Half a dozen historians and scholars sit around an oval-shaped table in one of Downtown Cairo’s office-turned flats to reflect on “100 years since the 1919 Revolution”.
It is late September, and the dark tanned faces of half the speakers declare the end of the summer holidays and a return from Egypt’s Mediterranean Coast to the sweltering, congested and polluted capital.
Remembering a revolution that happened 99 years ago ahead of its centenary might be worth being in Cairo for, however, as the statements made over several hours are fascinating.
“This revolution, one of the most important in Egypt, continued for 30 years at least as far as its achievements go,” declared historian and former judge Tarek Al-Bishri, one of the speakers.
“One or two generations, including mine, witnessed those 30 years. So, when we talk about 1919, we are in fact talking about the first 50 years of the 20th century until 1952 [when military officers staged a coup and declared Egypt a republic].”
Al-Bishri, like other speakers, paused repeatedly to emphasise that 1919 did not happen overnight. It was not a singular event but was a part of a series of five revolutions that had preceded it since 1805 and followed until 2011.
The harbingers of the 1919 Revolution might have been brewing for years, but the timeline begins with the end of World War I.
Exactly two days after the 11 November 1918 armistice that ended the war, a delegation of Egyptian public figures including Saad Zaghloul, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi and Ali Shaarawi met with British high commissioner Reginald Wingate in his office on Wednesday 13 November 1918.
They informed him that Egypt wished to be represented at the Paris Peace Conference that was due to open on 18 January 1919 to make its case for self-determination and independence and requested permission to visit London to plead the case before the UK parliament.
A delegation was swiftly formed for this purpose, but Britain refused to allow them to travel. As support for the delegation and its mandate gained momentum across the nation, the British arrested Zaghloul and some of his associates on 8 March 1919 and deported them to Malta.
The arrests triggered massive protests, which continued until April with the participation across Egypt of all classes, including women and students. Labour strikes and a state of public disobedience exacerbated the situation.
By the summer of 1919, more than 800 Egyptians had been killed, as well as 31 Europeans and 29 British soldiers.
The British eventually gave in, releasing Zaghloul and his colleagues and allowing them to go to Paris on 7 April. While the conference itself was a disappointment for the Egyptians, the revolution and the negotiations that followed it over the next few years led to Britain’s recognition of Egypt’s partial independence in 1922.
Next Tuesday, 13 November, marks the centenary of the Egyptian delegation’s meeting with the British high commissioner, the trigger of the historic events that followed. With so much focus on the remarkable events and outcome of the 1919 uprising, the story of how and why this delegation was formed is often neglected
Saad Zaghloul’s memoirs, published for the first time in 1987 and throughout the 1990s, stand out as one of the most reliable sources in the narrative. They reveal the mood of this statesman during one of the most important years of his life prior to and during the formation of his political movement that would inspire Egyptians to revolt against British rule.
Throughout 1918, Zaghloul, 59, then vice-president of the Legislative Assembly and a former minister, judge and lawyer and a prominent public figure and politician, sounds rather bored, if the evidence of his memoirs can be believed.
He makes no mention of the much-celebrated speech by US president Woodrow Wilson on 8 January in which he laid out his 14 Principles for the peace to end the war. His point on self-determination sparked hope in Egyptians reeling from British rule, and Al-Ahram, then privately owned and weary of the British-controlled censorship authority, translated and published the speech verbatim.
But Zaghloul writes about his gambling addiction and hates himself for it, especially when losing. He worries about his health and diabetes, busies himself with his land in the Nile Delta and cotton harvest, his reading, networking, socialisation and meetings with Egypt’s notables including the sultan and his travels in Egypt and overseas.
When Zaghloul finally mentions Egypt’s representation in the Paris Peace Conference, it appears in his 14 October entry, and it is rather cryptic.
He is in Alexandria, depositing money in the bank. Then, without introduction or context, he writes “I talked about Egypt and her future, what her sons should do for her when the dawn of victory and the [Paris] Peace Conference is held. A few thoughts come to mind, but they all depend on the confidence people have in each other. And there is no such confidence and since that is the case, it is best to keep a low profile.”
