In the 1960s Hollywood film Dr Doolittle, a young American woman sings the names of the capital cities she wants to visit. She mentions London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Cairo. The inclusion of Cairo did not raise eyebrows, for in the period from the early 1920s to the late 1950s, Cairo was one of the world’s most glamorous cities.
The Egypt of that period was the product of the transformations of the Khedive Ismail in the late 19th century, as discussed in a previous article in this series. But there were also other factors that had catapulted the country further than any other in the Arab, Middle Eastern, and Islamic worlds.
Stability was the first of these. Early in the 20th century, Egypt was far more politically and socially stable than any other country from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. Stability in Egypt gave rise to economic development, and banks, insurance companies, airlines, and an array of budding industries were set up in Egypt in the first three decades of the last century.
Smaller capital followed the whales of industry and finance. Through its then attractive and growing real-estate market, vibrant liquid bourse, and thriving consumerism, Egypt was the place in the region to build a fortune.
It was also the place to spend one. The country’s mansions and palaces became symbols of power as well as of taste. Families competed to bring world-class architects and artists to Egypt to make their residences into works of art and statements of power. Country estates with their own grand houses dotted the Nile Delta and southern Egypt.
The artistic movements of early 20th-century Cairo and Alexandria were built on generous commissions and patronage, particularly of Egyptian and Levantine talent returning to or settling in Egypt after stints in Europe. The nightlife of Cairo and Alexandria was legendary for its sophisticated pursuits as well as for its less-refined endeavours.
Egypt was the Arab world’s educational centre. The country had the region’s most serious schools and universities. Scions of the Arab world’s leading families in the first half of the century, including the members of many royal families, were educated in Cairo and Alexandria. Egyptian education at the time was also limited to the social sciences and humanities. The teaching of science and medicine was in step with that in many leading European educational systems.
Egypt seemed to be a secular country. Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most important seat of learning, was influential, but it was also open to fresh thinking and was often engaged in some of the most contentious and interesting cultural debates in the Arab and Islamic worlds at the time.
Christians in Egypt, whether Egyptian Copts or others who had settled in the country, were more politically active and socially integrated than any other group of Eastern Christians in any other country in the region. Egyptian Jews led some of the most interesting developments in the arts and culture, and in the period between World Wars I and II they played notable roles on both the right and left of Egyptian politics.
Diversity, equality, and inclusion made Egypt a magnet for talent. In the first few decades of the 20th century, tens of thousands of the most talented entrepreneurs and innovators from across the Mediterranean made Egypt their home. Cairo and Alexandria were the crucibles of new ideas.
Egypt was also fun. Artistically vibrant, culturally diverse, and socially open to new ideas regarding change and development and ascending to further heights of refinement, Cairo and Alexandria were the birthplace of Arab journalism, theatre, cinema, and experimental schools of art that probed and widened Egyptian identity and ways of life.
The political system was far from perfect. The Mohamed Ali Dynasty was effectively above the law, and for decades until World War I foreigners enjoyed privileges that were denied to the vast majority of Egyptians. However, there was the rule of law anchored on an independent judiciary. Private wealth was willing to commit to Egypt for the long run. Talented people were betting on the country, entrenching themselves in its society.
Egypt was not a democracy. The Mohamed Ali family had a disproportionate influence over the country’s politics, and around one hundred families, many of them with strong connections to Western interests, effectively controlled the economy. Although it was hardly conspicuous, corruption existed, often on a grand scale. For seven decades between the early 1880s and the early 1950s, Egypt was under British military control.
Yet, there was genuine political representation in the country. Elections were largely fair. Civil society and the media were free. In the period between World Wars I and II, the legislature had real oversight over the executive.
The Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s was miles away from the strictness of Mohamed Ali Pasha’s nation-building phase in the early 19th century. It was a colonised state, rather than the empire that Ibrahim Pasha had fought to create in the 1820s and 1830s. And by the 1930s and 1940s, almost a half century had passed since Ismail Pasha had carved out the shape of modern Egypt.
Neither Mohamed Ali nor Ibrahim nor Ismail achieved what they had set out to achieve. However, their accumulated work and the consequences of their projects made the Egypt of the first half of the 20th century a country of high promise, politically, economically, and, crucially, socially. In the early years of the century, Japan sent a delegation to study the Egyptian experience of development, and by the late 1940s Egypt was the model that most Arab countries (and a number of African ones) were trying to emulate.
But just a few years later, and exactly 70 years ago, the House of Mohamed Ali fell to revolution. The next and final article in this series discusses why.