Al-Ahram Weekly Online
24 - 30 January 2002
Issue No.570
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Burning down the house

Fifty years ago this week, Cairo went up in flames. Fayza Hassan wonders who struck the first match
Downtown burns while bystanders watch; Farouk in uniform; Shepheard's Hotel in ruins

As the people of Argentina pour into the streets to protest their rulers' corruption and demand thoroughgoing change, it is difficult not to remember 26 January 1952, when Khedive Ismail's Cairo, which he had hastily put together to impress the foreign powers attending his jubilant opening of the Suez Canal, went up in flames. Less than a century had elapsed since this momentous event, during which the Egyptian capital, dubbed the Paris of Africa, had played host to an elegant cosmopolitan society that cavorted from the bar of the internationally renowned Shepheard's Hotel to the sulfuric baths of Helwan. Stranger bedfellows would have been hard to find, yet they formed a close-knit clique, whose favourite pastime was intrigue.

The king of Egypt, Farouk, had started his reign as the darling of the Egyptian people and, within a mere 15 years, had managed to transform himself into a greedy, insensitive slob. The Wafd had raised the hopes of Egyptians, promising a future free from the humiliation of occupation and had not been able to deliver. The British were digging their heels in and refusing to relinquish their colonial grip, although the countdown for their departure had already started. Egypt's wealthy religious minorities had won the king's heart and ruled over a financial empire, enjoying more power and privilege than the indigenous pashas. Finally, the Egyptian people, poor and downtrodden victims, were only remembered when the big players could use them as a stake in the game.

Half a century after 26 January, known thereafter as Black Saturday, historians are still unable to agree as to who ended the entertainment and destroyed the playground. Many outlandish theories have been advanced, but the truth has yet to be established. In hindsight, one could have predicted that the stage was set for such a disaster; but it is always unfair to rewrite history with the advantage of retrospection. It would be more to the point to ask if the protagonists were aware then that their time was up.

Where did it all start? In popular lore, the responsibility seems to be shared equally between the continued British occupation and the disastrous war in Palestine. But was that all?

On 15 May 1948, the British mandate over Palestine expired. British troops immediately pulled out. The State of Israel was declared and recognised at once by the US and the Soviet Union. Outraged, the Arabs demanded a war. Prime Minister Mahmoud El-Nuqrashi demurred, knowing that the Egyptian army was not ready for such a confrontation. The king, fearing that the Muslim Brotherhood would exploit his Jewish connections, overruled him. The Muslim Brothers were armed, dangerous and ready for war. Better send them to Palestine than have them unleash their fury on him, the king must have reasoned.

As the king of kings in the Arab world, Farouk, who harboured the ambition of becoming Caliph of the Muslims, was duty-bound to lead the jihad. He hastened to declare it lest another Arab leader cheat him out of this savoury role.

"At first, King Farouk was like a boy playing war games. He dressed in his desert khaki field marshal uniform, inspected his troops on a stallion, handed out thousands of miniature Korans, awarded military ranks to his sisters, and even ordered a new triumphal avenue built from the suburb of Heliopolis, adjacent to Cairo's main airport, to Mohamed Ali Square, an Egyptian equivalent to the Champs Elysées, for the expected parade of the conquering heroes," writes William Stadiem. The jihad was a complete fiasco, allowing Israel to establish itself as a nation, and the parade never took place. Instead, the members of Farouk's kitchen cabinet -- Antonio Pulli, the palace mechanic; Edmond Galhan, a Lebanese importer of fountain pens made chief of procurement for the palace; Elias Andraous, a Greek involved in questionable land deals; and Lebanese Karim Thabet, the much despised royal minister of information -- were accused of having made fortunes on deals for defective Italian weapons that often shot backwards at the moment of truth. The humiliated Egyptians placed the blame for their defeat on these arms and the men who had been instrumental in their acquisition. The Egyptians had forgiven Farouk his pranks, his costly trips abroad, the starvation, the attacks of malaria and cholera, still shouting "Long Live the King" at the top of their voices. Now, they finally lost patience with him. He, not the British, had betrayed them this time. The seeds of rebellion had been planted. It would take just over two years for them to bloom fully.

