Robert Sid Ahmed,
INTERVIEW WITH MOHAMED SID AHMED-(CAIRO, 17/5/97)
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. In 1946 you became a Marxist. Can you tell me why Marxism appealed to you in the sort of post-war world?
MOHAMED SID AHMED: Well, let us say at that... I was at the French school; my hero was Louis Aragon, the French poet, very well known under the Resistance. This was our cosmopolitan education, so to say, which was widespread with the upper classes in Egypt. So I had friends who had heard about him; I was very impressed by his poetry and the partisan movement, and he was a communist. And that's how ... And then I had a professor of philosophy. I did the French baccalaureate side by side with the Egyptian one, so when it came to the French baccalaureate he was teaching me literature, and he was teaching me French literature with a Marxist approach. I was not aware; but later on I discovered it was that, and then I found myself thinking that way, and in, so to say. So this was very widespread in Egypt amongst my generation, which was... we were.. 17-year-old, 18-year-old, and so on. Then, after the war, there was a national movement, and that's how we got into Marxism, then.
INT: So why was Marxism identified with there being a national movement?
MSA: Yes, well, I'm not sure whether it identified - there's a more complicated story there. I think that we have never had a very authentic Marxist movement in Egypt. We've had two basic movements: one, let us call it a Jewish movement; and one, let us call it a pan-Arab movement. Up 'til 1942, from '24 to 1942, we didn't have a Marxist movement in Egypt at all. There were some... Greek or Italian Marxists concerned with their own communities in Egypt, because they were fascist countries at the time, and many of the Marxist leaders, the communist leaders took refuge in Egypt, so they didn't want that to be spoilt. So what they actually had was... but it's only beginning from 1940-41 that a number of upper class Jews created Marxist organizations, separate from each other. I think, at that time, the reasoning was the following: Rommel was at the doors of Alexandria; if he had occupied Egypt, he would have gone to Palestine. I am not talking of a plot at all, but this was a sort of normal reaction. What happened then probably is that they knew about the persecution of Jews; it was known to some extent or other, not like afterwards. They were looking for an ideology that could be a protection, that could identify them with Egyptians standing up to fascism; so it was communism at the time. The ideology of communism was an anti-racist ideology which could give them protection. So I think this is how they began creating organizations. And the national movement used this Marxist movement; soon after they recruited Egyptian intellectuals and so on, and it got "Egyptianized", so to say. But in 1948 we had a problem: Israel was created. If Marxism for them, and the national movement, had been protection, now protection for Jews was to be on the Israeli side, not on the Egyptian side in the war. That happened in 1948. So, many Egyptian Marxists were sent to prison on the grounds that they were Zionists, so this provoked a crisis, and there was... this crisis affected the Jewish community quite a bit. Many left Egypt at the time, many of the Marxists were... the movement broke down. Then a new generation of leaders came up, replaced these to one extent or another. But later on, under Nasser, the Marxists had another system of reference: pan-Arabism took over, and that's how we moved into a second period. Up until, let's say the Sixties - what happened then is that the Marxists were imprisoned, all of them, during the critical years ... and tortured, during the critical years of Nasser's change; until the High Dam issue came, so he invited Khrushchev to come. But Khrushchev seemed to have told Mr. Sadat, who was sent at the time to invite him, "I am a communist - I'm afraid to go to Egypt to imprison communists." So then they understood people had to be released. And that's how they were released; all the Marxists were released. They were released, but on a condition that I've never proved to have been an agreement with the Soviets - I don't know - but the fact is that the organizations were disbanded, and Egyptian Marxists became part of the Nasser regime. I think, at that period, this was linked to something very specific: Khrushchev dreamt of having Nasser become a Castro. It was believed that nationalists could become communists; that, contrary to the Stalin line, which [was that] everybody who was not a communist works with the imperialists, everybody that is not an imperialist could eventually work with the communists. And out of this came the idea to spread the Third World and to adopt leaders like Nasser. So he didn't need the loyalty of the Marxists; they could just give it to Nasser if this was necessary for him to become a communist down the road.
INT: That's a wonderful answer. Can you just tell me... you joined the Nasser movement. What is your assessment of Nasser and his contribution to the Arab world?
MSA: Ah, that's an interesting question, because you see, as Marxists we believed that we were making history, we had the scientific view of history, and as such we were history. Actually, this reconciliation with Nasser was seen as he had proved that he was better able to (unclear) than we were. He made it in the anti-imperialist movement, and he tortured us as well - he put us in prison and he tortured us. But out of this... build-up, this education, which... somebody makes history, and when you come to understand that history is here, you have to work here, even if you are a victim of that. This happened much under Stalin in the Soviet Union: all the leaders that went hailing Stalin as they were being executed - there was something similar with us, I think, this. It took me years and years later to understand that we were not imprisoned because of rape and that we were imprisoned as political figures, and that we were entitled to not have to choose between (unclear) history and the counterpart being tortured and to shut up.
INT: ... In the Fifties, what [were] Egypt's aims, and why did they seek superpower support?
MSA: Well, I would say that Egypt has been at the crossroads always; it's a very critical area here. We had two problems compounded: the anti-colonial drive at that time, the adaptation to a different world, but also the issue of Israel, and in those cases the conflict was compounded. So the drive... I mean, the question was to use the superpower confrontation. That was for Nasser. And on the other hand, as well, that it was a period where facing the West, the backing of the Soviet Union gave some authority. It was a period where I think two conflicts, though different in content, proceeded parallely when it came to procedure. The Arab-Israeli and the Soviet-American, say, on the global level it was capitalism versus socialism; on the regional level, it was pan-Arabism versus Zionism. But they had this in common: each excluded the other.
