Egypt at a crossroads (1920-1930)

Egypt in the 1920s is at a turning point in its history. The latter agree to receive a delegation of opponents, led by Saad Zaghloul: it is the Wafd, which becomes the core of the protest. At the same time, reformist ideas of Abduh, and to a lesser extent Wahhabism, are beginning to infuse the debates of Egyptian Islam.

Revolt and independence

The British attitude escalates the situation, it is a real dialogue of the deaf with the Wafd. Begun on November 13, 1918, the negotiations ended ten days later with an end to the British refusing to accept Egyptian claims for independence, yet in line with Wilson's declaration for the right of peoples to have them. themselves.

While the Wafd asked for help from France and the United States, the British authorities chose to deport Saad Zaghloul and his family to Malta in March 1919. This triggered a real nationalist insurrection in Egypt, led mainly by the urban bourgeoisie and the small rural notables, but where we also notice an alliance between Copts and Muslims. British repression left around a thousand dead, but Britain finally had to give in in February 1922. However, the regime put in place was monarchical (a constitutional monarchy), and the British granted themselves reserved domains. The tension does not diminish with the formation of the first government around King Fouad I, against the advice of Zaghloul and his supporters.

A constitutional and liberal regime

The cleavage within the Egyptian political class lasted throughout the 1920s. On the one hand, the large landowners, without any real social base in the country, who in 1922 formed the party of the liberal-constitutionalists, then took over. origin of the 1923 Constitution; they are partisans of an oligarchic parliamentary system, only an elite which they believe can rule Egypt. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Wafd, with a heterogeneous composition (rural notables, middle classes, liberal professions, industrial bourgeoisie, ...), and led until 1927 by Saad Zaghloul.

The 1923 Constitution makes Islam the state religion, but guarantees the protection of other cults and freedom of conscience. It is also a two-chamber parliamentary system, which leaves real room for maneuver to King Fouad I.

Stability is far from guaranteed, and conflicts are concentrated throughout the interwar period around the British High Commissioner, the Palace (with autocratic temptations), and successive governments, themselves weakened by opposing forces. (the men of the Palace; the liberal-constitutionalists; the Wafd). Paradoxically, while it is not at the origin, the Wafd makes the Constitution a dogma, Saad Zaghloul even swearing on Allah, in 1925, that he will do anything to guarantee it.

Egypt and the question of the caliphate

At the level of the Muslim world, the context is just as fundamental with the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 by Atatürk. Egypt was the heart of the Shia Fatimid caliphate from 969 to 1171, and King Fuad I, if he does not officially claim the title, lets his followers do it for him. He is thus supported by ulemas who call for the opening of an Islamic Congress in Cairo for a restoration of the caliphate. In contrast, both the Wafd and the liberal-constitutionalists oppose this idea, much more interested in asserting the Egyptian nation and its sovereignty.

It is in the same context that the case of Abderraziq (or Ali Abdel Raziq) arises, an im alim who claims to prove that the caliphate is not Islamic. He is close to the liberal-constitutionalists, and his book Islam and the foundations of power is banned by the ulemas of Al-Azhar, probably under the influence of King Fuad.

A Congress met in Cairo in 1926 to decide that ultimately the restoration of the caliphate was in an impossible state. At the same time, Ibn Sa'oud meets in Mecca an Islamic conference where, if he does not say so explicitly either, the idea of ​​a Saudi caliphate is evoked ... Alongside Sa'oud, a man who will have some influence in Egypt, Rachid Rida.

An Egyptian public scene in turmoil

The public life of Egypt is not only agitated by the rivalries between the royal power and the political parties, but also by an intense intellectual life and also divided. The main difference is between, on the one hand, those whom Rachid Rida calls the "francized", that is to say Westernized intellectuals, and on the other, personalities claiming a religious, historical and cultural Muslim heritage.

This competition is concretely illustrated in the rivalry between Al-Azhar and the national university created by Fouad Ier in 1925. “Business” broke out, such as the one that affected the writer Taha Hussein in 1926, condemned by Al-Azhar for poems deemed blasphemous.

More broadly, the cleavage concerns the referents with which Egypt must identify in order to build its identity as an independent nation: if some want to go back to the pre-Islamic era, and even more that of the Pharaohs, others on the other hand insist on Mediterranean nature, like Taha Hussein. At the end of the 1920s, however, it was the Islamic referent that gained more and more importance in Egyptian society and politics.

Alternative attempts in the 1930s

The difficulties of political liberalism were accentuated at the beginning of the decade, discredit gradually fell on the regime, and the priority became more and more national sovereignty.

We note the return of British influence (which never really ended) through, in the context of the rise of Italian fascism, the signing with Egypt of a treaty of perpetual alliance, which expands Egyptian sovereignty while allowing the stationing of the British army. The treaty was signed in August 1936, Egypt became a client state of Great Britain, which greatly displeased the most radical nationalists.

The other factor of political turmoil in the 1930s came from the influence in Egypt of Western fascisms, considered by certain elites more able to guarantee order than unstable parliamentary regimes. These fascisms also defend themes that find a certain echo in Egypt, such as national unity, effective supervision of young people, and the cult of the leader.

Egypt is experiencing at this time profound social upheavals with the emergence of a middle class, and the arrival of the masses on the political scene. Certain intellectuals then adapted to the new situation, such as Muhammad Hussein Heykal, a liberal-constitutional who published in 1935 a Life of the Prophet which is very successful, driven by the growing taste of the Egyptians for everything related to Islam.

The rise of sectarian tensions

From the debate on the caliphate, the Wafd is accused of being the "party of the Copts", opposed to the Caliph restoration out of hatred of Islam. This does not prevent tensions under religious pretext between the Wafd itself and the liberal-constitutionalists. The students of Al-Azhar are also doing it, not hesitating in 1937 to demonstrate against the decision to allow non-Muslims not to attend Quran classes in public schools.

The context is also aggravated by the growing proselytism of Christian missions, mainly French, judged severely by Rachid Rida. This moment, which combines political crisis, social changes and religious tensions, was favorable to the emergence of the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, or to the creation of the Young Egypt movement (Misr al- fatat) by Ahmad Hussein in 1933; its slogan: "God, the fatherland, the king".


- H. Laurens, The Arab Orient (Arabism and Islamism from 1798 to 1945), A. Colin, 2004.

- N. Picaudou, Islam between religion and ideology (Essay on Muslim modernity), Gallimard, 2010.

- Egypt in the 1901-2000 century (collective), In Egypt / Arab world, Complex, 2003.

- C. Ayad, Geopolitics of Egypt, Complex, 2002.

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