HISTORY / Bob Feldman : A People’s History of Egypt, Part 7, 1917-1921

Scene from the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. Image from Egyptian History website.

A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt

Part 7: 1917-1921 period — British oppression leads to nationalist revolution and beginnings of a labor movement.

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | August 20, 2013

[With all the dramatic activity in Egypt, Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog “people’s history” series, “The Movement to Democratize Egypt,” could not be more timely. Also see Feldman’s “Hidden History of Texas” series on The Rag Blog.]

Despite the 1882 to 1956 imperial occupation of Egypt by the United Kingdom, until 1914 Egypt was still considered to be a legal part of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. But after Turkey’s Ottoman dynasty rulers — on October 29, 1914 — allied with Germany during World War I, “the British declared martial law in Egypt” on November 2, 1914, and “imposed censorship,” according to Jason Thompson’s A History of Egypt.

Then, on December 18, 1914, “the British government severed Egypt’s ceremonial connection with the Turks and declared the country a British protectorate, changing its territorial status and regularizing Anglo control,” according to Selma Botman’s Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952; and on December 19, 1914, the UK “deposed Abbas Hilmy II” as Egypt’s official ruler “for having `definitely thrown in his lot with his Majesty’s enemies’” and “replaced Abbas with his uncle Husein Kamil, an elderly man, easily managed,” who “was given the title of sultan,” according to A History of Egypt.

But Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952 noted how more direct and overt UK imperialist rule after 1914 brought increased national oppression to most people in Egypt:

As World War I progressed, the British became more aggressive in their efforts to control the entire country. In addition to British civil servants who were brought to Cairo to run the bureaucracy, British Empire troops swarmed the larger cities. With the war came high inflation and a degree of hardship that was painful to the majority of the population. In consequence, Anglo-Egyptian hostility deepened… Military authorities forced the peasants to exchange grain, cotton, and livestock for limited compensation.

As A History of Egypt also recalled:

Large numbers of men were conscripted into auxiliary forces such as the Camel Corps and the Labor Corps. Beginning in 1916, desperate for soldiers, the British began drafting Egyptians into the army. The British also conscripted people’s livestock, taking the donkeys and camels that were often necessary for subsistence… The tightness of the British grip on Egypt became glaringly apparent when Sultan Husein Kamil died in October 1917, and the British…altered the terms of succession so that he was succeeded not by his son, who was viewed as anti-British, but by his half-brother Ahmed Fuad…

So, not surprisingly, near the end of World War I an Egyptian “nationalist leader, Saad Zaghlul, with support from the entire country, openly demanded….. that Egypt be allowed to determine [its]own destiny;” and “in November 1918, an Egyptian delegation of nationalist politicians and well-paid notables was formed” — that “became the nucleus” of the Egyptian landowning elite’s nationalist Wafd party — “and prepared itself to represent Egypt at the postwar conference in Paris,” according to Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952.

On March 8, 1919, UK authorities in Egypt arrested Zaghlul and his political associates and deported them to Malta. In response to these arrests, according to the same book, the following happened:

Within days, the country erupted in revolt, protesting against the deportation of Zaghlul, the British occupation and Britain’s refusal to allow Egyptian nationalists to represent their country in negotiations to determine Egypt’s postwar status. Students, government employees, workers, lawyers, and professionals took to the streets…demonstrating, protesting… Throughout the country, British installations were attacked, railway lines damaged, and the nationalist movement gained credibility.

And, according to A History of Egypt, “by the time the British rushed in troops and restored order later in the month, more than 1,000 Egyptians were dead from the violence, as were 36 British military personnel and four British civilians.”

Zaghlul and his imprisoned Wafd colleagues were then released on April 7, 1919 — following what became known as the “Egyptian Revolution of 1919” — and were now allowed to attend the post-World War I peace conference in Paris to demand political independence from UK imperialism for Egypt. When the Egyptian nationalist leaders arrived, however, in Paris “the American envoy recognized Britain’s protectorate over Egypt;” and “Egypt’s right to self-rule was not established” in 1919, according to Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952.

Although Egyptian labor movement activists and workers joined with nationalist businesspeople in making a nationalist Egyptian revolution in 1919, “the revolution did not produce any movement toward labor reform” in Egypt; “and the alliance between labor and the bourgeoisie quickly dissipated,” according to Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa‘at El-Sa’id’s The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988.

Labor organizer “[Joseph] Rosenthal and Egyptian intellectuals committed to the labor movement — among the most prominent were Hosni al-‘Arabi, Ali Al’-‘Anony, Salamah Musa, and Mohammed ‘Abdallah ‘Anan — set out to establish an Egyptian Socialist Party (“al-Hizb al-Ishtiraki al-Misr”) with Egyptian members who would represent the unionized workers,” according to the same book. And in August 1921, they founded the Egyptian Socialist Party.

The Egyptian Socialist Party then opened a party headquarters in Cairo and established branches in Alexandria, Tanta, Shibin al-Kawm, and Mansura. But when the party “applied for a license to publish a newspaper“ it was denied a license “because of its opposition to British and government policy” in Egypt, according to The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920-1988.

In its August 28, 1921, program, the Egyptian Socialist Party demanded “the liberation of Egypt from the tyranny of imperialism and the expulsion of imperialism from the entire Nile Valley;” and in a December 22, 1921, manifesto, the party also declared that it would “maintain its socialist program” and would “not renounce the struggle against the Egyptian capitalist tyrants and oppressors, accomplices and associates of the tyrannical foreign domination.”

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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