Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
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20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

A short guide to 20th-century Egypt

Millenarian tunes

This century has witnessed struggle and liberation, war and peace, glowing triumphs and crushing defeats. How to sum it all up? In the following pages, Al-Ahram Weekly offers one interpretation of what the century has meant, for Egypt and the Egyptians. Below, we reflect on the trends that have shaped the past 100 years --and the crucial gaps in the telling of the story

Any short guide to 20th-century Egypt --especially a pictorial one -- is incomplete without a mention, however cursory, of two of the men who ruled it during the 19th century: Mohamed Ali Pasha and Khedive Ismail. For the images we have of Egypt since the invention of the camera are to a great extent informed by the actions, dreams, limitations and defeats of those two men. While Mohamed Ali's reign (1805-1848) transformed the country --and the region --entirely, it was during the reign of Ismail (1863-'79) that the cities --Cairo and Alexandria first and foremost --became the places we know today. And if, as it is said, a great part of what passes as history is what the victors care to record, then it must be equally true that any pictorial history recorded by a camera is biased, at least in terms of it being mainly a history of the city, for even when the camera ventured into the countryside it was with an eye on what the high and mighty in the metropolis --local or foreign --needed or wanted to see.

The camera, itself a western invention, came to Egypt along with the victors --the foreigners who, for the first decades of the century, and except for a few (mainly Greeks) who infiltrated rural Egypt as purveyors and traders, had no direct access to the deep undercurrents of the countryside, where the majority of Egyptians lived.

photo: Mohamed Wassim
Thus, absent from most of the pictures of the Egypt we present in the following pages is the human origin of all things Egyptian --the Egyptian peasant. Egypt, as we all know, is the gift of the Nile; its riches lie in her soil, and it is from this interplay of river, land and peasants --an interplay eloquently chronicled in the monumental work of the late Egyptian scholar Gamal Hamdan --that Egypt was and is made and remade. Despite the fact that the relatively camera-unfriendly fellahin in their traditional garb appear rarely in this pictorial short history of the century (except when receiving land deeds from Nasser), however, a great many of their sons and daughters make prominent appearances as members of a slightly more fortunate group: the poor and disenfranchised inhabitants of the Egyptian countryside who flocked to the city in search of education, fame and better job opportunities, and thus were able to rise within the social hierarchy of modern Egypt. They occupy centre stage in the life of the country as social reformers, writers, artists, rebels, saboteurs, politicians and rulers of the country --especially during the second half of the century.

If Mohamed Ali and Ismail were the two 19th-century rulers who changed the face of modern Egypt, and whose shadows, for this reason, stretch over the 20th century, the single 19th-century Egyptian fellah who moved the heart of Egypt most was Ahmed Orabi, the son of a poor peasant from Sharqiya, who led the Egyptian nationalist revolution of 1881-1882. Orabi's defeat, and that of the Egyptian army he commanded at the hands of the British in Tall Al-Kebir, was the most important political event Egypt had to contend with for the five first decades of the 20th century. It was another army officer, with a social background similar to Orabi's, who managed to win over the hearts of the wretched of the Egyptian earth almost 50 years after Orabi's death.

During the first half of the 20th century, Egypt was ruled by four members of the originally Turco-Circassian Mohamed Ali Dynasty. These held titles that ranged from khedive to sultan and, finally, king. A dozen British functionaries --in their capacity as agent and consul-general until 1914, high commissioner until 1936, and finally ambassador --wielded effective political power. And lest the title of "ambassador" mislead, suffice it to remember that in 1942, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson could order British tanks to surround Abdin Palace to force the king to change his own cabinet. Needless to say, the king obeyed.

Resistance to the British occupation of Egypt never ceased from the beginning of the century. Of all the leaders of the Egyptian resistance movement (often peaceful, sometimes violent), four names are etched deep in the country's collective memory: Mustafa Kamil, Mohamed Farid, Saad Zaghlul and Mustafa El-Nahhas. These four (the first two leaders of the Watani Party, the last leaders of the Wafd) deserve special mention here, as their parties --despite a marked difference between the politics preached by each --were the two main schools of Egyptian nationalism in the first half of this century.

Alongside the Watani and the Wafd, there also existed a vibrant political life which, especially in the wake of the 1919 Revolution, flourished in many smaller opposition parties, trade unions and professional associations. Among the the smaller opposition parties which appeared in Egypt starting from the 1920s, special mention must be made of the 1920s Egyptian Communist Party, banned by the government of Saad Zaghlul in 1924; the Society of Muslim Brothers, founded by Hassan El-Banna in 1928; and Misr Al-Fatat (Young Egypt) Party, founded by Ahmed Hussein in 1933, after the Italian Fascist model.

The Egyptian people's struggle for the right to free association has yielded a rich harvest in the form of workers' and professional unions, as well as numerous associations and societies. As is the case in all forms of popular struggle involving the efforts of hundreds of thousands, any brief list of names would be a gross distortion. Perhaps the one forgivable exception to this rule would be to mention Safiya Zaghlul and Hoda Sha'rawi, who offered Egyptian women, especially in the city, a model of political activism at odds with the role played traditionally by the wives and daughters of the Egyptian ruling class --a class to which they both belonged.

