Today, 7 May, marks 100 years on the foundation of the first Egyptian bank, Banque Misr, by Talaat Pasha Harb. Watani marks the date by reposting two articles about the topic.
Ninety-one years since Banque Misr was founded by the Egyptian economist Talaat Harb (1867 – 1941), a new museum has opened at the bank’s headquarters in Talaat Harb Street in Downtown Cairo. The museum was inaugurated by Mohamed Barakat, the bank’s current chairman.
Mr Barakat told Watani that the idea for a special museum came about in 2004, when it was felt that there was a need for an all-inclusive cultural project not just for documenting the history of the bank and of its founder Talaat Harb, but also for registering an important and effective historical period along the path of nationalism and patriotism in Egypt.
Mr Barakat referred to a collection of memorial and documented books published about the bank and its first companies, and to documentary films that have recorded many of these achievements.
Members of the family of Harb who attended the opening included his granddaughter Amal Hanem Nour and a number of the bank’s presidents. During the opening ceremony a documentary on the story of the bank and Talaat Harb’s was screened. This was followed by a tour of the museum.
The museum comprises a number of valuable historical documents and photographs of the bank. These are presented in showcases together with some of Harb’s personal possessions and medals which have been donated to the museum by his grandchildren. One of these acquisitions is the Nile Medal awarded to Harb in 1980 by President Anwar Sadat.
The bank has been keen to draw up a digital register of the items it has collected on the bank and its founder on a digital database and various multimedia programmes. This enables visitors to access information through audio recordings.
Among the museum’s treasures is Harb’s actual office, which contains his desk and conference table and two showcases—one holding a large pendulum clock and the other a thermometer and barometer. In between the cases is a plush-covered sofa, over which hangs a cover from the Kaaba, the focus of the Muslim world, a gift to Harb from King Abdel-Aziz Al Saoud of Saudi Arabia in 1937. On the walls of Harb’s room hang commemorative photographs of Egypt’s kings and presidents on various occasions celebrated by the bank.
Another room contains a number of photographs of the bank’s first companies, at the centre of which is a showcase containing a collection of Egyptian, Arab and foreign coins.
Born and raised during times when Egypt was heavily in debt to French and British creditors, which opened the door to heavy-handed European interference in Egypt’s affairs, Harb believed that economic independence was the key to political independence. He had a famous saying: that the smoke of industry was the better way to independence than gunpowder. He was able to convince Egyptians to contribute to the establishment of a national bank with a total contribution of EGP80,000 representing 20,000 shares.
Banque Misr was founded on 7 May 1920. Interestingly, its founding committee and the first board of its directors included Egyptian Jews and Copts as well as Muslims.
Two years later Harb set up the first Egyptian printing house with a capital of EGP5,000. His aim was to supply the literature to strengthen the national resistance movement.
In I938, right before World War II, and as a result of the dedicated efforts of Harb, the capital was raised to 2 million Egyptian Pounds, and the bank had a total of 73 branches all over Egypt.
Banque Misr established other Egyptian projects. Between 1920 and 1960, it set up 26 companies in various economic fields including textiles, insurance, transportation, filmmaking, sugar production and other industries, as well as the first national carrier MisrAir—today the State-owned EgyptAir.
Banque Misr, which was nationalised by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1961 among the countless other businesses and industries, Egyptian or foreign-owned, that were nationalised as Egypt moved to a socialist economy, is today among the major public sector banks in Egypt.
The founder resigns
Harb was one of the first economists to call for Arab economic integration in the days before the establishment of the Arab League, and he paid several visits to Iraq, Sudan and Libya to start up branches of Banque Misr. Having begun his career as a journalist, he went on to publish several books. His reports on the economy were written in formal, refined Arabic.
Harb stayed on as chairman of the bank until his resignation on 14 September 1939 when Banque Misr went through a crisis which many believed to be a set-up by the British occupation. As WWII set in, many investors panicked and rushed to withdraw their money from the banks. With a lot of its money tied up in the companies and industries it had founded, the bank faced insolvency. The National Bank of Egypt refused to provide credit to Banque Misr against its portfolio of securities, while the government—dominated by the British—allowed the Postal Savings Fund to withdraw all its deposits from Banque Misr.
Harb met the then Minister of Finance, Hussain Serry Pasha, and asked him to approve one of three options: the government may issue a statement to guarantee clients’ deposits with Banque Misr, instruct the National Bank to provide credit to Banque Misr against its portfolio, or order the Postal Savings Fund to halt the withdrawal of its deposits with Banque Misr. Serry Pasha agreed on one condition, that Harb should leave Banque Misr for good.
Harb immediately agreed. “As long as my resignation will mean that Banque Misr will survive, then I shall go, so the bank can live on,” he said.
7 May 2020