Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (635)
Statues that divide
A war not known about that took place in Egyptian politics during 1938 was one that could be described as a "war of statues". Professor Yunan Labib Rizk writes that all of the influential political powers in the arena that year and up until 1942 took part
The war of the statues began on the occasion of the completion of the Saad Zaghloul statue erected in Alexandria. Upon the dismissal of El-Nahhas Pasha's government on 30 December 1937, only a few final touches remained related to the lighting and the design of a base that the Wafdist government did not have enough time to complete.
The first reference to the war was in the form of a long article published by an Al-Ahram reader, Amin El-Gharib, in the 3 January 1938 issue. It occupied an expansive area of pages one and 11, and was titled "Talk of statutes -- on the occasion of the unveiling of Saad's statue."
The article included a number of curious stories about statues that had been erected recently around the world. Among them was what took place following the settlement of the conflict between Chile and Argentina that had broken out in 1902 and nearly ended in war between the two neighbouring states. "The women of the two countries were overjoyed by the rescue of their children's lives from a violent death in the battle arena, and so they collected a sum of money with which they erected an immense statue of Christ. They took the metal from Spanish canons the two countries had taken as booty in their independence wars."
El-Gharib added another story that had taken place in Latin America, in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil at that time. Its residents erected a statue of Christ in its harbour, "and when it was put in place, the government mandated Marconi, the late Italian inventor of the wireless, who pressed a button from his office in Rome that covered the statue, across the ocean, in electric lights."
Then the author of this curious article moved on to North America and wrote about what the southerners did following the end of the American Civil War (1865), when they chose a stone mountain in Georgia state and transformed it into a throng of statues of southern soldiers. "The statue of the famous commander Robert E Lee is one of the greatest statues of the old and new worlds. It rises from the hooves of the horse to the head of the commander at 38 metres."
Under the subheading "Odd statues," El-Gharib wrote about the statue of Gavrilo Princip erected in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He was the man who assassinated the crown prince of Austria, which was the direct cause for the start of WWI. El-Gharib also wrote of the village of Abamonti in Spain, where a statue was erected of Europe's first smoker -- Rodrigo De Geres, a sailor with Columbus who learnt smoking from the native Americans. He wrote of two statues in Paris -- one near a church of a man who died a victim of demonstrations against the clergy, and another of Marie Hormel, who invented a kind of cheese. A statue was erected of her holding a block of this cheese. In London, there was a statue of a boy whose distinguishing feature was that the fire that devastated the city in 1666 stopped at his house.
The article's author did not forget to point out what he called "statues with droll stories." Among them was that of a statue of the private secretary of the English Queen Victoria that she had erected for him following his death in each of her palaces. Following her death, her son removed all of these statues and compensated the statue bearer's family. In Madrid, some riffraff defaced statues during the uprising against King Alfonso XIII in 1931, but in the era of the republic that followed, it was seen that the statues were repaired and returned to their original sites.
El-Gharib added that the absolutely strangest of the world's statues was erected in the square in which the Saratoga battle in New York state began between the English and the American revolutionaries. "There are several statues of the top commanders who participated in that battle and through it paved the way for the overall victory from which the United States was produced. Yet among these statues is one, the one I am concerned with, that does not represent a man but the left leg of one of the men, standing there alone in all glory and splendour, as though it were a hero among heroes."
This long introduction on the history of statues and its oddities and droll stories began the battle, for as mentioned above, preparations were hastily under way to unveil the statue of Saad Zaghloul in Alexandria at the time of the dismissal of El-Nahhas Pasha's government at the end of 1937. Some imagined that the celebration of this occasion, the like of which the king was accustomed to heading, would be delayed for an undetermined period of time as had happened previously during the reign of King Fouad with the unveiling of the "Egypt's Renaissance" statue. Yet many matters had changed since the end of that king's reign and the beginning of the reign of his successor, the young boy.
On the one hand, Farouq did not hold the same animosity towards Saad Zaghloul or the nationalist movement that had existed during his father's reign, particularly as he had surrounded himself with a number of men of acumen, foremost Ali Maher, who were smarter than involving the palace in such superficial issues. On the other, the political arena had changed with the departure of El-Nuqrashi Pasha and Ahmed Maher from the Wafd Party and their declaration of being closer to and more representative of the statue's bearer. They even called themselves "Saadists," and called those who remained in the Wafd Party under the old leadership "El-Nahhasists." They formed a faction composed of the strongest factions of the coalition government formed under the premiership of Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha. It won the greatest share in the council of representatives in the election held following the dissolution of the Wafdist parliament subsequent to the dismissal of the El-Nahhas government. It was natural that after all this change each party would attempt to prove that it was responsible for the rush to unveil the statue of the late leader in Alexandria.
