A hundred years since Britain’s unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence in February 1922, Tarek Osman reflects on how that nominal independence shaped Egypt’s liberal politics in the decades until the end of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952.

Egypt’s independence from Britain in February 1922 was an awkward moment. Most politicians in Britain and Egypt correctly assessed that this nominal independence would neither satisfy the aspirations for real freedom that Egypt’s 1919 revolution had stirred, nor seriously secure for Britain its strategic interests in the country. But since the energy that 1919 had given rise to was too great to ignore or contain, an alteration of the political equation in the country was needed.

In Britain Prime Minister Lloyd George and most of his government opposed giving any form of independence, nominal or real. In Egypt neither the Palace nor the leaders of al-Wafd (the extremely popular political party that had emerged from the fervour of 1919) were highly excited about a move they considered devoid of substance.

The only reason this nominal independence became a reality was that Field Marshall Edmund Allenby, at the time Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt, decided it was the only solution to quieten the scene in the country. And since Allenby had secured for himself a legendary reputation after defeating the Ottomans during the war, few politicians in London or the Middle East were willing to challenge him.

The awkwardness of the historical moment continued in historical records. Most historians pass by 1922 gracefully, invoking it as a consequence of 1919, but hardly consider it of particular importance.

Yet, 1922 was consequential.

It lessened the intensity of the demands for independence, thereby channeling political energy to internal ideological infighting. Two ideas quickly filled the air – Islamism, seeing Egypt as the most suitable inheritor of the Islamic caliphate that had fell with the collapse of the Ottoman state – and nationalism, whose proponents looked forward to a state anchored on a purely Egyptian identity.

This gave rise to a fight over what constitutes this Egyptian identity. Also here were two camps. The first saw Egyptianism as a continuation of the prevailing identity in the decades before 1919. This was a melange of what the ruling Mohammad Ali dynasty, and the families that rotated in its orbit, represented: Ottomanism, Turkishness, with co-existing forms of Islamism and Westernisation.

The other camp wanted a rupture with the past. In this view, 1919 inaugurated a new path in which the Egyptian identity was to discard any association with Ottomanism and Turkishness, and instead evolve into another melange – one that mixed ancient history (Pharaohism) with a desired future (an Egypt looking across the Mediterranean, rapidly borrowing from the West).

The struggle between Islamism and nationalism unfolded gradually and slowly over the decades that followed. The struggle over the Egyptian identity, however, was more intense at the time, because at heart it was between a ruling elite fighting to preserve the Egypt it forged, versus an emerging social constituency – the upper echelons of Egypt’s professionals and increasingly large landowners – that wanted a serious say in the governing of the country, which meant wanted to forge an Egypt that represented them.

Amidst this struggle, the upper echelons of the middle classes wanted to deepen their power. And so al-Wafd (led by Saad Zaghloul Pasha - the most dominant figure in the 1919 revolution and later the unrivalled leader of the nationalist, secular wave) began to appeal to Egypt’s lower middle classes and poor. Within a decade, political representation in the country grew exponentially. The electoral laws were far from perfect; indeed they strongly favoured major landowners in the Egyptian Nile Delta and Saeid. And there are strong indications that Saad Pasha was particularly enamoured with personal glory. Irrespective of all of this, widening representation in Egypt was a colossal change in the country’s politics.

As a result, Egyptian public life became more inclusive in terms of class, gender and geography. Hundreds of thousands from poor and peasant backgrounds entered middle education, the civil service, and various professions. Women began to enter, and in several cases had notable roles in, journalism, academia, philanthropy, and of course in theatre and cinema. Modern healthcare, higher education, new irrigation technologies, and cultural and artistic production slowly but clearly began to spread beyond Cairo and Alexandria and the already developed parts of the Delta. Some argue that these developments were byproducts of the economic and cultural advances that Egypt (and the entire Orient) witnessed in the period after World War I. True, but 1922 facilitated this because independence meant having a constitution, and indeed Egypt’s 1923 – the first modern comprehensive political charter in the Arab world worthy of the designation of a constitution – was based on socio-economically inclusive principles.

Even foreign policy changed after 1922. After four decades, since the end of Khedive Ismail’s reign, during which Egypt was utterly inward looking, Egypt began to think of its place beyond its borders. The expansionism of Mohammad Ali, Ibrahim, and Ismail Pasha was by now distant history. Yet, Egypt’s political class at the time felt a sense of entitlement in – and often superiority to – the country’s neighbourhood. Indeed, Egypt was then a nominally independent country. But relative to the new states that were emerging at the time (Saudi in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hashemites in the Fertile Crescent, and a multi-sectarian one in Mount Lebanon and its valley), Egypt was light years ahead in terms of its historical depth, geographical solidity, social cohesiveness, and political and economic development. In addition, many Egyptian politicians – including the Egyptian monarch at the time, King Fouad – recalled that almost all of these lands were, at one point or another in the nineteenth century, under Egyptian control. Often grandiosity merged with hubris; often realpolitik set in. And amidst fluctuations between the two, Egypt began to think of its relationship regarding what was then emerging as an Arab – rather than Islamic or Ottoman – world.

Independence, even if nominal, drafting a comprehensive constitution, widening political representation, engaging the public about national identity, thinking about foreign relations – all forced Egypt’s political class at the time to confront the reality of the by then sovereign state that they were now ruling. That reality included the fact that over 85 per cent of Egyptians in the mid 1920s were illiterate, that Egypt had one of the world’s most egregious levels of social inequality, and that in almost the entire country elite-despotism constituted the political order of the day. It was not a coincidence that the two decades after 1922 witnessed waves of major demonstrations, acute protests especially in the countryside, and several high profile assassinations. Independence gave rise to aspirations as well as unleashed anger.

Perhaps one can think of 1919 as an eruption that had unravelled Egyptian socio-politics in the early twentieth century. But it was the reckoning, the changes, and the responsibilities that had come with independence in 1922 that really ushered in the dynamics that shaped Egypt’s liberal experiment in the three decades until 1952, when monarchical Egypt fell and a new age began.