Reem Abou-El-Fadl
Dec 9, 2019 · 7 min read

Afro-Asian Solidarity before AAPSO: The African Association in Cairo

On New Year’s Day in 1958, delegates at the first Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference held their closing sessions in Cairo, after a landmark meeting dubbed the ‘Peoples’ Bandung’. Having hosted representatives from forty-six countries, Egypt was now designated the seat of a new permanent secretariat, the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation, AAPSO. Cairo staked its claim to be the leading ‘Third World capital’.

The scene outside the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference opening ceremony at Cairo University (Source: Al-Ahram, 27 December 1957)

This new structure was not the beginning of Third World internationalism in Egypt, however. As I have argued elsewhere, it was rather the latest addition to a dynamic and growing infrastructure of solidarity in Cairo. One of the principal sites of this solidarity practice until then had been the African Association, a little-known antecedent of AAPSO that provided a nurturing space for Egyptian-African encounters. Its address in leafy Zamalek became that of tens of African liberation movement offices, and a cultural centre for Egyptians who supported their cause.

The Association provided African movements in exile with a rootedness that in turn fostered mobility for their members and ideas. Such translocal solidarity practice was politically productive: it could extend relations and resources across borders, and overcome colonial isolation. The story of the African Association underlines the role of Egyptian writers, artists, and students, alongside state officials, in producing Cairo as an Afro-Asian hub. Indeed similar popular networks across the Afro-Asian space were convening several ‘Other Bandungs’ throughout the 1950s. The Association’s story also challenges the conventional wisdom on mutually exclusive Egyptian and Arab nationalist loyalties: both Arab and African anticolonial activists were being hosted in Cairo in the 1950s, and these networks inspired far more complex political imaginaries.

Africanist Helmi Sharawy remembers these days vividly. He first visited the African Association in the winter of 1955–6, when its official function was to care for the thousands of Africans on university scholarships in Egypt. There he found students from South Sudan, Nigeria, and Eritrea, engaged in lively debates with the Association’s Director, Professor Abd Al-Aziz Ishaq. Beguiled by the experience, Sharawy began volunteering there, and was appointed researcher in 1958, the year of his graduation. Sharawy soon learned that the Association also functioned to locate students active in national liberation movements, and to introduce them to the presidency’s new African Affairs Bureau chief, Muhammad Fayiq. The Association itself was not a state organisation, however, and its Egyptian members kept their distance from the mass party of the time, the National Union. Nevertheless, its work proceeded in coordination with the developing Afro-Asian engagements of the state, and Sharawy recalls being impressed by the anticolonial fervour and ideological commitment of its community. In 1960, his own service at the Association earned him an appointment in the presidency as Coordinator of the African Liberation Movements.

The Association’s community had grown suddenly after President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in July 1956. Several African movements were attracted by Cairo’s success, and began taking the initiative to make contact. The Association now came to fulfil a further function, to enable communications amongst its African guests, and between them and their bases at home. Meeting one another in Cairo, they could exchange skills and moral support, escape colonial authorities’ restrictions on their movement, and broaden their networks. Sharawy recalls meeting the heads of the first delegations to Cairo in 1958: Felix Moumié, leader of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon, John Kale, then Foreign Relations Secretary of the Ugandan National Congress, and Joshua Nkomo, president of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union and later Vice President of Zimbabwe.

Helmi Sharawy (standing centre right) with Abd Al-Aziz Ishaq at the African Association during the visit of a Ghanaian delegation to Cairo, c. 1958 (Source: Helmi Sharawy’s personal collection)

The Association also afforded African activists a valuable space in the Egyptian media to disseminate their ideas. In 1957, its members began publishing the magazine Nahdat Afriqya [‘Africa Rising’], edited by Ishaq and Egyptian poet Abdu Badawi. Appearing in Arabic, English and French, its editors called on writers from across the continent to contribute, under the slogan ‘Africa for the Africans’. It was a rich publication featuring first-hand accounts from African politicians, a news roundup, scholarly research on African history, book reviews, and letters from its Arab-African readership.

Meanwhile, the Association found new spaces for its guests’ political expression, by connecting them with Cairo Radio’s nascent African broadcasts. In July 1954, programming had begun in Amharic, Sudanese dialects, and Swahili. The Association’s activists were now invited to relay their messages on air, and to provide advice on content. One example comes from Cairo’s Swahili coverage, which was part of Egypt’s support for the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. On the one hand, its news bulletins and press reviews highlighted Egyptian affairs, aiming to foster familiarity between the two peoples, and promoting Egypt as a regional ally. On the other hand, it exerted pressure on Britain, by reporting on British violence against the Kenyans, on dissenting voices in the UK parliament, and on other African liberation movements, from Zanzibar, Somaliland, Tanganyika, Uganda, Northern Rhodesia, and South Africa.

