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Internationalism vs. Nationalism?

The Suez Canal Company Strike of 1919


and the Formation of the International
Workers’ Union of the Isthmus of Suez

Angelos Dalachanis
European University Institute, Florence, Italy

The subject of this article is the Suez Canal Company workers’ strike, which
took place in May 1919, and an investigation of the question of plural identities
through an account of the actions of the parties involved.
The plural identities referred to are the following: the supranational/politi-
cal class identity; the social-colonial identity, which segregated European from
Egyptian workers; the different national identities that were reinforced during
the First World War and the 1919 Egyptian Revolution; the identity related to the
local origin of workers which sometimes proved stronger than the national one;
and, finally, the sense of identity that came from the labour division within the
company and the sense of belonging to, firstly, the cities of the Suez Canal, which
had characteristics that differentiated them from the other urban centres of Egypt,
and, secondly, the dynamics of a company which managed a sea route that had
radically transformed maritime traffic and trade at a global level.44
I will firstly refer here to the special characteristics of the case under consid-
eration, the stages that led to the strike declaration, the individual and collective
initiatives taken both during and after the strike’s end, so as to examine whether
the action undertaken was based on supranational/class, national or other factors.

44 For a broader discussion on the issue of the political and national identities of the
Greeks in Egypt, see K. Trimi-Kyrou, ‘Être internationaliste dans une société coloniale:
le cas des Grecs de gauche en Égypte (1914–1960)’, Cahiers d’Histoire: Les Gauches
en Egypte, XIXe–XXe siècles, 105–106 (2008), 85–117.

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ANGELOS DALACHANIS

The Suez Canal context


A question that arose at the start of this study was the extent to which I could
examine the 1919 Suez Canal Company strike as a phenomenon comparable to
labour mobilisations against other companies. Based in Egypt, the Suez Canal
Company served world interests, as its official name revealed: the Compagnie
universelle du canal maritime de Suez. Much more than a simple company, it was
a microsociety around which were created – almost ex nihilo – two new cities in
Egypt: Port Said, on the Mediterranean coast, and Ismailia, the so-called ‘capital
of the desert’45 in the middle of the canal route, while a third one, the existing city
of Suez on the Red Sea, developed significantly owing to its influence. These
cities were inhabited by company workers and also by people waiting to avail of
the various job opportunities that came up. The composition of the population,
the social structure and the way of life in the canal zone were different from those
in the other urban centres of Egypt. The great regional and national capitals of
Alexandria and Cairo were absent from these towns. The middle- and lower-class
population of these cities was a mixture of nationalities, divided, nevertheless,
into two halves: the European and the Arab. The vast majority of the population
was composed of clerks, workers, sailing agents, ship caterers and trading rep-
resentatives. These were affiliated, directly or indirectly, with the company. The
company’s working staff – approximately 3,000 people at the beginning of the
twentieth century46 – was made up either of internal immigrants from rural areas
of Egypt as well as from the country’s urban centres, or economic immigrants
who came looking for work on the canal, mainly from areas around the Medi-
terranean: Greeks, Italians, French, Armenians, some Spaniards, Arabs, Cypriot
and Maltese British subjects, but also Slavs, subjects of the Austro–Hungarian
Empire, Dutch, Germans, Americans and even a Japanese pilot, who arrived in
1925.47 All of these worked together with the Egyptians, ensuring the ongoing
navigation of the canal.
Until the interwar period, European workers were in the majority. Numerical-
ly, ethnic Greeks constituted the most important group. Most of these came from
the island of Kasos.48 The second most important ethnic group numerically were

45 I. Soultanakis, To lefkoma ton Paristhmion poleon: Port Said, Ismailia, Suez [Album of
the Suez Canal Cities: Port Said, Ismailia, Suez] (Leipzig, 1922), 229.
46 C. Piquet, La Compagnie du Canal de Suez: Une concession française en Egypte
(1888–1956) (Paris, 2008), 245.
47 Ibid., 225.
48 A. Politis, O ellinismos ke i neotera Egyptos [Hellenism and modern Egypt], vol. 2 (Al-
exandria/Athens, 1930), 77. According to the historian and diplomat Athanasios Politis,
of the 5,000 workers of Greek origin who worked on the building of the canal, 3,000
alone came from the island of Kasos.

