Démocrats Égyptiens d’Origine Juive. Curiel became involved in a support network for the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) along with his wife Rosette and Joyce Blau and Didar Fawzi Rossano, both of whom had come from Egypt. In the wake of the roundup of leading activists by the French security services, the Algerians asked Henri Curiel to take over.
Curiel attempted to broaden his network after the Algerian War ended and formed the French Anticolonial Movement (MAF). In October 1960, he was again arrested and spent eighteen months in prison pending deportation. However, his militant anti-fascist activities in Egypt in the 1940s had led him into contact with members of the Free French resistance, some of whom were now ministers in De Gaulle’s cabinet and they ensured that the deportation of their old friend never happened.
With no political home to speak of Curiel operated as an independent anti-imperialist, working with others who had learned their skills in the anti-Nazi resistance movement or in assisting the FLN.
Curiel formed an organisation called Solidarité which consisted of militants from a variety of backgrounds and affiliations who placed themselves at the service of other militants from all over the world. According to Gilles Perrault:
“Their aim was not to act as political mentors, but simply to teach a number of crucial skills that could make all the difference. How to detect and shake off a shadow, print leaflets with a portable press, forge documents. How to use codes and invisible ink. Basic medical care and first aid. Possibly the use of arms and explosives. How to read maps, interpret terrain, and so on. Many of the instructors had doubts about the usefulness of such brief periods of training. But the trainees’ tragic lack of experience soon convinced them. Militants like those from the ANC, exposed to the cruellest and most sophisticated repression, turned out to know nothing of the elementary rules of underground activity.”
While their work targeted the Third World it was also extended to existing anti-fascist networks in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Chile.
The militants came to France in small groups for training periods of varying lengths. They chose the topics most appropriate to the problems they encountered on the ground. The activities were initially funded by Algeria under Ben Bella.
Peace in the Middle East, violence in France
In 1976, Henri Curiel initiated contacts with Israeli and Palestinian representatives willing to negotiate on the basis of mutual recognition. Several meetings, later known as the Paris Talks, were organized. Under the chairmanship of Pierre Mendès-France, they included among others Issam Sartawi, adviser to Yasser Arafat, Uri Avnery and Mattityahu Peled, members of the Israeli Council For Israeli-Palestinian Peace (ICIPP).
In June 1976, a French magazine published an article accusing Curiel of leading a terrorist network connected to the KGB. He was put under house arrest, which was lifted when the charges were unproven. The US government also named Curiel as a dangerous revolutionary in their published intelligence reports. Curiel was an opponent of terrorism, which he believed was futile, and even though the terrorism accusations were unfounded, they put him in serious danger.
Curiel’s work had made him some sinister enemies. On 4 May, 1978 as he was in the lift of his apartment building, two men entered and shot him dead. His killers have not been found although a right-wing group – Delta – did claim responsibility. It could have been agents of South Africa’s apartheid regime, or people opposed to the peace process in Israel-Palestine. Perhaps one day we will find out, but for now the investigation into his death is officially closed.
Uri Avneri, the Israeli peace activist and former Knesset (Israeli Parliament) member, who had worked with Curiel said that when he heard about his murder:
“I remembered the words of Hamlet speaking of his father, the king. ‘He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again’.”
Much of the research for this article is taken from Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Eqypt and Israel 1948-1965, by Joel Beinin. For more on Henri Curiel, there is an excellent article by Gilles Perrault here. Perrault also wrote the excellent book A Man Apart: The Life of Henri Curiel. An interesting article by Uri Avnery on what it was like to work with Curiel can be found here. Curiel’s son is the French journalist Alain Gresh.
A version of this article was first published in the Morning Star on 8 February 2011