More and more social media these days are filled with photos, film clips and other memorabilia from the pre-1952 Egyptian monarchy period. To judge by the images and what we read on those sites, life was never better in those days. The country was rich, democracy prevailed, political parties were active, the king was loved by all, women wore the latest Parisian fashions, the streets were clean and so on. Needless to say, such a rosy picture never existed in Egypt at any phase of its history.
Yearning for bygone days is a very human emotion. It exists in all societies and in all historic periods. In the Egyptian Museum of Turin, I came across a literary text written on an ancient Egyptian papyrus whose anonymous author longed for the old days when life was bounteous and beautiful.
But while nostalgia might be normal, it is not healthy to long for a constructed past completely divorced from historical facts and established realities. Was the monarchic era - or any other for that matter - truly problem free? The old black and white films by Mohamed Karim show us elegantly dressed women smoking cigarettes and swaying to Abdel-Wahab tunes, but they do not show us the illiterate peasant women of the same era who laboured in the fields with their husbands.
This is not a criticism of Karim’s films. Cinema is an art and, as such, it is free to paint life in whatever way best communicates the artist’s vision, whether or not that is factual. But I do criticise the tendency to accept the cinematic vision as an alternative to historical reality and to use the artistic product of that vision as a measuring stick for historical eras. We have every right to appreciate artistic works, but when dealing with historical realities we need to rely on different sources.
True, the monarchic era had democratic mechanisms. There was an elected parliament that sometimes opposed the will of the palace. But the king could dissolve parliament with the stroke of a pen and call for new elections. There were, indeed, effective political parties, some with large grassroots followings. But the British still occupied the country militarily and the British high commissioner could send tanks rumbling into the palace in order to compel the king of Egypt to appoint a cabinet named by his royal highness the king of England.
We have only to look at pictures of the royal families of England, Spain or Holland to realise that the princesses of the house of Mohamed Ali were the most beautiful in the world. But there was flagrant corruption. In the waning days of the monarchy, it had reached a point where cabinet posts were bought and sold, making it possible for the government to be tailored to the highest bidder. Some officials from that era acknowledged this.
President Sadat once said in a speech to parliament that the British humiliated and degraded palace officials, who then asked for more. He said that he had told the British ambassador in person that the occupation authorities were right to treat the old pashas in that manner. But why use Sadat’s testimony when we have that of one of the most prominent figures of the age, the Wafd Party leader and Egyptian prime minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas?
In the speech Nahhas delivered to the Wafd Party congress in Alexandria that convened on 23 August 1952, in commemoration of the party’s founder and nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, he spoke of the corruption that had run rampant throughout the country. “God knows that, while prime minister, I persistently tried to counsel the king to devote his attention to this. But he refused to listen for he was too proud to heed advice. So he continued to punish the nation by forcing one government after the other on us with no constitutional justification and with no care for the people’s will, while he and his evil aides wrought havoc on every government service, sticking their noses into every matter large and small, and promoting base, ignorant, calculating and greedy people.
The anarchy and corruption reached a point when all began to ask, is there no way out of this state of affairs that has turned our country into a laughing stock and brought disgrace to the nation and its citizens? Then, God answered the call of millions and fulfilled their hope. Our valiant army came to the rescue with a bold action. From one day to the next, to the cheers, adulation, total support and overwhelming hopes of the people, the army overthrew the tyrant, ended his tyranny and stayed its instruments with the sword of right. At last the people could breathe relief after having reeled for endless, bitter years under the weight of horrific injustice and oppression.”
Yes, nostalgia can sometimes give us comfort. But we should not let it blind us to historical truths, because this would make us like an amnesiac who knows nothing of himself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly