It can take a relatively minor incident to spawn political change, and Egypt has had its fair share of such events. In 1906, in what became known as the Denshwai incident, there was a bitter dispute between the British authorities and local peasants about, of all things, pigeon shooting. Some British ‘Tommies’ stationed in the area used local pigeons for target practice. These were far from being wild pigeons and the locals remonstrated angrily, but the soldiers, instead of compensating the villagers and leaving, joined in a fight which left one of the soldiers dead. A trial was held and six peasants from the Delta village were flogged and executed.
The incident was seen by Egyptians as highly unjust, and is considered effectively to have sparked the nationalistic movement of the early 20th century. Muslim and Coptic Egyptians joined forces to enter a new phase of political life that continued until the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution of 23 July 1952, when all the parties were abolished. Political parties were later restored in November 1976, and have remained up to the present time.
No to segregation
In 1908 Boutros Ghali Pasha, a prominent Copt, was appointed prime minister, a post he held for three years. At the same time religious sectarianism was beginning to rear its ugly head and, in response, a group of Copts led by lawyer Akhnoukh Fanous thought to establish a Coptic Party which they called the Egyptian Party. Mainstream Copts, however, objected strongly to this move which they saw as a practice in segregation, and the attempt to form a Coptic party failed.
The National Party was set up under nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel. It was the dominating current that carried the Egyptian tide against the British occupation of Egypt which had begun in 1882. Kamel delivered his address to the people—some 7,000 attended—at Zezinia Theatre in Alexandria, following which great numbers flocked to join the National Party. The first meeting of the general assembly was held in December 1907 and was attended by about 1,000 members.
The general assembly elected the Administrative Committee under the presidency of Mustafa Kamel; Wissa Wassef, another prominent Copt, was elected to this committee. The mouthpiece of the party was ++Al-Liwaa’++ newspaper.
Exchanging one master for another
The party’s ideology was based on ousting the British while remaining loyal to the Khedive and Ottoman sovereignty, which it recognised as the legal authority of Egypt. Kamel believed in the Islamic league, both religiously and politically. The Copts opposed British occupation but were not in favour of exchanging their British master for another, the Ottoman, and so, all except a handful that included Wissa Wassef and Morqos Hanna, declined to join Mustafa Kamel’s movement.
Most Copts did not regard Kamel as a pure patriot, and by August 1908 the Coptic members, including Wissa Wassef himself, had resigned from membership of the party. Even the most eloquent speeches of Mustafa Kamel, who was a gifted orator, would not win over the Copts. In Alexandria 1897 Kamel said: “The Muslims and the Copts form one people, tied by same traditions and customs, and cannot be, for ever, divided.” In June 1900 he said in Alexandria: “How can a patriotic man be able to call for hatred and conflict, for the Copts are our brothers who are tied with us with the most honorable relations; we have existed for centuries with them in complete agreement together.” Yet the rift between the Copts and the National Party was never repaired.
Egyptians first and foremost
Mustafa Kamel was succeeded by Mohamed Farid, who, in an attempt to gain the confidence of the Copts, met Pope Kyrillos V and Salem Sidhom Tadros, a prominent Copt. In a speech given at Alexandria on 5 August 1908 Farid said: “Put away the divisions, hatred and religious differences, and be brothers and sons of one Nation; in other words be, before every thing, Egyptians.” On Farid’s death the Pope sent a Coptic delegation to attend the funeral.
Al-Umma (the Nation) Party was established by group of intellectuals and leaders of the enlightenment movement, including Lutfi al-Sayed, Taha Hussein, Qassim Amin, Talaat Harb and Mahmoud Pasha Suleiman, who became the party chairman. Its members included the Coptic intellectuals and activists Salama Mousa, Bassili Tadros, Fakhri Abdel-Nour, Senout Bey Hanna, Andrawis Bishara, Elias Bishara and Bushra Hanna. The moderate, Al-Umma party stood for complete independence, even from the Ottoman state, together with complete state integrity which excluded Islamic religious subsidiaries. The party’s official voice was the Al-Gareeda newspaper.