Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 October 2001
Issue No.555
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Saad Zaghloul


A Diwan of contemporary life (411)

Dr YunanThe death of Egypt's greatest nationalist leaders has always generated massive outpourings of grief. Saad Zaghlul, a symbol of the first truly populist revolution, was no exception. His passing away left an entire nation in mourning, its people anguished and distressed. Al-Ahram covered Zaghlul's last days, his failing health, his death and the funeral, one of the biggest in the country's history.

Bereft of their leader, the public asked the inevitable question: what after Zaghlul? Al-Ahram wrote three editorials on the future of Egypt after Zaghlul, partly in reply to the British, who pointed to the lack of a clear line of succession and the political vacuum Zaghlul's death had left. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* chronicles the end of this "Colossus of the Nile Valley."

Death of an uncrowned king

The Egyptian people displayed an overwhelming mass outpouring of grief following the death of three national leaders: Mustafa Kamel, who died on 10 February 1908 at the age of 34; Saad Zaghlul, who was approaching 70 when he died on 23 August 1927; and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who died at the age of 53 on 28 September 1970. Although history does not repeat itself and national circumstances at the time of each of these leaders' deaths were very different, the individuals themselves had much in common. Kamel was the guiding spirit of the nascent national independence movement; Zaghlul was the symbol of Egypt's first truly populist revolution; and Abdel-Nasser, though he attained power in a coup, succeeded in winning unprecedented popularity as head of state in Egyptian history.

Among the many epithets Egyptians and non-Egyptians conferred on Zaghlul upon his death, one of the most eloquent was that cited by the famous writer May Ziada -- "Colossus of the Nile Valley." But perhaps the more eloquent was that chosen by Wolfgang Michel who, in the Viennese Frie Presse, extolled Zaghlul as "the uncrowned king of the peasants." In his obituary on Zaghlul, the Austrian journalist wrote: "Today, the mighty lion died. Gone from his hands forever are the reins of Egypt's various parties, which he led for years with wisdom, resolve and cunning. With his death Egypt has not only lost a speaker of parliament. It has lost much more, for his death carried to the grave his great intelligence, great steadfastness, patriotic selflessness and capacity to read the souls of men, traits that rallied around him the hearts of the people of the nation and formed them into a powerful bloc belonging to the Wafd."

Although much has been written about Zaghlul's personal life and political career, there are many rumours about his death. For example, it is still widely believed that his dying words were, "It's no use." This was not true. Because of the cataclysmic nature of this event, it will be useful to turn to Al-Ahram for a more accurate account. The Wafd Party newspapers were naturally given to hyperbole, if not an almost mystical adulation on this occasion, and the pro-palace press, such as Al-Ittihad, betrayed subtle glee. This undoubtedly makes Al-Ahram the most credible contemporary newspaper to consult for this purpose.

As befitting the momentous moment, four successive editions of Al-Ahram, from 24 to 27 August 1927, had their front pages wreathed in black with but one word -- Saad -- printed in large font. The issues recounted the smallest details of the failing health of "the glorious leader," his death, the public mourning and the funeral, all of which contributed to portraying a people bereft. The papers also featured numerous articles on the "uncrowned king of the peasants," the foreign coverage of the event and a perspective on the future of Egypt following his death.

Zaghlul's final hours tell a heartrending story of a man who conquered life and was defeated by death. His health had been failing for some time. On 15 August, a severe ear infection quickly got out of hand and spread to other parts of his body, leading to vomiting, pulmonary inflammation, a 41.7 degree fever and septicemia.

For eight days his condition fluctuated between hope and despair. Finally, at 7.40am on Tuesday, 23 August, Safiya Zaghlul entered his room to ask how he was feeling. Eyes closed, he answered, "I'm finished."

Safiya Zaghlul's bedroom in the "House of the Nation," top. Thousands lined the streets to see Saad Zaghlul's flag-draped coffin, above
"But you're getting better," his wife insisted. "No, I'm finished," he repeated faintly, after which he lapsed into a coma. He died two hours later.

