Honouring Egypt’s 1919 Revolution

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Wednesday 13 Mar 2019

The 1919 Revolution had extraordinary impacts on both national and democratic life in Egypt, setting the stage for the decades to come, writes Walid Abdelnasser

This month marks the centennial of the 1919 Revolution in Egypt that took place almost 37 years after the British occupation of the country started. T

he revolution changed the course of history in Egypt over the following decades, not only on the political, economic, social and cultural levels, but also at the constitutional, legislative and legal ones.

Much could be mentioned regarding this significant anniversary, as the revolution had multi-dimensional impacts on different areas of Egyptian history and society.

My argument here is that the main relevance of the 1919 Revolution lay in the fact that it constituted the most important stage in the national democratic revolution of the Egyptian people.

However, it was only one stage in this democratic revolution. Some historians refer the roots of the struggle of the Egyptian people back to the period preceding the French Expedition to Egypt in 1798 and more specifically to the 16th and 17th centuries, while others refer to the nationalist constitutional movement that took place under the khedive Ismail in the 1860s and that continued under his successor the khedive Tewfik and culminated in the Orabi Revolution in 1881.

Although this movement succeeded in producing a constitutional document, the first in Egypt’s modern history, and it also produced a parliament and witnessed popular opposition against the growing foreign, and more specifically English and French, influence in the country, it was eventually defeated at the hands of the British invasion and subsequent occupation of Egypt in 1882.

The period between the British occupation and the 1919 Revolution was characterised by sub-periods of pessimism and optimism as far as the national and democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people were concerned.

While the period directly following the British occupation was predominantly quiet for the Egyptian national democratic movement, a revival of this movement took place towards the end of the 19th century and in the first years of the 20th century.

These years saw several varieties of the national movement seeking liberation from foreign occupation, including those who wanted to get rid of the British occupation but return Egypt to some sort of Pan-Islamic affiliation, whether under the mantle of the Ottoman Empire or outside it, and others who sought complete national independence.

A third group preferred to argue for modernisation efforts that would prepare the Egyptian people for national independence.

The period saw the rise of nationalist figures, particularly Mostafa Kamel and Mohamed Farid, and the establishment of the National Party at the hands of these two legendary individuals.

Although their struggle did not succeed in achieving Egypt’s independence, their National Party played an instrumental role in the 1919 Revolution.

This was particularly the case due to the active role played by leading figures in the party in the clandestine guerrilla warfare that went hand in hand with the popular revolution and that targeted the British troops in Egypt.

It proved influential in eventually forcing the British to reconsider their position regarding the occupation of Egypt and to make what they considered to be major concessions in this regard.

There is no doubt that the 1919 Revolution achieved a lot on both the national and the democratic levels. On the national level, the struggle of the Egyptian people and their legendary historical symbol Saad Zaghloul during the revolution and after a number of subsequent cycles of revolutionary movement and relative calm forced the British occupying authorities to issue the 28 February 1922 Unilateral Declaration.

According to this, Britain granted Egypt its formal independence, but with four important reservations, including “the security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt; the defence of Egypt against all foreign aggression or interference, direct or indirect; the protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities; and the [British position in the] Sudan.”

Although these reservations were rejected by most Egyptian political forces at the time, in de facto terms the declaration served as the basis for recognising Egypt as a sovereign state and for all subsequent steps in that direction. In the light of the declaration, Britain committed itself to supporting Egypt’s application for membership of the League of Nations, the international organisation which was one of the results of World War I.

However, the declaration gave only incomplete independence, and Egypt had to go through following rounds of struggle in order to reach the stage of complete independence.

These included the 1935 student revolution forcing the political parties to agree to close their ranks and form a national-unity government under the leadership of Mostafa Al-Nahhas, the successor of Saad Zaghloul in leading the Wafd Party. This government then negotiated with the British and concluded the famous 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.

Then came the popular struggle in the aftermath of World War II that defeated the draft Sidki-Bevin Treaty between Britain and Egypt and the national liberation war in the Suez Canal Zone after the unilateral abrogation of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, again instituted by Al-Nahhas, prime minister at the time and another legendary figure in the modern history of Egypt.

The national liberation war in the Suez Canal Zone intensified after the 1952 Free Officers Revolution, thus contributing to the successful conclusion of the October 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement under late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser that brought to an end the British occupation of Egypt.

As far as the 1919 Revolution’s struggle for democracy is concerned, the Egyptian people managed to draft the 1923 Constitution after it, one of the most democratic in the modern and contemporary history of Egypt, which was supposed to lay the foundations for a constitutional monarchy.

The constitution contained a lot of important provisions that provided guarantees of democratic rights and freedoms, as well as of the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state.

The 1923 Constitution established what could be considered as the infrastructure for a healthy and sustainable democratic system.

The revolution also culminated in a multi-party system and parliamentary elections in 1924 that led to a landslide victory for the majority Wafd Party led by Saad Zaghloul, who became the country’s first prime minister under the new system.

However, history tells us that the Wafd Party ruled only for slightly more than seven years in the period between 1924 and 1952, due to the frequent and repeated interventions of king Fouad and his son king Farouk in the democratic process.

Both men were responsible for continuing violations of the 1923 Constitution and the disruption of the functioning of the political system, and they assisted the rule of minority political parties, most of them offshoots from the Wafd Party, and of the British occupying authorities that remained in real control of many things in Egypt.

Even during some periods of the rule of the Wafd Party, the Egyptian political scene saw cases of the violations of basic rights, such as during the confrontation between the first Saad Zaghloul government on the one hand and the labour unions and communist movement on the other.

Moreover, in the period following World War II, the political system produced in the aftermath of the 1919 Revolution proved incapable of absorbing new and rising political forces on the left as well as on the right, these becoming increasingly popular in the streets but having no legal recognition.

Yet, these shortcomings should not lead us to underestimate the impact of the 1919 Revolution on Egyptian politics, economics, society, culture and the arts.

Thanks to this revolution, Egypt lived through a liberal, or quasi-liberal, era. It was this that gave birth to Banque Misr set up by Talaat Harb with its affiliated national industries, that led Egyptian women to acquire unprecedented status at all levels, and that produced so many talents in all areas of culture and the arts, including literature, cinema, theatre, media and the press.

Those talents enriched the cultural and social life of Egypt and the Arab world over the years, or rather the decades, to come.

* The writer is a commentator.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Honouring Egypt’s 1919 Revolution

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