Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ordeals by fire

Amira Howeidy offers an incendiary history of Cairo

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It is 64 years since Black Saturday, 26 January 1952. This was the day that Cairo went up in flames, marking the beginning of the end of the monarchy.

The scale of the destruction was unprecedented and saw the destruction of many of Khedival Cairo’s most affluent landmarks, the symbols of British colonialism and foreign property. The Shepheard Hotel, Groppi’s cafe, Les Grands Magasins Cicurel et Oreco and the Salon Vert department store were among the casualties.

Seven months later King Farouk was overthrown in an army coup that transformed Egypt into a republic.

Few upheavals in the decades since can be compared with Black Saturday. Yet the string of blazes that began in Cairo on 8 May and then spread across Egypt have revived memories of the devastating Cairo Fire. The similarities are uncanny: the unexplained flames, the dearth of official information, the failure to identify culprits, the conspicuous absence of firefighters based only metres away from where it all started in central Cairo and, inevitably, the spread of wild conspiracy theories.

The only recent event that bears comparison is the uprising of 25 January 2011 that unseated president Hosni Mubarak. It forced an analogy with Black Saturday, not least for the chaos that followed. This was especially relevant on 28 January when the police withdrew in the face of the massive nation-wide protests, leaving the military to restore a semblance of order.

Fires, the looting of shops and malls and attacks on police stations preceded the unexplained opening of prisons on 29 January and the escape of thousands of convicts, prompting the formation of popular committees to protect homes and property.

In the absence of information on the recent fires it is impossible to assess their impact. Will they prove to be a game changer in the way Black Sunday did? Perhaps it is not even important to ask the question. It is enough to note that the opacity surrounding last week’s fires, which occurred at a similarly transitional and critical time for Egypt, have led to comparisons between the events of 1952 and 2016. The links may be symbolic, but that does not mean they are coincidental.

The 26 January 1952 Cairo Fire was a reaction to the massacre by British troops of 50 Egyptian policemen in Ismailia police station the day before, on 25 January. British forces, which had occupied Egypt since 1882, had withdrawn to the Suez Canal zone two years after the end of World War II, and negotiations to get them to pull out completely were going nowhere.

Mustafa Al-Nahas, the then prime minister and head of the Wafd Party, unilaterally abrogated the 1936 Egyptian-Anglo Agreement. Egyptian nationalists waged a guerrilla war against British forces, attacking camps, ambushing military vehicles and shooting at British soldiers.

Egyptian police were aiding the guerrillas and the British knew it. The Ismailia police station was a thorn in their side and the British decided to get rid of it. They besieged the station at dawn with troops and heavy artillery and demanded that the police inside the station surrender. The Egyptian commander refused to do so without orders from Cairo. The Egyptian policemen were poorly armed, with nothing more than antiquated Lee Enfield rifles to defend themselves.

When the dust settled more than 60 policemen lay dead in the rubble of the station. Some of the bodies had been torn to pieces by the artillery rounds. The British also detained more than 200 policemen in Ismailia. The massacre electrified the nation and the reaction was swift.

On 26 January all hell broke loose in Cairo. The overwhelming sentiment was rage and a desire for revenge. The morning began with policemen demonstrating at two points in the capital. At one, in Giza, the demonstration was joined by university students and ordinary citizens. The protesters marched towards the cabinet offices and the Abdin Palace.

The sequence of events afterwards remains unclear. By noon rioters had set fire to Opera Cinema, located on a square 200 metres away from Abdin Palace. This was the opening act in what became an eight-hour rampage.

Frenzied crowds took over downtown Cairo torching cinemas, restaurants, hotels, clubs, department stores and other establishments — over 700 in all. The attacks targeted British-owned establishments in particular, and foreign property in general. The Turf Club on Adly Street, across from the Metro Cinema, was set ablaze and nine Britons found inside were killed. Groppi’s, the renowned Swiss-owned confectioners, was smashed up with iron bars and sticks and then set on fire.

Political repercussions followed quickly. Al-Nahhas’ government was dismissed. A string of new governments came and went. The army ended the turmoil on 23 July, sending King Farouk into exile on 26 July and eventually declaring a republic two years later.

In 2009, 25 January was declared National Police Day. Two years later it saw the beginning of the popular uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

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