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THE SUEZ CANAL COMPANY STRIKE OF 1919

the Italians. Within the company’s small society, the clerical hierarchy and labour
distribution depended, to a certain extent, on nationality. Western Europeans held
the highest clerk positions as well as the positions of engineers and pilots.1 On
the other hand, the workers were mainly Egyptians, Greeks and Italians.2 Dur-
ing the whole of its operation, the company witnessed worker mobilisations that
sometimes led to dynamic strikes, particularly in the 1890s: one mobilisation
that began in 1891 led to the failed strike of 1894, which ended in the firing and
deportation of 135 workers, of whom 115 were Greeks.3

Events leading to the strike declaration


Within the context defined by the workers’ mobilisation in the canal area and also
of the emerging labour movement throughout Egypt at the end of the nineteenth
and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, a Greek workers’ union was founded
in 1908 in Port Said under the name of the Greek Phoenix Fraternity. Contrary
to the multicultural character of the workforce in the canal area, the organisation
of the union was based on ethnic characteristics. The main purpose of the union,
which was inspired by the mutual benefit societies that operated in Europe at the
time, was the safeguarding of Greek workers’ interests in the canal zone. Despite
the fact that the Suez Canal Company was hostile to the creation of trade unions,
only two years after its foundation, the Phoenix Fraternity already numbered 400
members and had opened branches both in Ismailia and in the town of Suez.4
However, due to low levels of worker participation, these branches closed down
within a short period of time.5 But even in Port Said itself, in the early 1910s,
only a few years after its setting up, the union was underfunctioning. It was for
this reason that on 9 January 1913 the city’s Greek-speaking newspaper, Nea
Echo, in a front-page article, appealed to the members of the Phoenix Fraternity
as well as the people of Port Said to participate in the annual assembly of the
‘only trade union of all three canal cities’, in order to provide both material and –
especially – moral support.6 The Phoenix Fraternity, despite the various difficul-
ties it encountered, remained active and became the organisational force around
which the processes that would lead to the 1919 strike crystallised.

1 Piquet, La Compagnie, 221–240.


2 Ibid., 250.
3 Ibid., 255.
4 C.N. Fragoulis, I symvoli ton Ellinon eis tin tomin tis diorygos tou Suez [The contribution
of the Greeks to the opening of the Suez Canal] (Alexandria, 1924), 50–51.
5 I. Leropoulos, ‘I apergia ton eraton tis diorygas tou Suez’ [The strike of the Suez Canal
workers], in C.N. Fragoulis, Imerologion ton dodeka [The diary of twelve] (Port Said,
1936), 124.
6 Nea Echo [New Echo] (Port Said), 9 Jan/27 Dec 1913, 1.

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During the First World War, the consumer price index in Egypt rose dramati-
cally and the soaring prices of basic foodstuffs hit workers hard throughout the
country. The company workers’ situation in the canal area had already been ex-
tremely strained even before the war, a situation highlighted by a Greek doctor
and local intellectual, Konstantinos Fragoulis, in a series of articles published in
Nea Echo during May 1913 under the heading ‘Africa’s Blacks’.7 In April 1918,
seven months before the armistice, the Phoenix Fraternity initiated a workers’
conference in order to evaluate the current situation. Representatives of other
national groups were also invited to attend. These were ex-members of European
unions – the Italian and the French, which had been disbanded due to the con-
scription of their members – as well as members of the local Egyptian Labour
Union, whose funds had been confiscated by the government under the pretext
that it was pursuing nationalist ends.8 Of the invited Greek unions and fraterni-
ties that were organised on the basis of the geographical origin on workers, the
Samian fraternity did not participate, probably because its president, Konstan-
tinos Rouvas, was a high-ranking employee of the Suez Canal Company.9 The
members of the fraternity of Kastelorizo, at the time under French occupation,
did not cooperate with the Phoenix Fraternity but, on the other hand, the Kasian
fraternity, composed of people from the Dodecanese island of Kasos, then an
Italian colony, participated actively at the conference and seem to have cooper-
ated with the Italian representatives.10 Nonetheless, the activities at Port Said that
centred on the Phoenix Fraternity were not isolated instances of the labour move-
ment’s actions in Egypt.
The imposition of martial law after the outbreak of the war put an end to
labour mobilisation in Egypt. However, the August 1917 strike at the Coutarelli
tobacco factory in Alexandria presented the first signs that the movement was
becoming active again.11 The European workers at the Canal Company were
now not only aware of the labour movement in Alexandria, but also of the labour
movements throughout Europe and, naturally, of the October Revolution. They
now saw themselves, therefore, as members of the European working class. Since
they worked in a company of French–British interests, it was natural that they
compared their working conditions not so much with companies and factories in
Egypt as with European conditions.12 One of the aims of the conference organ-
ised by the Phoenix Fraternity was to achieve the greatest possible international

7 Leropoulos, I apergia, 123.


8 Ibid., 125.
9 Ibid., 125.
10 Ibid., 125.
11 J. Beinin and Z. Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and
the Egyptian Working Class (Cairo, 1998), 85.
12 Nea Echo, 17/4 May 1919, 2.

