“I studied engineering and law and I practiced neither. I believed I would devote my life to the subject of socialism versus capitalism, and I discovered in the end that I consumed my life in the vortex of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” That was how Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, the Egyptian Marxist intellectual who died 15 years ago last month, summed up his life in an interview close to the time of his death.
His fame as a political thinker derived primarily from his book “After the Guns Fall Silent: Peace or Armageddon in the Middle East,” published in Beirut in 1975 (it came out in English a year later) – perhaps the most important work about the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace – which jolted the Egyptian and Arab intellectual communities. Indeed, most of the articles he published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram and in other news outlets and journals in the Arab world and the West focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on ways to resolve it.
Mohamed Sid-Ahmed was born on November 29, 1928. His father, Abbas Sid-Ahmed Pasha, belonged to the Egyptian aristocratic elite and was the governor of the provinces of Suez and Port Said in the 1930s and 1940s. His mother, Wahida Yousry, also came from an aristocratic family, and was the sister-in-law of Ismail Sidky, the charismatic statesman who twice served as Egypt’s prime minister during the period of the monarchy.
As a child growing up in Cairo, Sid-Ahmed was raised by a Scottish nanny and attended French primary schools. He didn’t know Arabic at all until the age of 11. René Granier, one of his revered teachers in the French lycée (secondary school) he attended, opened up the world of Marxist thought and its attendant social vision to Sid-Ahmed and his friends. At the age of 17 he joined Iskra (the spark), one of the three leading Marxist groups in the country. Its leader was Hillel Schwartz – a Jew whose father had immigrated to Egypt from Romania.
Ismail Sidky, Sid-Ahmed’s highly influential uncle, persuaded the youth’s parents to send him to France for university studies, but Sid-Ahmed made his way back into Egypt shortly thereafter and was targeted by the royalist political police. For two years he hid in the apartment of a Jewish physician, Odette Hazan, the tough, dogmatic leader of a small communist faction called the Voice of the Proletariat. Sid-Ahmed was finally arrested when he clashed with police officers who had come to take Hazan into custody, and was sentenced to a two-year prison term. Released following the Free Officers Movement revolution in 1952, Sid-Ahmed went on to complete engineering and law studies at Cairo University.
The totalitarian regime headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser persecuted Egyptian communists, not only because they disputed its approach on various issues, but particularly because they insisted on maintaining the independence of their underground organizations, refusing to dismantle them and merge with the ruling political organization.
Governmental oppression peaked at the beginning of 1959, with mass arrests of activists and sympathizers of the various communist groups. Sid-Ahmed was among the thousands of detainees who endured harsh conditions of incarceration and torture, which resulted in the death of some prisoners. Five years later, Nasser released all the communist prisoners, on condition that they dismantle their independent organizations and agree to join the Arab Socialist Union, the sole ruling party.
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Worn out, the activists accepted the regime’s terms and joined the ruling party, where the leading figures among them were assigned to tasks involving administrative duties, the media and ideological instruction. Sid-Ahmed was initially posted to the newspaper Akhbar El Youm and afterward to Al-Ahram as senior diplomatic commentator. Later, he would become a cofounder of Al-Ahram’s Center for Political and Strategic Studies, whose establishment was triggered by Egypt’s defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Around this time, Sid-Ahmed began to be drawn into the “vortex of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In in-depth discussions among members of the editorial board of the Marxist monthly Al-Talia, published under the auspices of Al-Ahram, Sid-Ahmed adopted an unconventional stance. Dissenting from approaches that were prevalent in Egyptian discourse about Israel, he displayed an understanding of the distress of the Jews and of their Holocaust trauma. (Later he took abrasive issue with French Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy, and published an article titled “Auschwitz” in Arabic in Al-Ahram and in its French and English editions, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.) At the same time, he believed that the suffering undergone by the Jews could not justify the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians.
Above all, in the midst of the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition (July 1967 through August 1970), he discerned the next stage of the conflict, when not only might Israel’s overall qualitative advantage be offset by the Arabs’ quantitative superiority, but also when the Arab side would acquire some elements of the Israeli quality – a process that came to fruition in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The moment the Zionist dream is realized will also be the moment at which its very existence is shaken, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed wrote.
