Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mona Anis

Remains of the century

Mona Anis marks the arrival of 2008 by sifting through a hundred other such arrivals, scouring the past for the events that continue to shape our future

Bogged down in the quagmire of the here and now, it often seems that the majority of Egyptians care little for history or the intricate ways in which historical events impinge on the present though during 2007, thanks largely to television, this attitude seemed to undergo a change. Millions of viewers sat glued to their screens watching the serialised historical dramas that were the great hits of the month of Ramadan. King Farouk, Egypt's last reigning monarch, captured the lion's share of attention, with the extended biopic of his life and times, from his birth in 1920 until he was deposed in 1952, becoming the talk of the country. Together with other historical dramas the series was instrumental in prompting Egyptians to look to the events that shaped their modern history; indeed Osama Anwar Okasha's al-Masrawiyya (Woman from Cairo), which charts the rural origins of Egypt's bourgeoisie and its rise at the beginning of the 20th century, is currently enjoying a reprieve. First aired during Ramadan on a satellite channel, it is now being rerun on state TV.

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DEFINING EVENTS: Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Shukri El-Qwatli signing documents of the merger between Egypt and Syria... --more--

King Farouk and al-Masrawiyya relied heavily on contemporary historical documents. Both series employed Younan Labib Rizq, a leading historian of Egypt's modern period, as a consultant, and his name features prominently in the credits. While Rizq has for almost two decades compiled a weekly feature in Al-Ahram focussing on 20th century developments as reflected on the pages of the newspaper, his work on the two serials reached a far wider audience and the present spread of interest in historical events to television, by far the most popular and far reaching of modern media, has prompted numerous other outlets to accord more attention to the ways in which events of the past shaped, and continue to shape, the present. As such, we can look forward to 2008 as a year in which the transformative potentials of history are examined and celebrated, both in prospect and retrospect.

A CENTURY ON: 2008 marks the centenary of one of the most influential events in the making of modern Egypt, the foundation of a modern secular university. In 1908 the efforts of a group of Egyptian nationalists calling for a university to be established finally came to fruition. They had been campaigning for two years but were unable to secure the approval of Lord Cromer, Britain's Agent in Egypt and the country's effective ruler since its occupation in 1882.

The campaign began in 1906 when Egypt was still reeling under the shock of the Dinshwai incident and the hanging of the Egyptian peasants involved. While touring Europe and publicising the atrocities of the British, Mustafa Kamil -- the hero of the period -- wrote an article in al-Muayyad newspaper, the organ of the Nationalist Party, calling on Egyptians to begin collecting funds for a university. On 12 October 1906, Saad Zaghlul -- not yet the nationalist hero who emerged in 1919 -- grew tired of waiting for Cromer's approval. Together with fellow jurist Qassim Amin, he invited two dozen men to meet at his house and begin the foundation process. "The gathering constituted itself as a committee, naming Zaghlul vice president and Qassim Amin secretary and leaving the presidency open for a possible sponsor," writes Donald Malcolm Reid in Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt.

That committee eventually gave way to a second, and the project finally saw the light of day when Cromer resigned his post in spring 1907 to be replaced by the more lenient and tactful Eldon Gorst. But by the time the Private Egyptian University was founded in December 1908 both Mustafa Kamil and Qassim Amin were dead and Saad Zaghlul had resigned his post as university vice president to become minister of education. Prince Ahmed Fuad assumed the post of the university's first rector.

The institution has had several names in the course of its history. In 1908 it was called the Private Egyptian University. In 1925, with Prince Ahmed Fuad now King Fuad I, he re-founded the Egyptian University as a fully fledged state institution, and following his death in 1936 it was renamed Fuad I University in his honour. In 1952, following the overthrow of the monarchy, it was renamed Cairo University, the name it bears today.

