Chronicles of independence

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 22 Feb 2022

The widespread interest in the centenary of Britain’s 28 February 1922 Statement on Egypt is another sign of growing interest in Egypt’s modern history, writes Dina Ezzat

Ancient Cairo

It was three years after the peak of Egypt’s 1919 Revolution that Britain decided to makes its Statement on Egypt on 28 February 1922, acknowledging that Egypt was no longer a British protectorate as it had been since the beginning of World War I in 1914.

Having already been relieved of its earlier association with the former Ottoman Empire, with the 28 February 1922 Statement and later Declaration, Egypt, along with Sudan, effectively became an independent state.

However, the statement came with conditions attached in relation to the interests of the British, the management of Sudan, and the status of foreigners and minorities in Egypt. Even so, it still allowed Egypt to become an independent state, or at least a quasi-independent one, in line with the demands of the 1919 Revolution.

It also allowed its ruler, the sultan Fouad, to become the first king of Egypt and for the country to start executing acts of sovereignty, including the operation of foreign diplomatic missions overseas and the drafting of the 1923 Constitution.

This story has been familiar for decades in the form of a few lines or pages in the history given out to Egyptian secondary school students. However, the 1922 date was never one that received much official attention. Nor was it one that would immediately ring a bell for many Egyptians. This year, however, it has become a date to contemplate in public discussions.

“It is a little surprising for me to see public attention given to the centenary of the 28 February Declaration,” said Anwar Fateh Al-Bab, a history teacher at a secondary school in Cairo. For Fateh Al-Bab, the date is “certainly significant,” but the attention given it is “new for sure.”

Having worked with history books for close to 30 years, he has no recollection of any significant — “or due” — attention being given to this date in them except in the second half of the 1990s when the Ministry of Education introduced a chapter on the history of “the liberal age” in Egypt.

“That was unprecedented, not just for the previously underrated 1919 Revolution in the school curricula but also for the modern history of Egypt,” Fateh Al-Bab said.

Traditionally, he added, the modern history of Egypt in school curricula has for the most part been about the July 1952 Revolution and the October 1973 War. Because the key narrative has been designed to argue that there was nothing good about the Egyptian monarchy, any significant dates or events between 1919 and 1952 were often overlooked or underrated.

“The history curricula would tell students that the 28 February Declaration was just a political ploy of the British occupation to undermine the calls for independence that had started even prior to the 1919 Revolution. It was never said that the declaration allowed Egypt to be a sovereign state, even with limitations on the exercise of sovereignty, and there was never any reference to the importance of the subsequent drafting of the 1923 Constitution,” he said.

According to Fateh Al-Bab, school history books drafted after the Free Officers took over in the 1952 Revolution were designed to glorify the revolution at the expense of all previous national calls for independence, including in the 1919 Revolution.

Historian Mohamed Afifi, who published an article on the 28 February Statement and Declaration last week in the daily Al-Dostour to mark its centenary, said that celebrating the centenary is “exactly the thing to do to end the artificial game of revolutions.”

1952 was as much a product of the “popular national movement” as 1919, he said. Without the public support that came after the declaration of the ouster of former king Farouk in 1952, the events of that year would not have been a revolution in the first place, he added.

The trouble is that Egypt’s modern history, particularly as represented in school curricula, the sole source of information for many people, is written as an account of political leaders and not of the popular national movement, Afifi said. Consequently, revisiting the history of Egypt as the making of the people rather than just of the leaders is a way of ending the artificial division of an otherwise very long pursuit of the Egyptians for independence either from Ottoman rule or from the British occupation.

Afifi acknowledges that the sensitivity that the Free Officers felt towards the Wafd Party that had previously led calls for Egypt’s independence in the early years of the 1952 Revolution because of its lack of support for the new political reality in Egypt had influenced the presentation of the 1919 Revolution and subsequent developments.

Fateh Al-Bab said that the elimination of the 1923 Constitution, a product of the 28 February Declaration, is often mentioned in school history books as one of the achievements of the 1952 Revolution.


