I spent a couple of days at a conference which dealt, at least in part, with the Egyptian revolution in comparative perspective. One thing that I’ve noticed is how little interest there is in comparing 2011 to other episodes of Egyptian history in the past hundred years. There are clearly some important differences. The most obvious one is the role that British military and administrative power played until 1954. Nevertheless some of the similarities and differences are instructive. I will deal very briefly with one: the 1919 revolution.
The history of the 1919 revolution and the incompletely liberal parliamentary regime that was created in its wake seems largely lost to contemporary Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike. Partly this is because the military regime that decisively came to power in 1954 made a point of tarnishing and diminishing that history. Partly because the post-revolutionary regime was incompletely liberal and historians and social scientists have dealt with its failures harshly and rarely considered its successes. This is unfortunate because it provides at least one plausible framework from which to view the failures of the regime that has just suffered such a major defeat.
I draw some very brief parallels based on fairly widespread agreement among those who have studied these events and asking a bit of indulgence from some of my very expert readers. The 1919 revolution also had roots in mass revulsion against the mis-use of legal power by a regime that was both distant from popular concerns and intent on maintaining control of the unruly population by any means. In 1906 in the wake of an altercation, several peasants were executed by the Egyptian government for attacking British soldiers who were essentially trespassing on private land. This became the first media cause in 20th century Egypt as a wave of pamphlets, speeches, songs, and other popular forms of communication were deployed to transform some quite ordinary peasants into symbols of government misrule. It was, I suggest, the equivalent of the wave of revulsion against the brutal beating of Khalid Said.
The campaign around Dinshaway was carried forward by what were then relatively new media: the newspapers, printed pamphlets, and plays as well as songs. This media campaign did not cause the revolution but it certainly helped to spread a sense of revulsion and politically conscious antagonism to the state. In addition other new media were just being deployed such as the telephone and telegraph which, for the first time, made it possible to communicate from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south instantaneously. This was itself a part of what was an earlier wave of globalization which, for example, also connected Egypt to cotton markets in Liverpool, Manchester and New Orleans by the same means and made international prices local prices more or less literally overnight.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had earlier signed petitions making Saad Zaghlul and his Wafd party their agent to negotiate independence with the British. Unlike the button clicking that brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in 2010 to sign up electronically for the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, in 1918 people literally signed a power of attorney. Those who couldn’t read or write (and may therefore have missed the Facebook page) used their seals to stamp their acceptance.
The colonial regime was in the process of consolidating its control over the country. In international law, Egypt was an occupied country when World War I broke out. Although subject to British control it was understood to have the capacity for independence. In 1918 the British announced plans to transform the country into an imperial dependency and to create a legislative body to enhance their control over the country. This was, in some ways, even more threatening to Egyptian self-governance than Husni Mubarak’s plans to pass presidential power to his son.
The revolution that began in March when Zaghlul was exiled from Egypt as he was about to set sail with a delegation for the Versailles conference (whence the name of his party—the “Wafd” or delegation) was spontaneous, spreading from north to south within a day or two. The economy came to a halt and the state effectively ceased to function. Despite the absence of any coercive power on the part of the state there appears to have been relatively little violence against either British soldiers or officials or foreigners more generally.
Two main differences are apparent. The British deployed massive armed force to put down the revolt. Although the revolt itself appeared to be spontaneous and massive, there was an existing political leadership drawn from a political elite that had both a political program (“complete independence”) and relatively high degree of unity across regional and religious differences. Although the revolt itself was suppressed by the end of April 1919, by 1923 the British had recognized the independence of Egypt. The 1923 constitution created a bicameral legislature. Unfortunately, it allowed the monarch to rule with only slight hindrance by a majority party. Something of a mixed bag. More exciting but less glamorous than the 2007 television serial, King Farouk which is, I’m afraid, all that most people today know about the period.
One important difference worth considering is that in 1919, unlike 2011, there was a unified civilian (and non-religious) political leadership consisting of members of the political and economic elite (former government ministers, land owners, businessmen). Their demands were expressed in fairly pithy terms (complete independence; the country belongs to the people, religion belongs to God). Whether any of them were truly charismatic is open to question but they certainly inspired significant confidence as manifested both in the signature campaign I described and in the degree of widespread support for their role as interlocutors with the British.