Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Once upon a century

Looking at Al-Ahram's edition of 1 January 1920, Dina Ezzat finds similarities as well as differences

"As we have always been infatuated by words and dismayed by deeds, we wonder -- as we are entitled to -- whether we are really about to depart from the policies of the past that we have always known and enter the policies of the present and future that we would like to reach. It is not for us to answer this question. Instead, it is up to the committee and its prominent delegates."

Thus ran a paragraph from the editorial on the front page of Al-Ahram on 1 January a century ago. The editor of the paper, then sold for 120 piastres a year, was not referring to the Policies Committee of the present National Democratic Party, but was instead talking about the Milner Commission.

There is much in this editorial that prompts a sense of déjà vu. This story of occupiers and occupied and calls for independence, then that of Egypt itself, is prominently featured in this issue of the paper.

On the second page of what was then a four-page paper, S Raghab wrote that "patriotic Egyptians who have called for full independence for Egypt from British rule have been called 'extremists' by the English."

But, as Al-Ahram reported, it was these "extremists" whose views carried weight amongst Egyptians, and it was these views that were adopted by politicians entrusted with carrying out the negotiations with Britain.

Al-Ahram announced to its readers that the reason why "most Egyptians agree to boycott the Milner Commission is the fact that they insist on securing full independence from British occupation, something which is incompatible with the intentions of this commission."

In an opinion column signed by Zakaria Namek, a member of the Legislative Committee, the author criticised the conditions imposed by Britain on negotiations with Egypt.

In his column, Namek's argument in the face of the Milner Commission echoed Hamas's current argument in the face of the Quartet: we will not negotiate under conditions that could undermine the right to independence.

In a brief comment on Namek's column, Al-Ahram argued that the Egyptians are entitled to full independence, and if the Milner Commission cares to argue otherwise then this is something for the commission, and not for the Egyptians, to worry about.

The stories that today make up the front page of Al-Ahram -- stories on the civil service strike to protest against low pay, the administration of the railways, the excessive use of foreign languages at the expense of Arabic, and plans to reorganise Cairo -- are all echoed in the 1920 edition.

"We have received telegrams from civil servants in Beheira, Suez, Beni Sweif, Damietta, Sharqiya, Qalioubiya and Alexandria complaining of price hikes and demanding an increase in salary," Al-Ahram 's 1920 edition reported under the headline "For the attention of those in office -- the complaints of the civil servants."

On page three, Al-Ahram printed "News from Alexandria" separately, at the time a cosmopolitan and economic hub.

In one story, reported from Alexandria, Al-Ahram warned of typhoid. Criminal cases and political affairs are reported from Cairo, Alexandria and other governorates. Foreign affairs stories give a strong sense of déjà vu, or maybe just of things happening backwards.

The front-page headlines reflect the role of Turkey in the region and its future, with the Ottoman Empire then being broken up after World War I. "News reported yesterday indicates that the British government is insisting on removing the Ottoman sultan," the paper wrote.

On the same page, but in a different story, Al-Ahram reported that the sultan had been seen in public, and though he looked well he also looked "drained by fatigue".

Al-Ahram also reported a debate in the US over the future of the new Turkey that was expected to be "the centre for prompting peace and development in the East". According to the same front page, the sultan of the former Ottoman Empire was not too reluctant to ponder the idea of a new Turkey.

Iran too was on the front page. "British-Iranian agreement" is one headline, and "Anglo-American debate over Iran" is another. The subject of the latter debate, however, was not Iran itself. Instead, it was US objections to an agreement between London and Tehran.

Obituaries, job vacancies, commodity prices and advertisements for new cars are printed in parallel columns on the fourth page of the daily.

The weather forecast reminds readers that Egypt and Sudan were then still one country: Cairo 23 degrees and Khartoum 30 degrees.

On 1 January 1920, Al-Ahram celebrated its 46th anniversary. In a brief editorial, the paper attributed nearly half a century of continuous publication to the commitment of its writers and the loyalty of its readers.

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