Friday, 1 July 2022

A look back at Egypt’s roaring ‘20s

The Beginning

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The 1920s was an era of drastic change in the Egyptian political and social spheres that set the stage for the century that followed. Egypt entered the 1920s on the cusp of major political upheaval that saw demands for independence from British colonial rule ring far and wide. Between the 1919 uprising, the start of a new anti-European revivalist movement in architecture and the inception of a vibrant and raucous nightlife in the capital, a sense of rebellion very much defined the decade.


Arts and culture thrived in Egypt during the 1920s when a burgeoning music, dance and nightlife scene merged to create a cultural force unlike any other in the country’s history. The 1920s were in many ways an era where cosmopolitanism ⁠— at least in the country’s urban centers ⁠— was embraced and a sense of rebellion found its way into certain corners of Egyptian society.

A bustling nightlife scene was born in the 1920s thanks to the efforts of a few daring female entertainers: A mix of dancers, singers and late-night entertainers were for the first time establishing promising careers in Cairo and pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman in the traditionally conservative Egyptian society.

One of the most famous performers of the era was Mounira Al Mahdiyya, a singer and actress who not only drew accusations of “corrupting morals and spreading vice” in society but attracted the ire of the British occupiers with her anti-colonial songs. Likely born in Zagazig in the late 19th century, Al Mahdiyya began her career as the first Egypt Muslim woman to perform on stage by fleeing her house to sing at the coffee houses and nightclubs of Cairo, where she often performed songs promoting the nationalist cause. Al Mahdiyya went on to found her own influential theater group and become the first woman to perform opera in Egypt. Despite the criticism from some areas of society, her work earned her a medal from the government for her work to revive Arab singing.

Another icon from the era was Syria-born Badia Masabni, who hit stages around Cairo to sing and act before becoming the founder of one of the most popular cabarets in Cairo at the time, the Sala Badia. At a time when belly-dancing was outlawed from Cairene nightclubs, Masabni became one of the most influential figures on modern oriental dance at her Opera Casino cabaret, creating new movements, popularizing new clothing, and incorporating different types of instrumentation. Her work led to the bridge between Zamalek and Giza being named the Badia Bridge, before it was renamed Al Galaa after the revolution in 1952.

International performers couldn’t resist its force: In the aftermath of World War I, European dancers and cabaret performers flocked to Egypt to establish careers in the growing industry. Eastern European women in particular left the wartorn continent to work as chorus girls in the dance halls of El Azbekkiya, one of the hotspots for late night entertainment in the city. One of the more famous nightlife figures from this wave of migrant performers was a European dancer named Dinah Lyska who went on to open her own place on Emad El Din Street named Bar Lyska.

American musicians even came to find a home in Egypt: Jazz musicians like Billy Brooks and George Duncan were some of those who chose to lay roots in Cairo after finding a mixture of success and racism while touring Europe as part of a minstrel show. The pair put together a group called the Devil’s Jazz Band and frequently performed at venues on Emad al-Din street in the early 20s initially with a rotating roster of Europeans living in Egypt and later with an Egyptian percussionist. Brooks and Duncan were part of a handful of African-American musicians who made Egypt their homes during the decade, fuelling a local jazz scene that became popular with locals and elite alike.

At the same time, fascination with ancient Egyptian culture abroad had taken hold: Shortly after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, Western obsession with ancient Egyptian culture went into overdrive. Fashion designers in London and the US were heavily inspired by the artifacts they saw emerging in the images in the foreign press and film companies began producing Tutankhamen films.


A melting pot of architectural styles: Architecture in Egypt during the 1920s — much like it is today — was composed of a wide ranging set of styles that are often referred to as the country’s “Belle Epoque” era. It’s difficult to pin down the most dominant architectural movement of a single decade, particularly in Cairo during the early 20th century, because of the many overlapping styles and the slower pace of change inherent in urban development. But broadly speaking, European neo-classical sensibilities were the most prominent physical features associated with large urban buildings being built in Cairo at the time.

Downtown Cairo’s late 19th century revamp is a good starting point to get an idea of exactly what that was like: In the 19th century under Khedive Ismail’s rule, Downtown Cairo underwent major reconstruction that was intended to “modernize” the city by making it look more European. European architects were hired to take charge of the project, which Ismail had famously wanted to look like “Paris on the Nile.” The outcome was that many of the buildings in the heart of the city were designed and constructed in a Beaux-Arts or classical revival style that closely resembles European cities.