From yet another perspective, the intensifying pitch of the battle between the two parties reminded the members of the old Watani Party. Following the death of the late nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel Pasha in 1908, Egyptians had contributed to the collection of the funds necessary to erect a stature of him. Yet matters quickly shifted following his death with the shrinking of the Watani Party, particularly after the 1919 revolution and the Wafd Party and Saad Zaghloul occupying the leadership. Yet when the occasion of the unveiling of Saad Zaghloul's statue arose, Watani Party members seized the opportunity and became one of the parties to the coalition formed by Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha. Thus, a new element was added to what rightfully gained the name "the battle of statues," which began directly following the appearance of Amin El-Gharib's article and which lasted throughout 1938.
THE EARLIEST NEWS of the first battle over the unveiling of Saad's statue in Alexandria incited suspicion. The news appeared on 15 January and stated that winds had been strong over the previous weeks and had torn part of the covering placed over the statue to the point that a section of its back was visible. It went on to say that the Ministry of Public Works had placed a new covering of white silk over the statue "until His Majesty the King can unveil it, although the date of the celebration has not yet been determined."
Discussion of the issue dried up for about five months when one of the Saadist members of the council of representatives asked the minister of public works, Hussein Sirri Pasha, who was affiliated to the royal palace, about the date for the unveiling of the statue of the "eternal leader." His reply was that it would take place after work was completed in building the necessary construction around the statue in terms of fences, slanting roofs, reflective lights, and about a month following, that the square would be organised and the garden would be landscaped, and... have mercy on me!
The matter took up about another three months when one of the Alexandrian newspapers published that the king would unveil the statue on 27 July, and that it had reservations over this because the department of construction had not done "what was asked of it in terms of organising the statue's base and building steps under it. Neither has the municipality landscaped the garden in which the statue is erected." This news item was the equivalent of a cue to begin the battle of statues.
The very next day there was news that a number of "Wafd committees" in numerous districts of Cairo, Damietta, Quwisna and Heheya would hold celebrations to honour the anniversary of the late leader's death. In response was news that "Saadist Union committees" in Al-Gamaliya, Al-Ezbekiya, Abdin, Alexandria, Akhmim and Aswan would hold celebrations for the same occasion.
Observers in the palace did not fail to comprehend the purport of these celebrations. Only two days passed before the government announced that the celebration for the unveiling of the statue would be on Saturday 27 August but with a change. After it had been determined that King Farouq himself would undertake this duty, Ahmed Khesheba, the minister of justice, was deputised to it. "At the head of those invited are the honourable members of the royal household, the members of the senate and the council of representatives, the members of the judiciary, scholars, religious figures, and members of the diplomatic corps. Heading the ministers present will be Their Excellencies Ahmed Maher and El-Nuqrashi Pasha, as well as the honourable lady, the mother of Egyptians [Sophia Zaghloul, Saad's wife]."
The closer the date of the unveiling celebration approached, the more intense the battle between the El-Nahhasists and the Saadists grew. This was revealed by the celebrations held on 23 August, on the occasion of the anniversary of the passing away of the great leader. The El-Nahhasists gathered that morning in the Saadist Club and went to Saad's tomb, where a spacious tent was erected for that evening's recitation of the Qur'an. The Saadists gathered in the Saad Zaghloul Club and then went to the tomb and then to "the mother of Egyptians," and erected a large tent at Ismailia palace.
It appears that the lords of Abdin had regained their sense of danger in the king not participating in this celebration, as it was mentioned that the council of ministers met two days before the festivities to amend parts of the speech which the government's representative was to make on the occasion. The change was not limited to the speech but rather extended to the celebration itself. It was decided that the king would attend, a fact established by Al-Ahram when it reported that it had been decided to set up a raised throne in the centre of the area "allocated for the seating of His Majesty the King. Around him will sit Their Excellencies the Vice Premier and the Ministers. One of the royal guard's music troupes will be mandated to play the royal anthem. The celebration's programme will begin with the Vice Premier giving a speech and then turning to His Majesty and requesting him to remove the curtain, at which point the King will rise and press a button especially prepared for that purpose."
