How Cairo’s Cafés Made Egypt’s 1919 Revolution

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An outdoor Cairo café.
An outdoor Cairo café.Credit: Richard l'Anson / Getty Images
Alon Tam
Alon Tam
Alon Tam
Alon Tam

Cafés remain a key institution of society, social life and even politics in Egypt – not to mention the whole Mediterranean. In Egypt, the roots of this institution go back to the 16th century, but a big change came at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In those years, Europeans entered Egypt’s political and economic life, while the Egyptian elites adopted ideas and customs from Europe. From 1882, the British gradually consolidated their hold on the country, while state institutions continued to exist in parallel as deep reforms set in.

In that period, Egypt’s rulers invested tremendous resources in developing the country, particularly Cairo. The city expanded beyond the old town, in accordance with French and Italian planning and architecture.

The economic upturn attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Italy, Greece, France, Britain, Syria and elsewhere to Egypt’s cities; many of them opened hundreds of European-style cafés in the new neighborhoods. These joined the many hundreds of Egyptian-Ottoman coffee houses in the old city and nearby.

Like Cairo’s new neighborhoods, the new cafés drew inspiration from their Italian, Greek and French forebears, and were significantly different from their Egyptian-Ottoman rivals. The new cafés opened in buildings that also had been built in the Italian and French styles.

A late-19th-century Cairo café targeting the lower classes.Credit: Hulton Fine Art Collection

Second, the immigrants brought with them new traditions of leisure culture and food. If the Egyptian-Ottoman cafés mainly served tea and coffee, some of the newcomers also served alcohol, cake and European treats like millefeuille pastries, glazed chestnuts and ice cream alongside familiar treats  like hoshaf, a kind of cold fruit compote, which was considered an elitist beverage.

In the Egyptian-Ottoman cafés it was customary to perform music, listen to storytellers or poetry readings, and watch shadow puppetry. In the new cafés, ensembles, mostly made up of women, played light music – both Western and Arab – and men and women would dance together. Some of the greatest Arabic vocalists like Oum Kalthoum began their careers in cafés. Smoking water pipes, playing cards and board games, and reading newspapers were de rigueur in both sorts of establishment.

The new hierarchy

The new cafés catered to both the European immigrants and Egyptians attracted to European culture and style. But there was no dearth of critics who took a dim view of drinking alcohol in public and men and women mingling in public. At that time, “European culture” came to be identified with the high society of the powerful, both in the colonial bureaucracy and among the Egyptian elites.

Indeed, some of the new cafés became the regular meeting places of those social groups. At the same time, the traditional Egyptian-Ottoman coffee houses were increasingly perceived as old-fashioned haunts of the lower classes. They were called “local” or “popular,” implying their Egyptian authenticity.

A Cairo café.Credit: Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images

Thus by the start of the 20th century there was a clear hierarchy of cafés. Men and women from the top elite hardly frequented them; they continued to meet in their private palaces or exclusive clubs. The more expensive “European” cafés were frequented by the upper middle class, both foreigners and Egyptians. The less elaborate cafés, both “European” and “local” or combinations of the two, were frequented by the lower middle class, including bohemians, intellectuals, writers and artists and especially civil servants, students and professionals.

The cafés on the lowest rung, as well as the hashish and alcohol dens, were the haunts of laborers and the lower class. The cafés reinforced class identities because men (mostly) met with their peers and all dressed, ate and drank in the same way, engaged in the same activities and were interested in the same things.

Moreover, the cafés were where friends and acquaintances talked not just about their lives but about events around the country and politics. The cafés were also the most obvious place for reading newspapers. Here the middle class’ political world was shaped by newspapers – as opposed to highbrow journals. They were also where the pundits and journalists sat and did their writing.

Therefore, the authorities had a clear interest in keeping track of what went on at the cafés in order to assess public opinion, a relatively new concept at the time, and keep in line political movements that threatened them.

To that end, the regime operated its intelligence services, whether the Egyptian secret police, British military intelligence or secret agents who reported directly to the Egyptian ruler, who reigned under British protection. For example, Agent 294, an undercover agent reporting directly to Khedive Abbas Hilmi II (who ruled from 1892 to 1914), listened in on conversations at the “local” cafés in Cairo’s old city. In 1901 and 1902 he frequently reported on people who were looking for connections to the royal court in order to finagle a noble title, a job or financial favor.

A Cairo café at the beginning of the 20th century. Credit: Roger Viollet / Getty Images

He also reported on the corruption of court or government officials, political scandals and mainly conversations among journalists who boasted of their writings against the Egyptian regime and supported the increasing British involvement in the country, which in their view promised freedom of the press.

Beware the secret police

The Egyptian middle class, especially the students, became activists in the emerging Egyptian nationalist movement, as seen in the Cairo cafés. From 1908 to 1910 the Egyptian secret police listened in on the conversations and speeches of nationalist activists in the cafés. They heard the complaints against the Egyptian ruler and the British, who only strengthened their hold on Egypt. The climax came after World War I, during which the British imposed a military government on the country.

In 1919 a long series of mass demonstrations and strikes by officials, students and workers broke out, later known as the 1919 revolution, in which the Egyptians demanded an end to the British occupation and the granting of independence. British military intelligence closely surveilled events and talk at Cairo cafés, especially the “new” ones. The middle class, after all, was talking about the demonstrations, the strikes and efforts to obtain international support for independence.

But the cafés of course were as much a place to organize and exchange information as to just talk. Students handed out bulletins for the various nationalist parties, demonstration committees and strikers, or posted them on café doors. Every day at about 6 P.M. the bulletins, which were called “the mail,” would arrive; they were read aloud, and sometimes students would climb onto tables and shout slogans or launch into speeches.

Egyptian army soldiers in Cairo in 2013.Credit: Reuters

The instructions for demonstrations and strikes were also distributed at the cafés, and in August 1919 even the café waiters' union briefly joined the strikes. The British army prohibited distribution of “the mail,” but the activists handed out the bulletins in secret at the cafés. Failing, within a few days the British army abandoned its efforts to curb nationalist activity in the cafés.

Thus Cairo’s cafés embodied the rapid social change in Egypt in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th. The cafés, both new and old, “European” and “local,” “superior” and “low,” were all a product of European and Egyptian societal cultural leaders. They shaped a new class structure and a new social and ethnic mix.

The cafés became the cradle of the new urban middle class, and the more it shouldered the Egyptian national movement, the more the cafés housed these efforts, as seen in the 1919 revolution.

Alon Tam is a doctoral student at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

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