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Book review: A close up on what and who made and broke the 1919 revolution

As 2019 draws to a close, Ahram Online’s Books section is reviewing some of this year’s well-received titles

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 8 Dec 2019
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Al-Thawra Waltarikh – 1919 Baad Maeit Aam (“Revolution and History – 1919, a Hundred YearsLater”), by: multiple authors (Cairo: El-Maraya), 2019.

This year marks the centenary of Egypt’s 1919 revolution, and has been marked by celebrations of and reflections on one of the most important political moments in modern Egyptian history.

Of the many titles that came out to mark the year, El-Maraya’s Al-Thawra Waltarikh offers perhaps the most diverse take, given that it examines the revolution from different perspectives.

The close-to-300-page edition of El-Maraya journal, in a special edition issued to mark the centenary, is an intense selection of articles offered by almost 30 writers who aim to contextualize and analyse the making and breaking of 1919, away from an otherwise prevailing sentimental take on this major political event.

“The 1919 revolution is a founding moment in modern Egyptian history; it utterly altered the way politics was done and perceived in Egypt and it contributed significantly in shaping a new national consciousness,” reads the introduction to the journal.

Throughout the past 100 years, the editor of El-Maraya writes, 1919 was subject to either over-romanticisation or over-simplification.

Today, the introduction argues, the time has come to take a serious look at this revolution, which was well underway before the onset of the first wave of demonstrations, which started on 9 March 1919, and that continued to unfold, as most revolutions do, for a few years – most historians would argue four.

The book is divided into six segments that try to explain the international and national contexts of 1919, re-read the way it was told in the history books and political discourse in Egypt over a hundred years, examine the British take on it, and look into its impact in other Arab countries and beyond.

The revolution cannot be understood away from the end of World War I and the subsequent declaration that US President Woodrow Wilson made at the time regarding the right of nations for independence, argues Khaled Zeyada, a Lebanese intellectual and diplomat who had represented his country in Egypt, in the first of 24 chapters, on the political and intellectual foundations of the revolution.

Zeyada, however, insists that the revolution cannot be reduced to a mere reaction to Wilson’s statement, for Egyptians had for close to a century before 1919 protested foreign occupation, first when they stood against the French expedition of the late 18th century and later when they opposed the late 19th century British invasion.

However, Zeyada notes, like previous Egyptian political protests, 1919 called for an end to foreign control of Egypt; it started with the British and a few years down the road it also rejected the previously uncontested Ottoman control. And, like other major political movements around the world at the time, 1919 called for the participation of the people in running their country’s affairs – and hence resulted in the 1923 constitution.

Moreover, Zeyada argues that the proper historical contextualization of 1919 cannot overlook the indirect impact of the French Revolution, given that several of the leaders of 1919 were educated in France and that the 1923 constitution was inspired by the separation of state and religion, an idea promoted by Mohammed Abdou, who had acquired this idea from the French context.

Another article in the volume examines the way the revolution unfolded away from the big aspirations of the great slogans of its early days.

In his chapter, “The Consequences of the 1919 Revolution,” social historian Assem El-Dessouky argues that in the final analysis the demonstrations that started in Cairo in March 1919 did not live up to the slogan of “Give me full independence or give me death.”

The reason, El-Dessouky argues, was this “huge gap” between the people on the streets who were really revolutionary and the assumed leaders of the revolution who were only reformists – some cautiously so.

El-Dessouky recalled that Saad Zaghloul, the ultimate figure of 1919, was hesitant to lend support to the demonstrations that took to the streets on 9 March upon the decision of the British authorities to expel him and other political and legal figures who wished to represent Egyptians’ desire for independence at the Versailles Conference.

They were all too reconciliatory, El-Dessouky argues. Abdel-Aziz Fahmy Pasha, one of the leading political figures at the time, had even called on the demonstrators “to go back home so that we can work in calm” to achieve the political objectives.

Equally reconciliatory, El-Dessouky argues, were the leading social figures, who seemed to have generally favoured the non-confrontational approach.

Fifty of those dignitaries, along with the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, signed a communiqué calling on the people to stop demonstrating and to give a chance for dialogue, El-Dessouky writes.

This happened, he adds, when British soldiers were shooting demonstrators on the streets of Cairo.

El-Dessouky suggests that there was not even a coherent vision that brought together the assumed leaders of 1919, who ended up squabbling over political and personal issues.

The fact that the revolution was about the people on the street rather than the political figures is echoed also in two subsequent chapters by Hossam Abdel-Zaher, a researcher in Islamic history, and Sabry El-Adl, professor of modern history.

Abdel-Zaher and El-Adllook at the revolution through the memoires of Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Khodary, a sharia judge, and Sadik Honin, a prominent Coptic accountant at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Both El-Khodary and Honin were there to see first-hand, and take notes on, the role of the students, at universities first and later at schools, and civil servants and workers in making the revolution happen.

According to the memoires of both El-Khodary and Honin, the call for demonstrations first, and then for the strike, were spontaneous and highly popular, and the ability of the British authorities to use force to dispel these demonstrations or to end the strike was very limited.

Meanwhile, a following chapter by researcher Zeinab El-Bakry carries further reflection on the impact of the role of the leaders of the revolution, especially Saad Zaghloul.

According to El-Bakry, the role of Zaghloul was subject to the praise of Abbas El-Akkad, a prominent literary figure of Egypt in the 20th century, but was subject to disdain by no other than the esteemed Taha Hussein.

These alternative views, El-Bakry argued, might simply be a function of the diverse political and social associations of El-Akkad and Hussein.

El-Maraya’s edition is a very rich and thorough read on 1919. It tries to rightly place this revolution as a political movement that had been in the making and that was encouraged by some influences and derailed by some other influences – thus taking the story way beyond the limitations of “the victorious national unity narrative” where all the nation was one under one leader.

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