A representative of Al-Ahram was present at the "House of the Nation," as Zaghlul's home was popularly referred to, on that final morning. When the sounds of wailing started to be heard from inside the house, "We all bowed our heads and realised that God's will was done, that the nation was bereft of its leader, Saad, who had just breathed his last in the presence of his wife, her sister and her daughter. Tears were shed by all present, who included many religious figures, parliamentary representatives and government officials, as the cabinet announced to the nation the passing of its glorious leader."

Al-Ahram had been prepared for that day. Twelve hours later, the first black-wreathed edition hit the stands, paying homage to the revered nationalist symbol. The entire front page and part of the second featured a biography of Zaghlul, written by Editor-in- Chief Daoud Barakat. The rest of the page carried further details of the death of "the uncrowned king of the peasants."

Although much of the information in the biography would have been familiar to Egyptian readers, Barakat's treatment had a powerful ring. He writes, for example, "Saad arose from the heart of the people, as did Washington, Lincoln, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Cromwell and other legendary figures, alongside whom Saad will henceforth be remembered. It has long been held that the builders of nations and peoples emerge from the core of their societies and ascend the ladder of life rung by rung until they reach the summit."

The patriotic spirit that motivated Zaghlul was epitomised by a statement he delivered following his election as speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 1913. "If the government wants this assembly to be no more than an office for stamping and registering government-issued laws and decrees then I, as an Egyptian who loves his country, would prefer that this assembly did not exist at all." That Zaghlul addressed the deepest sentiments and aspirations of the Egyptian people was manifest in the unprecedented mass reception that turned out to greet him upon his return from London following the collapse of his negotiations with Lord Milner. "Thus nations are bodies that need a head," Zaghlul said, "and insofar as the head is strong so, too, will the body be mighty."

In January 1924, following a landslide parliamentary election in favour of the Wafd Party, Zaghlul formed the first Egyptian government under the constitution that had been promulgated following the declaration of Egyptian independence. His government fell within less than a year in the wake of the assassination of Sir Lee Harvey Stack, governor-general of Sudan. Barakat charged that the assassination was a British conspiracy designed to topple the Zaghlul-led "People's Government." The charge, he wrote, was substantiated by then British High Commissioner Lord Allenby who admitted in an interview with a Paris-based Islamic magazine. "At the time of the assassination of the governor-general the ultimatum had already been drafted in my office to be delivered to Zaghlul at the first available opportunity."

Following an account of the rest of Zaghlul's career until his death, Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief concludes, "Today, that brilliant light that had cast itself over the entire nation has vanished. However, its effect can never be effaced from the people's hearts and souls."

The next day's edition brought scenes of one of the most important and widely attended funerals in Egypt in the 20th century. This was one of the rare occasions in which the cabinet actually organised something -- it would be that of the funeral of a national leader. Wednesday, 24 August, was declared an official holiday so as to allow all government, legislative and military officials and their staffs to join the procession. "Senators and parliamentary deputies and judicial and prosecution officials shall wear their uniforms of office in full regalia, lawyers their official robes and all other government functionaries shall appear in formal attire," the cabinet decreed. In addition to delineating the route of the cortege, the cabinet also stipulated that the coffin would be carried on a horse-drawn gun-carriage.

No matter how carefully the ministers planned for an orderly and sombre procession, they could not have predicted what transpired on the ground. The multitudes that thronged to watch the procession exceeded all expectations. Al-Ahram reports that by 2.00pm, "every street along which the procession was to pass was jam-packed with people, and balconies and rooftops were filled to overflowing with tens of thousands of mourners. All Egyptian and foreign commercial establishments, banks and public buildings were closed and flags flew outside them at half-mast. Water carriers had volunteered to circulate through this human mass in order to supply the thirsty with water from their waterskins."

