In the first line of his 1998 book on the leader of the 1919 Revolution Saad Zaghloul, Tarek Al-Bishri writes: “Those who ask me who I am, I tell them I am a son of Egypt’s nationalist movement. I hail from the generation which was raised in the embrace of the 1919 Revolution.”
It remains, in “the historical political consciousness of those who were raised in its shadow”, the “nucleus” or the “first political cell”.
Born 14 years after the revolution, by the time Al-Bishri was old enough to go to law school in 1949 the post-1919 political dispensation was already crumbling.
The Free Officers Movement, which toppled the monarchy and placed the military in power just three years later, in 1952, would change Egypt forever. You might think its impact, for someone who witnessed it in its entirety, would outweigh a revolution that happened a century ago.
But at 85 distinguished historian, author and former judge Al-Bishri has not wavered, “because the 1919 Revolution combined two causes, national independence and popular democratic governance against authoritarianism.”
For the generation whose political consciousness was formed after the end of WWII and until 1952 “this is the richest political era in [contemporary] Egyptian history,” he explains.
A few days after the armistice agreement which ended WWI Egypt, which had struggled beneath the yoke of British occupation since 1882, was ready for self-determination.
Three reputable nationalist figures, Saad Zaghloul, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi and Ahmed Shaarawi, met with the British high commissioner Reginald Wingate to inform him of their intent to represent Egypt at post-war peace talks in Paris and demand independence. Their legitimacy was questioned: who were they, Wingate asked, to represent Egyptians?
On the same day the delegation, Al-Wafd in Arabic, began an ambitious process of collecting signed legal endorsements from the public granting them power of attorney to represent them in Paris.
The movement spread rapidly across the country. The Wafd expanded in size and capacity, the harbinger of a revolution waiting to happen.
Alarmed by Zaghloul’s popularity and influence the British arrested him and his associates on 8 March 1919 and exiled them to Malta, triggering nation-wide protests.
It was the quintessential people’s revolution: everyone was engaged, strikes were held, Egypt’s administrative system ground to a halt and the new high commissioner, Edmund Allenby, found that Egypt was “impossible” to govern.
The occupation finally yielded and allowed Zaghoul’s delegation to join the Paris conference where they were snubbed by international powers, which instead recognised British protection of Egypt.
By then Zaghloul, 60, and his Wafd Party had emerged as the leaders of Egypt’s quest for independence. For the next 30 years the reverberations of the 1919 Revolution would shake the foundations of Egypt’s political system, a waning Turkish ruling dynasty sharing power with the British whose empire was on the decline.
National independence wasn’t realised, but imperial Britain was forced to make concessions, unilaterally declaring Egypt independent on 28 February 1922.
The British-backed monarchy maintained its authority but Egypt’s first constitution in 1923 presented an unprecedented opportunity for representative democracy, achieved in the handful of free elections that would follow.
Al-Bishri sums up the revolutionary aftermath: “Popular mobilisation against the British occupation and the monarchy’s tyranny was very powerful. Ideas on social justice, socialism, labour rights and the working class evolved.”
That Egypt’s “golden age” of arts, literature and unique influence in the Arab world occurred post 1919 is “no coincidence”.
“For us, the notion of a fully independent democratic state was the definition of Utopia, so powerful it moved all emotions towards betterment and self-improvement. That’s why you will find adroit writers, men of law and artists associated with that period. It was a complete renaissance.”
Al-Bishri names icons like diva Um Kolthoum and actor-composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab whose legacies are still associated with Egypt’s standing in the region.
The 1919 Revolution was preceded by two decades of debates between the most influential nationalist streams at the time — the Umma (nation) and the Al-Hizb Al-Watani national parties — on priorities: independence or defeating monarchic tyranny? This evolved into one cause when Britain entered WWI and declared Egypt, which was politically part of the Ottoman Empire, a protectorate.
“Now that Britain was directly occupying Egypt the distinction between the khedive’s oppression and foreign “veiled” protection since 1882 was no longer there. They became one thing.”
Al-Bishri’s emphasis on the dual causes of independence and democracy is necessary to understand that, contrary to contemporary often indoctrinated perceptions of 1919, it wasn’t just a revolution against British occupation.
