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Research Notes

A Memory Debate: The Controversial Case of the Lesseps Statue in Port Said

Un débat mémoriel : la controverse autour de la statue de Ferdinand de Lesseps à Port-Saïd
صراعات الذاكرة في المدينة: الحالة الجدلية لتمثال ديليسبس في بورسعيد
Ahmed Elgezy
p. 145-157

Résumés

Cet article présente l’itinéraire de la statue de Ferdinand de Lesseps dans la ville de Port-Saïd à travers différentes époques de l’Histoire ainsi que les controverses autour de son éventuel retour dans la ville. Il tente d’éclairer la façon dont la mémoire collective façonne le cours des événements présents. L’article ne s’étend pas sur la vie de Ferdinand de Lesseps (et s’il mérite ou non l’érection d’une statue à l’entrée du Canal en son honneur), mais montre, à travers les débats et controverses autour de la statue, l’écart entre les points de vue des habitants de Port-Saïd sur leur passé colonial. Certains, qui convoquent le souvenir de la colonisation et surtout de l’agression tripartite (guerre de 1956), y voient une époque révolue dont les symboles ne doivent pas être restaurés. Pour d’autres, les photographies de la ville d’antan avec ses traits européens évoquent un sentiment de nostalgie pour une époque où Port-Saïd était le trait d’union entre l’Orient et l’Occident, et où vivaient des personnes de nationalités diverses. Pour ceux-là, le retour de la statue représente l’espoir du retour du tourisme et la restauration de cette époque et ces symboles imaginaires. Dans ce contexte, la statue de Ferdinand de Lesseps apparaît comme un cas de commémoration générale dont la lecture et l’interprétation évoluent dans le temps. Ainsi, l’article mobilise le cas de Ferdinand de Lesseps à Port-Saïd comme un exemple de fabrication de la mémoire collective locale, qui, si elle se confond parfois avec la mémoire nationale, possède néanmoins ses propres particularités. Si les manifestations du passé sont encore bien présentes à Port-Saïd aujourd’hui, une étude critique de l’époque coloniale et de la notion de patrimoine local, à Port-Saïd en particulier, et dans les villes du Canal de façon générale, est nécessaire.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

Figure 1. The empty base of the statue of Lesseps in front of the Suez Canal in Port Said.

Figure 1. The empty base of the statue of Lesseps in front of the Suez Canal in Port Said.

Photo taken by the author, August 24, 2021

1The statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps is one of Port Said’s most famous public monuments. Located on a strategic site in the city, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, the statue has maintained a dramatic relationship with the people of Port Said for over a century. During the colonial era, the statue was erected to commemorate Lesseps as an icon of the Suez Canal project. By the end of the Suez War in 1956, the city’s inhabitants toppled the statue because of its colonial symbolism. However, several calls for the statue’s reinstatement have reignited one of the longest-running debates in the city in the last forty years. The debate is centered between those who call for the reinstatement of the statue because it is an integral part of the city’s history and has potential touristic value, and opponents who view Lesseps as a symbol of colonialism. After the Egyptian authorities shipped the statue from Port Said to Ismailia, many voices within the city condemned the decision, considering the departure of the statue as a loss for the heritage of Port Said.

2In this paper, I explore the biography of the Lesseps statue in Port Said by tracing its historical trajectory. Namely, I investigate the origins and the perspectives of both sides of the debate and show how memories of the past can shape individuals’ stances towards the statue. In this regard, I intend to present the Lesseps statue as a case study of how public monuments are not just stones, but rather a living process revealing how individual perceptions towards the building evolve over time. Moreover, the case of Port Said’s colonial legacy opens an avenue for further research into the differences between local and national perspectives on memory and heritage.