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THE SUEZ CANAL COMPANY STRIKE OF 1919

representation, which would contribute significantly to legitimizating its actions.


In this spirit, wishing to represent the whole of the working population, the fra-
ternity decided to accept people of other nationalities as assistant members who
would be allowed to take part in decision-making.
Thus, it was at this point that a ten-member international council was set up
alongside the nine-member Greek council of the Phoenix Fraternity, which was
presided over by the lawyer Nikolaos Tsitsinias. In this ten-member council, the
European workers were represented by five Italians, an Austrian, a Maltese and
a Spaniard, while the Egyptians participated with two representatives.13 One can
observe that the Phoenix Fraternity gradually transformed its character, turning
from a national into a multinational union. This transformation was in line with
the practice of other multinational trade unions that were founded in Egypt at the
war’s end.14 These activities took place secretly and neither the town authorities
nor the Suez Canal Company were aware of their existence. The secret meetings
took place in the offices of Italian and Greek lawyers who constituted the local
intellectual elite. Some of these had studied in European universities and contrib-
uted both to the ideological and theoretical background of the movement, since
they remained in contact with the theoretical processes taking place at the other
side of the Mediterranean, and to its practical development – as in Tsitsinias’
case. This latter type of support had become even more necessary due to the low
literacy rate both among European and Egyptian workers of the canal towns. This
neatly illustrates the fact that representatives of the middle class such as doctors
and lawyers were necessary in order to draft foreign-language petitions and to
enter into negotiations with the company whenever this was deemed necessary.
The consequences of the events related to the final phase of the First World
War and the outcome of the regional conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean at a
time when the Ottoman Empire was collapsing are reflected in the multinational
society of the canal cities. For instance, on 14 July 1918 it was only the Syrian
and the Greek community that participated in the celebrations of the French na-
tional holiday that the company organised.15 On their part, the Italians objected
strongly to the proposed peace treaty and so automatically sided with the Egyp-
tians against the British.16 On the other hand, the Dodecanese Greeks and the
Maltese seem to have been expressly opposed to the Italians.17 But other than
these differences, which concerned national claims made within the context of
World War One and expressed in tendency of the individual communities to form
distinct associations at an institutional level, it seems that in small towns such as
13 Leropoulos, I apergia, 126.
14 A. Kitroeff, The Greeks in Egypt: Ethnicity and Class (Oxford, 1989), 137.
15 Piquet, La Compagnie, 326.
16 Ibid., 326.
17 Ibid., 326 and Beinin, Workers, 107.