Representation: Historian Latifa Salem whose high school years coincided with the heyday of the Free Officers’ rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, agrees that the 28 February Statement on Egypt was often reduced to the reservations it made in relation to the management of British interests in Egypt, the situation in Sudan, and the rights of foreigners and minorities in Egypt.

“There was grave unfairness done to the achievement of the popular national movement that was made through a lot of sacrifices against the then still strong British Empire,” she said.

“This was the first step towards Egypt’s full independence,” she added. The road to this included other significant steps, including the signing of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that offered an initial legal framework for the end of the British occupation of Egypt after World War II and the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that set out the way for the final termination of the British military presence in Egypt by 1956.

According to Salem, none of these subsequent agreements could have been reached without the 28 February Declaration.

It is true, Salem argued, that the British occupation might have thought of its statement on Egypt as a way of undoing the national movement for independence, or that it was trying to use this declaration as a way to divide the national movement. However, she said, those intentions aside, the date remains significant, and the work of the national movement continued, even if under multiple political agendas.

Ultimately, Salem argued, full independence and the end of the British occupation in Egypt, eventually secured by the Free Officers, was in line with the demands of the national movement as announced in the 1919 Revolution.

“The time has come to work on ending the polarisation between the two revolutions,” Afifi said. He added that the beginning of this “artificial division” had now re-started with another revolution, that on 25 January 2011.

For Afifi, this year’s interest in the centenary of the 28 February Declaration is part of a wider inclination that started “even prior to the January 2011 Revolution and that was certainly endorsed by the Arab Spring.”

What the revolutions of the Arab Spring did, he argued, was to bring back the power of the people. “It was a moment to question what are often thought of as the facts and to step in with alternative narratives,” he argued.

Leading publishers in Egypt agree that a mood to revisit history has been present for close to two decades and maybe more. This, they said, has been providing the opportunity to introduce new titles and reprint old ones that revisit Egypt’s modern history in particular, an area where archival material can still be out of bounds to researchers and the general public

In 2001, Cairo publisher Dar Al-Shorouk published an Arabic translation of historian Khaled Fahmy’s All the Pasha’s Men, which contests the long-standing narrative about early 19th-century Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali and re-examines it from the point of view of the people he ruled.

The book received a great deal of attention and stirred up much debate about the need to revisit Egypt’s modern and for that matter also contemporary history.

In 2005, Dar Al-Shorouk then started its “History Series: The Other Side”, which for some six years produced close to 20 titles on elements of Egypt’s modern history. “This was a project that Ibrahim Al-Moalem, the chair of Dar Al-Shorouk, took very seriously as he felt the responsibility of the publisher to contribute to attempts to take a closer look at the modern history of Egypt,” said Amira Abul-Maged, publishing manager at Dar Al-Shorouk.

Prominent historian Younan Labib Rizk headed a committee that decided the titles published in the series.

“The objective was to contribute to historical revisionism. From the business point of view, it was not very clear whether the titles would sell, but from the point of view of re-examining the history of Egypt, it was worthwhile,” Abul-Maged said.

The series offered a wide range of titles that covered the socio-political aspects of life in Egypt from the late 18th century until the early years of Free Officer rule. It was suspended with the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution and has not yet been re-introduced.

However, over the last two years, Dar Al-Shorouk has published two books by Mohamed Abul-Ghar, a leading medical author. These books, The Pandemic that Killed 180,000 Egyptians (Al-wabaa al-lazy qatal 180 alf masry) and Egyptian Jewry in the 20th Century (Yahoud masr fil-qarn al-eishrine), have been widely discussed.

Meanwhile, other publishing houses have also stepped in with titles, some less academic than those from Dar Al-Shorouk. This year, Dar Al-Karma produced the second volume of Makers of Egypt (Saniyaat masr), in which author Omar Taher completes the work he started in the first volume, published five years ago, to draw profiles of prominent figures who influenced Egyptian life in the 20th century.