Reception at Abdin Palace; Farouk with Karim Thabet (to his right) on an official visit; Farouk at Friday prayers. Below: the new king is born

The Arab-Israeli war was a protracted affair, including cease-fires and new offensives, which lasted until January 1949. With his popularity at home in tatters, and ruined overseas by accusations of harbouring Nazi sympathies, Farouk decided to shed his most important asset, his queen, who still commanded a great deal of public appeal. Queen Farida was repudiated on 17 November 1948, an event coinciding with the divorce of Farouk's sister, the Empress Fawzia, from the Shah of Iran. Now 28, "Farouk suddenly stopped being the boy-king. Losing his hair and his vision, gaining weight in unsightly amounts, Farouk looked twenty years older than he was," comments Stadiem. "The golden boy had turned into an old man, and a fat, bald, blind and dirty old man at that, presiding over a nation of pashas and fellahin whose shocking disparities were reminiscent of the American plantation South before the Civil War... Nevertheless, the discontents massive as they were, were unfocused and... Farouk had no serious organised opposition, loyal or otherwise. Despite his military disaster, Farouk in early 1949 was, more than ever before, an absolute monarch... Not only was he above considerations of petty popularity, he was above the law. He was the law. He was the king."

He was also a superstitious king with a royal fortune-teller who predicted that he would meet a young blonde woman in a jewellery shop and that she would give him a son. It never occurred to Farouk that the royal jeweller had bribed the fortune- teller to put in a magic word for his alleged mistress's daughter. The now lonely king had tried to effect a reconciliation with his former queen, but Farida had been adamant. If he wanted her back, Farouk had to get rid of Pulli, Galhan, Andraous and Thabet. Farouk had many shortcomings, but disloyalty to his friends was not one of them. He would have to replace Farida instead.

Thabet, dubbed "the jackal" by American Ambassador Jefferson Caffrey, prescribed a girl of the people this time, a commoner, as a bid to distance Farouk from the pashas and create a parody of democracy worthy of Cinderella. His jeweller, Mohamed Naguib, whom he had made a pasha to the consternation of the Egyptian upper class, found the fair princess in his own back street, so to speak. That the 16-year-old girl already had a fiancé seemed of little concern to all involved -- except the young man, of course, and the Egyptian people, whose raised eyebrows were disregarded. The king seemed bound on a freefall course from then on. He spent a fortune grooming his future queen, sending her to Italy, where he organised a private finishing school for her. The splendid royal wedding was followed by a long honeymoon in Europe, where no expense was spared to make the sojourn of the happy couple enjoyable.

Undoubtedly, the heir to the throne of Egypt was conceived during the honeymoon, but Egyptians had stopped trusting the king and it was widely whispered that the child had been born before the wedding, giving Farouk the absolute assurance that this time around it would be a boy. At any rate, Prince Ahmed Fouad, officially born on 16 January 1952, came too late to save his father.

Indignation had been rising against the British continued occupation of the Canal Zone. The people no longer wanted to hear promises. Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas had broken off negotiations with the British and denounced the 1936 treaty unilaterally on 8 October 1951. The Sudan seemed lost, and LE 272,200,000 worth of Egypt's sterling balance were blocked. As for the Palestinian question, it seemed to have reached a stalemate, "leaving the adversaries face to face, a situation which seemed too likely to embitter the whole political life in the Middle East indefinitely," writes Jacques Berque, commenting on the events of the year. The people had turned their backs on the government and party leaders alike.

Cinema Metro engulfed by flames
"Unofficial bodies were organised. Commando groups of volunteers, fida'iyin, ready for self-sacrificing missions, attracted the best of Egypt's young people," he adds.

With the events taking place in the Canal Zone, the fury mounted. The last straw was the British attempt to occupy the Ismailia barracks and turn out the Buluk Nizam, an auxiliary police force that occupied it. In the battle that ensued, the Egyptians lost more than 50 lives. The day was 25 January, and it reminded the Egyptians of 1919. The funerals of the fallen and the numerous incidents that followed brought armed youth out in the streets. "All authority was set aside; schoolboys refused to obey and took possession of their school buildings, from which they had to be evicted by the police. Patriotic zeal and social indignation were enhanced by resentment against the older generation. There were breaches of the law, either as a further gesture of protest or as a result of police provocation. The government was accused of seeking such pretexts for repression," comments Berque.

On the morning of 26 January, the Buluk Nizam from the Abbasiya barracks demanded arms to come to the aid of their comrades in Ismailia. They marched unimpeded to the city and were joined by a procession of university students. They spread through Cairo's central districts, meeting no obstacles. No bridge was lifted to prevent their passing; if the police acted at all, it was half-heartedly. For a while, the demonstration was patriotic and peaceful, with no indication that it was about to turn vicious. Suddenly an "immense mob poured into the wealthy districts, setting fire, as though by a prearranged plan, to any establishments displaying a certain degree of luxury or suggesting collusion with the foreigner. It was now between two and three in the afternoon. The riot... now took on a social as well as nationalist colour. It was aimed at the foreigner, and also at the bourgeoisie because of its solidarity with the regime and with the foreigner but perhaps even more because it was the bourgeoisie," Berque surmises. "We will put paid to all the pashas," the crowd chanted.

It was a sad day for Cairo. Flames engulfed Shepheard's Hotel, the department stores, Barclay's Bank, the Turf and Victoria Clubs and Madame Badia's casino, among other royal and British haunts. Edward Said recounts how, while at university in the US, he found out that Standard Stationery, his father's shop, had been gutted by fire on Black Saturday. Dr Rubendall, the headmaster of Mount Hermon, where he was studying, invited him to watch on TV the events that had just taken place in Cairo. "The reception was extremely poor: images of large crowds and burning buildings alternated with unclear pictures of officials, generals, and politicians presided over by a smudgy photograph of King Farouk taken well before he had become a 350-pound caricature. It was Monday evening: the fire had taken place two days earlier and somehow my father had gotten through to Rubendall on the phone."

Said was "truly frightened as much for what might have happened to my parents, my father especially, in this unprecedented maelstrom, as to the possibility that I would have nothing to return to. I knew that something had irrevocably changed. The stunning scenes of destruction that lasted for about twenty seconds on the Rubendall family TV... originated somewhere else and from somebody I had never imagined as being lodged in the familiar Cairo of my early days: 'impersonal forces'? Enraged people? Foreign spies? I could not imagine nor articulate the causes of what I saw before me."

Young Said was not the only one who had been caught by surprise. In his book 1952, Gamil Attiya Ibrahim describes people of all walks of life going about their business as usual, sitting in cafés or on the terrace of the Mohamed Ali Club while factory workers, on whom much of the blame was heaped later, were busy protecting their factories from arsonists who had reached Pyramids Road. Those of the workers who joined the throngs did so spontaneously. Were there any professional agitators among them? Maybe, but who could tell? Anyone who harboured a grudge could have decided to follow the rioters.

On that morning, Stadiem states that Mustafa El-Nahhas was having a pedicure. Upon hearing the news, he ordered an armoured military car to collect his wife from the hairdresser's salon and bring her home. Fouad Serageddin was closing a land deal in Swiss francs; as for the king, he had been holding a banquet for dignitaries and high police officers in honour of the birth of his son.

After the fact, fingers pointed in different directions. There had been too many victims, members of an innocent public, most of whom were unaware even of what had caused the disaster. The crowd had gone berserk and the police and fire brigade had stood by, doing nothing. It was only in the late afternoon that the army went into action and restored order; there were several casualties, and over 700 buildings and shops destroyed by fire.

The press soon spread the news of Serageddin's actions, or inaction, and it was whispered that similar incidents had been about to break out in Port Said and Alexandria but were averted by firm and timely measures. Government inertia and incapacity could no longer explain the extent of the damage. Why had the rioters not been stopped before they went on a rampage? Who exactly was behind the uprising? These questions now had to be answered. Berque cites the account of a witness: "The whole thing was well organised. Tank lorries brought petrol, which people poured off into drums and passed from hand to hand up to the front line. Tow was distributed as well. Bonfires had been lit by boys of ten or twelve. People collected fire from them, or seized burning logs which they kicked as far as their objective. When they came to the Ades stores [owned by Jews who were the largest textile merchants in Egypt], they began by plundering; then they unrolled several strips of material and soaked them in petrol, tied them together, stretched them out like a clothesline and set fire to them. This was how huge buildings such as the Cicurel stores were brought crashing down in a few hours. In some places, the fire brigade tried to intervene; the crowd cut their hose... Elsewhere again they pretended to put out the fire while in fact feeding it by throwing back the burning logs that had rolled out of the blaze... The police had gone on strike and rode about in lorries to help the rioters. They were solely responsible for setting fire to the St James restaurant, behind the Shepheard's. The shawish on duty at the Shepheard's was the first to go in with his drum of petrol."

Accounts of the king's behaviour were also contradictory: according to one witness the rioters rushed to Abdin Palace, where the king was entertaining his guests, with shouts of Long Live the King. When Farouk appeared on the balcony the slogans changed: "Where is your mother?" the crowd shouted, alluding to Queen Nazli's romantic holiday in the US. They continued: "How many teeth does your son have?" The king had the gates shut and ordered his guards to fire on the rioters. He stood watching the slaughter, then saluted and went indoors. Another witness added that the king had ordered the firing to continue beyond the precinct of the palace, covering all Abdin Square with the dead. There is another version of the scene, however: the king had been acclaimed, then insulted, by the demonstrators, but while he was standing on the balcony some fanatics had entered the palace and threatened him from behind. He had therefore acted with courage.

What really happened that day? The darkest secrets have remained undisclosed so far. All the political players of the time came under suspicion: had the Wafd sought to sweep away the monarchy or compromise its rivals? Had the king tried to crush the Wafd by means of a scandal? Or did he, with Machiavellian cunning, provoke certain groups to these excesses in order to bring odium upon them? Did the Communists do it, or were the Muslim Brothers the culprits? Neither the British nor the French were considered above fomenting such rebellion. Who needed the destruction of Cairo? Who would ultimately profit? Those who argue that the fire was an organised undertaking, and not the result of a spontaneous uprising, lay the blame at the door of three main suspects: the king; the Muslim Brotherhood; or Young Egypt (Misr Al-Fatat), the radical right-wing nationalist party led by Ahmed Hussein.

"To know the real agents," objects Berque, "it is not enough to consult the State archives, which are often reticent in such circumstances, and subject to too much selectivity. We shall have to probe deeper: to collate thousands of facts and statements, to call forth recollections hitherto fiercely kept secret. But whatever may be the results of such an investigation, if it should ever be made, one thing strikes one meanwhile: the widespread mutual mistrust. Those in power, casting suspicion on one another, condemn themselves en bloc," he concludes.

And, having shaken off the yoke of three generations of repression in one furious act of devastation, the Egyptians knew that the expression of their outrage had ushered in a new era, and that the country had to be remade.


Gamil Ibrahim Attiya, 1952, Al-Hilal 499, 1990

Jacques Berque, Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution, Faber and Faber, 1972

Samir W Raafat, Maadi 1904-1962, Society and History in a Cairo Suburb, The Palm Press, 1994

Edward W Said, Out of Place, Granta Books, London, 1999

William Stadiem, Too Rich: the High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk, Caroll and Graff Publishers, 1991

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