As the cortege wound its way through the crowd-lined streets, the newspaper continues, "People were so overcome by grief and anguish that four attempts were made to seize the bier and carry it on their own shoulders. This occurred four times: once in Al- Azhar Square, then in front of the National Bank, again in Opera Square and the fourth time on Mohamed Ali Street near the burial site. At the intersection of Mazloum and El-Madabigh Streets, mourners mobbed the bier again, in the course of which many fainted and were taken off to pharmacies. Ministers and other officials were unable to make their way into Qaisoun Mosque on Mohamed Ali Street due to the crowds that had already filled the mosque and its immediate surroundings."

That evening the large reception pavilions that had been set up alongside the "House of the Nation" filled with "ministers, senators and parliamentary deputies of all classes and parties." Al- Ahram reporters were particularly struck by the numbers of women who came to convey their condolences to Safiya Zaghlul. "It would be no exaggeration to say that every woman in the capital appeared at her house."

The level of participation of foreign communities in the funeral was also unexpected. "Not only did diplomatic representatives of all nations and large contingents of foreigners take part in the funerary cortege, but all foreign commercial establishments closed for business and hung Egyptian flags in mourning. The foreign newspapers published in Egypt printed pictures of the late leader to express their deepest respects and sympathy."

Over the next few days, page after page of Al-Ahram was filled with letters of condolences to "Madam Zaghlul." Many were from members of the royal family spending the summer abroad in St Moritz or Paris. A rather jarring note, however, was struck by King Fouad, who had left for Vichy two weeks before Zaghlul's death, arriving there on 29 August. On 8 September, the front pages of Egyptian newspapers carried a photograph of the king, smiling against the background of that famous spa resort, and undoubtedly leaving readers to wonder whether his joyful countenance was due to his safe arrival or to the demise of his great political adversary.

Among the journalistic highlights at this time was a unique full- page photo biography of "the glorious leader Saad Zaghlul during various phases of his life from 1886 to 1927." Consisting of eight large and carefully selected photographs, the first was of Zaghlul as a young lawyer in 1886 and the second, taken three years later, showed him also as a lawyer in clearly good health and vigour. In the 1890s the career of the young and energetic nationalist progressed with astounding speed, as is documented by the next two photographs, taken in 1891 and 1892, which feature him as a deputy magistrate at the age of 32, and then as counsellor in the Court of Appeals. The fifth picture, taken five years later, shows him still in the same office, but by this time he had risen socially, having married into the family of the prime minister of that time. In 1906, Zaghlul was appointed minister of education and Al-Ahram's photograph of him in that office was taken a year later. The seventh picture was taken in 1913, following his election as speaker of the Legislative Assembly, after which the newspaper leapt 14 years to a photograph of the leader "in his last days."

A second striking and unprecedented feature in the newspaper's coverage of the "calamitous event" was the number of articles contributed by women writers. Perhaps the most important was that which appeared on the newspaper's front page on 27 August and which was written by the most famous female writer of the day, May Ziada. Entitled, "Giant of the Valley Sleeps" and dedicated to "the mother of the sad heroic people, Safiya Zaghlul," the article represents an attempt to explain the overwhelming popular support which Zaghlul enjoyed. Zaghlul, Ziada wrote, succeeded in uniting the people of Egypt, with no discrimination on the basis of creed or denomination, and fusing them into a single Egyptian nationalist entity. He dissolved class boundaries, opening avenues for advancement to those to whom such paths had previously been closed, thereby permitting the rise of public figures who would previously have remained at the station in which they were born. Finally, he promoted women's liberation, for "in the name of Saad, Egyptian women were emboldened to raise their voice and under his banner women took to the streets, proclaiming calls to freedom and independence. In the embrace of his power the people responded to womankind, paid heed to their cheers and grew accustomed to hearing their appeals with veneration and respect."

If such were the passions that Zaghlul fired in the hearts of his compatriots, grieving Egyptians were faced with the frightening question: What will happen now that Saad is gone? In view of the role Zaghlul played in the fight against British colonialism, it was also perhaps natural that eyes turned to the British press. Al-Ahram was assiduous in relaying these opinions to its readers.