According to Saad Zaghloul’s memoirs, the idea to form a delegation to make Egypt’s case for independence in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was prince Omar Tousson’s during a banquet in the Ras Al-Tin royal palace in Alexandria
12 October 1918: Because Zaghloul wrote his memoirs in more than one notebook simultaneously, his 12 October entry, in a different notebook, is detailed and strikes a different mood.
He goes to Alexandria to attend a banquet hosted by prime minister Hussein Roshdi Pasha to celebrate the anniversary of Sultan Hussein Kamel’s accession to the throne.
He writes that he was tired because he was up playing cards, lost LE225, and slept, quite poorly, at 4am.
During the banquet, held in the Ras Al-Tin Palace in Alexandria, Zaghloul meets prince Omar Tousson, a prominent royal figure and intellectual who was passionate about independence and a grandson of Said Pasha who ruled Egypt from 1854 to 1863.
“I’m thinking that a group of Egyptians should demand their rights at the Peace Conference. I said: beautiful idea that has crossed some minds before and now is the time. He said: reflect on it, and look for those willing to help. Then we departed,” Zaghloul’s memoirs read.
He continues in the same entry to say that the following day he met with his close friend and former minister Ismail Sedki Pasha, discussed “this matter” with him and then played poker and lost. The day after he met with education minister Adli Yakan Pasha who also brought it up. Both decided to “seek the mediation of the American consul.”
Roshdi, the prime minister, met with former minister and newspaper editor Ahmed Lotfi Al-Sayed, and both agreed to proceed, Zaghloul writes. When Roshdi met the American consul, he was unhelpful and offered two ideas: either Turkey requested Egypt’s independence by saying it had relinquished its rights, or Egypt should appeal to the British government.
The following day, Zaghloul went with his friends to his farm where they spent a few days deliberating the matter before returning to Cairo to read about the armistice in the papers. “We’ve found no solution until now. It is better to remain silent and dismiss the matter,” he wrote.
15 October: Entry entirely about bank deposits and financial dealings. Ten days later, Zaghloul resumes writing.
25 October: Zaghloul heads to Alexandria for a tea party hosted by British high commissioner Reginald Wingate, resumes poker at the club on the 23rd and 24th, loses a hefty LE526, and damns himself and travels.
On the way back to Cairo, he meets Tousson on the train who shares his thoughts on writing a memo arguing Egypt’s case for independence following the Paris Peace Conference without antagonising the sultan. He complains about British rule and the confiscation of his land in Alexandria’s Abu Qir district.
The entry moves on to focus on an offer for a position at Cairo University and another to head a prestigious charity.
26 October: Zaghloul gets a position at Cairo University.
4 November: More on the university position, the future of the university itself and the charity.
The next entry is 11 days later, just two days after the 13 November meeting with Wingate, the British high commissioner. It is the longest in 1918 but glosses over the Wingate meeting, barely even mentioning it.
Al-Ahram, weary of British controlled censorship authority neglected to cover news about the Egyptian nationalist movement but published the full text of US president Woodrow Wilson’s speech of 8 January 1918 which called for self-determination, stoking hopes of anti-British rule nationalists
Friday, 15 November: Zaghloul writes that the previous Monday, 11 October, he received visitors including Tousson who engaged him in discussion of the idea to form a delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He understands from Tousson that the sultan is not against the idea, so Zaghloul agrees to be part of it.
The group then gets into a heated discussion over who should be invited to a meeting at Tousson’s place on the matter. “Then it crossed our minds to visit Wingate and inform him… of our travel plans and ask him about his country’s intentions regarding Egypt’s fate. So, he gave us an appointment on Wednesday the 13th [of November.]”
“We then went to [prime minister] Roshdi Pasha, and we understood that there is no objection to [our] travel plans. He showed us a letter from him to the sultan requesting permission for him and [foreign minister] Adli Pasha to travel.”
Despite Tousson’s assurances about the sultan’s approval of this plan, Zaghloul writes that he wanted to bring it up with the sultan directly, but when he did he was met with indignation. The sultan told him he only knew about it from the prime minister, not Tousson.
