What? Anarchists in Egypt!

A short account of the anarchist movement, primarily of Italian migrants, in Egypt before 1916, by Costantino Paonessa.

Submitted by Steven. on May 27, 2017

the past century and a half of the Italian language anarchist
movement, its militants and groups migrated to all five continents.
From the mid-19th to the start of the 20th
century, it had a significant presence in Cairo and in Alexandria in Egypt.

the middle of the 19th century, the flow of immigrant male
and female European workers into the countries of the Maghreb and the
Ottoman Empire assisted the spread of internationalism and
anti-authoritarian socialism, alongside other political persuasions.
Yet for a variety of reasons traceable to topics like “the
decolonization of anarchism” or Orientalism, as well as the
hegemony exercised by certain schools of historiography, their
history has been of small concern to historians and activists and has
all but slipped into oblivion*, as witness the case of Egypt, of
which more below.

ferment, 1860-1882

the presence of European colonies on Egyptian soil dates back to the
Middle Ages, it was only after Muhammad Ali came to power that the
flood of migrants from Europe (and further afield) became impressive.
Egypt’s rulers launched an intense process to modernize some of the
institutions and agencies in Egyptian society; in fact, that process,
opened the doors to the immigration of European technicians and a
European workforce. Furthermore, up until the end of the 19th
century at any rate, the viceroy of Egypt readily granted hospitality
to European political exiles who, elsewhere, were in danger of
imprisonment or deportation. At the same time, the system of
‘concession’ (the right of foreigners to be answerable to the
laws of their own country and judged by consular judges) was often
used by the states in Europe to keep individuals categorised as
“seriously dangerous” well away from their homelands. Against
this backdrop, the early 1860s witnessed the formation of carbonari,
republican and Mazzinian groups among the migrant workforce and
political exiles, mainly in Alexandria – the key city and port for
communications in the Mediterranean – and then in Cairo. By around
ten years later, those groups were being invaded by internationalism
with the arrival of survivors of the Paris Commune and it is around
this time that one Ugo Icilio Parrini (d. 1906) aka “L’Orso”
(The Bear) crops up; as early as 1870 Cairo police had him classified
as an internationalist. His name will be linked to thirty years of
anarchist revolutionary activism. Parrini himself, by the 1880s,
became the driving force behind unification of the Italian-language
anarchist groups that had a presence in every major Egyptian city and
which had a number of chapters, including a women’s chapter. Egypt
therefore joined the worldwide internationalist web, trading
activists, ideas and publications.

1878 a number of internationalists fleeing the repression in the wake
of the Benevento revolt arrived in Alexandria: these included the
young Errico Malatesta who was reunited there with his brother,
Aniello. Errico Malatesta remained in Alexandria for only a short
time but returned to Egypt in 1882 when anarchists tried,
unsuccessfully, to support Ahmad Orubi’s nationalist unrest; the
crackdown on that unrest was followed by the British occupation of

doldrums to a fresh boost for revolutionary activism

and personal rifts, police repression and, above all, the constant
to-ing and fro-ing of militants led over the following decade to a
paralysis in the movement, albeit that it never petered out entirely.
By the end of the century, anarchists were reorganizing and playing a
leading role in introducing radical ideas and practices to the main
cities of Egypt. Ugo Icilio Parrini and Luigi Losi in Cairo and
Pietro Vasai, Francesco Cini and Roberto d’Angio in Alexandria, as
well as dozens of other militants, gave a considerable boost to
revolutionary activism, which was of some concern to the Italian,
British and Egyptian authorities.

the German Kaiser’s visit to Istanbul and Jerusalem, an agent of
the Italian consulate in Alexandria had bombs made that were smuggled
into Parrini’s business-cum-political club, to be discovered
quickly thereafter by the police. That provided the pretext for the
arrest of thirty militants, including Parrini and Vasai; in the end,
they were all acquitted on all charges, but only after they had spent
a year in Muharram Bay prison. On their release and with the aid of
dozens of activists arrived from abroad – including many returning
from the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 – the anarchists embarked upon
impressive propaganda, political activity and agitational work among
the working class. There was a new dynamism in this. In 1900, Luigi
Galleani arrived in Alexandria. Promptly arrested while in his
hospital bed, he was freed after a month under an amnesty. It seems
that it was he that drafted the charter of the Free University of
Alexandria which was launched, mainly due to anarchists’ efforts,
in 1901. The university which was supposed to be characterized by
“fraternity and mutual tolerance” was open to all, regardless of
nationality, language, religion or gender.

the same time, the activities of anarchists were focused upon
planning new form of organization, struggle and working class
struggle virtually unprecedented in the Egypt of that time; new
associations and ‘resistance leagues’ orchestrated strikes,
marches and rallies. Anarchist propaganda was stepped up through the
launching of study circles and the publication of pamphlets, flyers
and newspapers. May Day, the anniversary of the Paris Commune and
20th September were consistently used as opportunities to
organize meetings and get-togethers of anarchists.

