24 April 2011
Tomorrow marks three months since the eruption of the 25 January revolution. To mark the event, Watani International looks at revolutions throughout Egypt’s history.
Egyptians brought Mohamed Ali to power as Egypt’s viceroy for the Ottoman Sultan in May 1805. The Macedonian-born Ali had been an officer in the Turkish army sent to Egypt to fight Napoleon’s invasion of the country from 1798 to 1801. Omar Makram, the nationalist leader who went down in history as the leader of the second Cairo revolt in 1800 against the French, led the popular uprising to place Mohamed Ali at the helm of power. Aware of the sweeping influence of Makram and other nationalist leaders, Ali consulted them before taking major decisions, and used the resulting popular support to boost his position and overcome the obstacles placed in his path by the then world powers—the British and the French—and the previous rulers of Egypt—the Ottomans and their Mamluk proteges.
After ridding himself of his opponents, Ali turned his attention to Makram and, through a conspiracy, exiled him to Damietta in 1809. Free of accountability to all and sundry, Ali monopolised power and turned a blind eye to the public’s aspirations and grievances, focusing only on building a strong State, even if at the expense of his people.
“God created us free”
The Orabi uprising, which took place between 1879 and 1882, was certainly more than the military revolt it started as; it was a nationalist movement in which people from all walks of life engaged. The direct reason was the expulsion of Egyptian officers from the Egyptian army following protests they had conducted against the discrimination they suffered at the hands of their Turkish and Circassian counterparts or superiors. But there was also public resentment over foreign interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs; interference that was made possible because of the huge financial debt Egypt owed Britain and France in the course of modernising and upgrading the entire country under Khedive Ismail. Ismail allied himself with the nationalists in the face of the foreign powers, and was hence forced in 1879 to abdicate the throne to his son Tawfiq. Popular resentment augmented owing to rampant injustice, oppression, humiliation and absence of the rule of law. Indeed, whippings were a normal practice meted out by governors to collect taxes. The revolt erupted against an authoritarian rule with no meaningful public role.
Orabi’s stand before Khedive Tawfiq during which he presented the national demands is to this day quoted by Egyptians. When the Khedive said: “You have no right to any demand. I have inherited this land from my father and grandfathers; you are nothing but enslaved to our favours,” Orabi answered: “God has created us free, and I swear by the living God that we will not be inherited or enslaved after today.”
The Orabi Revolution ended sadly; Orabi and his colleagues were banished to what is today Sri Lanka, and the British occupied Egypt in 1882.
The 1919 Revolution was a revolt of the people of Egypt against the British occupiers.
The brutal treatment on the part of the British aggravated public discontent—already strong due to widespread poverty and oppression—and protests against the detention of a group of nationalist leaders developed into a revolution that spread to every corner of the country, for the first time including Copts and women.
In the countryside it was the peasants who bore the brunt of the struggle; road and rail transport ground to a halt, there was fighting in the streets, police stations were attacked, rail lines cut. People even assumed power in the Delta town of Zifta, in what was famously called the ‘Republic of Zifta’.
The British calmed matters down by persuading the Egyptians to solve the matter through negotiations. Egypt went through a turbulent time of political gains and losses. The first modern Constitution was instated in 1923; struggles between the nationalists, the palace, and the British continued; governments exchanged hands, WWII erupted and ended, but Egypt only gained full independence in 1954 in the wake of the 1952 Revolution.
Egypt ruled by an Egyptian
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a deterioration in King Farouk’s relations with the public and the army. A large group of young army officers formed an organisation called the Free Officers with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy. The palace knew about the group and moved to abort their plan, yet the Free Officers took pre-emptive action and toppled the monarch. With the royal family generally detested for its extravagance and corruption, there was massive public support for the army. Egypt became a republic and won its independence from the British. For the first time since the fourth century BC Egypt was being ruled by an Egyptian.
The 1952 Revolution brought us four presidents: Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. All four are now confined, with their revolution, to history.