The Groppi Building: The iconic Groppi building overlooking Talaat Harb square in Downtown Cairo fuses elements of Art Deco with the more conventional European neo-classical style. Named after the Italian pastry maker who set up the famous tea room, Giacomo Groppi, the building was constructed in 1924 and designed by Italian architect Guiseppe Mazza, who was also responsible for a number of other buildings in Downtown Cairo and Garden City.


Cairo University Campus: Cairo University's Campus in Giza was constructed between 1925 and 1937 by Eric Newnum and Ahmed Charmi in a style more in line with the broader and more generic neo-classical period of the Khedival era in the mid 19th century.


But there were some stylistic fusions thrown into the mix: The Banque Misr headquarters, designed by Italian Architect Antonio Lasciac and constructed in Downtown Cairo in 1927, is a memorable and still visible monument that draws from the Beaux-Arts style of most of its surrounding buildings and puts a neo-orientalist spin on it.


The Pharaonist movement made its mark on urban space: The decade saw a renewed interest in Egypt’s ancient past, a phenomenon that has been seen as one of the expressions of nationalist sentiment that rejected European influence on society. The Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum, designed by Mustafa Fahmy in the late 1920s shortly after Zaghloul’s death in 1927, is emblematic of how the movement influenced contemporary architects. Fahmy’s design incorporated various ancient Egyptian motifs like columns, scarabs and other figurines pulled from the natural environment.


Abdel Hamid El Shawarbi Pasha Building: Built in 1925 and designed by architect Habib Ayrout, the Abdel Hamid El Shawarbi Pasha Building is primarily drawn from a Beaux-Arts and neo-classical tradition but also incorporates some Pharaonic elements like the sphinxes around the building’s exterior.


Egypt’s independence movement in the early 20s: The 1920s were colored by a wave of anti-colonial resistance and nationalist sentiment that sought to confront British rule and shake the imperial yoke. The British Empire’s de facto protectorate over Egypt — established in 1882 in response to the Orabi nationalist movement that threatened the interests of English and French bondholders — brought the country under military and economic control of London and produced widespread disaffection among the population.

Tensions intensified throughout the early 20th century: Decades of political and economic suffocation resulting from British control over the country’s affairs — including the formal declaration of Egypt as a British protectorate in 1914 — bred mass resentment. Worsening unemployment, rising inflation and brutal martial law helped sow the seeds of revolt, fuelling a movement for independence.

By 1919 things had reached breaking point: A popular uprising erupted in 1919 after a delegation of politicians that included Saad Zaghloul (who would later form the Wafd Party) had their demands for independence rejected by British High Commissioner, General Francis Reginald Wingate, and were exiled to Malta. The uprising took root over the course of several months where students, workers and white collar professionals set in motion a nationwide general strike that brought the country to a halt.

A limited form of independence was granted: Facing pressure from local actors across the country who continued to orchestrate strikes, boycotts and demonstrations, the British declared limited independence for Egypt in 1922 and passed a new constitution later that year that would set up parliamentary elections. Under this new political arrangement power was shared (although not evenly) between the monarchy, the British and an elected parliament. By 1924, the Wafd Party had secured a majority of parliamentary seats and Saad Zaghloul went on to become the country’s prime minister for a short stint before his death in 1927.

The decade saw the ascendance of King Fuad I: Once the British had declared Egypt partially independent, Fuad I, who was formerly the Sultan of Egypt, anointed himself king in 1922. Early in his reign, King Fuad I granted himself vast powers like appointing members of the Senate and stacking the government with loyal ministers who he could easily maintain some level of control over. These maneuvers, along with his alignment with Al-Azhar, were enacted as a kind of counterbalance to Saad Zaghloul’s growing popularity, which he viewed as posing an existential threat to the monarchy.

Control over Sudan was a major point of contention during this period: Shortly after Egypt gained limited independence from the British, murmurs of unrest in Sudan were beginning to form and by 1924 anti-European protests were gripping the country, fuelled by military officers calling themselves the White Flag League. Since 1899 the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium had jointly controlled Sudan using primarily Egyptian forces but with the British calling the shots in government. The move towards independence in Egypt triggered a scramble for sovereignty over Sudan, with Saad Zaghloul’s government demanding the British hand over control of the country to Cairo. For them, control over Sudan was a question of ensuring the uninterrupted flow of Nile water to Egypt (among several other key resources), while for the British, maintaining control over Sudan was essential to curb the nationalist tide and maintain a footing in the region.

