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R. Fahan

The Arabs: Atlantic Charter Voided for Them

(April 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 16, 19 April 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In last week’s Labor Action we discussed the blow struck at Jewish rights in North Africa by General Giraud when he “abrogated” the Gambetta-Cremieux decree of 1870 by which Algerian Jews were granted equal rights as citizens of France. Due to limitations of space we had to refrain from discussing a vitally important aspect of the North African problem: the Arabs.

It is amazing that in all the reams of articles printed by American correspondents from North Africa so few words creep in about the Arabs. Tunisia is after all their country; it is being ravaged by two groups of foreign powers, for neither of which the Arabs have any particular affection. Occasionally there is a reference in some dispatch to the fact that Arabs are dirty (because they have no money for clothes and soap?) but otherwise one could never imagine that there are eight million Arabs in North Africa.

Arabs “Kept in Their Place”

We cannot here enter into detail about how they have fared under French rule. Suffice it to say that they have suffered under an imperialist domination as brutal as that of the British in India, or the Belgians in the Congo or the Germans in Poland. This domination has made North Africa a land of misery and unrest; sporadic and desperate rebellions against French rule and for the independence of their lands have marked their life in the past decades.

The Allied “liberators” have been particularly careful to see to it that the Arabs were “kept in their place.” At the very outset of the North African expedition, President Roosevelt made clear in a formal statement that those French colonies seized during the war would be returned to the French Empire afterward. Any illusion which the Arabs might have held about the Atlantic Charter applying to North Africa was thus immediately dispelled. And during the course of the North African campaign, the Allies have been particularly careful not to allow any arms to fall into the hands of the Arabs, who lack the training to distinguish between imperialisms.

When Giraud, therefore, annulled the decree which had set the Jews apart from the Arabs by allowing them automatic French citizenship, he defended this reactionary step as being necessary to placate the Arabs. Now, it is indisputable that there exist serious tensions between the Jews and Arabs in North Africa. These tensions have been aggravated by Axis propaganda; they have been steadily inculcated into the Arab population by a series of reactionary French administrators, such as Peyrouton and Nogues, over the past decade; and they are also the result of a complicated and unfortunate economic situation in North Africa whereby the Jews, as small business men who often acted as middle men between the Arab peasants and French imperialism, have appeared in the eyes of the former as the agents of the latter. Despite these acknowledged tensions, the Allied propagandists have steadily exaggerated the extent of Arab-Jewish antagonisms, for much the same reasons as the British exaggerate the extent of the Hindu-Moslem antagonisms. It is the old policy of divide and rule.

If Arabs Got the Franchise ...

Nonetheless, how did the Arabs profit when the Jews were deprived of their citizenship by the Bonapartist Giraud? Misery may love company, but company doesn’t alleviate misery. So that the simple question must arise: Instead of dragging the Jews down to the level of the Arabs, why not strike a real blow for freedom by also granting the rights which the Jews had held to the Arabs That is, give citizenship and voting rights to the Arabs.

But, as wise old Shakespeare said,, there’s the rub. As the March 22 New York Times says: “The extension of the franchise to the Arabs as well as to the Jews would mean that the French would be voted out of office.” But that’s democracy; that’s what the Atlantic Charter promises. And that is just where we see that the Atlantic Charter is nothing more than a piece of paper. The French would not grant the Arabs voting rights because they fear that they would thereby lose their imperialist grip over North Africa; and then in a clumsy attempt to placate the oppressed Arabs they take away the rights of the Jews as well.

And the American State Department gives its benign blessings to the tragic farce, occasionally turning to answer domestic critics with mutterings: “National independence? Why, yes, of course we American imperialists are for that ... with a few minor exceptions, you understand ... a few minor exceptions such as Puerto Rico, India, North Africa, Indo-China, a few countries in Europe, and a few colonies here and there where the natives have shown by their peacefulness that they clearly aren’t civilized ...”

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