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A Diwan of contemporary life (275 )
The first shot in Egypt's 1919 revolution against British occupation was fired politically on 13 November 1918 when nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and two associates met with the British high commissioner in Cairo to make their independence demands. News of the meeting was blue-pencilled for about four months. During that period Al-Ahram grappled with the British censorship which more or less effectively kept the lid on the nationalist movement. The situation flared up and spilled over into the open after Zaghlul and four colleagues were arrested and deported to Malta. Nationwide demonstrations erupted, some of them marked by violence. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk tells the story on the basis of Al-Ahram's handling of developments
So much has been written about the 1919 revolution that one would think it impossible to discover anything fresh from Al-Ahram editions of the day, particularly as these editions have been exhausted as one of the primary sources for research on the subject. However, there is a vast difference between using a newspaper as a scholastic tool and reopening its pages from the perspective of its contemporary readers.
Certainly Al-Ahram's readers must have been baffled to find their newspaper totally mum on the issue of national discontent for a period of four months since that historic meeting between the nationalist leaders Saad Zaghlul, Ali Shaarawi and Abdel-Aziz Fahmi with British High Commissioner Sir Reginald Wingate on 13 November 1918. At the time, due to the wartime paper shortage, Al-Ahram appeared in a much curtailed two page format, with the first page devoted to international events and the second to local events. Imagine, then, the readers' frustration at opening their pages, on the day after that crucial meeting in which the nationalist leaders laid out their independence demands, to read headlines such as "Royal receptions," "The dissemination of primary education" and "Heavy rainfall across the country." Nor would subsequent issues appease their curiosity, what with headlines such as "Egg exports" and "Spanish fever and employee absenteeism".
Of course, Al-Ahram readers' surprise must have been dispelled by the knowledge that Al-Ahram, like other newspapers in the country, had been subject to the harsh strictures of the censorship authority. But, just in case they needed reminding, several Al-Ahram editions (of 18 and 27 January and 10 March, for example) appeared with blanks in the space that normally features the editorial column on the major events of the day. They would also have realised that when the newspaper featured articles on the nationalist movement translated from the British press, this was its way of evading the censor's scissors. Examples were the article taken from the Times on "Examining Egypt and its future" and that taken from the Sphinx on "Irrigation in Egypt" and its connection to the nationalist movement.
It was inevitable that the newspaper on 10 March announce the event of 8 March 1919 that would precipitate mass demonstrations in support of the nationalist cause and its leaders. Even so, the news item was no more than one-sentence long: "The Honorable Saad Zaghlul Pasha along with the Honorable Ismail Sidqi Pasha, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha and Hamad El-Basil Pasha were arrested two days ago and banished to Malta." This was one of the editions which appeared with a large white blank on its front page. Readers naturally understood that the editorial that was meant to be there would have been related to this event. And, it was in this manner that Al-Ahram, virtually from the outset, declared its sympathy for the revolution.
From this point forward, Al-Ahram grew increasingly bolder in its coverage of events of March and April that year. On 11 March, it featured a commentary on the student demonstrations that had broken out 48 hours previously in response to the banishment of the nationalist leaders. That this commentary was not censored can be attributed to the fact that the demonstrations were already common knowledge and that the military authorities had been unable to suppress them. Indeed, these very authorities had to issue a warning to the public that "as the country is still under martial law, all public protest demonstrations and rallies are prohibited and anyone who violates this prohibition shall be prosecuted immediately." Another reason the editorial -- "Student demonstrations and the reprehensible acts of others" -- managed to evade the censors was that, overtly, it condemned the "reprehensible acts of others", thereby supporting the students by implication.
The newspaper accused alley boys and "hooligans" of taking advantage of the demonstration "to demolish tramway cars, store fronts and street lamps, acts of vandalism which were facilitated by the fact that the traffic authority had only recently pulled up the old paving bricks in order to resurface the streets with new bricks." As for thieves, "they only acted in character, as they do every day in the tramways, the public thoroughfares and stores."
Students, by contrast, were depicted in the most virtuous terms. They were above such contemptuous behaviour, aware of the public welfare and strict in their adherence to proper conduct in political affairs. "Our students are well educated, rational individuals whom reason cannot possibly censure for any reprehensible behaviour."
It is an interesting footnote, one that has rarely been picked up in scholastic work on this period, that until 1919, politics had been the preserve of the educated "effendi" class. Suddenly, Egypt's first truly popular revolution, however, saw the participation of all social strata in the city and the countryside. Al-Ahram was uncomfortable with this development, and throughout its coverage of events, it was always careful to draw a clear distinction between the tarboush-wearing elite, whether students or professionals, and the hoi polloi. The class lines became even more distinct when, not only to the consternation of the British authorities but also to the intellectual elites, the revolution spread to the countryside.
Four days later, another editorial on the student demonstrations appeared. This was less apologetic than its predecessor in its defence of the students, but it took pains to stress that the student demonstrations were "peaceful". The newspaper expressed hope that the call to non-violence is heeded "by the peasants in their fields, the craftsmen in their workshops and every person big or small who holds his nation dear." Student demonstrators consistently sought to drive this point home. Higher educational institute students in Cairo in their marches carried with them banners in French and English on which they wrote that they respected the safety of every foreigner and his interests. Also, Al-Azhar students distributed leaflets urging non-violence and condemning the "hooligans" who "bring God's wrath upon themselves" for their vandalism. Al-Ahram followed the widespread student protest movement outside Cairo as well.