Later in the same entry, Zaghloul expresses doubts about some of the figures who were going to attend the meeting with Tousson. They would sway the others with arguments against independence whilst praising British protection, he thinks.
During the meeting itself, one pasha floated the idea of prince Tousson heading the Egyptian delegation to Paris, while offering to “pour money” into the project which required generous funding. Zaghloul writes that the audience did not approve of the idea as Tousson’s ties with the monarchy would give the wrong impression to Egyptians.
When the sultan was briefed on this, he refused to allow a member of the royal family to head the delegation, as that would be damaging to the sultan. He asked Roshdi to dissuade Tousson, who was in Turkey by now, of the idea.
Zaghloul then jumps to the most compelling aspect of the delegation’s endeavour: the tawkeelat — the signatures they would collect from Egyptian people endorsing the delegation, al-wafd (later the name of the political party formed by Zaghloul and his associates), to represent them at the Paris Conference.
The wording is casual, unaware, it seems, of the impact of the would-be signature campaign.
“So, we thought of forming a delegation from among us, and getting signatures from people to represent the wafd to demand full independence on their behalf.”
He then proceeds to write several pages more about efforts with Tousson, who gracefully concedes to their logic and steps back from wanting to head the Paris delegation.
This extended entry appears to have been written over several days, describing the many difficulties encountered by the movement at its onset.
He resumes on Saturday 16 November, under the 15 November entry on public figures requesting to join the delegation, Zaghloul’s inquiries on the underwhelming donations received thus far, and unforeseen attempt by figures who had previously supported his endeavour to form a separate, rival delegation with the same mandate.
While Zaghloul is concerned about this, he writes instead about the success of the signature campaign despite efforts to undermine it by members of the National Party who were spreading rumours about the delegation’s ulterior motives to serve the government rather than seek Egypt’s independence.
The rumour mill targeted Tousson, claiming he was ejected from the movement because he refused to donate money. Zaghloul is enraged and discovers that the gossip has reached Tousson’s ears, who retorts by supporting the counter delegation.
After lengthy talks with the prince and the rival delegation’s members, Zaghloul makes peace with them after clarifying the falsehood of the rumours. The next stage is more challenging. Zaghloul is required to unify the two delegations and add, upon Tousson’s request, members from the same National Party that had circulated false rumours in the first place.
The entry describes the immense efforts made by Zaghloul to achieve this through elections, negotiations and a consensus that materialised with great difficulty within the delegation over the criteria for membership.
He goes back to the signature campaign, citing an event in which four young men demanded to see the wording of the document before signing it. When Zaghloul objected, the situation escalated quickly to a verbal altercation between the two sides when the men accused Zaghloul of conspiring with the government under the guise of the signature campaign.
Infuriated, Zaghloul screamed that he would not allow them to insult him in his own house. They left, but one of the men, Mohamed Zaki, remained and shouted back at Zaghloul, “this is not your house, it is the house of the nation [beit al-umma].”
The phrase, mentioned here in passing by an angry young man, would, in the months to come and as the revolution unfolds, become synonymous with Zaghloul’s residence. It is still called beit al-umma today.
Zaghloul wraps up his 20-something page entry, which no longer specifies dates or days, by writing about the threats coming from the British advisor to the Interior Ministry to notables and public figures against signing the endorsement. By then the campaign was viewed by the Interior Ministry as a “disruption of public order” since Egypt was under martial law enforced by the British since 1914.
The threats were successful in slowing down the campaign, even prompting some figures to request “un-signing” the endorsement and donations dwindled.
“Most of our visitors from the upper classes and the educated had questions revealing ill-intentions and lack of confidence, and none of them offered financial or moral assistance,” he writes. The “other classes” meanwhile, have been more receptive and encouraging. Zaghloul describes the momentum as a “renaissance”.
He writes that he has found a flyer being circulated in schools urging students to follow efforts seeking Egypt’s independence, and prompting them to sign the endorsement.
“This left a great impression,” he writes.
Five months later the massive 1919 revolution -involving students, workers, officials, farmers and women- would break out.
A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: 1918: Before the storm in Saad Zaghloul’s memoires