Trouble in Cairo: The Force of History


Today tens of thousands of Egyptians have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand an end to military rule. Activists claim it will be the biggest day of protests so far in a week that has seen at least 41 people killed. The images being streamed back for the television news and newspapers bear a striking resemblance to those taken for the same purpose over eighty years ago, demonstrations of this kind in Cairo have a long pedigree.

Tahrir Square saw much the same manner of demonstrations and violence at the hands of the British during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. It was, indeed, after the 1919 Revolution that the square became widely known as Tahrir (Liberation) Square, but the square was not officially renamed until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which changed Egypt from a constitutional monarchy into a republic. The square was a focal point for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and now, dare I say it, might be the focal point of yet another.


The Egyptian Revolution of 1919 was a countrywide revolution against the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan. The British occupation was intended to be temporary, but it lasted well into the 20th century. Nationalists staged large-scale demonstrations in Cairo in 1919, five years after Egypt had been declared a British protectorate. Nevertheless, while this led to Egypt's independence in 1922, British troops remained in the country until 1956.
It was carried out by Egyptians and Sudanese from different walks of life in the wake of the British-ordered exile of revolutionary leader Saad Zaghloul, and other members of the Wafd Party, the nationalist liberal political party, in 1919. The revolution led to Britain's recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922, and the implementation of a new constitution in 1923. Britain, however, refused to recognise full Egyptian sovereignty over Sudan, or to withdraw its forces from the Suez Canal Zone, factors that would continue to sour Anglo-Egyptian relations in the decades leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

Britain originally occupied Egypt in 1882. From 1883 to 1914, though the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan remained the official ruler of the country, ultimate power was exercised by the British Consul-General. When the Caucasus Campaign of World War I broke out between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Britain declared martial law in Egypt and announced that it would shoulder the entire burden of the war. On December 14, 1914, Egypt became a separate sultanate, and was declared a British protectorate, thus terminating definitively the legal fiction of Ottoman sovereignty over Egypt. The terms of the protectorate led Egyptian nationalists to believe that it was a temporary arrangement that would be changed after the war through bilateral agreement with Britain.
Prior to the war, nationalist agitation was limited to the educated elite. Over the course of the war however, dissatisfaction with British rule spread amongst all classes of the population. This was the result of Egypt’s increasing involvement in the war, despite Britain's promise to shoulder the entire burden of the war. During the war, the British poured masses of foreign troops into Egypt, conscripted over one and a half million Egyptians into the Labour Corps, and requisitioned buildings, crops, and animals for the use of the army. In addition, because of allied promises during the war (such as President Wilson's Fourteen Points), Egyptian political classes prepared for self government. By war’s end the Egyptian people demanded their independence.

Shortly after the First World War armistice of November 11 was concluded in Europe, a delegation of Egyptian nationalist activists led by Saad Zaghloul made a request to High Commissioner Reginald Wingate to end the British Protectorate in Egypt and Sudan, and gain Egyptian representation at the next peace conference in Paris. The delegation also included 'Ali Sha'rawi Pasha, Abd al-Aziz Fahmi Bay, Muhammad 'Ali Bay, 'Abd al-Latif al-Makabati Bay, Muhammad Mahmud Pasha, Sinut Hanna Bay, Hamd Pasha al-Basil, Gurg Khayyat Bay, Mahmud Abu al-Nasr Bay, Mustafa al-Nahhas Bay and Dr. Hafiz 'Afifi Bay. Meanwhile, a mass movement for the full independence of Egypt and Sudan was being organized at a grassroots level, using the tactics of civil disobedience. By then, Zaghloul and the Wafd Party enjoyed massive support among the Egyptian people. Wafdist emissaries went into towns and villages to collect signatures authorizing the movement's leaders to petition for the complete independence of the country.

Seeing the popular support that the Wafd leaders enjoyed, and fearing social unrest, the British in March 1919 proceeded to arrest Zaghloul and two other movement leaders and exiled them to Malta. Between March 15 to 31, at least 3,000 Egyptians were killed, numerous villages were burnt down, large landed properties plundered and railways destroyed. "The result was revolution," according to noted professor of Egyptian history James Jankowski.
For several weeks until April, demonstrations and strikes across Egypt by students, elite, civil servants, merchants, peasants, workers, and religious leaders became such a daily occurrence that normal life was brought to a halt. This mass movement was characterised by the participation of both men and women, and by spanning the religious divide between Muslim and Christian Egyptians. The uprising in the Egyptian countryside was more violent, involving attacks on British military installations, civilian facilities and personnel. By July 25, 1919, 800 Egyptians were dead, and 1,600 others were wounded.

The British Government sent a Commission of Inquiry, known as the Milner Mission, to Egypt in December 1919 to determine the causes of the disorder and to make a recommendation about the political future of the country. Lord Milner's report, published in February 1921, recommended that the protectorate status of Egypt was not satisfactory and should be abandoned. The revolts forced London to issue a unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence on February 22, 1922.
Although the British Government offered to recognize Egypt as an independent sovereign state, this was only upon certain conditions. The following matters were reserved to the discretion of the British Government. They were: The security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt; the defence of Egypt against foreign aggression; the protection of foreign interests in Egypt; and the Sudan.

Saad Zaghloul
The Wafd Party drafted a new constitution in 1923 based on a parliamentary representative system. Egyptian independence at this stage was provisional, as British forces continued to be physically present on Egyptian soil. Moreover, Britain's recognition of Egyptian independence directly excluded Sudan, which continued to be administered as an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. Saad Zaghloul became the first popularly elected Prime Minister of Egypt in 1924, for those who have lost their lives in Mubarak’s Egypt it's a shame Zaghloul wasn't the first of many.