Port Said destroys Lesseps: Historical understandings of Port Said’s colonial past

3In April 1859, the city of Port Said was established at the very moment the drilling of the Suez Canal began. A few years after the inauguration of the canal, the city became an international Mediterranean port, linking East and West, Europe with Africa and Asia. Despite its diverse racial and ethnic make-up, the city has, since its foundation, been characterized by urban segregation (Huber 2013, 44-45; Elkerdany 2017). While Europeans arriving in Port Said resided in the eastern part of the city overlooking the canal, Egyptian newcomers resided in the Arab quarter to the west, near Lake Manzala. The French-dominated Suez Canal Company and the European residents established a city reminiscent of their aesthetic environment in the details of its residential houses, the division of streets, their designation and width, pedestrian sidewalks, spacious public squares and parks, recreational clubs, and large churches (Modelski 2000). On the other side, native Egyptians built their neighborhood of stacked wooden houses separated by narrow streets.

4The segregated structure of Port Said reflected the hierarchical administration of the city. For instance, The Suez Canal Company had control over the city. Under the 1856 concession, the Company owned most of the city’s land and left the Egyptian government with a limited effective role in Port Said. Moreover, the British colonization of Egypt in 1882 marginalized Egyptian authority over the city. This French and British predominance was evident in the city’s monuments and the names of the main streets and squares (Elgezy 2017). For example, the main streets adopted the names of Lesseps, Empress Eugenie, Lord Kitchener, Francois Joseph, and Thomas Waghorn. At the same time, the city had a monument to Queen Victoria and a bust of Lesseps in the main square named after him. Nevertheless, the most remarkable monument in the city was the Lesseps statue. Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French diplomat who worked at the French consulate in Alexandria and was a close friend of the ruling family in Egypt. In 1854, he convinced the Egyptian Khedive Said to realize the great Suez Canal project and was the first president of the Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal until his death in 1894 (Youssef 2009, 33).

5In 1899, on the 30th anniversary of its opening, the Canal Company erected the statue of Lesseps at the meeting point between the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. The statue, sculpted by Emmanuel Fremiet, was made of bronze. Its height was 7.5 meters and it cost around 250,000 Francs. The statue had a stone base that was 9.4 meters high; with a bronze painting that read in Latin “Aperire Terram Gentibus” (we open the land for all states). The inauguration ceremony was attended by the Khedive of Egypt Abbas Helmi, Prime Minister Mostafa Fahmy Pasha, the Governor of the Canal Hussein Wasef, the foreign consuls in Port Said, as well as French and British officials (Elewa 2012, 141).

6The foreign domination of the city and its urban division continued till the middle of the 20th century. However, Egyptian inhabitants protested against this domination on various occasions. For instance, Egyptian citizens organized mass demonstrations coinciding with the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and protests were violently dispersed when they reached the European quarter (El Rafey 1987, 241). In 1947, Port Said’s residents protested again against Britain after the failure of the independence negotiations between Egypt and Britain. Remarkably, during these protests, demonstrators attacked and vandalized many European monuments in the city, including the bust of Lesseps (Crosnier Leconte 2016, 130).

7The turning point in Port Said’s history was the Suez War in 1956, when a tripartite aggression composed of Great Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. The war began in October 1956, a few months after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company and almost two years after Egypt’s complete independence from the British. The Anglo-French aggression occurred in Port Said, resulting in the occupation of the city for nearly two months and the destruction of large parts of it. Specifically, the district of al-Manakh in the Arab part of the city, which witnessed a violent resistance of the residents to the aggression, ended up being completely destroyed by the British forces. The war continued until the United Nations intervened and imposed a ceasefire, that was followed by the withdrawal of the invading armies (Britannica 2021).

8At the end of the war, the statue of Lesseps was the center of symbolic victory celebrations. Thousands of Port Said inhabitants and resistance fighters gathered and toppled the statue from its base (Elewa 2012, 141). The protesters considered it as a colonial icon that should be erased from their liberated city. Interestingly, the statue was symbolically important to the colonial armies who attached the French and British flags on the statue before leaving the city, a move that pushed the Egyptian protesters to destroy the statue (Ibid, 142). The angry crowd burnt the aggressors’ flags then executed three attempts to explode the statue, and only the last attempt with 35 kilos of dynamite overturned the whole statue.

