The Formation of Modern Egypt Pre-1952

Following nearly two thousand years of foreign occupation, the Egyptian revolution of 1919 signaled the maturity of Egypt’s national identity and the culmination of the resistance against the British occupation, which had dominated the country since 1882. Following discussions with Sa’ad Zaghloul, a leading figure in the call for Egyptian independence, the British authorities issued a unilateral declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1922. The declaration abolished the protectorate and elevated the status of the Egyptian ruler to King. However, the declaration made a mockery of the term independence by establishing continued British influence and presence in Egypt, including the following: the British government remained responsible for the security of imperial communications in Egypt, the defense of Egypt against foreign intervention, and the protection of foreign interests, foreign minorities, and Sudan and its future status.

The compromised independence and deformed political system which resulted in the following years tarnished the reputation of existing politicians, who generally belonged to the land-holding aristocracy. Opposition groups arose on the fringes of legitimate political parties. These groups responded to anti-imperialist sentiments, filled in the gap resulting from government incapacity, and provided social safety networks for the increasing number of migrants and urban workers who increased during years preceding the Second World War. Such networks were a reflection of the detachment of the political elite at that time from the aspirations and needs of the society.

Many Egyptians were disillusioned with the parliamentary system created by the Constitution of 1923 and a number of organizations, both secret and public, sprang up in the decades following independence. There was considerable public disillusionment with a parliamentary experience that had thus far failed to address the basic needs of society, failed to reduce gaps between social classes, and failed to achieve complete independence.

The political elite began to weaken, and the parliamentary system faced a number of setbacks, particularly due to the constant intervention of the King and the British occupation authorities. The Treaty of 1936 was a critical point in determining the outcome of the liberal experience. This Anglo-Egyptian Treaty recognized Egypt’s independence, but it also provided for a British military presence in the Suez Canal zone and reaffirmed the British right to defend Egypt. This compromised independence was widely opposed by many political factions.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1948, known in Israel as the War of Independence and in Arab countries as al-Nakba (lit. catastrophe) was a turning point in post-independence Egypt. The Israeli defeat of five Arab armies was perceived as an embodiment of the weakness of the state in Egypt and the ineptness of its ruling elites. Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1918-1970), Anwar El-Sadat (1918 –1981), and other members of the Free Officers participated in this war, as well as members from the Muslim Brotherhood, who declared the war a jihad and dispatched battalions of volunteers into Palestine to fight against the Jewish armed groups . 

Following al-Nakba, Egypt was thrown into political chaos. This period represented a crisis for the parliamentary system. The Muslim Brotherhood participated in attacks against the British and Egyptian Jews were accused of Zionist collusion and fled Egypt in large numbers. The fedayeen attacks against British presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and along the Suez Canal proliferated. The Muslim Brotherhood was accused of fomenting riots and plotting against the government. Prime Minister Mahmud Sami al-Nukrashi declared martial law and, on December 8, 1948, signed a decree that dissolved the group. On December 28 of the same year, he was gunned down by a member of the Brotherhood. Al-Banna’s attempts to distance himself from violence committed by members of his group failed, and he was gunned down on February 12, 1949, possibly by Egyptian secret police. 

Amidst this turbulent political climate, Cairo went up in flames on January 26, 1952. The so-called "Cairo Fire" witnessed the looting and burning of cinemas, bars, cabarets, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and shops. The arson spread across Cairo, and ten foreigners were killed. While it has yet to be determined who was responsible for the tragic events of that day, it presented a symbol for the denunciation of Egypt’s liberal elites of the landowning aristocracy and wealthy minorities.  With the parliamentary experience itself under fire, the environment was ready for the Free Officers coup on July 23, 1952. This coup eventually gave rise to the regeime of Nasser.

Next: Islam and the Nation State Under Nasser