After that war, which the Egyptian public perceived as the “October victory,” a broad intellectual dialogue developed in a variety of local platforms about the implications of Egypt’s achievement and about the developments that could be expected both domestically and regionally. The most significant discussions took place behind closed doors at the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and they were the inspiration for Sid-Ahmed’s “After the Guns Fall Silent.” Its Arabic version was a 400-page volume that referred to a broad variety of philosophical issues, but the translations – into eight foreign languages, including Hebrew and English – comprised only the sections dealing directly with the conflict and the ways to resolve it. (The Hebrew translation, published in 1976, was edited by Prof. Emmanuel Sivan; the English translation, consisting of 144 pages, also appeared in 1976, with a foreword by Lord Caradon, one of the drafters of UN Security Council Resolution 242.) Analysts both in Israel and internationally interpreted the book as a manifesto for peace – two years before President Anwar Sadat announced his own historic peace initiative.
The opening of the book is a courageous call for people to stop envisioning the future for themselves according to the past, and to desist from rejecting in advance anything that is not justified by conditions that were created in the past. Sid-Ahmed goes on to analyze the results of the Yom Kippur War as “neither victory nor defeat,” and also argues that it will be enough if Israel does not achieve total victory in a war for that war to constitute a retreat and defeat, and enough if the Arabs do not suffer defeat in a war for that war to assume the character of a victory.
The 1973 war created, for the first time in the history of the conflict, an equation that engendered reliance on a “common denominator of some sort,” thanks to which it alone would become possible to discuss an Arab-Israeli peace based on rational considerations and an assessment of the balance of forces between the two adversaries.
In this context, the author arrived at the passage in his book that drew more attention from readers and reviewers than any other. He proposed the establishment of a belt of heavy industry in the border regions separating the countries that were party to the conflict, as an element that would aid in creating peace and bring about general agreement to avoid the use of weapons of war. In Sid-Ahmed’s view, the Zionist enterprise would become extinct in the era of peace, once it seemed as if it had achieved its goal and had forced its existence on its surroundings. The moment the Zionist dream is realized will also be the moment at which its very existence is shaken, he wrote.
In 1995, 20 years after the appearance of “After the Guns,” Sid-Ahmed published a book titled “Peace or Mirage?” In it he reviewed the transformations that had occurred in the map of the Arab-Israeli conflict during the intervening decades. However, while it was not translated and did not garner the widespread resonance and readership of the previous work, it did spark debate among Egyptian and Arab intellectuals.
Four years after Sid-Ahmed’s death, a volume in his memory, “Glimpses from a Rich Life,” appeared under the imprint of the respected publishing house Dar El Shorouk. It consists of reminiscences by the family, ideological partners and also colleagues who took issue with his ideas. There is an extensive foreword by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Egypt’s leading journalist and former confidant of President Nasser.
One of the texts in the book that most impress me is by Sid-Ahmed’s widow, Maissa Talaat, who provides a highly sensitive account of her joint path with her husband across four decades. Moving testimony is also provided by other family members, among them Nayra, Maissa’s daughter from her previous marriage – to a Syrian civilian pilot who was killed in an aerial accident – and whom Sid-Ahmed adopted as his beloved daughter; and also by Sid-Ahmed and Maissa’s twin sons, Tariq and ‘Amr. Of the memoirs written by Sid-Ahmed’s ideological companions, I would note that of Albert Arie, a Jewish communist who had been Sid-Ahmed’s classmate in the lycée in Cairo.
The final chapter of “Glimpses from a Rich Life” is Sid-Ahmed’s own narrative about his experiences in the Egyptian communist movement. Here he is revealed to be an eloquent raconteur, possessing a subtle sense of humor and offering a delicate critique of the errors of the past made by the movement to which he was devoted from youth, and of his own errors.
From the early 1990s a deep personal friendship formed between Mohamed Sid-Ahmed and myself. Ever since I first read “After the Guns” and became acquainted with the idea of this wise man, I had longed to meet him and engage him in an ongoing dialogue. That opportunity came my way when I visited Cairo in 1991 together with my mentor and friend Maj. Gen. (res.) Matti Peled, who later became a left-wing and pro-peace politician. I asked some of our hosts, veterans of the left-wing movements in Egypt, to convey a request for a meeting to Sid-Ahmed. Later I served as the director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, and it was precisely in that period that we met with increasing frequency, despite the boycott imposed by the leadership of the leftist Tagmua party, of which Sid-Ahmed was one of the founders and conceptual luminaries. Our encounters usually took place in his spacious apartment in a large building overlooking the Nile in the affluent Zamalek neighborhood.
At what turned out to be our final meeting, Mohamed asked how I was feeling. “I have no complaints,” I replied. “Well, I happen to have a few,” was his rejoinder, and he told me about a vascular disease he had been suffering from. A few months later I was stunned by the news that he had died. In my following two trips to Cairo I accompanied the gracious Maissa to visit her husband’s grave in the family mausoleum on the outskirts of Old Cairo, and to place a wreath of red roses on the tombstone.
Dr. Yossi Amitay is a scholar of Middle East Studies and former director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.