Figure 2. “The End of a Statue and of an Era”.

Figure 2. “The End of a Statue and of an Era”.

Images, December 29, 1956, no. 1425: 20

9Eventually, in the following decade, after nationalizing the Suez Canal, the Egyptian state nationalized many foreign properties in the European district and changed its name to al-Sharq (the East) district, rebuilding the destroyed parts of the Arab district and implementing a new housing project for Egyptians consisting of socialist-style buildings (Elshahed 2012). More interestingly, the state replaced foreign names of streets and squares with names of Egyptian nationalist icons. For example, Lesseps Street became Saad Zaghloul Street, and Kitchener Street was named after July 23 (the day of the 1952 revolution). As a result, within a few years, the city no longer had any statue, square or street named after Lesseps.

10In addition, the Egyptian government built a large memorial for the martyrs of the war in the form of a vast pharaonic obelisk in the main square, opposite the administrative building of the governorate, the first Egyptian monument in the city’s history (Port Said Governorate, n.d.).

11Moreover, Nasser’s regime commemorated the war itself and Port Said’s anticolonial struggle. The Egyptian government announced the date of the end of the war, December 23rd, as Egypt’s national day (‘aîd al-nasr – the day of victory). Furthermore, on each anniversary of the war, Nasser visited Port Said and delivered a speech to thousands of the city’s residents who gathered to celebrate the momentous victory (Bibalex Nasser platform n.d.). On the war’s anniversary in 1964, Nasser also opened Port Said’s military museum to document the war and narrate the heroism of Port Said’s people in defeating colonialism (Egyptian Armed Forces, n.d.).

The rise of nostalgia: Re-thinking the statue’s significance

12The intensity of the memory of the war and the hostility towards the colonial era diminished with time and the changing symbolism of Port Said in the following decades. Nasser’s era came to a dramatic end with the invasion and occupation of Sinai by the Israeli army in 1967. The war turned the Suez Canal region into a war zone and forced the people of Port Said to leave their city and migrate to other Egyptian governorates. When Port Said’s inhabitants returned after the war in 1974, the city entered a new era. In January 1976, President Sadat declared Port Said a free trade zone, turning Nasser’s nationalistic icon into a symbol of his open-door policy (Teima 2020).

13A few years later, in October 1981, the statue of Lesseps reappeared after a British naval lieutenant accidentally discovered its wreckage. The lieutenant found the statue divided into four pieces, missing the feet and a finger of the right hand. Then, the damaged statue was kept in Port Said’s Maritime Arsenal warehouses. Afterwards in 1987, the Egyptian authorities accepted calls from French officials in Egypt to restore the statue. The head of the restoration department of the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO) managed the restoration (Crosnier Leconte 2016, 134). Several potential buyers such as the Musée d’Orsay and the city of Marseille solicited the purchase of the statue. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government refused the offer and decided to keep it in Egypt, considering it a part of the Egyptian heritage (Ibid). As a result, the statue was restored in the warehouses in 1989 by a French expert with the help of six Egyptian workers (Ibid).

14Since the restoration of the statue, several calls to return the statue to its base in Port Said have been voiced. French organizations have sponsored these demands, such as the Association du Souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du Canal de Suez founded in France in 1978. The association was established by Jacques Georges-Picot, the last French general manager of the Suez Canal Company before its nationalization (Association du Souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du Canal de Suez, n.d.). The main goal of the association is to perpetuate the memory of the Suez Canal and Ferdinand de Lesseps (Ibid). The association’s members believe that the old disputes between France and Egypt are no longer significant and that the Suez Canal is a tangible link between the two nations (Ibid). They have established good relations with Egyptian institutions such as the Suez Canal Company, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the governorate of Port Said (Lutfy 2020; Abdulghany 2017). More significantly, representatives from the association have made numerous visits to Port Said and met with successive governors of the city to suggest the return of the Lesseps statue to its pedestal (Alrefaey 2017). The association’s persistent demands to re-erect the statue in front of the Suez Canal indicate that its objective is precisely to keep the memory of the Suez Canal as Lesseps’ enterprise, highlighting the French role in the construction of the canal. Claimants for the statue’s return see neither the statue of Lesseps nor Port Said’s past as a colonial or oppressing past, but as a glorious and lost past. In other words, the demands for the return of the statue appear consistent with an escalating nostalgic feeling in Port Said towards the city’s past.

