A high-profile politician, academic, former MP and former member of the Shura Council, the former upper house of Egypt’s parliament, Mona Makram Ebeid had always been associated with the name of her grandfather who was at the forefront of Egypt’s 1919 Revolution.
For Ebeid, her grandfather was not just an older family member but was also a source of early political inspiration and of learning about the 1919 Revolution.
When he passed away in the early 1960s about a decade after the Free Officers ousted Egypt’s last monarch king Farouk in the summer of 1952, there was not much left in public discourse about the 1919 Revolution. The focus of attention was the July 1952 Revolution that had brought about the top demand of the earlier one, national independence.
“It is true that independence came after 1952, but the beginning of the march towards independence was with the political movement that came about with the 1919 Revolution,” Ebeid said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
She spoke following her participation in a conference on the impact of the 1919 Revolution over the last century and its possible impact during the century to come.
Late in March, the British Egyptian Society, the London Middle East Institute at the SOAS at the University of London, and the Council for British Research in the Levant organised a conference called “The Egyptian Revolution of 1919: The Birth of the Modern Nation”.
Participants in the conference reflected on the history of the revolution and its impact on Egypt and the larger Ottoman Empire. “It was a very interesting debate that looked at why and how the 1919 Revolution happened and its political legacy,” Ebeid said.
For her, the most significant concept that can remain inspiring a century down the road is the link between the 1919 Revolution and the concept of citizenship. “It is because I think that the issue of citizenship was crucial to the spirit of the 1919 Revolution,” she said.
Ebeid is “convinced that 1919 offered the earliest discourse on citizenship in Egypt. Egyptians wanted to be citizens of an independent country.”
This pursuit of citizenship, Ebeid says, was “really about everyone. Often people speak about the Coptic participation in the 1919 Revolution as an act of Coptic choice, but the way I see it, it was an act of Egyptian choice and the Copts during the protests of 1919 were simply feeling that they were full citizens of a nation that they wanted to be independent,” she argued.
According to Ebeid, it is important to highlight this point because “I think this is a core issue for all Egyptian protests and revolutions whatever form they take.”
“1919 was a revolution against occupation. 1952 was about the elimination of great social inequalities. 2011 was about the rejection of violence, corruption and sectarianism, and 2013 was about defending the identity of nation.”
The thing that links these four together, she argued, was the wish of Egyptians to be free citizens in a free country under fair governance. That path has not been easy, she admitted, partly because the path that started in 1919 was not fully pursued.
“I guess that when the nation had its constitution in 1923 and the state establishment was being put in place, there was a sentiment that things would follow for the rest of the requirements of a free and fair nation for all Egyptians with no discrimination based on gender, faith or ethnicity,” Ebeid argued.
But, she added, things were not that simple, and the path of 1919 was interrupted. Part of this related to the dispute among the leaders of the national movement that had been assembled together in the Wafd Party, she said.
Ebeid’s own grandfather defected from the Wafd along with a group of other leaders to establish a parallel party as they declined the rigid choices made by 1919 father figure Saad Zaghloul.
“Even many of those who stayed on with the Wafd were gradually losing touch with the grassroots and were getting more closely associated with the palace. So, eventually this stripped the Wafd of an important element of its political focus and direction,” Ebeid said.
Consequently, she added, while the Wafd started with an all-inclusive call for citizenship, by the time the Free Officers ousted king Farouk it had already become closer to the palace than the people.
Legacy of the Wafd
Ebeid argued that in the years after the adoption of the 1923 constitution, the leaders of the Wafd proposed social demands “some of which were later picked up by regime led by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.”
“One has to remember that the 1919 Revolution was never really anchored on an agenda of social demands. This related to the fact that it was essentially a call for the independence of Egypt from British colonisation,” Ebeid argued.
With the Free Officers coming to power, they chose to suspend all the political parties that they accused of being complacent associates of the monarchy.
In January 1953, the Wafd Party was dissolved along with the other political parties in the country. It only came back to life a quarter century later when former president Anwar Al-Sadat promised to democratise the country and end the ban on the operation of the political parties.
“At the time, we all hoped that we would have a truly active political life that could eventually pave the way for an all-inclusive democracy,” Ebeid argued. Under its last charismatic leader Fouad Serageddin, the Wafd came back to life with the hope of being at the centre of the national political scene, she said.
“Serageddin was also hoping to promote the values of liberalism which he thought were essential for the pursuit of democracy, especially since during the Nasser years the only political creeds that dominated, whether on the right or the left, were quite extreme,” she added.
According to Ebeid, the choice of Serageddin to join with the Muslim Brotherhood in a united slate for the 1984 parliamentary elections was “precisely in pursuit of promoting liberalism, a concept that was for long associated with the name of the Wafd since its launch practically on the eve of the 1919 Revolution and a decade before the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“Serageddin was trying to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back from the culture of underground politics because he believed that this could help defuse the radicalism of the organisation which he thought had been compounded by the Nasser years when the leaders of the group were imprisoned. But it did not work because the Muslim Brotherhood opted to dominate instead,” Ebeid said.
Before 1952 and throughout the subsequent decades, the political parties had had little influence in promoting the call for democracy, she said. “I would not say that the call of democracy was established by the 1919 Revolution. I would even argue that in as much as it failed to give sufficient attention to the wide scope of social issues, 1919 failed to promote a culture of democracy, even though it did promote the call of liberalism,” Ebeid said.
“The high rates of illiteracy at the time were not helpful to the promotion of a culture of democracy.” Liberalism, however, was a choice of the leading figures of the revolution in 1919 because those leaders had themselves embraced the concept of liberalism as they had been educated in Europe, she said.
Ebeid argued that in the wake of the 2011 Revolution there was a brief moment of hope that the call for liberalism and common citizenship, also overlooked for minorities at times after 1952, would be honoured. “But that was also short-lived despite the expectations,” she said.
A Century on
A century down the road from 1919, Egypt is an independent state that has still to re-engage with liberalism and the pursuit of democracy.
Ebeid is convinced it is not an impossible mission to achieve. She is also convinced that the role of political figures in connecting with the masses and paving the road ahead towards democracy is essential.
“This is why I think that it is important to re-introduce the upper chamber of parliament, according to the proposed constitutional amendments,” Ebeid argued.
“This second chamber, a senate if we call it that, should allow for the input of political figures with long experience, provided of course that it comes with full parliamentary prerogatives rather than just being a consultative body.”
The essence of the story of the 1919 Revolution was about a nation united behind patriotic and charismatic political figures that shared one objective, she said. This spirit is something that should be recaptured today. “I think it is possible, and this was partially the case in 2011 and 2013.”
Ebeid is impressed by the attention that the younger generations of Egyptian men and women seem to be giving to learning about the 1919 Revolution. “They are really interested, and I hope they will get to learn a lot about this very inspiring moment in our political history because there is a lot to be learned there,” she argued.
When she herself was growing up, Ebeid learned almost nothing at school about the 1919 Revolution.
“It was not there in the school books after 1952. The way I learned about this revolution was from going to the house of Makram Ebeid where photographs of the revolution were all over the walls and I would ask him endless questions about each,” she recalled.
When the young of today learn about the 1919 Revolution, Ebeid hopes that they will learn enough about the role and influence of Makram Ebeid, who in her view was never given due credit for his patriotic leadership.
“It would be unfortunate if an abridged recollection of history continues to prevail. The lessons of history are important for all nations, and for the lessons to be learned the history has to be properly and fairly told, examined and criticised,” she argued.
“This is why I think we need to be thorough in remembering the 1919 Revolution rather than just marking the occasion.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A legacy of liberalism