In the first volume, Taher resorted to the archives of the Egyptian press to write his profiles. In the second volume, he did his own research and produced a book, documented with photographs, that serves in and by itself as a reference. Al-Karma has also republished some of the older and well-received titles of journalist Salah Eissa, an author who dug deep in the archives to produce interesting stories.

Al-Dar Al-Masriyah Al-Lebnaniyah produced its Against History (Did al-tarikh) this year, which questions dominant assumptions about some of Egypt’s prominent historical figures from the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 2017, Dar Al-Maraya took the lead in the historical revisionism by dissecting the 1967 defeat (Tashrih hazimat 1967). The intention was to revisit the dominant narrative, both in history books and in the media, about the defeat in the war against Israel in June 1967.

More publications: Moreover, there has been a growing trend to publish novels with historical backgrounds. “This trend has been there for quite some time, but it has certainly picked up,” one observer said.

Over the past two years, Dar Al-Shorouk and Dar Al-Maraya have stepped in with one of the most significant tributes to the mood for historical revisionism. Along with the Ministry of Culture, the publishing houses have produced a series of books on the centenary of the 1919 Revolution.

These titles offer a set of new narratives not just on the details of the revolution, but also on other aspects. For once, the 1919 Revolution is presented not just as an affair of its leaders, but also as part of the momentum of a vibrant and aspiring popular national movement.

The titles were part of wider attention being given in Egypt, Britain, and elsewhere to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Revolution. According to Afifi, one of the key things that this momentum did was to give arguably unprecedented attention to the role of the masses, in urban and rural areas alike, in making the revolution happen and all subsequent political moves possible.

Today, Afifi argued, there is a need to re-examine the popular national movement in the making of Egypt’s modern history. To do this, he argued, there has to be an end to any unilateral narrative.

For Fateh Al-Bab, such moves must start with the history curricula taught in schools. “We need to introduce a new concept of teaching history whereby students should be spared the political motivations of any particular moment in time,” he said. Once this is done, they will be able to give the popular national movement its due credit, something that was undermined in the wake of 1952.

According to Amal Mokhtar, managing editor of the Al-Ahram quarterly Ahwal Masrayah (Egyptian Chronicles), the attempt to look at the events of the 1919 Revolution as having been made by the popular national movement is essential to shed light on the “work of the time’s intellectual leaders in introducing change, which was no less significant than the work of the political leaders.”

“The pursuit of independence was not any one man’s call; it was a national movement that came out of the work of politicians, intellectuals, and artists,” Mokhtar said. She added that talking about the popular national movement in Egypt in relation to the 1919 Revolution should also reference the impact of prominent early 20th-century musician Sayed Darwish almost as much as it references political leader Saad Zaghloul.

The story of the pursuit of independence is a national one having many aspects, and it cannot be reduced to just a few lines or even paragraphs in the history books, she said.

Mokhtar said that this does not undermine the role of the political leaders in inspiring the popular national movement. It was the role of the political leaders that made the difference in the course of the 1919 Revolution, with serious results including the 28 February Declaration, as opposed to during the 2011 Revolution, which lacked political leadership and consequently went astray.

Examining the popular national movement in the late 19th and the 21st centuries, Mokhtar argued, is one way of closely examining the country’s political parties, socio-economic changes, the impact of art on society, and much more.

Last year, Egyptian Chronicles published a special issue dedicated specifically to this issue. “Egypt between the Twenties of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” the name of this issue, Mokhtar said, had shed a lot of light on what the popular national movement was about and how its aspirations and priorities are defined.

Whatever the changes that have unfolded over the past 100 years, she added, Egyptians have always been committed to the dignity that goes along with independence. This dignity has been as evident in art and architecture as it has in politics, she said.

“All the political parties, all the movements, including the feminist movement, and all the intellectuals have been relentlessly committed to the cause of national dignity,” Mokhtar concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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