Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

< 1939-39 1940 - 1949 1950-59 >
Cairo Conference at the Pyramids
Makram Ebeid Zeinab El-Wakil
Samira Moussa
Samia and Farid
Ali and Mustafa Amin
directive from Churchil
directive from Churchil
Mustafa El-Nahhas
Alexandria University
Arab League
Aziz El-Masri
Demonstration against the British
Gamal Abdel-Nasser

The 1940s were the years of World War II and the turmoil it unleashed. At the outbreak of the war, in 1939, Egypt was expected to fulfil its obligations towards Britain, obligations sealed by numerous agreements, the most recent of which was the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Egypt complied, albeit rather half-heartedly, by declaring itself a non-belligerent ally of Britain. The British seemed not to mind at the time. But popular sympathy for Germany and Italy grew, climaxing with the 1941 arrest of popular army officer General Aziz El-Masri (right, second from bottom), who had been caught while trying to defect to Germany. The British could tolerate the situation no longer.

Rommel had recently conquered Libya and was soon to reach Al-Alamein. British troops surrounded the Abdin Palace in 1942 to force King Farouk, himself suspected of axis sympathies, to ask Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas (second row, second from left, with Miles Lampson) to form government, since the Wafd was the only force that could control popular sentiment on the street.

The early '40s also witnessed the convening of the Cairo Conference at the Pyramids (main photo; seated, from left, are Chiang Kai Shek, Roosevelt, and Churchill; behind Churchill is Lampson). Egypt continued to serve as the General Command Headquarters for the British army in North Africa (left, second from top, a directive from Churchill to General Alexander addressed from Cairo).

It was not until the battle of Al-Alamein ended that the king was allowed to dismiss El-Nahhas, whom the British had imposed as prime minister. El-Nahhas's acceptance had destroyed his popularity, and in 1943 caused a rift with Makram Ebeid (sidebar, top left), a long-time member of the Wafd executive committee, who had published the "Black Book", accusing El-Nahhas, and his young wife Zeinab El-Wakil (sidebar, top right), of corruption.

Ahmed Maher replaced El-Nahhas as prime minister in 1945; seeking to reap a reward for supporting the now victorious allied forces, the Parliament accepted to declare war on the Axis. Maher was assassinated inside parliament in February of that year.

The second half of the decade would be spent in failed attempts to re-negotiate the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty; El-Nahhas, who had signed the treaty, was to annul it unilaterally in 1951.

Alongside the negotiations, popular demonstrations were taking place every day to pose an ultimatum: "Evacuation or death". In 1946, a mass demonstration against the British (bottom left) marched from Al-Azhar to Tahrir Square; police were given orders to fire into the crowd. Many assassination attempts, some successful (notably that of Amin Osman, a staunch Anglophile), were also planned. One of the defendants in the Amin Osman case was Anwar El-Sadat, later to become Egypt's president.

Arab solidarity was receiving institutional form as meetings preparatory to the formation of the Arab League were held starting in 1944 (right, third from bottom), but the decade drew to a close with the Egyptian forces' return from Palestine after the 1948 defeat at Al-Faluga (bottom left: Abdel-Nasser). Many of the members of the Society of Muslim Brothers had been active in the 1948 War to liberate Palestine. Nuqrashi Pasha, then prime minister of Egypt, disbanded the society in December; he was assassinated the same month. In February 1949, Hassan El-Banna, the Brotherhood's supreme guide, was assassinated in retaliation. Egypt was locked in a vicious circle of violence.

The political events of the decade took their toll on intellectual and artistic life, too: the bewitching Asmahan (sidebar, second from top), whose voice has been compared favourably to that of a nightingale, died in a tragic car accident; conspiracy theorists called it murder, and said she had been a double agent during the war. Her brother, Farid El-Atrash, remained popular, starring alongside the incomparable Samia Gamal (sidebar, second from bottom) in all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas that made bellydancing an acceptable form of middle-class entertainment, if not exactly a respectable career.

This decade also witnessed the rise of press magnates Ali and Mustafa Amin (sidebar, bottom). On the academic front, King Farouk had opened Alexandria University in 1942 (right, second from top), giving Egypt's "second city" an institution to rival Cairo's establishments of higher learning; it was from such universities that women like scientist Samira Moussa (sidebar, third from bottom) were to graduate, equipped with an education that would have made Huda Sha'rawi proud.

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