On the day determined for raising the curtain, Al-Ahram published on its front page an article titled, "Eternalising the meaning of Saad." It began with the following words: "Today Saad rises again on his feet in the world of bodies at the entrance to the sea and at the heart of the Nile, but an everlasting rising that refuses to decline." It included a poem by Ali El-Garim Bey, an excerpt of which follows:
You lived free, and so the best companionfor you after life is the open air
The birds boast of the leader, fluttering their wings with love and loyalty
As the country sings of Saad,
the sky responds in song
The following day, on 28 August 1938, Al-Ahram offered a detailed description of what took place at the celebration in Alexandria. It began by pointing out that it was the third El-Nahhas government that had decided in 1936 to take the measures to erect the statue, and that it had charged an Italian sculptor with fashioning it. A site was chosen for it on a spot next to the Ramla tram station between the Italian consulate and the Cecil Hotel, in front of a grand line of imposing buildings in the direction of the eastern port.
In August 1937, the statue arrived from abroad. Its base was 14.5 metres square and its height reached 5.5 metres. The garden surrounding it was nearly 10,000 metres square "and the costs of constructing the base reached nearly LE7,000, while the costs of the sculpture's construction was LE5,000."
As for the celebration, it caught the attention of the Al-Ahram reporter in the port city that the large pavilions set up in the area were filled to the brim with revellers and those invited, who numbered nearly 1,000. At the head of them was the prime minister and the ministers, the staff of the royal palace and a number of former ministers, representatives from all the religious sects, many businessmen, members of the chamber of commerce, and lawyers, in addition to the masses on the streets who surrounded the area hoping to see the sight of the veil being removed and the statue being revealed.
Yet the Al-Ahram reporter also recorded two important observations related to the ongoing war. The first was that the "mother of Egyptians" did not attend the celebration despite the attempts of Ahmed Maher and El-Nuqrashi to have her change her mind, as well as the repeated attempts by Ali Maher, the head of the royal court, and Abdel-Fattah Yehyia, the deputy prime minister. Yet the wife of the statue's bearer held firm to her position, and we may interpret that as Mrs Sofia Zaghloul not wanting to get involved in the differences held between the El-Nahhasists and the Saadists. She considered them all the children of Saad, and she had expressed her anger over the split between the two when she barred both of them from holding their meetings in Beit Al-Umma [Zaghloul's home].
The second observation was that the Wafd Party under the leadership of El-Nahhas Pasha, despite the statue being constructed during its term, had preferred to boycott the celebration. The successor to the leader who was the statue bearer was intentionally outside the country on this occasion, in Montecatini, where he was spending part of the summer.
He was greatly pleased by the "mother of Egyptians" not attending the unveiling celebration. He telegraphed her and expressed his being touched by the position of her not attending "the celebration of the unveiling of Saad's statue in the absence of your children deeply devoted to his memory. I thank you with all my heart."
With the exception of that, the traditional customs of raising the curtain were held. The king arrived at 5pm and stood next to the deputy prime minister who gave a short speech that suggested loyalty to the king more than fidelity to the statue bearer. At the end, the king raised the curtain.
Farouq approached the statute and most of those gathered walked behind him. "He ascended several steps to the level of the base. The ground around the base was covered with plant ornamentation, and the steps were covered with a red carpet. His Majesty grabbed the cord tied to the statue's curtain and tugged it, and the curtain fell. Saad Pasha was revealed, standing straight with his head held high. Everyone in the area clapped spiritedly, and the crowds cheered for the king and the memory of Saad." This cheering ended the first battle in the war of statues.
THE SECOND BATTLE revolved around the statue of Mustafa Kamel. It began when one of his supporters, Shoukri Hafiz, formed a committee to work on bringing out the statue of Mustafa Kamel, Egypt's first leader, as he put it, after being imprisoned all those years. It was a call that was adopted by Muhammad Ali Alouba Pasha, the head of the lawyers' guild, who wrote to Al-Ahram about how this act would renew the memory of the youth of their heroes and make them visible "so as to serve as an upright model. I don't want to have to remind people that the statue of Mustafa Kamel is present, but imprisoned in his school, and that setting it up would not cost much."
