Two years ago, Egypt marked the centenary of the 1919 Revolution, which transformed the country in the first half of the 20th century, ushering in its “golden age” and standing in the region. The only surviving and undisputed authority on the subject was Tarek El-Beshri, Egypt’s influential historian. This might have been the last time I saw him in his cosy and strikingly neat Dokki apartment in western Cairo.
Dressed in a casual sweater over a button-up shirt and wearing dark trousers, notes and pen in hand, El-Beshri, 85 at the time, sat on the chair opposite in his classic slouched posture, ready for questions. Despite our familiarity (I had interviewed him multiple times over the years), his unassuming energy, gentle and quiet voice betrayed a subtle shyness, as if we had exchanged roles and I was the scholarly authority in the room and not him.
For the next hour, El-Beshri explained the meaning of the 1919 Revolution beyond contemporary perceptions that it was just against the British occupation of Egypt after World War I. It was, he argued, a nationalist movement with the dual causes of independence and democracy in mind, whose reverberations spanned three decades. It ended, El-Beshri said, in 1952 with the Free Officers’ coup-turned-movement-turned-revolution.
The 1919 Revolution’s centenary had a special resonance throughout 2019, as both official and non-official Egypt celebrated the anniversary. To the many generations of Egyptians who were introduced to that significant chapter in history for the first time, echoes of the 2011 uprising and its visceral aftermath cast a shadow over the anniversary. The centenary, viewed through the inevitable prism of 2011, brought feelings of nostalgia and connection.
While El-Beshri’s remarkable historiography of Egypt’s 19th and 20th-century nationalist and political movements in over a dozen books made him the foremost chronicler of the 1919 period, the revolution defined his political consciousness even though he was born 14 years after the event.
In the first lines of his 1998 book on the leader of the 1919 Revolution Saad Zaghloul, El-Beshri writes that “to those who ask me who I am, I tell them I am a son of Egypt’s nationalist movement. I hail from the generation that was raised in the embrace of the 1919 Revolution.” This remains, in “the historical and political consciousness of those who were raised in its shadow,” the “nucleus” or “first political cell”.
El-Beshri was thus a son of the 1919 Revolution. But in his life that spanned 87 years and during which he was labelled, among other things, as a secularist-turned-Islamist, a prominent judge, a philosopher of Islamic jurisprudence, a national icon, a distinguished intellectual and a Sufi, he died with a legacy etched in what was probably the most critical chapter of the 2011 Revolution’s history.
While he witnessed 1919 from afar from history books and was inspired by its leaders and came of age in its shadow, El-Beshri, instrumental in the opposition movement against former president Hosni Mubarak, was in many ways one of the fathers of the 2011 Revolution. He witnessed and was one of the harbingers of change that led to the uprising, and for a brief moment that seemed to become an eternity he was both the icon and anti-hero (depending on the ideological divide) of the transitional period following Mubarak’s ouster.
El-Beshri was born in Cairo in 1933 to a prestigious middle-class family of judges. His father, Abdel-Fattah El-Beshri, was president of the Court of Appeal. His grandfather was Selim El-Beshri, an Al-Azhar sheikh and a proud scholar who refused to bow to the pressures of then khedive Abbas Helmi and was consequently replaced in 1904.
After graduating from Cairo University’s Law School in 1953, El-Beshri joined the State Council, the highest administrative court in Egypt with jurisdiction on issues relating to the exercise of government power.
But before he made a name for himself as a fiercely independent judge and Mubarak critic, El-Beshri became famous for his distinguished book Al-Haraka Al-Siyasia Fi Masr 1945-1952 (Egypt’s Political Movements, 1945-1952) published in 1972, followed by Democracy and Nasserism (1975), Saad Zaghloul’s Negotiations with British Colonialism (1977), Muslims and Copts Within the Framework of the National Group (1981) and Democracy and the 23 July 1952-1970 Regime (1987) among other titles.
El-Beshri’s early publications in Al-Talee’a magazine, the leftist platform of 1960s Egypt, placed him in mainstream left-leaning intellectual circles. His embrace of contemporary Islamist thought in the late 1970s following the 1967 military defeat of Egypt by Israel which traumatised his generation seemed to signal an ideological “shift” as he rose to become one of Egypt’s most prominent intellectuals of the time.
His work continued to focus on the questions of democracy, Arab nationalism, Islamic Sharia Law, religious minorities, freedoms and diversity.