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ANGELOS DALACHANIS

Port Said everyday conditions enforced a type of solidarity among the workers
which transcended ethnic boundaries. This is what allowed the Phoenix Frater-
nity to pursue its activities.
Having thus clarified the general background, we can now return to the con-
ference organised by the Phoenix Fraternity. As a first step, it was decided to
deliver a petition outlining the workers’ demands to Heddeya Bey, the Egyptian
governor of the canal governorate, so that he could act as mediator between the
workers and the Canal Company and deliver the former’s demands to the latter.
These demands can be summarised as follows: a pay rise, an eight-hour shift,
double pay for Sundays and holidays, paid leave every three years instead of five,
the publication of all the company’s rules and the regularisation of all seasonal
staff.18 Once prepared, the petition was handed out to the workers for signing.
A total of 1,800 people signed: 1,200 from Port Said and 600 from the other
two canal cities.19 But, even before the petition had been handed to the Egyp-
tian governor, the activities of the Phoenix Fraternity had become known to the
company’s management, which in mid-May reacted by trying to marginalise the
fraternity and curb its influence. Working towards this direction, it invited the
representatives of several of the company’s departments to announce a small pay
rise. The company’s tactics were supported by Heddeya Bey. Despite the fact
that he had received the workers’ petition, he not only insisted that the workers
accept the company’s terms, but he also forbid any kind of mobilisation in Port
Said and threatened to deport the fraternity president, Tsitsinias, and the radical
Kasian worker and union council member Ioannis Leropoulos, who had taken an
especially active role.20 The company’s attitude, as well as that of the Egyptian
authorities, towards the Phoenix Fraternity led to its breakup, illustrated by the
resignation of its president at the end of May 1918. However, the majority of the
Phoenix Fraternity’s members rejected the conditions imposed by the company
and the governor and it decided to escalate mobilisations.21
A development that is related to the series of events we have just described
was the setting up of the Kasian Canal Workers’ Union in June 1918.22 The un-
ion’s aim was to offer mutual aid among its members – workers that came from
the island of Kasos. One could explain this action on the Kasians’ part as a refusal
to continue cooperation with the Italians due to Italy’s ongoing occupation of the
Dodecanese. The Kasians, however, were not the only Dodecanesians in the ca-
nal area. I believe, therefore, that we must understand their action as indicative of
a strong sense of local identity, which differentiated those who came from Kasos
18 Leropoulos, I apergia, 127.
19 Ibid., 126.
20 Ibid., 128.
21 Ibid., 129.
22 Tachydromos [Courier] (Alexandria), 29/4 Jun 1918, 1.

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THE SUEZ CANAL COMPANY STRIKE OF 1919

from the rest of the Dodecanesians as well as other Greeks.23 In this sense, we
can conceive the sense of local identity as a point of reference for those workers
for whom class identity was not yet a defining force. At the same time one must
not forget that unions formerly founded by the Kasians ‘broke down at the first
signs of personal grudges or fights’, according to Soultanakis.24 Since the Kasian
Canal Workers’ Union does not come up again in the sources, one can assume that
it met with the same fate.
The Phoenix Fraternity’s next initiative consisted in handing a petition to the
British high consul, Sir Reginald Wingate. After the resignation of Tsitsinias,
Leropoulos, as the union’s representative, undertook the responsibility of submit-
ting it. The company workers put their movement under his protection, explained
their plight and at the same time articulated their demands. In mid-July 1918,
Leropoulos found himself in Cairo and requested the head of the Greek diplomat-
ic agency in Egypt, Antonis Sachtouris, to mediate.25 Sachtouris refused any kind
of involvement in a situation which would bring him against the French and the
British while the patriarch of Alexandria, Fotios, whom the fraternity requested to
become involved, refused to participate on the grounds that not all the petitioners
were Orthodox.26 In the end, the petition was handed to the consulate by Lero-
poulos himself later that month, on July 28.27 Upon the latter’s return to Port Said,
however, the town’s Greek consulate informed him that he was being transferred
to a worksite in Qantara and from there to Jerusalem, where he remained under
conditions of exile until May 1919.28 Only then was he able to return to Egypt and
become once more an active member of the Phoenix Fraternity, which by then
was able to reinforce the Canal Company workers’ claims far more effectively
now that the Egyptian nationalist movement had organised large-scale strikes and
demonstrations throughout the country.
By then, Tsitsinias was once again the president of the Phoenix Fraternity.
The union had handed the workers’ demands to the company’s board of directors
on April 7 but had not received a reply.29 To the previous demands, which had

23 This strong sense of local identity among the Kasians of Egypt was also been detected
by other foreigners. A French engineer of the Suez Canal Company wrote in 1937: ‘Une
part des Cassiotes, originaires de Cassos, ont des difficiles relations avec les autres
Grecs’, cited in C. Piquet, La Compagnie, 254.
24 Soultanakis, To lefkoma, 192.
25 The seat of the Greek diplomats in Egypt, until its independence in 1922, was the dip-
lomatic agency in Cairo. Thus Antonis Sachtouris, whose duties were practically those
of an ambassador, was officially the head of this agency at that time.
26 Leropoulos, I apergia, 137.
27 Ibid., 140.
28 Ibid., 140.
29 Ibid., 141.