The committee to erect the statue of Mustafa Kamel in one of the capital's squares grew remarkably quickly. Branches of it spread in a number of the university's colleges and a committee delegation visited the home of the prime minister, Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha, who expressed to them his conviction that Mustafa Kamel had undertaken momentous work, and that "the least he deserves is a statue of him to be placed in one of the most important squares of the capital."
On this occasion, someone who described himself as an "Alexandrian historian" wrote to remind the old supporters of the Watani Party to strive to make officials allow them to erect the statue of the first Egyptian national hero. He ended his words with a request that stemmed from his affiliation to his city when he wrote, "How nice it would be if the ministry permitted erecting this statue in the city of Alexandria, for it is a city the deceased loved. He chose its stages from which to give his enthusiastic nationalist speeches."
At the same time, a women's committee was formed to get across the same message. It was led by the wife of Osman Labib, and called itself "The ladies' committee for bringing out the imprisoned statue." It issued a statement that laid out the glorious deeds of the late leader: the journalist who turned his newspaper into an open school for the people, the man of society who set examples for people that progress not supported by strong, upright morals is on its way to collapse and national destruction, the man whose love of Egypt steered his heart and soul. The statement ended by asking all Egyptians, not only a certain institution or party, to participate in the noble nationalist effort "to bring out the statue. which the nation has funded."
At the same time, the committee succeeded in gaining the support of a number of prominent personalities, led by Prince Omar Touson, who made the following statement to its members: "I agree with all my heart that this statue of Mustafa Kamel Pasha, built with the people's money, should be released. This is not a wonder, for he placed the foundation stone of the nationalist renaissance. I believe that his statue should have been released long ago."
On 7 February 1938, a public meeting was held in the courtyard of the Mustafa Kamel School, where his statue stood. It was attended by members of the committees in the Egyptian and Azhar universities and the college of science. Speeches were given, and then the participants went to the Ministry of Education where they met the minister, who recommended that they submit their proposal to the cabinet at the first opportunity in order for it to be studied. A higher committee was formed led by Alouba Pasha. It included among its members the lawyer Fikri Abaza, a professor in the college of commerce Ali El-Zini, professors in the college of law Wahid Ra'fat and Ali Abu Heif, and two instructors in the college of engineering Ibrahim Rifaat and Ibrahim Osman.
Members of the Watani Party did not miss this opportunity. Abdel-Rahman El-Rafai Bey wrote a long article in the 10 February edition of Al-Ahram titled "Mustafa Kamel -- the 30th anniversary of the founder of the nationalist movement." In it he offered a summary of the life of this spiritual leader and the role he had played in leading the nationalist movement. At the end of the article, its purpose was revealed when the author asked Egyptians to show loyalty to the late leader and stated that "releasing his statue from its imprisonment is the first sign of this loyalty."
Hafiz Ramadan Pasha, president of the Watani Party, did the same thing when he wrote to Al-Ahram that he had received an open letter from the owner of the French La Liberte newspaper expressing his surprise that the statue of Mustafa Kamel remained imprisoned in the school bearing his name, and that he did not know how Egyptians had failed to grasp the opportunity of the date on which the Egyptian leader had departed this world -- 10 February -- to hold a celebration for him.
Despite the many requests, the cabinet did not move on this until early September, when it studied the matter in one of its meetings and took the decision to erect the statue of the deceased in Ataba Square in Cairo, which at that time had the name Queen Farida. The necessary measures were taken to implement this decision in a short period of time.
The decision was met with various opinions in the partisan press. While newspapers inimical to the Wafd Party welcomed it, Al-Jihad newspaper, which was issued at that time by the Wafd Party, saw it as a "new spirit of appreciation for men." Another Wafdist newspaper, Al-Misri, viewed it as a response to the "wave of anger that has washed over the government due to the virtuous and honourable lady, the mother of Egyptians, excusing herself from attending the celebration for the unveiling of the statue of the eternal leader Saad in Alexandria."
It appears that the opinion of the Wafdist press had some credit, evidenced by the development of subsequent events. The government charged the department of construction with drafting the design for the base of the statue in the square agreed upon, and the work was to take six months to be completed, during which time the ministry changed its position.
Officials claimed during that period that the statute was too small to be placed in such a large square, and it was decided to erect it in the smaller Sawaris Square, which was famous as a stop for the cars of the company bearing this name.
Despite the protests of some newspapers, the square is where the statue eventually was placed, and the name of the square changed from Sawaris to Mustafa Kamel.