Alexandria the writer Enrico Pea’s Barracca Rossa was
launched. This was a magazine that was also a rallying point for male
and female anarchists and it later became famous for attracting the
likes of Giuseppe Ungaretti and the young Leda Rafanelli.

and Internal Disagreements

the movement was afflicted with disunity and very virulent internal
differences. The launch in Alexandria of the syndicalist-inclined
Tribuna Libera newspaper, the creation of Pietro Vasai and
Joseph Rosenthal, widened the gulf with Parrini’s individuialistic
anti-organiser current and the Cairo comrades. The latter, in fact,
refused to collect funds for Tribuna Libera and instead opted
to raise money for the Era Nuova newspaper that Raffaele
Valente had launched in Naples. Later, when the decision was made in
Alexandria to launch a paper called L’Operaio, the Cairo
group replied with Il domani. Periodico libertario. The
differences spilled over from the ideological into occasional
personal attacks. Even an “academic” round of lectures by Pietro
Gori at the Free University of Alexandria in 1904 failed to alter
that. The disputes and internal bickering were obstacles to political
and propaganda activity.

complicate matter further, in 1906 Parrini (“the great sower” as
Enrico Pea described him) died unexpectedly; Parrini had been living
in poverty for quite some time. With him perished what was
undoubtedly the inspiration behind Italian-speaking anarchism in

Anarchist Activism and Unity Achieved after 1908

until 1908 was there a resurgence in anarchist activism. In January
that year Vasai arrived in Cairo as the representative of the
Alexandria Resistance League, meaning to raise money for striking
workers. In November 1908, Vasai called a meeting in Cairo’s Civil
Cemetery, at which approval was given for the publication of a brand
new anarchist propaganda paper, L’Idea, which published its
first edition in March 1909. By that point, Vasai had moved to the
Egyptian capital. It was no coincidence that the Italian consul
reported to the Interior Ministry in Rome a “degree of
resurgence in the socialist and anarchist camp.”

spring of 1909 saw the launch of an Atheist Circle in Cairo, the
members of which (its charter reads) “mean to study, develop and
spread all of the truths demonstrated by science and contradicting
religious and deist principles
”. At the same time, a
Free-Thinkers Circle was launched in Alexandria: among its founders
was another well known anarchist, Umberto Bambini.

4 July 1909, in Cairo’s Eden theatre, socialists and anarchists
launched the International Federation for Resistance Among Workers.
Its aim, as stated in the manifesto drafted also in Greek and Arabic
was “the emancipation of the workers and the immediate
betterment of their conditions
”. The organization, the
manifesto stated “will stand outside of any political, national or
religious camp.” Shortly after that, on 25 July 1909, the Cairo and
Alexandria anarchists, meeting in a bottle plant, decided to call a
meeting “to lay the foundations for a final agreement within the
anarchist movement in Egypt”. That meeting was held on 1 August
1909 at the Alexandria Atheist Circle. After years of division, a
sort of an agreed programme had been arrived at. Three hours of
proceedings led to the drafting of the final document, entitled Why
We Are Anarchists – What We Want
. The text afforded “reasonable
freedom of action to both organized anarchists and those others who
mean to engage in individualist propaganda
”. At the same time,
it afforded “the possibility for anarchists to join labour

short-lived, the unity thrashed out also made an impact through
“practical propaganda”. When Francisco Ferrer was arrested, a
Pro-Ferrer Committee was set up in Alexandria; it included
anarchists, socialists from the ‘Pisacane’ branch, members of the
Atheist Circle and of the Free-Thinkers’ Circle. When the Spanish
anarchist was subsequently sent to the firing squad, a special
edition of Pro-Ferrer was issued, numerous public
demonstrations were mounted and a stone erected in the civil

also resumed organizing and getting involved in labour struggles. The
leagues bounced back, especially those formed by the printworkers and
cigarette-makers. There was a fresh emphasis on marking anniversaries
as a way of boosting propaganda. Public events were organized to mark
May Day in 1909 and 1910. In Alexandria, in 1910, a procession making
the anniversary of Ferrer’s execution defied a ban imposed by the
police and a strong police deployment managed only to have it alter
its route.


within a year, the movement began to decline again. To quote Vasai’s
words “the dissension and internal warfare, a blight that
especially infects Italy’s anarchist camp
” were to blame.

saw publication of one last newspaper, the very appearance of which
generated a lot of consensus: L’Unione was
anarcho-syndicalist and anti-militarist in persuasion. By that point
the activism of anarchist militants was being directed into the
workers’ movement and the promotion of unity “the first step
towards freedom and well-being
” and into the foundation of a
single workers’ organisation.

likely because of the war, the paper was shut down in 1914. Vasai was
hauled before the courts again along with the anarchist Macri, for
“defending regicide”, on which charge he was acquitted before he
quit Egypt, suffering from TB, on 7 July 1916. With his departure it
can be argued that the history of the Italian-language anarchist
movement in Egypt had reached an end. There were many reasons for

war led to a tightening-up of British surveillance and put paid to
the concessionary arrangement. The rise of Egyptian nationalism
(which had always been inimical to radicalism, especially class-based
radicalism), the launch of the Socialist Party (the creation of
Joseph Rosenthal) or, after the Russian Revolution, of a Communist
Party, as well as fascism’s accession to power in Italy, delivered
the coup de grace to the anarchist movement. In the 1920s anarchists
progressively withdrew from political activity, many of them
returning to their homelands; a few were expelled, like the
syndicalist Giuseppe Pizzuto. Others, whilst not abjuring their
ideals, retreated into private life.


by Paul Sharkey

See I K Makdisi’s interesting book The Eastern Mediterranean and
the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914
(University of
California Press, 2010)

From: A Rivista Anarchica (Milan) Year 46, No 405, March 2016.

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.

Taken from www.katesharpleylibrary.net


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