Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

How Egypt could do with its great lost leader now

While 50 million Egyptians were waiting yesterday to hear that they had elected a Muslim Brotherhood mediocrity over a Mubarak bag-carrier, I paid a visit to Saad Zaghloul's home.

Not for an interview, you understand (Zaghloul died 85 years ago) but as a pilgrimage to a man who might have served Egypt well today, a revolutionary and a nationalist whose Wafd party stood up to the British empire and whose wife, Safeya, was one of the country's great feminists.

Mohamed Morsi, the replacement for Hosni Mubarak is no revolutionary. No feminist. Not much of a nationalist. And the army has already laid its traps for him. But the "deep state" represented by his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, receded. Up to a point, Zaghloul would have approved.

My shoes squeak on the wonderful, polished old wooden floor of his two-storey home, a reassuring memento of an age before Cairo became a canyon of traffic. Zaghloul's photograph hangs on almost every wall and at the top of the stairs sit the remains of his two pet parrots, tied (not nailed) to their perches. There is even a canary in a cage that went to meet its maker in the 1920s.

I am shown into a room with a vast, pink-covered bed and shuttered windows. "10pm, 23 August 1927", it says in the corner. "This is the bed where he passed away," a lady in a black veil says softly, as if the old boy is still lying there.

It is the same bedroom into which British soldiers stormed, on December 23, 1921, to send him off to exile in Malta.

Unlike Morsi, Zaghloul wanted to live in a progressive, secular Egypt, saying of his party in 1919 that "the present movement in Egypt is not a religious movement - for Muslims and Copts demonstrate together - and neither is it a xenophobic movement or a movement calling for Arab unity".

Egypt for the Egyptians. You can see why he might be missed today, after an election campaign in which the words "Islam" and "security" seemed interchangeable platitudes.

Zaghloul wasn't a perfect man. But the ordinary people, the street-sweepers and the villagers and the poor, loved him. His lean, mustachioed face with fez on top was as familiar to Egyptians as Arafat's was to Palestinians.

Huda Shaarawi, perhaps a greater feminist than Safeya, wrote a sad letter to Zaghloul in 1924, pleading with him to resign as Prime Minister due to his failings. Zaghloul, said Shaarawi, "should rid us of the embarrassment to which we have been subjected by stepping down".

In contemporary Egypt, army commanders will try to ensure Morsi's powers, such as they are, will be further stripped from him.

Zaghloul might have glanced at the cross-sword epaulettes of the generals and be reminded of General Allenby. Armies know how to safeguard their own power.

For a man born long before his time, it is a dismal fact that Zaghloul died in despair. "Cover me, Safeya," were his last words, uttered on that pink-covered bed, "it's of no use."

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