While 50 million Egyptians were waiting yesterday to hear that they had elected a Muslim Brotherhood mediocrity over a Mubarak bag-carrier, I paid a visit to the home of Saad Zaghloul. Not for an interview, you understand (Zaghloul died 85 years ago and is buried opposite his house in a mausoleum styled like a pharaonic temple) but as a pilgrimage to a man who might have served Egypt well today, a revolutionary and a nationalist whose Wafd party stood up to the British empire and whose wife, Safeya, was one of the country's great feminists.
Mohamed Morsi is no revolutionary. No feminist. Not much of a nationalist. And the army elite has already laid its traps for him. But the "deep state" represented by his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, receded yesterday. Up to a point – and only up to a point – Zaghloul would have approved.
My shoes squeak on the wonderful, polished old wooden floor of his two-storey home, a reassuring memento of an age before Cairo became a canyon of traffic. Zaghloul's photograph hangs on almost every wall – there, at least, he has something in common with Egypt's dictators – and at the top of the stairs sit the remains of his two pet parrots, tied (not nailed) to their perches. There is even a canary in a cage that went to meet its maker in the 1920s.
I am shown into a room with a vast, pink-covered bed and shuttered windows. "10pm, 23 August 1927", it says in the corner. "This is the bed where he passed away," a lady in a black veil says softly, as if the old boy is still lying there.
It is the same bedroom into which British soldiers stormed, on 23 December, 1921, to send him off to exile in Malta; the guide wrongly claims we packed him off to Aden, but there is an air of unreality about the whole place. The Zaghloul bathroom, for example, with a wicker chair to sit in while showering, and all those photographs of the early Wafd members, a fez on every one of them. There is even Zaghloul's ceremonial dress as Prime Minister, a cross between a major-domo's coat and an opera jacket, with the gold livery of a field marshal embroidered down the front.
Unlike Morsi, however, Zaghloul wanted to live in a modern, progressive, secular Egypt, saying of his party in 1919 that "the present movement in Egypt is not a religious movement – for Muslims and Copts demonstrate together – and neither is it a xenophobic movement or a movement calling for Arab unity". Egypt for the Egyptians. You can see why he might be missed today, after an election campaign in which the words "Islam" and "security" seemed interchangeable platitudes.
Zaghloul wasn't a perfect man. He failed to make any impression on delegates to the Versailles peace conference after the First World War (they foolishly ignored his demands for independence) and he has been accused of cheating on his expenses during his trip to Paris. He abused one of his closest friends by claiming he was only brought into the Wafd because he was rich. In later days, he grovelled to the British.
After assassins shot dead Sir Lee Stack, the military governor of Sudan, the British demanded, and got, a formal apology and an indemnity of £500,000. Stack survived for two days in the house of Lord Allenby but Zaghloul thought it was all a plot against him. "The bullet that took his life was not aimed at his chest but rather at mine," he said. Someone did try to kill Zaghloul at Cairo railway station. His grey jacket hangs behind glass outside his bedroom, his blood still staining the material.
But the ordinary people, the street-sweepers and the villagers and the poor, loved him. His lean, mustachioed face with the inevitable fez on top was as familiar to Egyptians as Arafat's was to Palestinians. Huda Shaarawi, perhaps a greater feminist than Safeya, wrote an infinitely sad letter to Zaghloul in 1924, quoted at length by her biographer, pleading with him to resign as Prime Minister.
"The country does not want to let you go," she wrote. "It made you its leader in the hope that you would keep your promise of achieving the total independence of both Egypt and the Sudan. However, the longer you stay in power, the greater is the distance between the reality of what is happening in this nation and what you promised. In the light of your failure as a statesman, I am urging you, not to become an obstacle yourself." Zaghloul, said Shaarawi, "should rid us of the embarrassment to which we have been subjected by stepping down..."
In the great 1919 revolution Zaghloul led against the British, hundreds of Egyptians were killed, while Safeya and Huda led protest marches through Cairo, banging on the doors of foreign embassies and demanding independence. Safeya's library is still intact – a French edition of Arthur Milner's England In Egypt nestles beside volumes on Turkey and a book intriguingly titled The Psychology of Contemporary England. It is, of course, the psychology of contemporary Egypt we must now study, an Arab nation whose army commanders will try to ensure Morsi's powers, such as they are, will be further stripped from him. Zaghloul might have glanced at the cross-sword epaulettes of the Egyptian generals and be reminded of General Allenby. Armies know how to safeguard their own power.
And, for a man born long before his time, it is a dismal fact that Zaghloul died despairing of his own people. "Cover me, Safeya," were his last words, uttered on that pink-covered bed. "It's of no use."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies