A wonderful page in the shared history of Egypt and Sudan that occurred exactly 100 years ago has not received its due share of attention.
The hero is a Sudanese army officer, first lieutenant Ali Abdel-Latif, who publicly advocated national independence for his country and liberation from British colonial rule. In 1922, he proclaimed national principles that included the right to national self-determination as well as the integral unity of Egypt and Sudan.
He and his colleagues published a letter attacking the British colonial order. The great historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafei recorded its substance in the first volume of his “In the Wake of the Egyptian Revolution.” Abdel-Latif’s movement held that the British had sought to separate Sudan from Egypt against the will of the people, and those who gave speeches and signed petitions declaring allegiance to Britain represented only themselves.
British policy brought no benefit for the Sudanese people, Abdel-Latif said, and instead the British overburdened them with taxes. Britain was also unjust to the inhabitants of the Sudanese states, especially Gezira where the British took the people’s land and gave it to British companies.
Moreover, Britain monopolised cotton and sugar production in Sudan and monopolised all senior government posts, preventing qualified Sudanese from serving in them. The country’s money was spent on the construction and maintenance of the luxurious residences of British civil servants, Abdel-Latif said, while Sudanese civil servants lived in mud and straw huts for which they had to pay out of their own meagre salaries. Their dwellings were also vulnerable to destruction from fire or floods.
Finally, under the British the education system in Sudan was deficient at Gordon College in Khartoum and at other schools.
Naturally, the British colonial authorities did not take this sitting down. They quickly suppressed the national movement that Abdel-Latif had founded, dismissed him from his post, and sentenced him to a year in prison.
The trial and sentencing inspired widespread sympathy and support for the young officer. That support continued to build, especially after Saad Zaghlul, the national hero of Egypt’s 1919 Revolution, became Egyptian prime minister in 1924.
As Al-Rafei observes in his book, the Sudanese national independence movement then became more active and the Sudanese people in general looked forward to the birth of a new era that would bring the realisation of aspirations for a unified Nile Valley.
The Sudanese expressed their instinctive sense of solidarity with Egypt, and they campaigned to strengthen the bonds of unity between Egypt and Sudan and to work together with Egyptians for the advancement of a national project and the evacuation of the British from the Nile Valley.
The British remained intent on the separation of Egypt from Sudan, which they continued to rule directly as a colony. Sudanese nationalists grew more determined and pro-independence demonstrations grew more frequent and impassioned, causing the British colonial authorities to fear an uprising along the lines of the 1919 Revolution in Egypt or the Mahdist Revolution in Sudan in 1880.
I was reminded of this illustrious page in history when following Sudan’s expression of solidarity with Egypt in the aftermath of the recent deadly terrorist attack east of the Suez Canal that killed many members of our Armed Forces.
Like many Egyptian and Sudanese people today, I share the dream that one day these two peoples will see the unity of the Nile Valley in fulfilment of their independent national wills. Unification does not necessarily need to take the form of a merger or a confederation; it can take whatever form political thinkers in Sudan and Egypt conceive. What matters is its purpose as a step towards the development of joint economic, logistical, and strategic institutions that promote and sustain stability, progress, and prosperity and that ward off threats to Egyptian and Sudanese national security, territorial integrity, and natural resources, especially to the water of the River Nile.
This dream includes the belief that it will have a great positive impact on relations with South Sudan, the country with which we, as Sudanese and Egyptians, share inseparable ties at all levels. Just imagine the possibilities of high-level coordination in joint development and economic projects that engage the diverse expertise available in Cairo, Khartoum, and Juba in the interest of a dignified life for all.
Nations often need to revive glorious chapters in their history, to seek inspiration from their national struggles, and to learn the lessons of the past in order to avert suffering and escape the cycle of reproducing the same mistakes.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Ali Abdel-Latif and his colleagues who had faith in the potential of the unity of Sudan and Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.