The assassination that changed everything: The killing of the British governor general of Sudan Lee Stack by Egyptian nationalists in Cairo proved the undoing of Egyptian ambitions in Sudan. The British administrations in Cairo and Khartoum demanded that the Egyptian government withdraw its troops from Sudan, ending its presence in the country and putting a stop to the revolt.


Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in June 2022:

  • Egypt signed 14 investment agreements with Saudi Arabia worth USD 7.7 bn covering key sectors including energy, tech, food, and pharma.
  • The House of Representatives approved the state budget for the new fiscal year that will see government spending rise 12% to EGP 2.07 tn.
  • Egypt, Israel and the EU signed a nine-year gas export agreement that will see Egypt export Israeli gas to Europe.
  • Annual urban inflation rose to a three year high of 13.5% last month but slowed down on a monthly basis.
  • The World Bank revised upwards its projection for Egypt’s GDP growth by 0.6 percentage points to 6.1% for FY 2021-2022, up from 5.5% in January.


An era that brought life to new ideas and fresh perspectives: A time of significant social and political upheaval, the early 20th century gave rise to some of Egypt’s most iconic figures, who in the 1920s changed the nation in revolutionary — and sometimes controversial — ways.

The woman behind Egypt’s first feminist movement: Huda Shaarawi was one of the most storied and influential figures that helped define the 1920s in Egypt and kick off the country’s first feminist movement. Born in 1879 and homebound until the age of 13 when she was married off to her older cousin, Shaarawi was keenly aware of the vast inequalities that stood between her and her male family members. Though she was born to an affluent family who afforded her a homeschool education, unlike most other women at the time, she remained disenchanted by the fact that she couldn't go to school like her brother.

Adult life: Later in her adult life Shaarawi started organizing public lectures for women and became deeply involved in the country’s independence movement. In 1920, Shaarawi was responsible for forming and heading a women’s arm to the Wafd Committee (later the Wafd Party), and a few years later in 1923 Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union which campaigned for women’s suffrage, raising the minimum legal age for marriage, and wider access to education for women.

Controversy: The same year Shaarawi had founded the Egyptian Feminist Union she staged one of her most notorius acts of rebellion when she removed her veil outside a train station in Cairo, marking one of the first ever public rejections of the veil in the country.


The nationalist entrepreneur behind the first Egyptian-owned bank: In an era when the Egyptian financial system was dominated by European powers, the idea of setting up an Egyptian bank that was owned by Egyptians would have seemed strangely revolutionary. This is what Egyptian businessman and industrialist Mohamed Talaat Harb set out to do in the early 20th century. First a lawyer then an economist, Talaat Harb went on to become the foremost proponent of setting up a bank owned by Egyptians for Egyptians.

Enter Banque Misr: A staunch nationalist, Talaat Harb was driven by his belief that economic development was the key to Egypt securing independence from British rule. “We need a genuine Egyptian bank operating along with the existing banks, to extend a helping hand to Egyptians, encourage them to venture into industry and trade, urging them to save and make use of financial activities,” he wrote in a book in 1911. Following the 1919 uprising, he persuaded 126 Egyptians to contribute capital to a new bank, which would become the first financial institution to be controlled by Egyptians and to have Arabic as its primary language. Working alongside his Egyptian-Jewish partner, Joseph Cattaui, Talaat Harb opened the doors of Banque Misr in 1920.


The Arab world’s first woman journalist: Lebanese born Rose Al Yusuf is responsible for bringing into existence the now state-owned literary magazine Rose Al Yusuf and an icon of Egypt’s independence movement in the early 20s. Yusuf started out as a child actor in the early 20th century but later decided to apply for a magazine publishing license, despite having very little funds or experience.

The Rose Al Yusuf magazine started out as an art publication, but quickly turned political, adopting an explicitly anti-colonial tone and writing openly about taboo topics. The vocal support for independence attracted the ire of the British authorities and the palace, who canceled her license and arrested her. During this time, Yusuf continued publishing under a different name, The Shout, until Al Yusuf was eventually allowed to resume publishing under its original name.

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