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ANGELOS DALACHANIS

been handed a year ago, was now added the need to improve the health system
as well as the improvement and construction of workers’ housing. In mid-April
1919, Egypt was immobilised by a general strike directed against the British.
Τhe Egyptian nationalist movement in Port Said was organised around a com-
mittee that included Aly Bey Leheita, a local nationalist notable. By supporting
its actions, the committee aimed at making the Phoenix the driving force of its
political aims.30 Aly Bey was in touch with the fraternity’s president and offered
the support of the Egyptian national movement to the renewed efforts of the canal
workers.31 Thus, while by the end of April the situation in the rest of the country
was beginning to relax, in Port Said tension was growing.

The May 1919 strike and its aftermath


On May Day 1919, the demonstrations at Port Said ended up in a conference in
the Margherita, the Italian philharmonic hall. The meeting resolved to hand a
new petition to the company’s board of management, the town’s military authori-
ties and all of the town’s consulates, and this time it was followed by a warning
stating that the rejection of the workers’ demands would lead to a strike on May
14.32 The company once again tried to deflect the organised actions of the workers
and to discourage the workers’ mobilisations by offering a small pay-rise. This
resulted once more in a compromising of the unity of the fraternity. Tsitsinias
resigned once more in disagreement over the culmination of mobilisations. At the
same time, through the columns of Nea Echo, he asked the workers not to go on
strike.33 The Phoenix’s Fraternity vice-president, Nikolettos, resigned from his
post with the excuse that his position as an employee of the Dawery Company
was in danger.34 At this point, a mixed strike committee was drawn up, made
up of two Greeks, two Italians, an Austrian and an Egyptian from the remain-
ing members of the Phoenix and the affiliated international council.35 Due to the
withdrawal of its cadres and fearing for its unity, the Phoenix went on strike at
10.30am on May 13 to the sound of ships’ sirens, a day earlier than had been
initially decided. A day later, the strike was declared in Ismailia and Suez. In the
former, an international committee made up of three Greeks, a Serb, a French-
man, an Italian and an Egyptian was elected.36 In Suez, the committee was made

30 Piquet, La Compagnie, 328.


31 Beinin, Workers, 107.
32 Leropoulos, I apergia, 141.
33 Nea Echo, 17/4 May 1919, 2.
34 Leropoulos, I apergia, 144.
35 Fragoulis, I symvoli, 55.
36 Leropoulos, I apergia, 142.

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THE SUEZ CANAL COMPANY STRIKE OF 1919

up of eight Greeks, three Egyptians, two Italians, a Maltese and an Armenian.37


The strike involved nearly all of the company’s employees: workers, sailors, ar-
tisans, engineers, captains – apart from those working at management level, who
were the most privileged. The pilots, who belonged to the transit department,
the most prestigious of the company, initially refused to become involved, but it
seems that they were forced to do so, due to threatening letters they received from
the workers.38
The strike soon spread to other businesses. One must bear in mind that in the
canal cities and especially in Port Said, the Canal Company and other nautical
workers lived and worked in the same area as the steamboat company clerks and
coal heavers and shared similar problems. The cigarette-makers, the Suez electric
light workers and ice factory workers also went on strike together with the work-
ers previously mentioned: approximately 4,500 people in total.39 On their part,
these strikers also organised international committees which cooperated with that
of the Canal Company. The entire society of the three canal towns expressed
solidarity with the striking workers. The townspeople subsidised the workers’
fund with continuous collections in order to help the destitute through the strike
period.40 Port Said’s French-speaking newspaper, La Vérité, became the strikers’
official voice and its columns included foreign workers’ views concerning the
events. These articles presented the difficult living conditions of the workers. At
the same time, the workers demanded the same rights as those secured by work-
ers in Europe after the end of the war, arguing that they were treated as the ‘poor
relatives of their European comrades’.41
During the strike, navigation did not cease on the canal. British soldiers as well
as the civilian staff of army units ensured the normal running of ships. Flyers were
distributed, however, which asked the army civilian workforce to show solidarity
with the company’s striking staff. France requested British intervention to end the
strike, but this request was not met since the ships were sailing as usual.42 It seems
also that the British attitude stemmed from the fact that the strike was not of a
political nature and was not directed against British hegemony in the Nile Valley,
but was of an economic nature and was directed against the French administra-

37 Diplomatic and Historical Archives of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs (hereaf-
ter AYE), 1919/Α/5/ΙΙΙ, 269, Suez, 2 May 1919, Vice-consul of Suez to the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs.
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
40 Leropoulos, I apergia, 144–145.
41 The abstract mentioned comes from Nea Echo, 17/4 May 1919, 2, which reproduced in
its pages articles from La Vérite.
42 Beinin, Workers, 108.