Omaima Aboubakr, an academic who also writes about gender issues in Islamic discourse, described El-Beshri’s books on Islam and Arabism, the Islamist-Secular Dialogue, and Islamist Thought in Contemporary History, all published in the 1990s, as foreshadowing debates that have consumed Egypt’s intelligentsia since the 2000s.
The books are intellectual and cultural studies in their own right, she says, an endeavour in “decolonising culture and intellectual history long before decolonisation became fashionable.”
During his time as vice-president of the State Council, El-Beshri contributed to reports and rulings by the body challenging the Mubarak regime, including declaring the referral of civilians to military courts null and void. It is believed that this and other independent stands attributed to El-Beshri resulted in his being denied promotion to become president of the council in 1992. He remained its vice-president until his retirement.
In 2004, El-Beshri published a commentary article under the title “A Call for Civil Disobedience” that inspired the tactics of the anti-Mubarak opposition movement that appeared in 2005. His reputation and instrumental role during the period made him the Movement for Change’s (Kifaya) choice as presidential candidate, a proposal he turned down.
In 2006, he published Masr Bayna Al-Osian wal Tafakuk (Egypt between Dissent and Disintegration), a scathing critique of what he characterised as the “collapse” of the Egyptian state.
Following Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appointed El-Beshri president of a committee tasked with amending elections-related constitutional articles, with the possibility of drafting an entirely new constitution left until after both the new parliament and president had been elected.
The committee drafted amendments with the clear intention of minimising the length of the transitional period at the height of the revolutionary fervour by organising general elections in six months.
The SCAF put a version of the amendments to a referendum that was approved by a majority 77 per cent of the vote. Parliamentary elections would be held, after which the elected legislative body would in turn choose members of the assembly tasked with writing a new constitution.
After the constitution was approved, presidential elections would be held so that Egypt’s new president would assume office after the constitution had already been established and not before. That way, the new president would not be able to influence the drafting of the document.
To El-Beshri, this entirely elected process was the ultimate democratic roadmap. To his critics, however, his intentions were questionable. They proclaimed that the amendments were designed to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, as the group was the most organised political force at the time and would likely win any election (which it predictably did in the two votes that followed).
In the liberal-led campaign against the constitutional amendments that followed, the moral assassination of El-Beshri, by now an easy target after the Brotherhood put its weight behind the roadmap, seemed irreversible. Islamist and anti-Islamist polarisation had sowed divisions in the revolution’s ranks.
Even after the Brotherhood’s brief period in power ended in 2013, and for years to come, El-Beshri remained, singlehandedly perhaps, the scapegoat for the revolution’s failures in the eyes of some or many Egyptians.
This pained El-Beshri, who believed that his integrity as a committed judge should not be questioned, and nor should his intentions. But personal injury aside, he believed that the uproar over his committee’s roadmap was driven by a fear of democracy and what it might bring. In a 2011 commentary entitled Those who Fear Democracy, he reminded readers that two years after the 1952 military coup, which had suspended political life in the country including the parliament and 1923 constitution, the military officers had yielded to pressure from within and outside the Armed Forces to unfreeze Egypt’s democracy.
The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) had dissolved itself, suspended martial law, and announced steps to reinstate democracy. But the prospect of again active political parties alarmed many Egyptians, who feared that this could usher in a return of the previous ruling elite and the abhorrent class-based system entrenched by the monarchy. After a series of massive demonstrations and labour strikes protesting against the return of the disbanded parties, the RCC reversed its decision. For the next three decades, Egypt would remain without a multiparty political system or any real form of democratic process.
El-Beshri’s 1954 analogy and reminder had no effect on the fallout of the 2011 Revolution. Even so, he did not waver, and he continued to publish commentaries and a book reflecting on the 2011 uprising and the struggle for power.
His death on Friday 26 February, a month after the 10th anniversary of 2011, marks the end of an era and of a decade that changed the face of Egypt, making it almost unrecognisable. His life, spanning almost nine decades, was a journey between two revolutions a century apart. As a judge, historian, and intellectual who refused to remain shielded as a commentator, but who became actively embroiled in the uprising he believed in and paid the price for, there were no regrets.
The public outpouring of grief over El-Beshri’s passing both on social media and in obituaries from across the political divide in the Egyptian press, speak to the legacy he leaves behind. Words used recurrently to describe him - “kind”, “soft spoken”, “sweet natured”, “sincere”, “upright”, “humble”, “astute”- capture the essence of the gentle soul I was fortunate to know.
El-Beshri is survived by his wife Aida El-Azab and two sons Emad and Ziyad.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly