Revolutionary fervour... 100 years ago
Looking a century back, Samir Sobhi sees parallels to our present in a glorious revolutionary past
The early 20th century was a time of revolutionary tide in Egypt. A hundred years ago, revolution was in the air as resentment against British occupation rose, aided sometimes by the palace.
The first sign of trouble came in 1911, when the tramway workers staged a sit-in to press for better working conditions. This was followed with a riot in Alexandria, during which children as young as nine pelted the police with stones near the Sidi Abul-Abbas Mosque.
Telegraph employees then went on strike, demanding equal pay with employees of the Melkonian and Matossian tobacco company. The teachers of primary schools also staged protests to demand longer summer vocations. The Tanta government employees also took to the streets, accusing the government of keeping food prices unjustifiably high. Inspired by the rebellious mood, the students also staged demonstrations during which they chanted slogans that we can now recognise in the pro-democracy poetry of Ahmed Fouad Negm:
O Amm Hamza
We are the students
We live on bread and nothing else
And we don't even own a blanket
Khedive Abbas II, known for his ingrained contempt for the British, whom he regarded as usurpers of his rightful authority, took sides with the nationalists. He specifically encouraged a young firebrand by the name of Mustafa Kamel to write and make public speeches denouncing Britain's occupation of Egypt.
Faced with bitter opposition, Britain's Consul General and Chief Representative Lord Cromer had to leave the country. He was replaced by Sir Eldon Gorst, who had more patience for the khedive's pro-revolutionary ways. Instead of challenging the palace head on, Gorst weaved small plots designed to undermine the power of the khedive. He spent more time plotting than doing any real work, and some writers, including those of Al-Ahram, felt that his contribution to the country's welfare was much less than that of the abrasive but hardworking Cromer.
Al-Ahram 's writers called on Egyptians to unite, noting that sectarian and political schisms were going to hurt the entire nations. Here is a sample of what was written in Al-Ahram 's articles at the time:
"Political parties are partners in Egypt but they are forever at each other's throats, while their true enemy is gaining ground at their collective expense."
To press the point, Al-Ahram published a poem by Hafez Ibrahim, in which he ridiculed religious fanaticism:
They got religion all wrong
Sensible no more it is
Egyptian Copts must wish for peace
Otherwise, what's wrong with them
Do they fear Muslim plots
Don't they know that Muslims
Cannot plot to save their own lives?
In 1900, Mustafa Kamel created the newspaper Al-Liwa, in which he would later rail at the 1904 Entente Cordiale, by which France gave the British free rein in Egypt.
Kamel then founded the National Party to press for a solution to what came to be known as the "Egyptian Question". His eloquence was legendary and people flocked to listen to his speeches, in one of them he spoke the words that turned into the current lyrics for Egypt's national anthem.
My Country, my country
You have my love and my heart
My life and my whole being
After the death of Kamel, his friend Mohamed Farid took charge of the National Party and its newspaper, Al-Liwa. When Kamal's heirs began disputing the ownership of Al-Liwa in 1910, the newspaper was placed under the custodianship of Youssef El-Moeilhi by court order. When El-Moeilhi began meddling with the editorial policy of the paper, Farid was horrified and within days created a rival newspaper, Al-Alam.
A firm believer in democracy, Farid called for an egalitarian society, one in which all nobility titles would disappear. Writing in Al-Alam on 26 December 1910, Farid said this:
All civilised nations recognise the disadvantages of nobility titles and gilded decorations, things that sensible men don't aspire for. Titles have therefore been abrogated in the United States and Switzerland.
The leaders of the 1952 Revolution finally heeded his call, abolishing titles almost immediately after taking power.
Farid urged Muslims and Copts to think not of their differences but of what they have in common. "Set aside sectarian mistrust, be brothers, for you are the sons of one country. You are Egyptians first and foremost."
The parliament, although at that time only an advisory board, was already making its voice heard. In 1911, parliamentarians debated whether Al-Azhar's grand imam should be appointed by the Khedive or elected by Al-Azhar students.
In one speech at the opening session of the parliament, the khedive spoke at length about the government's achievements in education, health, agriculture, etc. He then promised to look into giving the parliament more power.
In 1912, the parliament made a point of pressing for full- fledged legislative and constitutional rights. Both houses of parliament were populated by the powerful members of society, the well-educated members of the elite. But these were not as beholden to the palace as one may expect. In fact, their confidence, intelligence, and resourcefulness far exceeded their presumed task of offering opinion.
At one point Gorst, the British chief representative, wrote a memo to the khedive reassuring him of his support against what he called the "saboteurs" in the parliament. As the khedive felt his power threatened by the country's political reform he started backing down, distancing himself gradually from the nationalists.
A press law was issued in 1909 to regulate the fast- expanding profession. Within months, more newspapers were created, such as Misr Al-Fatah (Young Egypt), Wadi Al-Nil (The Nile Valley), and Al-Qotr Al-Masri (State of Egypt). The latter paper was published by Ahmed Helmi, former editor of Al-Liwa.
Farid Wagdi, a member of the National Party, began publishing Al-Dostour just a few months after the press law was passed.
Before long, the nationalist papers became so outspoken, the government started clamping down on them. .
In February 1910, Al-Alam was closed. The government's effort to control the press was only partially successful, for the law had a loophole. If a newspaper is run by someone holding the nationality of Britain, France, Italy, or other countries enjoying a special status in Egypt under the Ottoman system of Capitulations, this newspaper would be immune to confiscation. This allowed many papers to continue slamming the government and the occupation authorities with impunity.
A situation emerged where the government had a restrictive press law, but was not in a position to use it. A similar situation developed in 1985, when a press law was passed that was met with stiff resistance by the Press Syndicate. To allay the journalists' fears, Mubarak told them that "a law has been passed and it will not be implemented."
I will end this article with a saying by the historian Mohamed Shafiq Ghorbal. He once said that "no individual should be subjected to a government that is not answerable to the law". Humanists like Ghorbal are what we need today. I am especially reminded of his statement that "we need to promote as much happiness as we can for as many people as we can."
Do we still believe in that?