First came the statement by Buckingham Palace saying that the physicians of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II were worried about her health. Another statement, a more alarming one this time, then followed, saying that the Prince of Wales and other members of the British Royal Family were heading for Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the summer retreat of the Queen, to be by her side. Then came a third statement saying that Her Majesty was resting.
The three statements were released on Thursday 8 September.
Thousands of miles away from Buckingham Palace and Balmoral, we were glued to our TV sets with a great sense of foreboding and fear that these three statements were perhaps meant to prepare the British people, and people around the world, that the passing away of Her Majesty the Queen would soon be announced. Then came the news that all had most feared, that Her Majesty had peacefully passed away.
Although there had been speculation that a succession in the British House of Windsor could take place soon, or that Her Majesty would abdicate the British throne in favour of the Prince of Wales, millions of people around the world were wishing it were not true. Now, not only Great Britain, but also the associated realms and Commonwealth, are witnessing the end of an era in their common history and also in that of the world as a whole.
As President of France Emmanuel Macron said when he heard the news, Elizabeth II was “your queen” when addressing the British people, but for us, and I guess he was expressing a shared opinion around the world, Her Majesty was simply “the Queen.”
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth, an era has come to an end. She was the last sovereign from the generation of post-World War II leaders, a generation that saw the likes of general de Gaulle of France, presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy in the US, chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the former West Germany, of Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Josef Tito in the former Yugoslavia, and president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt.
During her 70-year rule, the late Queen Elizabeth became a beacon of stability, poise, and decorum in the face of never-ending changes inside Great Britain and in the world as a whole. Great Britain had 15 prime ministers during those seven decades from the Labour and Conservative Parties, for example.
She ascended the throne at the height of the Cold War and the decolonisation process in British-occupied countries across Africa and Asia. She witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the emancipation of many countries from British occupation.
Egypt was among the first Arab and African countries to take this historic path of national liberation. The Anglo-Egyptian Agreement of 1954 whereby British forces would withdraw from Egypt on 18 June 1956 was sealed two years after the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne and two years after the July 1952 Revolution in Egypt. It brought to an end the British occupation of Egypt that had lasted for 72 years.
Her rule also saw the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July 1956 and the infamous British-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt and the young Egyptian revolution in October 1956. No one knows for sure what Queen Elizabeth thought of this aggression, which hastened the end of the status of Great Britain as a great power. British historians refer to it as the beginning of “post-imperial” Great Britain.
Queen Elizabeth worked for a grand reconciliation between London and its former colonies. In 1961, the Queen paid an official visit to the newly independent African state of Ghana against the advice of many British officials and danced with its new president Kwame Nkrumah. To her great credit, she did not set foot in South Africa during the apartheid regime that ended in 1994. But she paid an official visit to the country during the mandate of the late Nelson Mandela. His granddaughter claimed that her grandfather was the only leader who could address the late Queen Elizabeth on a first-name basis.
Moreover, Queen Elizabeth was the first British monarch to visit Northern Ireland, and the scene of her handshake in June 2012 with the former commander of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) Martin McGuinness has become an enduring testimony of the spirit of reconciliation that she incarnated during her long reign. This is a spirit that has become in short supply in our times of uncertainty, insecurity, and instability.
Some have been wondering why there has been such an outpouring of emotion on social media in Egypt and around the world on the passing away of Queen Elizabeth. Maybe it is because of her commitment and adherence to the constitutional order in Great Britain, something that many have longed for in their own respective countries. Maybe it is because of her distinctive way of dealing with the many challenges that have faced her country and the world from the day she became queen in 1952.
Maybe it is because of the reassuring messages she broadcast around the world at the height of the lockdown in Britain to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that “we shall meet again.”
As President Macron has rightly put it, for us who are not British, Queen Elizabeth was just “the Queen.” I guess because of her enormous legacy she will also remain the Queen, something that in itself testifies to her historic leadership.
As journalist Dominic Green wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 8 September, the “world has lost one of its last living connections to the age of giants” and that world “that made her, and of which she was the last and grandest echo, departs with her.”
Rest in peace Queen Elizabeth.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.