Hazem Saghieh

Riad Al-Turk and Karim Mroueh: Two Former Arab Communists

A few days ago, Riad Al-Turk (Syrian) and Karim Mroueh (Lebanese) passed away. The two men, who died a few days apart, were born in the same year, 1930. They were communists for decades and then became leading communist figures, before they walked back, each in his own way, from their commitment to communism.

The years that the two towering late figures lived through, nearly a century, were brimming with major developments. The Cold War ended following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its camp, and before that, World War II ended with their countries gaining independence.

Syria saw the emergence of a military and police regime that took various forms but always remained a military and police regime, save fleeting interludes. Meanwhile, Lebanon's independence was tinged by civic tensions that would only become more robust and intense after subsiding, as well as the transformation of the forces confronting the "old Lebanon," with the leadership of this front settling in Hezbollah's hands.

The lives of Turk and Mroueh encompassed more themes and meanings, as well as sound and unsound assessments than we can’t cover here. What does concern us are their most prominent and significant interactions with those events and the profoundly indicative political and ideological transformation - whose implications go beyond their person - that they ended up undergoing.

Riad Al-Turk was dubbed "Syria’s Mandela" because of the years he spent in the prisons of dictatorships, where he showed tremendous fortitude, determination, and patience. These years were split as follows: he spent half a year in prison under Adib Shishakli’s military dictatorship in 1952 and then over a year in prison under Nasserist unity in 1959, where he was subjected to vicious torture, before going on to spend 18 years in solitary confinement during Hafez al-Assad’s rule and then remained there for more than a year after his son Bashar took power.

The first thing one notices when going over Turk’s experiences is that he was only spared prison time under civic regimes that did not last long, such as that which began in the mid-fifties and ended with the establishment of the United Arab Republic in 1958, or the so-called "secessionist" regime branded reactionary and a colonialist puppet that emerged in the 1961 and was toppled by the first Baathist coup of 1963. More than that, Turk’s release, following a long and horrific sentence in Hafez al-Assad’s prison, was linked to the mediation of the French president at that time, Jacques Chirac, who was of course an imperialist.

In Lebanon, whose demographic composition prevented the establishment of an all-powerful tyrannical state, assassinations replaced prisons and persecution. Thus, the task was undertaken by militia organizations that, like the Baathists, were supposed to be "objective allies" of the communists brought together by their shared hostility to Zionism, imperialism, or the "Great Satan."

Karim Mroueh was fated to have his share in this wave of assassinations. His relative and "second father," Hussein Mroueh, the communist writer was killed in his home, at the age of 77, in 1987. At the time, the communists claimed he was killed by mysterious "dark forces," and they maintain this narrative to this day. Then in 2005, George Hawi, a comrade and friend whom Mroueh greatly admired, was killed. However, back in 1959, Karim was horrified by the killing of his communist leader, Faraj Allah al-Helou, who had been imprisoned with Turk in Damascus. As is well known, Helou's body was then dissolved in acid.

Neither imperialists nor reactionaries had a hand in the torture and suffering brought about by some of the fiercest opponents of imperialism, reactionism, and Zionism. That equation also applies more broadly, as it was Jaafar Numeiri, a Nasserite officer at the time, and then the Islamist officer Hassan al-Bashir, who managed to destroy the Sudanese Communist Party, the largest of the Arab communist parties. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, "the guardian of the Arab homeland's eastern gate," pioneered the destruction of the Iraqi Communist Party, the second-largest Arab communist party.

We thus saw the two communist figures embark on a transformative journey away from this communism that was detached from its own reality after a phase of Arab nationalism, which seemed like the only available and acceptable way to differentiate oneself from communism:

Karim Mroueh went from being a "communist" and "Marxist" to a "leftist," and spoke of the "end of communism" worldwide, not just in our region, as well as disavowing it as a system that "generates disasters." He crowned his critique by resigning from the Lebanese Communist Party in 1999.

When some Communists left the party in 2004 and founded, along with non-communist intellectuals, the "Democratic Left Movement," Mroueh seemed close to this camp, although he opted out of playing a political or partisan role because he preferred to devote himself to his writing.

As for Turk, his primary concern became the democratization of Syria. In 2003, he spoke of the "colonial zero," by which he meant that there was a need to correct history after police states sunk us below the zero that colonialism had left us with. The Iraqi Communist Party, which enthusiastically supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein at the time, even if it came at the hands of the United States, did not disagree. In 2005, Turk changed the name of his party from the "Communist Party - Political Bureau" to the "Syrian Democratic People’s Party."

The late Syrian intellectual George Tarabishi once noted that the history of French communism is the history of its abandonment, and this became true of communists all across the globe, including the Arab world, after the Soviet camp collapsed.

As we very well know, the dead are honored through burial. However, we also honor them by learning about the experiences they underwent and their deaths, so that their painful experience is not repeated under different names and ideological banners.