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ANGELOS DALACHANIS

tion of the Canal Company.43 On May 30, the company’s board of management
made a tactical move: in association with the Italian and the Greek consulates
of the town and the Suez Canal governor, it asked the workers to return to their
posts if they wished their demands to be satisfied. The Egyptians, who, despite
facing the most severe economic problems at the time were the group with almost
full participation in the strike, were by now seriously considering the possibility
of returning to their posts.44 The attempt on the part of the workers to agree to
the company’s requests gave rise to riots. Demonstrations broke out outside the
Greek, French, Italian and British consulates. While the demonstrations were on-
going, the number of foreign workers decreased, with a large portion submitting
applications for repatriation.45 This move is indicative of the close relationship
between the company and a great segment of the workforce, in correlation with,
among others, the level of their specialisation. Besides, resigning or getting fired
usually meant repatriation. Finally, on June 10, the company’s central board of
management in Paris accepted some of the workers’ demands: the eight-hour
shift and a satisfactory pay-rise, while, at the same time, it promised to give due
consideration to the other demands.46 After a 28-day strike, the strike committee
decided that the workers could return to their jobs.
However, on the same day the strike ended, Nicolas Centoes, an Austrian
citizen and a member of the strike committee, pointed out the necessity of the
creation of a strong trade union.47 This trade union should have an international
character, and develop strong ties with the trade unions of Europe so as to be able
to react dynamically in the event of the company failing to keep its promises. This
suggestion was realised in early August of the same year with the founding of the
International Worker’s Union of the Isthmus of Suez. As its name suggests, this
union was concerned with the whole of the canal area and not just with the Canal
Company. It was in reality the continuation of the previous pan-workers’ mobili-
sation in the canal area. It included in its ranks workers from all businesses of the
canal area but, as was natural, its main force came from among the workers of the
Suez Canal Company. At the very beginning, the trade union consisted of about
2,500 members, a number which doubled over the next two years.48 At a sitting
at the Casa del Soldato Italiano in Port Said, on 2 August 1919, the Greek radical
doctor Apostolis Skouphopoulos was elected as the union’s first president. The

43 Times (London), 19 May 1919, 12, wrote on this matter: ‘The strikers include all na-
tionalities, and . . . the movement appears to be purely economic and unconnected with
the political movement.’
44 Leropoulos, I apergia, 144–145
45 Tachydromos, 13 Jun/31 May 1919, 2.
46 Piquet, La Compagnie, 330.
47 Leropoulos, I apergia, 146.
48 Soultanakis, To lefkoma, 229.

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THE SUEZ CANAL COMPANY STRIKE OF 1919

first board of management would be made up of three Greeks, three Egyptians,


two Frenchmen, a Slav and a Maltese.49 The Phoenix Fraternity suspended its
operations and transferred the whole of its property to the syndicate on the condi-
tion that its property be transferred to the Greek authorities in the event the newly
founded association ceased its activities. A short time later, in February 1921,
Skouphopoulos would found the General Federation of Labour together with the
Jewish socialist Joseph Rosenthal, founder of the Egyptian Socialist Party, Amin
Azmi, a left-wing Egyptian lawyer, and others.50 Until the situation in the ca-
nal area was stabilised in 1922, certain conjunctures led to further, smaller-scale
worker mobilisations. It is possible that the close association between Skoupho-
poulos and Rosenthal contributed to the creation of favourable conditions for
syndicalism in the canal area.

Conclusion
The workers’ mobilisations in the canal area from 1918 to 1919, in correlation
with the preceding activities, offer a good case for the study of the labour move-
ment in Egypt. The route to action was not static. On the contrary, it was dynamic,
transformational and often contradictory. A new collective sense of identity was
beginning to form in the multicultural environment of the canal area and in Egypt
in general, in line with the social processes and the economic development of the
time. This process would be completed with the transcendence of the boundaries
that segregated the ethnic communities of the canal area. However, the study of
the facts we have just examined also reveals the limitations of this process.
In assessing the development of the workers’ mobilisations and the consequent
creation of a working-class identity in the canal area, one is obliged to take into
consideration certain important parameters that affect the correlations between
the various forces within the context of class antagonisms and their practical con-
sequences. Firstly, the field of class antagonisms is strictly relational. The ability
of a class (either fully formed or under development) to realise its interests to
any extent is directly related to the extent of the realisation of its position within
the productive chain and the division of labour. In this sense, the development of
class identity within the field of class antagonisms defines the ideological con-
tinuity, the type of political organisation, the interclass contrasts and transclass
problems, while at the same time they define it. The outcome of this development
would either reinforce the progress of class demands and, in the final analysis,
would transform class identity into the defining factor in relation to other senses

49 Tachydromos, 13 Jun/31 May 1919, 2.


50 Z. Lockman, ‘La Gauche et le mouvement ouvrier au début des années 1920’, in
Cahiers d’Histoire, Les Gauches en Égypte, XIXe–XXe siècles, 105–106 (2008), 66.

