A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, January 26, 2015

63 Years: Black Saturday, January 26, 1952

It is a curious fact that, 63 years after the Cairo Fire of January 26, 1952, there is still debate about who instigated it. Some 750 buildings in the heart of Cairo were burned and dozens died, yet no one has ever been held accountable. Depending on the prevailing ideological winds at the time, regime narratives since 1952 have tended to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, the King, the Wafd, or the British, even though the last were the main targets. Most historians assume that more than one of the above elements played a role, either of commission or omission.

The previous day, Friday, January 25, in a major clash in the Suez Canal Zone, the British Army had killed 50 Egyptian policemen in Ismailia after besieging the police post following hit-and-run attacks on British troops. (For details, including a video, see this post.)  The Wafd Government of Prime Minister Mustafa Nahas had previously abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, and Interior Minister Fuad Serag al-Din ordered the police to hold out at all costs.

Rage was naturally running high on Saturday. Some organized political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Misr al-Fatat Movement, were likely both among the instigators, though Serag al-Din and the Wafd may have welcomed demonstrations until they got out of hand.

When demonstrators saw a police officer dining with a woman on the terrace of Casino Opera, the famed nightclub founded by Badia Masabni on Opera Square, they attacked him for not joining his colleagues in Ismailia, and proceeded to sack and burn the club, Cairo's most famous belly-dancing venue. (Badia Masabni had sold the club in 1950 but most still called it Madame Badia's.) That is usually considered the first of the fires, and may have been the Brotherhood, which opposed nightclubs, bars, and  cinemas, all of which were soon being targeted.

As the afternoon wore on, mobs (some apparently organized, some not) attacked British institutions (most famously Shepheard's Hotel, but also Barclay's Bank, the Turf Club, etc.); institutions owned by Greeks, Italians, Jews and others were also targeted.

Shepheard's in Ruins
Shepheard's was destroyed; the grandest of the colonial era hotels was a prime target and some guests died in the fire.

Cinema Rivoli on fire
Many cinema theaters were also attacked, though the demonstrators reportedly struck only after the matinees had ended when there were no patrons, This suggests come careful planning.

Cicurel Department Store
As the fires were spreading throughout downtown, there was little being done to stop them. King Farouq, lunching with senior police officials. took no immediate action. Nor did Serag al-Din, the Wafd Interior Minister. Though the Wafd and the King were sworn enemies at this point, the inaction of both has fueled conspiracy theories ever since.

Cinema Metro
Finally, in the evening, the Army was called in to restore order. What had begun as an anti-British protest had turned into a destructive event that further weakened the King and the Wafd, and destroyed much of central Cairo's best-known institutions, many of them Egyptian-owned. Less than six months later, on July 23, the Free Officers would stage their coup.

A newsreel of the aftermath:

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