Egypt’s independence from Britain in February 1922 was an awkward moment. Most politicians in Britain and Egypt correctly assessed that this nominal independence would neither satisfy the aspirations for real freedom that Egypt’s 1919 Revolution had stirred, nor secure for Britain its strategic interests in the country.
But since the energy that 1919 had given rise to was too great to ignore or contain, an alteration of the political equation in the country was needed.
In Britain, prime minister David Lloyd George and most of his government opposed giving any form of independence, nominal or real, to Egypt. In Egypt, neither the palace nor the leaders of the Wafd Party — the extremely popular political party that had emerged from the fervour of 1919 — were excited about a move they considered to be devoid of substance.
The only reason this nominal independence became a reality was that Edmund Allenby, at the time Britain’s high commissioner in Egypt, decided it was the only solution to calm conditions in the country. Since Allenby had secured for himself a legendary reputation after defeating the Ottomans during the World War I, few politicians in London or the Middle East were willing to challenge him.
The awkwardness of the historical moment has since continued in historical records. Most historians pass 1922 gracefully by, invoking it as a consequence of 1919, but hardly considering it to be of particular importance.
Yet, 1922 was consequential. It lessened the intensity of demands for independence in Egypt, thereby channelling political energy towards internal ideological infighting. Two ideas quickly filled the air — Islamism, seeing Egypt as the most suitable inheritor of the Islamic caliphate that had fallen with the collapse of the Ottoman state — and nationalism, whose proponents looked forward to a state anchored on a purely Egyptian identity.
The latter gave rise to a fight over what constituted this Egyptian identity, and there were also two camps. The first saw Egyptianism as a continuation of the prevailing identity in the decades before 1919. This was a mélange of what the ruling Mohamed Ali Dynasty, and the families that rotated in its orbit, had represented: Ottomanism, Turkishness, and co-existing forms of Islamism and Westernisation.
The other camp wanted a rupture with the past. In its view, 1919 had inaugurated a new path on which the Egyptian identity was to discard any association with Ottomanism and Turkishness and instead evolve into another mélange — one that mixed ancient history (Pharaonism) with a desired future of an Egypt looking out across the Mediterranean and rapidly borrowing from the West.
The struggle between Islamism and nationalism unfolded gradually over the decades that followed. The struggle over Egyptian identity, however, was more intense at the time, because at heart it was between a ruling elite fighting to preserve the Egypt it had forged and an emerging social constituency — the upper echelons of Egypt’s professional classes and also increasingly large landowners — that wanted a serious say in the governing of the country, which meant forging an Egypt that represented them.
Amidst this struggle, the upper echelons of the middle classes wanted to deepen their power, and so the Wafd Party led by Saad Zaghloul Pasha, the dominant figure in the 1919 Revolution and later the unrivalled leader of the nationalist and secular wave, began to appeal to Egypt’s lower-middle classes and poor. Within a decade, political representation in the country had grown exponentially. However, the electoral laws were far from perfect, and they strongly favoured major landowners in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt. There were also strong indications that Saad Zaghloul was particularly enamoured of personal glory. Yet, irrespective of all of this, widening the political representation in Egypt was a colossal change in the country’s politics.
As a result, Egyptian public life became more inclusive in terms of class, gender, and geography. Hundreds of thousands of people from poorer and peasant backgrounds entered secondary education, the civil service, and various professions. Women also began to enter public life, and some played notable roles in journalism, academia, philanthropy, and of course theatre and cinema.
Modern healthcare, higher education, new irrigation technologies, and cultural and artistic production slowly but clearly began to spread beyond Cairo and Alexandria and the already developed parts of the Delta. Some argue that these developments were by-products of the economic and cultural advances that Egypt (and the entire Orient) had witnessed in the period after World War I. This is true, but 1922 facilitated them because independence meant having a constitution, and Egypt’s 1923 Constitution — the first modern political charter in the Arab world worthy of being so-called — was based on socio-economically inclusive principles.
Even foreign policy changed after 1922. After the four decades since the end of the khedive Ismail’s reign, during which Egypt was utterly inward-looking, the country began to think of its place in the world beyond its borders. The expansionism of Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim Pasha, and Ismail Pasha in the 19th century was by now distant history. Yet, Egypt’s political class at the time felt a sense of entitlement in — and often superiority to — the country’s geographical neighbourhood.
Egypt was a nominally independent country, and relative to the new states that were emerging at the time — Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hashemites in the Fertile Crescent, and a multi-sectarian country in Mount Lebanon and its valleys — Egypt was light years ahead in terms of historical depth, geographical solidity, social cohesiveness, and political and economic development.
In addition, many Egyptian politicians, including king Fouad, the Egyptian monarch at the time, recalled that almost all of these territories had at one point or another in the 19th century been under Egyptian control. Grandiosity often merged with hubris, and realpolitik also often set in. With fluctuations between the two, Egypt began to think about its relationship with what was then emerging as an Arab – rather than an Islamic or Ottoman – world.
Independence, even if nominal, the drafting of a comprehensive constitution, widening political representation, engaging the public about national identity, thinking about foreign relations — all these things forced Egypt’s political class at the time to confront the reality of the by then sovereign state that they were ruling. That reality included the fact that over 85 per cent of Egyptians in the mid-1920s were illiterate, that Egypt had one of the world’s most egregious levels of social inequality, and that in almost the entire country elitist despotism constituted the political order of the day.
It was not a coincidence that the two decades after 1922 witnessed waves of major demonstrations, acute protests, especially in the countryside, and several high-profile assassinations. Independence gave rise to aspirations as well as to unleashed anger.
Perhaps one can think of 1919 as the eruption that unravelled Egyptian socio-politics in the early 20th century. But it was the reckoning, the changes, and the responsibilities that came with independence in 1922 that really ushered in the dynamics that shaped Egypt’s liberal experiment in the three decades up until 1952 when monarchical Egypt fell and a new age began.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.