When we're covering big stories that are likely to be more than footnotes to history, I often go looking for pictures of historical precedents, hoping that they will help us understand and explain what is happening now. So this morning I spent a little time looking for archival images of protests in Egypt, and three stood out for their visual similarity:
IMAGNO / Austrian Archives via Getty Images
EGYPT - CIRCA 1930: Student riots in Egypt. Prime minister Nessim Pasha's car during a demonstration in Cairo. Photograph. 1936.
Tom Fitzsimmons / AP
A huge crowd of Egyptians, protesting United Nations partition of Palestine, gathers in Cairo's Opera Square, Dec. 14, 1947, to listen to Arab leaders speaking from the roof of building at right, foreground.
A. Masraff / Getty Images
Crowds demonstrating, in Cairo's Opera Square, against British involvement in the Suez crisis. Original Publication: Picture Post - 6875 - We Forfeit Respect Abroad - pub. 1954
Unfortunately, I'm having some trouble making sense of exactly what two of the pictures mean, and could use some help.
The first picture's date is unclear, but I'm guessing that the "1936" is right as it's more specific (more likely to be written on the back of a print at the time of creation than "CIRCA 1930") and because 1936 was a momentous year in Egyptian political history: King Fuad died, and Britain and Egypt signed an important treaty.
It's not easy to find out much about Nessim Pasha online, but TIME Magazine's online archive includes dismissive swipe at him in a 1936 piece about political maneuvering in the aftermath of King Fuad's death, calling him a "good safe Fuad stooge," and has this salacious tidbit in a brief 1938 obituary:
Died. Tewfik ("success") Nessim Pasha, 64, three times Egypt's Prime Minister; of heart disease; in Cairo. Leader of Fuad's Cabinet for two short ministries in the 20s, again from 1934-36, taciturn Nessim Pasha was more successful as a business man than as a politician. After his last resignation his life was occupied by making & breaking engagements to marry 17-year-old Maria Huebner, a Viennese hotel keeper's daughter.
If any of you have more information on this image, 1936 protests in Cairo or Nessim Pasha please let us know in comments. Anything we can do to clarify information about historical pictures (we call it "metadata" in the business) is a small contribution to preserving the image itself.
The context of the 1947 picture, and its contemporary echoes, are much more straightforward. Clearly there was a great deal of antipathy in the streets of Cairo for the U.N. partition plan for Palestine, which helped set the stage for civil war and the creation and recognition of the state of Israel. As Michelle Kosinski reported last night on NBC Nightly News, Israelis and Palestinians alike are watching the news in Egypt with great interest, and no small degree of apprehension.
The last picture, dated 1954, we could find out more about with a simple trip to a good U.K. library, or research library in the U.S., to find the relevant copy of The Picture Post, called "the LIFE magazine of the United Kingdom" and memorialized by Getty Images in 2007 with an exhibition of its pictures.
Because I don't have time to go to the library today, and need to get back to work, all I know is that the Suez Crisis took place in 1956, two years after this picture is dated, so we're led to once again guess at the exact context of the picture. What I most want to know: If this is a protest, why is everyone smiling, looking wonderfully happy?
In any case, let us know in comments below if you have a copy of the relevant Picture Post and can tell us more, or if you can recommend your favorite history book about twentieth-century Egyptian history. Hopefully a bit more reading and research can further illuminate these musty old pictures in light of the stream of protest pictures now coming to us from Egypt.
Update 1:28 p.m.:
Courtesy of our friends at Getty Images, via email:
The shot by Masraff/Picture Post has an extended caption on the back. It reads:
“The Egyptian Government unleashed the feelings of the people in the name of nationalism and anti-imperialism and now they are faced with a fierce independence of public opinion and expression which might well prove disastrous to the Wafd regime. King Farouk sees the peril in the new policies of his government and, at this critical phase, he is attempting the role of statesman and mediator. As a result of the abrogation two groups are emerging stronger than ever – the Ikhwan-ul-Musilme?n (Moslem Brotherhood) and the Ishtarakuja (socialists), both of which are especially opposed to the Wafd government. ’Picture Post’ sends cameraman A. Masraff to record events in Egypt. Youth demonstrations in Opera Square with shouts of “Arm us to fight the British”
Update 1:49 p.m.:
If you've gotten this far, you may well be interested in watching the 1981 NBC Nightly News report on Hosni Mubarak's first day in office following the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
Update 5:22 p.m., Feb. 1:
More information from Getty, from the 1936 picture:
“Egyptian Riothers (sic) insult premier – 6.1.36.
Nessim Pasha, the Egyptian Prime Minister, was prevented by a mob of students from attending the opening at the Egyptian University in Cairo recently of the International Surgical Congress. The students shouted insults at him as he drove in his car, which was finally compelled to turn back.
O.P.S. Egyptian student demonstrators surrounding Nahas Pasha’s car as he drove to the Egyptian University in Cairo”
The June, 1936 date on the image (If, in fact, it's June 1 instead of January 6-seeing if we can figure that out) makes it far more likely that the student protest was in allegiance with a Palestinian general strike, "the beginning of the Arab revolt in Palestine," which one contemporary Egyptian said "inflamed public opinion like 'an oven.'" (Quotes from "Egypt and the 1936 Arab Revolt in Palestine," by Thomas Mayer in 1984 in The Journal of Contemporary History--because I still don't have time to go to the library I've only read the online fragment from JSTOR).
This likely connects the 1936 protest with the 1947 protest, as both would be in sympathy with Palestinians and, to some degree at least, anti-Zionist.
Actually, it was in January, according to contemporary accounts of when the International Surgical Congress was held. I'll post again only when I'm sure I know something more.