Front Cover, Proceedings of the inagural Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference, Cairo, 26 Dec 1957–1 Jan 1958, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958.

While the networks forged by the African Association enabled the deepening of Egypt’s commitment to the Afro-Asian project, they also increased its influence upon Afro-Asian agendas in turn. At Bandung, Nasser’s emphases on liberation for the Arab Maghreb and Palestine had been echoed by Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan delegates who were being hosted as political exiles in Cairo, as well as other Arab delegates. At the 1957 Afro-Asian Conference, this influence was enhanced by the African delegates who were also now resident in Cairo. Whereas Bandung’s final communiqué contained just a few lines on Palestine, the final Cairo Conference declaration fully endorsed the Palestinian delegation’s report, and its Cultural Resolutions recommended the provision of scholarships for Algerians and Palestinians in universities across Africa and Asia. From this point on, Egypt’s influence meant that ‘Arab’ issues were routinely tabled in Afro-Asian fora, and such national demarcations of liberation struggle began to lose their sway. Egyptian efforts were hence critical to the assimilation of Algeria and Palestine, but also Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen, into the core causes and critiques of anti-imperialists across Africa and Asia in the mid-twentieth century.

Two years after the African Association’s founding, the creation of AAPSO added an important node to the infrastructure of solidarity practised in Cairo. It enhanced both the rootedness and mobility of activist networks based in the capital, through a new, informal division of labour: any Egyptian-hosted liberation movement would propose both a principal resident in the African Association and a representative in the AAPSO Secretariat. The African Association, with the presidency’s African and Arab Affairs Bureaux, provided politicised spaces from which liberation movements could communicate with their constituencies at home, associate with one another, and promote their political thought in written and broadcast forms. Meanwhile AAPSO similarly provided a fixed venue and resources, but promoted a different kind of mobility: delegates were able to represent themselves directly at foreign embassies and international organisations in Cairo, by accompanying their Egyptian hosts. This now allowed them to convey their message to non-African audiences at international conferences, whether in Cairo or abroad, again by accompanying Egyptian invitees. Felix Moumié began to receive messages of support from China during his stay in Cairo for example, and was invited to China by the Chinese Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee in 1958.

In their efforts to bridge such significant distances in both geography and history, Egyptians at the Association confronted important challenges and limits. First, when engaging with their African counterparts, they had to contend with boundaries of language, class, and resources, as well as different experiences of racism and racialisation. For example, the threat of Zionism was not one that could be appreciated equally across Afro-Asian spaces. Connections had been forged between Israeli and Asian delegates at the Asian Socialist Conference meetings, and Israel was offering diplomatic and economic assistance in Africa, presenting itself as a fellow newly independent state. Sharawy recalls struggling to convince ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo of the similarities between Rhodesia and Palestine, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa, as collectively subject to settler colonial regimes.

At the same time, the direction and resources coming from the Egyptian state were a double-edged sword. They rendered the Association vulnerable to domestic political rivalries under Nasser, most notably in his relations with the Egyptian left, and to changing foreign relations, for example with Russia and China, who sponsored different African liberation movements. Above all, when Anwar Sadat became president and reversed Nasser’s policy directions, this led to the neglect of institutions such as the Association, and the shrivelling of opportunities for Afro-Asian connections in Egypt. Figures such as Sharawy were marginalised, and the African activists he had supported no longer felt welcome.

Even in its decline, however, the Association’s story demonstrates the resilience of the popular networks that it had helped forge between Africans. It is hence revealing to pay attention to ‘both the opening up and the closing down of such spaces of solidarity’. The Association’s community found ways to preserve their solidarity initiatives, despite the political repression of their liberation project, primarily by turning to its cultural and political education dimensions. From 1973 to 1980, Sharawy and his colleagues transformed the Association into a cultural and intellectual hub renamed the African Society, engaged particularly with the African Association of Political Science in Dar Es-Salam. Then in 1987 Sharawy co-founded the Arab African Research Centre, whose scholars today focus on documenting transnational liberation politics in Africa, and elaborating new frameworks for Egypt’s place in Africa and the global South. The African Association experience provides an important counterbalance to conventional wisdoms on the failure of Egypt’s pan-Arabist project. Instead, a picture emerges of a solidarity practice with both broader horizons and greater challenges, and a legacy that continues to animate Egyptian-African relations today.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and…

Reem Abou-El-Fadl

Written by

Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics, SOAS University of London, author of Foreign Policy as Nation Making: Turkey and Egypt in the Cold War (Cambridge 2019)

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

Reem Abou-El-Fadl

Written by

Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics, SOAS University of London, author of Foreign Policy as Nation Making: Turkey and Egypt in the Cold War (Cambridge 2019)

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

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