Alongside the centenary of Cairo University, which Al-Ahram Weekly will mark with an occasional series throughout the year, the paper will also be commemorating a century since the death of Mustafa Kamil in February 1908, and 100 years since Boutros Ghali Pasha became Egypt's first Coptic prime minister in November 1908.

NEW FRONTIERS: In the three decades between 1918 and 1948, Egypt underwent a series of political and social upheavals. As the Great War came to a close with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, a new political leadership, one that had championed the cause of the university a decade earlier, was eager to fulfil its rendezvous with history. On the same month, Egyptian nationalists formed a Wafd (delegation) which approached the British Agency in Cairo seeking permission to proceed to the Paris Peace Conference to present Egypt's case for independence; the request was rejected and in March 1919 the four leaders of the delegation headed by Saad Pasha Zaghlul were deported outside the country. Open rebellion against British rule swept Egypt, and the rest is well known. A party was born -- the Wafd Party -- which led the 1919 nationalist revolution. Its reward for this role was to become the party of the majority in Egypt between 1924 and 1954, after which it was dissolved by the Free Officers who came to power in 1952.

On 15 January 1918 Gamal Abdel-Nasser, leader of the Free Officers, was born to an Upper-Egyptian family of modest means. His influence on shaping the history of Egypt and the Arab region was of such magnitude that 40 years after the crippling defeat of the Egyptian army in 1967, and 37 years after his death, he continues to command a popularity unrivalled by any other Arab leader.

The year that saw the end of World War I also witnessed the implementation of the Sykes-Picot agreement, concluded between Britain and France as the war raged and stipulating, among other things, the redrawing of the map of Arab lands under Ottoman rule following Turkey's defeat. Meanwhile, the British had promised Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca, an empire stretching from Egypt to Persia in exchange for military assistance against the Turks. Having been instrumental in British General Edmund Allenby's victory at the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918, Hussein discovered to his chagrin that the promises he had received contradicted the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The conflicting agreements reflected the changing fortunes of war and a switch in British strategy away from courting Arab help and towards enlisting the help of US Jews in persuading the US to join the war in return for implementing the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which promised the Jews a national homeland in Palestine. While the Sykes-Picot agreement posited international administration for Palestine pending consultations with other powers, Greater Syria was carved into present day Syria and Lebanon, which fell under French influence, and two new countries, Iraq and Trans-Jordan, were created in the Fertile Crescent region, and handed by the British to Sharif Hussein's two sons, Faisal and Abdullah, as compensation for reneging on earlier promises of a united Arabia.

Much of the conflict that afflicts the region has its roots in this order established in the aftermath of WWI, and Arab politics has been to a great extent conditioned by attempts to oppose the parameters of Western hegemony conceived and enshrined in the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In 1928 a school teacher by the name of Hassan El-Banna, working in the Suez Canal province of Ismailia, began to advocate Islam as the solution, beginning with the fathers of the children he taught at school and laying the foundation stone of the Society of Muslim Brothers, an organisation that has assumed monolithic dimensions over the last 80 years and given birth to Islamist groupings from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf and beyond.

As Jewish immigration to Palestine intensified in the 1930s, the Muslim Brotherhood began to train volunteers to fight alongside the Palestinians. If only a small number of Brothers volunteered to go to Palestine in 1936 during the Qassam uprising, by 1948 their numbers had multiplied several times over and during that fateful year, which saw the establishment of the state of Israel on 15 May, thousands of Egyptian volunteers, mostly drawn from the ranks of the Brotherhood, were fighting in the Gaza Strip and beyond.

Both the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Muslim Brothers and the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel will be commemorated on the pages of the Weekly throughout the year.

YEAR OF REVOLUTIONS: 2008 marks the golden jubilee of a number of major events in the Arab world, with Nasser's Egypt occupying centre stage. In 1958 Cairo was the centre of revolutionary changes which galvanised the whole region.