An often overlooked achievement of the revolution is the evolution of the notion of the nation/umma, something that would be been taken for granted since the second half of the 20th century, but it was a long process spanning a century.
The two murals sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar executed on the base of his Saad Zaghloul statue in Raml Station, Alexandria, showing the statesman facing Lord Milner and being carried by supporters
Under Mohamed Ali Pasha (1805-1848) Egypt’s modernisation began to set it apart from the Ottoman Empire. The state apparatus was rapidly Egyptianised and though the ruling elite remained largely of Ottoman origin, the modernisation process contributed to the evolution of Egyptian political groups.
By the turn of the 20th century the most pressing questions revolved around the nature of the nation: what is it exactly: the elite or the general population? This continued for two decades: even as the 1923 constitution was being drafted proponents of the “nation’s empowerment” — the pashas and feudalists — assumed that they, Egypt’s aristocracy, constituted the nation.
“What Zaghloul and 1919 did was demonstrate who and what the nation is,” says Al-Bishri. The nation, the people, became an influential and active power, alongside what was then called the “legitimate” authority — the monarchy — and the “actual” authority — the British occupation.
“It became the third power, competing with the king’s authority and openly seeking to end the actual power of the British occupation.”
In the first election under the 1923 constitution the Wafd “which represented the nation” scored a landslide victory, winning 90 per cent of the seats. Its rivals from Al-Ahrar Al-Dostouryeen (Free Constitutionalists) — who vied for the clause “the source of all powers shall be the nation” in the constitution that was drafted under their watch, with the assumption that their parliamentary majority was inevitable — secured only six seats.
And over the next three decades Egyptians voted for the Wafd in the few fair elections that followed.
Saad Zabhloul carried by supporters
Al-Bishri pauses at the simple yet powerful idea of the tawkeelat: the legal endorsements delegating the Wafd to make the case for Egypt’s independence at the 1919 Paris conference. It marks the moment when Zaghloul and the Wafd, together with the Egyptian people, the nation, began a revolution.
The template granted the Wafd power of attorney to “strive by all legitimate and available peaceful means to seek the complete independence of Egypt”.
Initially Al-Bishri thought the legal endorsements were little more than a lawyers’ ploy. Later he came to realise it was far more ambitious.
“They basically conducted a public referendum when referendums are the monopoly of states. And the Egyptian people fully took part in this referendum which was conducted against the existing state.”
The outcome should be seen in its historic context, he says. No other people under European occupation had achieved independence when Britain nominally ended its protection of Egypt in 1923. “Neither China nor India had started their revolutions. They would come later, in the 1940’s.”
Equally important is the creation of the far-reaching political organisation, the Wafd Party. “It reached the village before any other popular political organisation did, with the exception of religious Sufi groups.”
Citing Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution, Al-Bishri says popular organisations created during revolutions are the most effective organisations.
“In the case of Egypt it was the Wafd,” which had among its ranks figures like Abdel-Rahman Fahmi who understood, and had experience of, political organisations, including the secret group inside the Wafd.
The context inevitably begs comparison with the January 2011 Revolution which unseated Hosni Mubarak. “No organisation emerged from the revolution… unlike the Wafd which spanned 30 years.”
For Al-Bishri the 1919 Revolution ended in 1952 with the Free Officers’ coup-turned-movement-turned-revolution.
The 1923 constitution was abrogated in 1953 and promises of a new constitution that reflected the new reality and the people’s aspirations were never realised.
Though 1952 completed the goals of 1919, achieving national independence, social justice and economic development, “it was an authoritarian revolution that dealt a blow to popular movements and monopolised nationalism and social justice. It was the deathbed of 1919.”
By the same token, the authoritarian tools of the 1952 state undermined its achievements once Gamal Abdel-Nasser died. There were no popular organisations or civil society independent of the state to sustain these achievements or to balance the state’s authority. “That’s the difference between 1919 and 1952.”
“That wasn’t a national revolution. We had established independence from imperialism a long time ago.
January 2011 was a revolution for democracy and against authoritarian rule.” It was undermined when it became bogged down in questions of identity “and not the nation”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The nation in 100 years