  • 1 Qasim Elewa is one of Port Said’s famous writers and novelists who published many books with the E (...)
  • 2 The fidâʼiyin here are the groups of civil fighters, also called civil resistance, who fought and (...)
  • 3 Sayed Asran is one of the heroes of the 1956 war in Port Said. He led different operations against (...)

15One of Port Said’s intellectuals and novelists, Qasim Elewa1, recounts the subsequent calls for the return of the statue from 1989 to 2003 (Elewa 2012). Elewa himself, who has been a member of the leftist party Al-tagammu‘, was among the writers and thinkers who led the movement against reinstating the statue. Many fidâʼiyin2 who participated in the 1956 war, such as Sayed Asran3, also mobilized the people of Port Said to reject the reinstatement of the statue and threatened to destroy it again (Ibid, 144). By 1989, the Port Said governorate was already preparing to return the statue, but according to Elewa, the strong public opinion backed by the heroes of the 1956 war prevented the authorities from taking such a step (Ibid, 143). The debates about the statue showed a wide public audience, especially in the city of Port Said, and the discussions extended to the Egyptian Parliament and the local television station in the Suez Canal region “channel 4” (Ibid, 145).

16What have kept the debate going are the persistence of the French association and the wave of nostalgia towards the European heritage, including the statue, among many residents of Port Said. The debate over the statue has recently moved to social media via Facebook pages and groups, reflected in various comments in most posts or photos about Lesseps and his statue. For instance, in recent years, many inhabitants of Port Said have shared a plethora of old photos of the city on Facebook and created pages attracting tens of thousands of followers, such as “Port-Said: a meeting point between East and West” which, so far, has around 144K followers (@Port Said forum, n.d.), and “Port-Said between Past and Present”, with around 108K followers (@Port Said between Past and Present, n.d.). Most of the pictures circulating are those of the European district of Port Said and nostalgic pictures of the colonial past, when Port Said was a global and cosmopolitan city.

17In a similar vein, a Facebook group founded in 2016 and called “Ferdinand de Lesseps’ return” gathered around 10,000 members (@Ferdinand de Lesseps, n.d.). A look at the group’s posts shows that the founders and members of the group care about keeping the city’s unique heritage, and nostalgia for the city’s past by sharing old photos of the statue and of European buildings in Port Said. Also, in many posts, the return of the Lesseps statue is considered as an opportunity to attract tourists and make the city global again. On the other hand, another Facebook group founded in November 2020 and called “Against Lesseps’ return” gathered around 6,000 members (@Xdelesebs, n.d.). On the group, the posts expressed patriotic sentiments and considered Lesseps’ return as a betrayal to the martyrs of the 1956 war. However, Port Said was not the focus of the later group’s posts, and many discussed various national issues.

  • 4 Eugenie Nights is the name of a soap opera that was screened in Egypt in 2018 during Ramadan month (...)

18Moreover, the recalled reminiscences from the past have been commercialized with a remarkable number of cafes and restaurants using names such as Lesseps or Eugenie’s Nights4 to attract customers. Notably, the main street of a new gated community project in Port Said was named after Lesseps (Hendawi 2021). In addition, the celebration of Lesseps’ name has moved from individual and private enterprises to official authorities. In March 2021, the governorate of Port Said inaugurated a touristic street and a shopping mall named after Lesseps (Khudeir 2021).