"Gamal Abdel-Nasser remains the hero of the Arab world," commented British Ambassador to Lebanon Sir George Middleton in February 1958. A month earlier a delegation of Syrian officers had travelled to Cairo to petition for union with Egypt. A few days after Middleton's lament a plebiscite in Syria and Egypt unanimously approved a merger between the two countries, which joined under the name of the United Arab Republic, with Nasser as president.

The Cold War was at its height, with American-Soviet rivalry extending into space. On the last day of January the US launched its first satellite, Explorer I, four months after the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik. Back on earth, US President Dwight Eisenhower was busy pushing the aggressive Eisenhower Document, provoking an inevitable response from the Soviet Union. Battle lines were drawn across the Arab World which divided into two camps: those with the US -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq -- and those being courted by Moscow. Egypt formed the nucleus of the latter.

In March Nasser launched a ferocious campaign against the Saudis, claiming to have uncovered a plot to assassinate him ordered by King Saud. In the same month Yemen signed a pact with the United Arab Republic, and the United Arab States federation was formed. On 14 May the US airlifted military equipment into Lebanon in an attempt to prop up the pro-Western regime of Camille Chamoun. A day later Nikita Khrushchev told Nasser that Moscow would facilitate attempts to unite the Arab peoples as the best guarantee against Western interference in the Middle East.

In North Africa the Algerian War of Independence, supported by Nasser, was in full swing. The failed Algiers Putsch, staged by French settlers and army officers, and the return to power of General de Gaulle on 1 June, 1958, laying the foundations for the Fifth French Republic, opened the door to a new policy on Algeria which ended in the country's independence in 1962.

On 14 July Brigadier Abdel-Karim Qassim overthrew the monarchy in Iraq, and along with it the Baghdad pact on which Washington had depended to keep the revolutionary tide at bay. The following day US marines landed in Beirut, and a day later King Hussein of Jordan requested Western military assistance. In the same month Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian residing in Kuwait, laid the foundation of the Fatah movement he would lead until his death in November 2004.

The 50th anniversary of the Iraqi Republic, which coincides this year with the fifth anniversary of the occupation of the country will be commemorated by the Weekly throughout the year.

But back to the Middle East in 1958, in August Syria had closed its borders with Jordan and Britain was landing paratroopers and supplies in Amman. However, two weeks later the UN General Assembly had adopted an Arab resolution calling for the early withdrawal of US and British forces from Lebanon and Jordan. In October, following the election of the head of the Lebanese army as president a month before, Anglo-American troops, which had brought the region to the brink of war, began to withdraw.

In December Egypt and the USSR signed the agreement to construct the Aswan High Dam and the year ended with Egypt firmly ensconced as the key regional player in an Arab context that appeared increasingly to be shaped according to Nasser's wishes. In the cultural arena Egypt was also scaling the upper slopes, with Naguib Mahfouz's trilogy and Youssef Chahine's ground breaking film Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Station) both appearing in 1958.

SETBACK: Yet just three years later, in 1961, a coup in Syria ended the merger with Egypt and the United Arab Republic was dissolved. Nasser's military intervention in Yemen was fated to end in disaster, and in 1967 the Six-Day War dealt a crippling blow to his dream of uniting Arabs under his leadership. By the beginning of 1968, student demonstrations swept the country, calling for harsh punishment for those responsible for the defeat and for the restoration of democracy. Five years later Nasser's successor, Anwar El-Sadat, launched the October War, which paved the way for Egyptian-Israeli peace.

On 17 September 1978, the Camp David Accords, providing the framework for peace between Egypt and Israel, were signed by Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin in the White House with US President Carter witnessing the ceremony. Two weeks later, an Arab summit convened in Baghdad and decided to suspend Egypt's membership in the Arab League in punishment for its peace with Israel. The year ended, however, with Sadat and Begin receiving jointly the Nobel Peace Prize. The 30th anniversary of this seminal event which continues to shape the region will also be commemorated on the Weekly 's pages.

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