Saad Zaghlul And The Unity Of

The Two Elements Of The Egyptian Nation


To my mind, one of the most cogent signs of human progress and adherence to humanist values is the way a civilization treats its minorities. To the same extent that the protection of these minorities is a mark of human civilization, their persecution and the violation of their rights, particularly their right to per­sonal security, private property and freedom of worship, is a sign of backwardness and barbarity. Moslems can be justifiably proud that Islam has a noble tradition of treating religious minorities, especially Christians, according to the most advanced norms of civilized behavior. In more than one passage, the great book of Islam, the Holy Quran, deplores as sinful the coercion of people to embrace a faith other than theirs, even if that faith is Islam. According to the sura71of al-Baqara (The Cow), "There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error." Other suras are also unequivocal in deploring the use of coercion to convert people to one single religion: "And if thy Lord willed, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou compel men until they are believers?"
(verse 99, sura of Yunes [Jonah]); "If Allah willed, He could have brought them all together to guidance. So be not thou among the foolish ones" (verse 35, sura of al-Anaam [The Cattle]); "Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve" (verse 29, sura of al-Kahf [The Cave]).

Quranic texts stating that, had it been God's will, He would have united all men in one nation appear in many more suras as well, in almost identical words. All stress the need to preach Islam with kindness and not with violence and coercion. Other texts forbid war against non-Moslems as long as they do not fight the Moslems.

In authenticated references of the Prophet's sayings—the hadith72—Muhammad not only forbids oppression of Christians and Jews but considers such oppression to be a great sin. The hadith states: "He who is unjust to a Christian or a Jew, I shall be his antagonist on the Day of Resurrection." The history of Islam is rich in examples of noble stands. One of the oldest is the refusal of the second caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, to pray in a Jerusalem church during a visit to that city, lest it become a precedent for Moslems to emulate him, thus violating the right of Christians to their own houses of worship. One of the greatest contemporary Arab writers, Abbas al-Aqad, devotes a chapter in his book, Democracy in Islam, to the at­titude of Islam to other faiths. In the chapter "With Strangers," he writes: "Under an Islamic government, non-Moslem people of the Scriptures who are subjects or allies of the State have the same rights and obligations as Moslems. The State will do battle on their behalf as it does on behalf of all its sub­jects, and will not judge them by the tenets of Islam in matters where their faith rules otherwise. Nor can they be called before the courts on their feast days, for the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘You are Jews, and you will not be summoned on the Sabbath.’” According to al-Aqad, a Moslem ruler is required to go beyond the letter of Islamic law in dealing courteously and fairly with non-Moslems, for the Prophet said: "He who insults a Christian or a Jew shall feel lashes of fire on the Day of Resurrection." He also said: "He who harms a Christian or a Jew harms me," and, on another occasion, "He who deals unfairly with a Christian or a Jew and lays a heavier burden on him than he can carry shall be my enemy on the Day of Resurrection." When Amr Ibn al-Aas became Governor of Egypt after the Islamic Conquest, the caliph al-Khattab sent him a missive enjoining him to deal justly with the Copts, the majority of Egypt's population at the time. He wrote: "You have with you the people of the faith and the covenant... Beware, Amr, of making an enemy of the Prophet." In his History of Islamic Conquests, al-Balatheri tells of Omar's visit to the Levant, where he ordered alms to be given to needy Christian lepers. It was also Omar Ibn al-Khattab who granted the Christians of the city of Iliah a treaty that stated: "They shall be secure as to their persons, their churches and their crosses. Their churches are not to be inhabited, destroyed or diminished in any way; nor shall they be coerced as to their faith."

Al-Aqad also notes that Islam gave Christians every opportunity to build churches, practice their religious rites and engage in trade. What better proof could there be that Moslems protected religious minorities throughout their long his­tory, particularly Christians and Jews, he asks, than the fact that they were never coerced into embracing Islam. Even under the Abbasids, when the might of Islam was at its height, religious tolerance prevailed. It continued under Ottoman rule, which protected Christian and Jewish minorities, as borne out by the fact that these communities continued to thrive in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, all of which were under the complete domination of the Ottoman State at its strongest and greatest.

In short, history abounds with examples attesting to the im­portance given by Islam to the protection of religious minorities and their right to practice their faith freely. But this situa­tion did not last forever. When most Islamic countries, particularly the Arab ones, fell into the clutches of European colonialism, they became a perfect ground for the application of one of the major tenets of colonialism in general and of British colonialism in particular: "Divide and rule."

That notorious policy was to leave its mark on the modern history of Egypt. Immediately after Egypt was occupied in 1882 the colonialist authorities began to play Moslems against Copts and nationals against aliens. Inspired by the ideas of Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayed, the Umma Party played a commendable role in en­deavoring to establish the unity of the two elements of the Egyptian nation, the Moslems and the Copts. But the one Egyptian leader who not only put a stop to all the tensions, grievances and conflicts between Moslems and Copts, but who found a new for­mula for brotherhood and profound unity  between the two was Sa’ad Zaghlul. His achievement in this area was a sign of his politi­cal genius and one of the noblest aspects of the 1919 nationalist revolution. No other leader before or since has been as success­ful in uniting these two elements of the Egyptian na­tion.

Zaghlul’s death tempered the enthusiasm of the Copts for the Wafd Party he had founded and whose appeal was due in large measure to his personal charisma and unique leadership. Indeed, their attitude to all political parties since then, whether they existed before the 1952 revolution or date from the days of Nasser and Sadat, have wavered between uneasy resignation at best and burning tension at worst. Rela­tions between Nasser and the Copts were characterized by deep mutual mistrust. Sadat's relations with that community were severely strained, particularly following his shocking decision in September 1981 to remove the head of the Coptic Church by annulling the decree crowning him Patriarch of the Copts of Egypt and of the territories under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate.

What then is the essence of Zaghlul's political genius that led him to find the unique formula which united the two ele­ments of the Egyptian nation in 1919? To answer that question, we must examine the situation in Egypt in the early 20th century.

Between 1906-10 relations between Moslems and Copts sank to an all-time low. During those years, and as a result of the policies and practices of the representatives of British colonialism in Egypt, Sir John Eldon Gorst and his successor, the Earl of Cromer, relations between the two communities underwent the worst crisis in recent history. British colonialism had sown the seeds of discord and tension through the clever application of their divide-and-rule policy, notably in the area of government jobs where violent competition between the two communities was actively encouraged. The British fanned the flames of fanaticism by leading the Coptic minority to feel that they were not getting their full rights or the same opportunities as those available to the Moslems. Tensions were further exacerbated by newspaper coverage of the conflicting points of view.

The crisis reached a peak after the assassination of the Coptic prime minister, Boutros Pasha Ghali, by a young Moslem, Ibrahim al-Wardani, on February 20, 1910.

Sa’ad Zaghlul served in all the successive governments that ruled Egypt through the years of Moslem-Copt crisis (under Mustafa Pasha Fahmy from 1906-08, under Ghali from 1908-10 and under Mohammad Pasha Said from 1910-12). In 1912 he tendered his resignation, refusing to be a puppet minister and the mere executor of the British Commissioner's orders and those of other representatives of the occupation forces. The fact that Zaghlul was a lawyer, a judge renowned for his integrity and equity and a man imbued with Islamic and French culture, enabled him to understand the true nature of the crisis, its origin, its prime movers and their motives. His insight and years of ex­perience made him realize that an even-handed approach would end the crisis and totally eliminate its causes. Thus, he understood that if the majority were to take the initiative in providing a sense of security for the minority, peace between them would ensue; the Copts would no longer fear for themselves, for their property or for the future of their children and there would be no more cause for fanaticism.

Sa’ad Zaghlul accumulated a vast store of experience from his participation in the Orabi Revolution, from his early im­prisonment, his work as a lawyer and judge, as a minister and elected member of the legislative body (1913-1914), and from World War I. He drew the necessary useful lessons and, when he became the leader of the 1919 revolu­tion, he put all his experience to good use to rally the Copts to his cause. Thanks to his moral stature, the two erstwhile protagonists became united under the banner of the revolution, fighting side by side for the cause of the Nation. Moslems and Copts forgot their differences when the man whom both sides trusted without reservation was arrested. Describing the massive popular demonstrations that swept the country on March 17, 1919, Ahmed Hussein (Almanac of Egypt's History, part IV, page 1567) writes: "Perhaps the most magnificent feature that the demonstrations highlighted, a feature which dominated events from the very first moment, was the close unity between Moslems and Copts. To the surprise of the British, who thought they had succeeded in driving a wedge between the two elements of the na­tion, in that instant the two elements fused together and, Egyptians all, fought under the slogan: ‘Religion belongs to God, and the Nation to all.’ The banners raised on March 17, 1919 bore the Cross and the Crescent together.

Among Sa’ad Zaghlul's closest and most loyal companions during the revolution and throughout the years of nationalist struggle from 1919 to 1924, were eminent Copts like Wassef Ghali, Wisa Wassef, Makram Ebeid and others. It will be remembered that when the British occupation forces arrested Sa’ad Zaghlul and sent him into exile on December 22, 1921, two of the five com­panions exiled with him were Copts: Senewet Hanna and Makram Ebeid. The following year seven of Zaghlul's companions were arrested by the occupation forces and sentenced to death; of the seven, four were Copts. Following the arrest of this second group of Wafdist leaders, a new group of nine, including two Copts, took over the leadership of the party. These too were arrested and a fourth group was formed, composed of six leaders, two of them Copts. The prominence of Copts in the upper echelons of the Wafd bears witness to the broad national vision of Zaghlul. Un­der his leadership, the Wafd won a sweeping victory in the first real elections held in Egypt. When he named the first popular cabinet in Egypt's modern history in January 1924 he did not follow the tradition of appointing only one Coptic minister: out of nine ministers, two were Copts.

     Zaghlul actively strove to eradicate fanaticism and bias by pursuing a policy based on the spirit of Egyptian nationalism and on respect for the members of the minority who became an integral part of his popular ruling party. A new spirit of brotherhood prevailed between Moslems and Copts, best exemplified in an incident which took place in the late-1930s. When a soldier, using a poisoned lance, tried to kill Mustafa al-Nahas, who succeeded Zaghlul as leader of the Wafd, Coptic party member Senewet Hanna protected him with his own life. His sacrifice was an unforget­table symbol of the unity which bound the two elements of the Egyptian nation together. This degree of unity and brotherhood can only be destroyed when fanaticism invades the ranks in the form of reactionary ideas which are ill-suited to the age in which we live and to a nation such as ours. National peace and harmony promise the only hope of salvation from the abhorrent storm of fundamentalism which has raged for so long in our part of the world.