Anyone who wants to know the future should start by reading history.
I remember that in 1958, the year I started my journalistic career at Al-Ahram, I was assigned with a group of junior reporters to do a feature story on the 1952 Cairo fire. Until that date, no one had known who was behind this event, and this issue, which perplexed everyone, was of great interest to me personally.
In 1962, an Al-Ahram editorial entitled ‘A Salute to a Great People’ revealed the truth. In the article, which took up nearly the whole of the front page, the renowned journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal concluded that it had been the Egyptian public who had burned Cairo in protest against the injustice prevailing at the time. But even so, some historians tackling the event have not taken into account the data included in Heikal’s article.
This week marks the 68th anniversary of the Cairo fire on 26 January 1952. A fire of this magnitude hitting the capital of any country is no ordinary matter, though in Egypt’s case it was not the first fire of this size to take place. There was a similar fire during the era of the Crusades and another in the days of the French Campaign in Egypt at the end of the 18th century when the Egyptians revolted against the invading French military leaders Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Baptiste Kleber, with the latter having no choice but to evacuate the country in the end.
The Cairo fire signaled the end of the monarchy in Egypt and the beginning of the greatest coup in Egypt’s modern history. Six months following the fire, the then king was ousted, and the republican system was established in the country.
For nearly 5,000 years and before the 1952 Revolution, Egypt had been under occupation. The titles of the occupiers differed, and their leader was called either a pharaoh, a Roman emperor, an Abbasid caliph, a Turkish khedive, a sultan, or a king. None of Egypt’s successive rulers was Egyptian, and Egypt had never been ruled by anyone from its own community.
On 26 January 1952, the Egyptian people took everyone by surprise and rose up to protest against their despotic rulers. The king was hesitant to ask for the help of the army in putting down the revolt, fearing that the army might join hands with the people. However, this is precisely what happened, since the army saved Cairo from a conspiracy. Its patriotic role became clear when it supported the Egyptian people. On 23 July 1952, the Free Officers made their move and instigated the revolution.
The 1952 Revolution came nine months after the cancellation of the 1936 Treaty with the British, when, on 8 October 1951, then prime minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas gave his historic speech before parliament announcing the annulment of the treaty amid the applause of all MPs. Al-Nahhas and his cabinet were greeted with cheers from his socialist opponent, the founder of the Misr Al-Fattah Party Ahmed Hussein. Crowds of people gathered at the headquarters of Hussein’s party, later known as the Socialist Party, and asked him to take over the leadership, but hidden political discord directed the coming events.
Before 26 January 1952, the opposition parties’ press enjoyed a limited margin of freedom. However, after this date the press exceeded such limits, and the paper of the Misr Al-Fattah Party pressed for revolution. In one famous edition, its headlines read “Revolution… Revolution… Revolution,” directly addressing then king Farouk in a challenging tone. Photographs in the paper focused on the suffering and misery of the Egyptian people, with images of people in poverty, children in shabby clothes, sick and homeless people, and a man dying of hunger. The captions read “You, the Egyptian Citizen, may also face this Destiny.”
After this issue of the paper was published, the state prosecution arrested Ahmed Hussein and his companions and sent them to prison. It accused Hussein of inciting the public to revolt against the king and demanded his execution.
The government of Al-Nahhas was facing a hard time. It was not easy to hold the stick from the middle, with the press opposing the government, the king acting in an irrational way, and British forces taking hold of Ismailia and trying to impose their control over the Egyptian police there. The government started taking steps to foil any possible revolutionary moves. Volunteer camps were cancelled, political parties were banned from collecting money, and the Shaab Party (socialist in tendency) was not allowed to hold meetings.
The period before the 1952 Revolution saw a particularly tense climate. On 8 September 1950, a heated article published in one opposition newspaper threw new light on the government’s relationship with the British occupiers. The article, entitled “The Negotiations have Failed,” noted that the government has accepted all the British demands and that the negotiations between the two sides had been held in a friendly atmosphere. It said that the British did not intend to leave Egypt and added that they intended to do everything they could to defend British interests if a war was waged.
But to return to the events that preceded the Cairo fire. The police were angrily demanding overtime payments, and protestors were heading towards the cabinet building. All attempts to calm the demonstrators were in vain. Hussein Sobhi, in charge of security, urged the necessity of restoring calm, but in the confusion Cairo was set on fire. Ahmed Hussein was referred to trial on several charges of his alleged involvement.
Hussein and his colleagues were not able to appear before the court, as the session was not held owing to the Revolution, and the case was delayed until 30 July 1952. Hussein was released, along with Ibrahim Shukri, a prominent socialist figure. During the rule of former president Anwar al-Sadat, Shukri became governor of the Al-Wadi Al-Gedeed governorate in 1974 and agriculture minister two years later.
The first cabinet following the Revolution was led by Ali Maher, one of the ousted king’s supporters. The Revolutionary Command Council that was later to take control of the country was keen not to interfere in government affairs until things got settled.
In 1953, Egypt became a republic, and the controversy about the Cairo fire continued to intrigue public opinion.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.