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Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The 1919 Revolution and I

Samir Sobhi describes his own relationship to Egypt’s 1919 Revolution

Samir Sobhi , Wednesday 13 Mar 2019
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My relationship with the 1919 Revolution is somewhat strange. The 7 March, marking its anniversary, also happens to be my birthday. On that day 28 years before my birth, Egypt’s historic leader Saad Zaghloul and his comrades were sent into exile.

The second time I met with the 1919 Revolution was in the office of the late Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, then chief editor of Al-Ahram. Heikal asked me to lay out a book entitled “Fifty Years Since the 1919 Revolution”.

This was in 1968, one year after the 1967 Setback. “While we are busy building modern Egypt, we have neglected the role of the 1919 Revolution in building the Egyptian character,” Heikal told me, adding that it was time to go back to our history in order to restore our rights.

One hundred years have passed since the 1919 Revolution, which was staged by Egyptians against the British occupation of Egypt. It was a revolution in which students, landowners, peasants and all segments of society took part.

Egyptian women also played a major role in the 1919 Revolution. They took to the streets and joined hands with men. It was also the 1919 Revolution that opened the door to a cultural and educational leap and to an independent economy.

The 1919 Revolution, as the prominent politician Mohamed Abul-Ghar has said, laid the foundations for the largest civil society in the Middle East in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Saad Zaghloul adopted the motto that “religion is for God, and the homeland is for all” during the 1919 Revolution, and Moreno Cicurel and Youssef Qattawi, two prominent Egyptian Jews, joined his liberal Wafd Party.

Egypt’s Jews played a significant role at the end of the 1919 Revolution, sitting in the then House of Representatives and Senate. They held ministerial seats and they were advisors to the king.

In 1969, Al-Ahram commemorated 50 years since the 1919 Revolution. Heikal revealed his intention to publish a study covering the revolution, and this work, prepared by the Al-Ahram Centre for Egyptian Historical Studies, relied on official British documents deposited at the Public Records Office in London.

The centre announced that these documents would be published in Egypt for the first time. The late historian Ezzat Abdel-Karim, then professor of modern history and president of Ain Shams University in Cairo, wrote in the introduction to the study that when he had heard about Al-Ahram’s decision, he had had mixed feelings, however.

“The 1919 Revolution is a great national event in our modern history. It was the most effective factor in building the Egyptian nation and Egyptian political life in the 20th century. Numerous studies of the 1919 Revolution and of Egypt’s contemporary history have appeared,” Abdel-Karim said, wondering how the new study would contribute to the objective and scientific study of the revolution and befit its important status.

The fact that British documents were a main source for the study also worried Abdel-Karim. “It is extremely risky for a historian to rely on just one source.

Relying on British documents written by British ministers, the British high commissioner and British army commanders makes that risk even greater,” he said.

The study, published in 35 instalments in Al-Ahram, was the first work of the Al-Ahram Centre for Egyptian Historical Studies. Later on, it was decided to compile all the material in a book, and Abdel-Karim was asked to edit the material and write the introduction.

“I accepted without hesitation. I felt that I could offer a service to the history of my country if I participated in lending the study a scientific nature and ridding it of any non-objective elements,” Abdel-Karim noted.

As he wrote in his introduction, Abdel-Karim rearranged the chapters and was keen on making sure that the whole represented the results of balanced research. In addition to using the British documents, “I appealed to memoirs written by Egyptian politicians at the time of the 1919 Revolution,” he said.

He pointed out that he preferred “to leave the documents to depict events as they stood, allowing readers to form their own judgements.” Moreover, “we do not assume that the book is a purely academic study. But it is a serious and objective one that could be the beginning of further studies of the 1919 Revolution,” Abdel-Karim concluded.

For his part, Heikal in his preface to the book said that it was the first work to be published by the new centre. “In founding its new centre, Al-Ahram sought the help of distinguished professors of history,” Heikal said.

“We agreed that the 1919 Revolution heralded the beginning of Egypt’s modern history, and that it was wrong to think that our modern history started after the 1952 Revolution,” he added.

“Fifty years after the 1919 Revolution and in the gloomy climate prevailing in the wake of the 1967 Setback, we thought of publishing glimpses of the story of this great revolution. Our argument was that peoples at times of crisis desperately need inspiration. They can get this inspiration from their own history,” Heikal concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The 1919 Revolution and I

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