As for the other political parties that existed in Egypt before the 1952 Revolution's imposition of the one-party political system (1954 to 1976), a great majority of these were rightly labeled "minority parties", a term that reflects the popular sentiments of the time. These parties were often employed --even created --to counter-balance the influence of the Wafd, the "majority party" in the terms of those days. One of the "minority parties", however, deserves attention for the role it played in the intellectual regeneration of the country: the Liberal Constitutional Party. Rallying around Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha, a member of the land-owning class of the time, the liberal constitutionalists called themselves Ashab Al-Masalih Al-Haqiqiya (those with real interests), a term which is not, on the level of economy at least, very far from the truth. The Liberal Constitutional Party was comprised mainly of members of the propertied class in Egypt, be this property in the form of land or shares in big enterprises. Because they saw themselves as a group with an interest in the development of the country, the liberal constitutionalists encouraged the promotion of education and knowledge and were the patrons of some of the most dazzling intellectual enterprises of the century.

The Egyptian University, whose first rector was Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed --a staunch liberal constitutionalist and a great intellectual in his own right --owes as much to this party as to other independent enlightened members of the Egyptian ruling class. As for the great Egyptian intellectuals who enjoyed the patronage of liberal constitutionalist families, suffice it to mention the special affinity between the one uncontested intellectual towering figure of the century, Taha Hussein, and the Abdel-Razeq family, which counted among its own sons two great intellectuals of the period: Ali and Mustafa Abdel-Razeq.

Although a number of large landowners, aristocrats and the intellectuals they sponsored were engaged whole-heartedly in what was then termed the "regeneration of Egypt", which endeavour must not be mistaken as necessarily clashing with British interests --at the beginning of the century at least. Was not the "transformation of Egypt" the very raison d'ètre of British intervention in 1882? "For many wise thinkers, [Mohamed] Abduh for example or Lutfi al-Saiyid in his early years," Jacques Berque notes, "political aspirations came second to the total renewal of the country's way of life. Now up to a point this tallied with the argument of the occupying power."

The transformation of Egypt at the hands of the sons and daughters of the poor and the disenfranchised would not take place until the middle of the century, when the Revolutionary Command Council deposed the last heir of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty, declaring Egypt a republic in 1953. But this shift in the "making of modern Egypt" would not have been possible without all that preceded the eventful days of July 1952. By 1929, four years after the formal inauguration of the Egyptian University, which offered a wider base for educating the Egyptians than the predominantly foreign high schools of the earlier period, the Egyptian intelligentsia was becoming a force to be reckoned with, and many concessions had to be made to its demands. In 1936, another breakthrough took place: admission to the Military Academy was made general. Most of the Free Officers were direct beneficiaries of that development. Without it, indeed, Nasser, the first son of the people to rule Egypt, and his two successors, Sadat and Mubarak, would not have been able to change this country as they did.

As was the case with Mohamed Ali's reign during the first half of the 19th century, the Nasserist era saw monumental changes in all aspects of life; most importantly here, it altered the one most vital and ancient relationship of all, that existing between the Egyptian peasantry, the land and the river that flowed through it. Most instrumental in this change was the construction of the High Dam, the Nasserist project linked, in the mind of any Egyptian who witnessed that period, with a substantial part of Nasser's legacy: the grand aspirations and the crushing defeat of 1967. It was the withdrawal of the World Bank's offer to finance construction of the dam, after all, that led Nasser to declare the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, unleashing a series of events the consequences of which remain with us to this day. It was the High Dam that changed the Egyptian countryside, providing electricity to its most remote villages, but also transforming the methods of cultivation and irrigation the peasantry had used since the dawn of history.

Well before the completion of the dam, however, the 1952 Revolution had introduced another radical change in the life of the countryside: the Agrarian Reform Law, which radically altered the rules governing land-ownership since the time of Mohamed Ali, making landless peasants land-owners for the first time in the country's history.

From the 1960s on, Egypt began to witness increasing waves of migration from the countryside to the capital (and to wealthier Arab countries, like Iraq during the 1980s), first in search of education, as education became free for all, then in search of employment as, with the rapid increase of the population, the area of cultivated land could no longer offer all those who lived on it a reasonable source of income. Today, almost one quarter of Egypt's population lives in or commutes daily to Cairo; in large part as a result, the city is no longer the tidy urban space that appears in pictures of the first half of the century.

If the main concern of the Sadat era during the 1970s was political --the 1973 October War and a settlement to the Egyptian-Israeli conflict --the main preoccupation of the past two decades, since Mubarak's accession to the presidency, has been economic: how to remedy the long-standing ailments of both the countryside and the city. To this effect, numerous mega-projects were and are being planned, the most far-reaching of which in its impact and consequences is the ongoing Toshki project, which involves the diversion of the Nile to the desert, and the reclamation of agricultural land around Toshki --the Egyptian outpost where, in 1889, the British army fought the forces of the Mahdi of Sudan, who had seized Khartoum from Gordon and killed the General four years earlier.

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