INT: OK, so you've described for me the mutual interest of the Soviet Union and Egypt in the local conflict; but there were also differences. What were these differences, and how did the Soviet Union control Egypt?
MSA: Well, the differences were this, you see: the Soviet Union and Egypt, it was one factor with respect to another one as well - the relation with the Americans. So, it so happened that the Arab-Israeli conflict became more and more acute, while the American-Soviet relation was rather improving during the same period. The most critical period after '56... sorry, the most critical period after '63... Sorry. The mo...
(Request to start again)
MSA: (Overlap) The most critical period (Overlap) after '67...
INT: Can I ask you to start again from "the Arab-Israeli conflict was worsening as the Soviet-American..."? OK.
MSA: Yes. Well, actually, iwas... the Egyptian-Soviet relationship was a bilateral relationship within a trilateral one, the trilateral one being having a third party which was the States of America. So actually, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and therefore the backing of the Soviet Union, was all the more important, because this conflict with Israel was worsening while at the same time the relationship between the Soviets and the Americans was rather improving. It was... the Cold War ... we were moving away from the worst period of the Cold War, but we were heading forward towards the most critical confrontation when it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict. '67 was the peak of the Arab defeat in the confrontation with Israel, while at that very same time there was a first attempt at ... a détente, or in the following years there was the beginning of a détente between the Soviet Union and America. One should remember that after '67, there was a meeting between Johnson at the time and the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, Kosygin, in Glassoboro or something... I don't remember the name very well. But anyhow, they did get together, despite the fact that it was extremely critical in the Middle East. I think that the Soviet Union('s) peak moment of its breakthrough out of only thinking in terms of the communist world, into the Third World area, was '56. '56 was the first opportunity. Exactly as '56 was seen by the Americans and the Eisenhower Doctrine as an opportunity to replace Britain and France as the main colonial powers in the Middle East, the Soviet Union and the Bulganin famous ultimatum during the '56 war was the first step of the Soviet Union into the Middle East. I mean, it was replacing the old colonial powers by a new Cold War game both wooing the Arab side: Eisenhower through the Eisenhower Doctrine, and the Soviet Union through its ultimatum. So, as we see, things changed that way. But since then, the Soviets were getting more and more concerned with the Americans, so this created tensions. It was very obvious before the '73 war, because a few months before, Sadat kicked out the Soviet experts, a few months before going to war with Israel. This helped him in a certain way: it offered the impression that when they talked of war, it was just bluff. But on the other hand, it deprived him of the opportunity of using the Soviet military backing to the utmost. But this was very significant of the very ambivalence of the whole situation. Egypt needed the military backing of the Soviet Union, but later on, as Kissinger told Sadat, "You need our political backing. Without us, peace is impossible. They can help you make war, but I'm the only one who can help you make peace."
INT: To bring you back, how did the Soviet Union control her relationship with Egypt? I'm thinking that basically Egypt essentially needs funding and needs arms, and the Soviet Union needs to have a presence here. How did that...?
MSA: Well, I think... I'm not sure... You see, there were two parties who wanted different things. I mean, the Soviets wanted to expand their presence, wanted the Third World to be their ally rather than the Americans' ally. They believed that the precondition for global détente was to isolate the imperial pole, and to win over the Third World; so they needed a presence. But on the other hand, Egypt also needed backing when it had its confrontation with Israel, the confrontation with the West, the inability to depend upon the West militarily to face the Israeli issue. So, as such, it was a game that was not always smooth as to the relationship between the two parties. I mean, each needed the other, but each did not want to respond to what the other needed optimally, so there was all these problems.
INT: That's wonderful. A very specific question: during the '67 war, what pressures did Egypt put upon the Soviet Union to try and stop the war, to try and bring the war to a halt?
MSA: Well, you see, Egypt believed that it would get, in 1967, an ultimatum as the one they'd got in 1956. It never came. There was a basic difference: in '56 it was against Britain and France, the weaker colonial powers, and it was hand in hand with the Americans, which were against this tripartite attack on Egypt. In '67 it was different: it was the Americans who were involved up to their neck with Israel, and the Soviet Union was trying to build up some form of détente with the Americans, so they were not ready to go beyond a certain point in support of Egypt.
INT: Do you believe the Soviet Union had as much influence on America as the Egyptians would have liked?
MSA: Probably not, but the Egyptians hoped they would have, or the Egyptians believed that they should have signaled their friendship to Egypt by taking stands, the way the Egyptians thought they should have taken stands towards the Americans.
INT: Very good. After the war, after the '67 war, did the Soviet Union back Egypt's desire to go back to war again, and in what way was this...?
MSA: No, I think the Soviet Union always hoped not to have to resort to war in the Middle East. I think the Soviet Union would offer weapons, but didn't want these weapons to be tested - not because of their military value, basically, because there is no reason to assume that these weapons were not good, but for the political implications. They believed that they were better placed to win over wider parts of the Third World without having to clash with the West. This responded to their strategy of improving their status throughout the Third World and of building relations in preparation for détente with the West.