Figure 3. “Lesseps Bay” touristic street in Port Said.

Figure 3. “Lesseps Bay” touristic street in Port Said.

Photo taken by the author, August 24, 2021

19In his study on Holocaust memorials, James Young refers to the evolution in the memorials’ significance and how they take on a life of their own. For Young, new generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings (Young 1994, 3). Similarly, Lucia Volk suggests that public memorials need to be considered as “events” with a life of their own (Volk 2010, 2). In Port Said, the shift in the perception of Lesseps’s statue, from a colonial and unwelcome foreign icon to a landmark of the city and a consistent part of its history with a potential touristic value, is a noteworthy example of how monuments are not just stones and that their meanings keep evolving.

Between the local and the national: the statue belongs to the city’s heritage

20In October 2020, the controversial statue of Lesseps left Port Said after spending almost 120 years in the city. The authority of the Suez Canal secretly shipped the statue overnight, from its warehouses in Port Said’s shipyard to Ismailia, to join the new Suez Canal Museum in Ismailia (Hassan 2020). The shipping of the statue from Port Said, especially in this secretive manner, caused much anger in the city. The anger was based on the refusal to move a piece from the registered antiquities in Port Said to another city. In response to this opposition, two of the representatives of Port Said in Parliament sent official requests to the Egyptian government to bring the statue back to Port Said, and then lead a community discussion about where to keep the statue in the city; in a museum or on its historical pedestal (Abdulmegeed 2020; Eldeeb 2020). Interestingly, the idea that the Lesseps statue is part of Port Said’s heritage was present even in the writings of Elewa, who campaigned extensively against the statue’s return to its pedestal. In the end, he proposed that the government keep the statue in one of Port Said’s museums as part of its heritage (Elewa 2012, 147).

21The idea of considering the statue as a part of Port Said’s heritage opens a third perspective on the issue of De Lessep’s return that escapes the dichotomy of whether or not the statue should be re-erected as a public monument. Instead, it shifts the focus to keeping it in the city. This local perspective on the Lesseps statue is part of a broader perspective shared by many inhabitants of Port Said towards the city’s colonial and European heritage.

22Port Said’s past during the colonial period has little significance in the Egyptian national narrative about the city, which focuses on its role in fighting colonialism and as an icon of resistance. However, for many local inhabitants of Port Said, this past has acquired a different vital significance in their perception of the city. Over the past decade, many young locals have developed initiatives to protect and document Port Said’s heritage, focusing on the European quarter of the city. For example, in August 2013, a group of youngsters organized a protest against the transfer of some antiquities belonging to the Suez Canal Company from Port Said to Ismailia. The participants declared that the antiquities of Port Said must remain in Port Said (Sobeih 2013). Young residents of Port Said formed another initiative called “Port Said ala ademo” to showcase Port Said’s distinct heritage and organize tours around the city’s historical monuments (@PSademo, n.d.). The initiative attracted dozens of volunteers, and its events were well attended. Meanwhile, the cultural department of the Alliance Française de Port-Saïd actively participated to organizing activities focused on recognizing the city’s heritage, such as contests for youth to identify the city’s landmarks, and a day to discover the city’s Greek heritage monuments (@afportsaid, n.d.). Common to all these initiatives was the overriding interest in the European part of the city as a constitutive part of Port Said’s unique local identity. In these initiatives, the importance of the old buildings and monuments in the European part of the city are reminders of a past when Port Said was a global port and a cosmopolitan city that gives it a particular position among other Egyptian cities.

Conclusion

23The case of the Lesseps statue in Port Said illuminates how meanings and perceptions of public monuments are relational and changing. Through narrating the statue’s biography, I underlined how collective memories of the past play a significant role in debates over current disputes. The debate over Lesseps’s statue reflects generally how the colonial past is being remembered in Port Said, and how memories are constructed and continue to evolve.

