Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 February 2008
Issue No. 884
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Had I not been an Egyptian

Rania Khallaf is disappointed at events organised to commemorate the centenary of the death of Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel who once said that had he not been born an Egyptian he would have wanted to be one

photos: Sherif and Mohamed Wassim Click to view caption
Clockwise from left: Mustafa Kamel's suit and desk with a painting depicting him on his dying bed hanged above; his state funeral in 1953; busy traffic in Mustafa Kamel Square; the statue towering over the square; and the inscriptions on the statue's pedestal photos: Sherif and Mohamed Wassim

It took me an unusually long time to get to Mustafa Kamel's Mausoleum and Museum, not because of the usually crowded streets of Cairo at this time of the day, but because no one knew exactly where it was. This is despite the fact that it is located just a few metres away from the famous Muhammad Ali Citadel in the heart of historic Cairo.

It was 11 am on Sunday the 10th of February, the day on which Mustafa Kamel died one hundred years ago, and it was at the Mausoleum and Museum that the commemoration of the centenary of Kamel's death, organised by the Ministry of Culture, was supposed to take place. I went through the gate, only to find some scattered chairs in the garden on which women accompanied by their children were seated, helplessly.

The Mausoleum, the building of which was commissioned in the 1940s, was opened to the public shortly after Mustafa Kamel's remains were moved from his family cemetery to the new building in 1953. Three other political figures associated with the history of the period are also buried there: Mohammed Farid (1867-1919), Abdel-Rahman El-Rafie (1889-1966) and Fathy Radwan (1911-1988). The Museum annexed to the Mausoleum consists of two rooms, one housing mementos of Kamel, including his suit and sword, his desk, letters and photos, the other containing pictures of the three other nationalist leaders buried with him.

Sawsan Mohammed, the Director of the Museum, received me with a big smile, only to conceal her embarrassment. A recitation of the Qur'an came from a place nearby, and there were flowers just beside the tomb, but there was no audience and no political or intellectual figures to commemorate the centenary of Mustafa Kamel.

"We cordially invite you to a three-day celebration to commemorate the centenary of the death of the national leader Mustafa Kamel, the advocate of Egyptian nationalism," read the invitation I had received from the Plastic Arts Sector headed by artist Mohsen Shalan and officially attached to the Ministry of Culture.

The three-day celebration included a play called My Passion for Egypt performed by an amateur group led by Hamed Mohammed Hamed, a journalist who works for an art magazine, a lecture to be delivered by the same person for primary school students the following day, and an admission-free visit to the Museum on the third day.

Speaking on the phone, Shalaan had no idea about the centenary celebration, but in a few words he described the location of the Museum. The History Committee of the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC), busy preparing for an Arab Novel Conference to be opened on Sunday, had not been involved in the celebration, though the SCC second- in-command, Emad Abu-Ghazi, speaking to the Weekly by telephone, said that they had been contacted some time ago about the centenary, but had not been contacted again despite their willingness to participate.

During a quick tour of the Museum, Sawsan Mohammed said that the building had not been renovated since 1953, the year. Nevertheless, Ahmed Fouda, a top official at the ministry's Central Department for Museums and Exhibitions, hastened to say that paintings, pictures and personal letters of Kamel's had all been collected and restored over the last 50 years, and that there were plans to collect all the documents related to Mustafa Kamel and the Dinshaway incident in 1906, which set him on the course of campaigning for Egypt's independence from Britain until his death two years later.

"It is important to preserve, restore and add to the collections of all such museums, because they are truly the living memory of our nation. We recently set up a commission in charge of this task. Unfortunately, the untimely death of the head of the commission, Professor Younan Labib Rizk, last month has delayed the commission's work," Fouda said.

Born in 1874, Mustafa Kamel was the son of an Egyptian army officer, and he was trained as a lawyer at the French law school in Cairo and at the Law Faculty of the University of Toulouse in France. Kamel's name has always been most associated with the famous Dinshaway incident, which took place in the eponymous Delta village and involved British officers out pigeon shooting and many local people.

During the incident what had been intended as a pleasant day's shooting turned into an altercation that resulted in injuries among members of the British occupying forces. Four Egyptian peasants were hanged by the British in punishment in a public spectacle put on in their village. In the outcry against the British that ensued, the incident provided Mustafa Kamel with an opportunity to campaign against the atrocities carried out by British occupying forces worldwide. This prompted many international figures to support Egypt's right to independence and earned Kamel the love of all Egyptians.

In 1900, Kamel had founded the newspaper Al-Liwa as a mouthpiece for the National Party that called for a constitutional government and fought for the evacuation of British troops from Egypt. He is regarded as the driving force that revived the national liberation movement, which had suffered a setback after the failure of the Urabi Revolution in the early 1880s and the subsequent British invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1882.

Asked if the recent symbolic, but disappointing, commemoration was appropriate for a national figure of the status of Mustafa Kamel, Fouda said that "it is the responsibility of all the Ministry's sectors, not only the museums sector. There is no coordination among the different sectors of the Ministry. Each sector celebrates the occasion on its own."

Moreover, it was not just the Ministry of Culture that decided to ignore the event. Most of the national newspapers ignored it as well. "It is not just the Ministry of Culture that ignores Egypt's national leaders. It is rather an attitude prevailing among the whole Egyptian society," said novelist Gamal El-Ghitany, editor in chief of Akhbar El-Adab.

"You cannot find appropriate information on the history of Kamel either in the media or in the educational curricula. And he is not alone in that, since many leading national figures, such as Mohammed Farid, Mohammed Abdu and Saad Zaghloul, seem to have been erased from Egypt's memory," El-Ghitany says.

On my way back to the Weekly, I passed through Mustafa Kamel Square in downtown Cairo, where a towering statue of him stands erected with money collected in a national fund-raising campaign following his death. "The whole nation, with its various classes, contributed to the making of this statue in 1910. The government decided to place it in this square in 1938 in memoriam," reads the inscription on the statue's pedestal.

However, pedestrians rarely read these words, or even recognise the role played in Egyptian history by Mustafa Kamel, or by his successor Mohammed Farid, the National Party's second president after Kamel's death, after whom a nearby street is named.

The irony is compounded by the fact that when late president Sadat decided in the late 1970s to choose a name for the ruling party of the time, he decided to draw on the heritage of Kamel and Farid by calling it "the National Democratic Party."

This is the party that has ruled Egypt since and to the present day.

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