Employees' strikes were equally deserving of Al-Ahram's support. It writes, "They seek no harm or malice in their strike. In fact, before they went on strike they informed their superiors, in the clearest terms, of the causes and purpose of their strike."
It was not long before the military authorities moved to suppress the demonstrations and began to prosecute the demonstrators. Ezbakiya Courthouse was the venue for the trial of 85 students accused of inciting unrest on the first day of the demonstrations. "It is our hope that those arrested will be released because there is no evidence against them," wrote Al-Ahram on their behalf. And, when 25 "hooligans and thieves" were arrested from popular quarters Al-Ahram wrote that they, not the students, were responsible for the acts of vandalism during the demonstrations.
Al-Ahram became increasingly concerned as violence spread to the countryside. On 15 March it reported that the train and telegraph communications service from Tala to Batanoon had been disrupted because vandals had uprooted six metres of tracks and felled telegraph poles. Intellectuals and students shared Al-Ahram's anxieties and began to send letters to the press censuring these acts. Mohamed Bedawi El-Biali was a student in the College of Law, the first school to see student demonstrations. In his letter to Al-Ahram he condemned the "rabble" who took advantage of the demonstrations to "pillage and destroy" government buildings in the rural capitals.
Many religious and political figures followed suit to "condemn the assault against persons and property, for it is prohibited by all religious tenets and secular law." These figures included top religious officials such as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and the Coptic Patriarch. Among them also were senior government officials such as Prime Minister Rushdi Pasha as well as some of the party that supported the exiled nationalist leaders, notably Ali Shaarawi, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, Sinout Hana, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, Mustafa El-Nahhas and other "notables and persons of influence." According to Al-Ahram, all these people were unanimous in cautioning that "cutting off roads and communications can only harm the Egyptian people because it obstructs the pursuit of their interests, disrupts the transport of crops and goods, hampers commercial exchanges and generates shortages and hardship."
The exhortations did little to curb unrest in the countryside where rioting raged out of control. On 18 March, Al-Ahram reports that thousands of protesters attacked the Tanta train station, "forcing soldiers and police to open fire, killing 22 and wounding 50." In Qaliyub, 3,000 villagers attacked two passenger trains in one of which were a number of British officers. In Al-Raqa in Upper Egypt, "The mobs attacked the morning express from Cairo and plundered its contents", while in Al-Wasta, on the same line, "the mobs plundered several freight trains and ran off with everything they could find in them."
On 28 March, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Sharqiya warned that the rioting was not as spontaneous as it appeared. "What is really happening is that organised gangs are being formed to plunder in broad daylight at the instigation of certain ill-intentioned provocateurs," he said. To which Al-Ahram added, "Egyptians are of one mind in their abhorrence for these criminal acts perpetrated by people who draw no distinction between patriots and non-patriots."
On 21 March, Field Marshal Allenby, recently appointed Special High Commissioner and vested with extraordinary political and military powers, arrived in Egypt to restore order to the country. In Al-Ahram's words on 27 March, "He has come to put an end to the disturbances and to address the grievances that must be addressed if justice and fairness are to be served." By "grievances", here, Al-Ahram was referring to the release of Saad Zaghlul whose exile precipitated the disturbances.
In the countryside, the riots continued. In Assiut, the rioters managed to break through the cordon separating Al-Walidiya village from the government secondary school where rioters opened fire on British soldiers. In Kafr Al-Duwar, villagers opened fire on a British patrol. For its part, Al-Ahram urged the citizenry "to lend all assistance to the police in their task of restoring order and protecting lives and property." Curiously, however, the newspaper objected to the initiative of some to create a "National Police Society" with the purpose of maintaining order and upholding the law. The organisers of this society had already distributed among its members badges similar to those worn by the official police. Their activities were soon brought to an end by the British military authorities who took exception to this initiative.
Yet, the British had been clearly caught off guard by the scale and intensity of public disturbances. Ultimately, Allenby had to appease the crowds and, as Al-Ahram announced on 7 April, he ordered the release Saad Zaghlul and his colleagues. Al-Ahram's readers had probably already got wind of the news which had earlier been disseminated in the form of fliers dropped from British airplanes over the country. In all events, under the headline, "The Egyptian Question before the Peace Conference," Al-Ahram reported that the members of the Wafd (referring to the Saad Zaghlul delegation) were on their way to Paris from Cairo and from their place of exile in Malta. Although order was restored afterwards, subsequent events would reveal that the 1919 revolution had not ended with the release of Saad Zaghlul on 7 April.
Diwan instalment no 273 published in issue no 417 (18-24 February) contained two misnomers for which we apologise: the "Axis" describing Germany and its allies -- which should have been the Central Powers -- in the introduction; and the "Siegfried Line" describing German defence fortifications in the second paragraph. That name did not exist at the time.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.