24On the one hand, the article attempts to show how the urban space of Port Said has been an arena of contestation among different powers: the colonizers, and later the Egyptian state, perpetuated specific memories. Nevertheless, on the other hand, it pointed out how the inhabitants of Port Said have always been active actors regarding the public space of their city. On different occasions, they protested, actively discussed, and challenged the different authorities.

25Moreover, the article highlighted the dissonance between national and regional (or local) perceptions of memory and heritage, opening an avenue for further research. In the light of Port Said’s statue of Lesseps, many of the city’s dwellers perceive the colonial heritage and its icons as unique features that distinguish Port Said among other Egyptian cities. Accordingly, the idea of keeping Lesseps’s monument inside the city is central for them, whether by reinstating the statue on its base or in a closed museum.

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@Port Said between Past and Present. n.d. Facebook page Bûr sa‘îd bayn al-mâdî wa-l-hâdir. Accessed June 14, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/Port.Said.between.past.and.present.

@Port Said Forum. n.d. Facebook page Bûr sa‘îd multaqâ al-sharq wa-l-gharb [Port Said a meeting point between the East and the West.] Accessed June 14, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/PortSaidForum/.

@PSademo. n.d. Facebook page Bûr sa‘îd ‘alâ qadîmhu [Port Said as it was in the old times.] Accessed June 14, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/PSademo.

@Xdelesebs. n.d. Facebook group Did ‘awdat timthâl dîlîsibs: Bûr sa‘îd tatrud dîlîsibs [Against De Lesseps’ statue’s return. Port Said kicks out De Lesseps.] Accessed June 14, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/groups/93063134188.

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Notes

1 Qasim Elewa is one of Port Said’s famous writers and novelists who published many books with the Egyptian authority of cultural palaces.

2 The fidâʼiyin here are the groups of civil fighters, also called civil resistance, who fought and led military operations against the colonial forces in the Suez Canal region between 1951-1956.

3 Sayed Asran is one of the heroes of the 1956 war in Port Said. He led different operations against the British forces.

4 Eugenie Nights is the name of a soap opera that was screened in Egypt in 2018 during Ramadan month, the season of TV series. It talks about the life in Port Said in the 1940s in a nostalgic sense.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The empty base of the statue of Lesseps in front of the Suez Canal in Port Said.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, August 24, 2021
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14779/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1004k
Titre Figure 2. “The End of a Statue and of an Era”.
Crédits Images, December 29, 1956, no. 1425: 20
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14779/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 561k
Titre Figure 3. “Lesseps Bay” touristic street in Port Said.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, August 24, 2021
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14779/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 353k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ahmed Elgezy, « A Memory Debate: The Controversial Case of the Lesseps Statue in Port Said »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 145-157.

Référence électronique

Ahmed Elgezy, « A Memory Debate: The Controversial Case of the Lesseps Statue in Port Said »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ema/14779 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ema.14779

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Auteur

Ahmed Elgezy

Ahmed Elgezy is currently a Master's student of Sociology and Social anthropology at the Central European University in Vienna. He is interested in questions of nationalism, popular culture, memory, and cultural heritage. Elgezy graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of the Suez Canal University in 2014 and practiced as a doctor for four years. He holds a degree in Liberal Arts from Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences CILAS. Subsequently, Elgezy co-founded an educational initiative called Mubtada's that teaches humanities and social sciences to adolescents. Additionally, he was a member and co-organizer of Ehki ya Tarikh history workshops, and went on to co-initiate an oral history workshop entitled "We will return soon" that narrated the history of forced migration in the Suez Canal region after the 1967 war. Between 2018-2020, Elgezy worked as a cultural manager for Goethe Institute and Robert Bosch Foundation in Cairo where he implemented many cultural projects in the Nile Delta and Suez Canal regions, focusing on promoting these cities' local history and cultural heritage.

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Droits d’auteur

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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