In spite of the fact that the commentaries in these newspapers would have reflected the British perspective, many put their finger on the fundamental problem that gripped public opinion in Egypt and abroad. The London Times wrote, "It is difficult to predict what will happen following Zaghlul Pasha's departure. Like every other dictator, he has created a vacuum that cannot be filled by his successors or his closest colleagues who had sometimes helped him with advice or criticism. It is very doubtful that any of his followers will be able to safeguard the unity and order of the party."

According to the Daily Telegraph, the problem lay in the fact that the Wafd Party "differs from similar parties in other countries in that it has not produced any other single person who, even in the opinion of the party itself, can fill a high political position." The Statesman observed that although Zaghlul was stubborn and intractable, no one could rival him as a representative of the Egyptian people "who, after the death of their leader, no longer have someone with total authority to speak on their behalf." Referring to the negotiations that were then in progress between Prime Minister Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat and Lord Chamberlain, the commentator continued, "We do not know whether this change will facilitate the recent political settlement process or further complicate it. What is certain, however, is that the situation will change tangibly."

Writers in Britain touched upon a weak point in the Egyptian political system: the lack of a clear line of succession or, put in other terms, the enormous gap between the charismatic leader and any possible contender for succession. Mustafa Kamel's death created a similar vacuum, as did the death of Gamal Abdel- Nasser, with all the dangerous confusion that engendered. Evidently, it is an ancient Egyptian custom to believe in the eternal life of their leaders until the hand of death takes them by surprise.

For its part, Al-Ahram featured three editorials on the future of Egypt "after Saad." The first sought to allay the sense of anxiety and despair, asserting that it was the people who had made Zaghlul and not the reverse. "This nation whose womb gave birth to Saad is fertile enough to produce a thousand more Saads, to produce great men who will walk in its vanguard and bring to life its aspirations. The nation that puts its strength behind its intrepid heroes will never die with the death of a single hero."

Although the second editorial reiterated the apprehensions voiced in the British press over the vacuum that had to be filled, it, nevertheless, struck a note of optimism. Zaghlul's policies were always the policies of the Egyptian people, "and although the British may look down on the Egyptian peasant and accuse our populace of ignorance, this people are the paragon of a public spirit that dictates its will to its leaders and ministers."

The third editorial addressed the fear that the palace would now try to assert autonomous rule because Zaghlul's death had left the nation without a leader powerful enough to ensure that the constitution would be upheld. Al-Ahram cautioned that indeed the Wafd would have to double its efforts to defend the constitution. Unfortunately, fears for the constitution proved accurate, for only a year later the Mohamed Mahmoud government suspended the constitution and three years later the Sidqi government sought to impose an iron grip.

Public attention also turned to ways to commemorate the nationalist leader. The government took the initiative, as expected, despite the fact that Prime Minister Tharwat was not a Wafd Party member. However, the cabinet consisted of a Wafdist majority. On 26 August, Al-Ahram published the resolutions the government adopted in this regard. The government resolved, first, to commission two statues of Zaghlul, to be erected in the most important squares in Cairo and Alexandria. It would also purchase the "House of the Nation" and the home in which Zaghlul was born in Ibyana and dedicate them to activities that would serve the public welfare. A hospital or orphanage would be constructed in the capital, bearing the name of the late leader and, finally, a mausoleum would be constructed on the grounds of the "House of the Nation" at the government's expense.

Although Zaghlul's widow had no objections to these plans, particularly as she had won the right to live out the rest of her days in her husband's home, details would inevitably stir debate. For example, a dispute arose over whether the proposed mausoleum should be a religious or purely national shrine. From an interview with "a senior government official," Al-Ahram's Mahmoud Abul-Fath learned that the government was considering some form of compromise. The mausoleum, he was told, would not have the customary features of a mosque, such as an ablution fountain and the like, but it would be possible for Muslims to pray in it and for non-Muslims to visit it.

As for the site of the statue, Al-Ahram predicted that it would be erected in Ismailiya Square, today known as Tahrir Square. The prediction failed to materialise. Neither a statue of Zaghlul nor of any other national leaders has ever been erected in the centre of the capital's hub. There was a pedestal but without a statue.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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