– 353 –
ANGELOS DALACHANIS

of identity from the ideological and political sphere, or, on the contrary, the class
identity would become subjugated by the latter.
Bearing this context in mind, we may attempt an evaluation of the facts that
have been so far presented. Both in Egypt and, more specifically, in the canal area,
labour class consciousness appeared somewhat belatedly and with certain ambi-
guities in comparison to the social formations in western and northern Europe.51
It also appears within the extremely diverse space of a colonial society. The mo-
bilisations of the 1890s can be understood as the first attempt on the part of the
Suez Canal Company workers to express organised class demands. They took the
form, however, of spontaneous outbursts without systematised and crystallised
tactics and political resolve. During the second phase of the workers’ protest,
which began in 1918, the terms of class identity formation and the effectiveness
of action appear to have been better, despite the fact that they were penetrated by
intense contrasts. The workers’ growing awareness during this period was often
undermined by the low level of syndicalist organisation, which was not always
free of unionist commitments. It was also undermined by the predominance of
paternalistic syndicalist representatives who came from the dynamic petit-bour-
geois class of the canal cities, the lack of experience in asserting demands as well
as the insufficient grouping of the participants in unions according to the division
of labour. Besides, the seasonal and temporary employment of a large segment
of workers and the personal ties between workers and executives reduced the ef-
fectiveness of the workers’ demands. This phase, like most labour mobilisations
in Egypt up until the end of the First World War, was initiated by Europeans,
some of whom had some experience of class struggle in their country of origin
and brought a radical spirit to their workplace. However, the creation and preser-
vation of ties based on a common place of origin was also prevalent, especially
in the case of the numerous Greeks. The Egyptian workers, on the other hand,
participated in the mobilisations through the medium of the growing Egyptian
nationalist movement. It would not be too farfetched to claim that the gains of
the class struggle in Europe formed more of an outside model than a reality in the
social processes and the economic sphere of the canal area, for all workers. On
the other hand, the company had a fully formed corporate culture, characterised
by long-term concentrated, strategic moves and carefully designed enforcement
techniques. Such a juxtaposition was extremely unbalanced and finally ended
in the class identity giving way to nationally or locally defined identities. The
transformations of the Phoenix Fraternity and the localist character of the Kasian
association are both instances that illustrate this.

51 According to Beinin, Workers, 23, the strike of the Egyptian coal heavers in Port Said
in April 1882 must have been the first large-scale manifestation of collective action by
indigenous workers in modern Egypt.

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THE SUEZ CANAL COMPANY STRIKE OF 1919

In this light, I believe that the establishment of monolithic categories is wrong


since these would hide the subtext of a far more complex reality in which iden-
tity constantly oscillates between the class/internationalist and the local/national.
The towns connected by the canal – multicultural urban centres of Egypt with
relatively small populations – were characterised by everyday contact between
people of different ethnic background who lived in the same streets, resided in
the same blocks of flats and, to an even greater extent, worked together. This het-
erogeneous mixture was often imbued with the sense of belonging to a ‘family’,
the Suez Canal family, ‘that had to improve its common fate’, as the flyers of the
International Worker’s Union of the Isthmus of Suez stated in August 1919.52
Therefore, the necessary social conditions existed, that, through the formation
of class solidarity and the strengthening of class identity, could lead the work-
ing classes to internationalist awareness. However, the partially ethnic or localist
interests and the ensuing divisions never subsided to a level which would allow
the passage from one level of awareness (the presence of which is proven by the
founding of the International Worker’s Union of the Isthmus of Suez) with a con-
flicting, loose and unsteady character, to the realisation of a consciousness with
more long-lasting and higher quality characteristics.

52 The content of the flyers is cited in Piquet, La Compagnie, 332.

– 355 –