Richard Melson

September 2006

Egypt 1919


When World War I ended, nationalists in Egypt pushed the British for independence. The formation of a wafd, or delegation in Arabic, was initially first brought up to demand independence at the Paris Peace Conference in September 1918. Wafd called for a constitutional government.

Yawm al Jihad & 1919 Revolution

On 13 November 1918, known as the Day of Struggle or Yawm al Jihad, the Al Wafd al Misri (Wafd as it is known), headed by Saad Zaghlul, a prominent member of the Umma Party, was formed. Zaghlul, together with other members Abd Al Aziz Fahmi and Ali Sharawi met the British high commissioner, Sir Reginald Wingate, and demanded independence. They also asked permission to go to London to present their case before the British Government, but were rejected by the British.

The Uprising

On 8 March 1919, Zaghlul and three others were arrested by the British, thrown into Qasr an Nil prison and then exiled to Malta. The arrest and subsequent deportation stirred up a wave of anger among the Egyptians that led to the 1919 Revolution against the British. Demonstrations and strikes were organised in major cities such as Cairo, Tanta and Asyut, causing major disruptions in communications and utilities services. Demonstrators went further to cut railroads and destroy telegram lines. For a moment, Egypt halted into a standstill.

The population was united in its opposition against the British. Many Egyptians, young and old, of various cities in joined in the Revolution. Both Muslims and Christians showed their disagreement, carrying ‘crescent and cross’ banners in their demonstrations to show unity. Even women who were usually excluded from political activities participated in the public demonstrations. This was started by Zaghlul’s wife Safia Zaghlul on 16 March when 150-300 women in veils protested against the British occupation. In other parts of Egypt, women demonstrated with men, and they even organized strikes and boycotts.

The 1919 Revolution came to a peak on March 16 with the biggest demonstration when some 10,000 civil servants, students, teachers, lawyers and workers marched to Abdin Palace. Many such strikes also started in other areas such as Al Mansurah, Al Fayyum, Alexandria, Tanta and Damanhur.

Violence, often fierce, broke out amongst Egyptians and Europeans as the British attempted to bring down the demonstrations using force.

Eventually the 1919 Revolution was to resulted in many casualties, including as many as 800 Egyptians killed, 31 Europeans and 29 British, not including the damages done.

Milne Cheetham

Lord Wingate, the British High Commissioner however, realised the influence of the Wafd and its revolutionary potential and hence asked the British to allow Wafd to travel to Paris. The British government remained reluctant to do so however, believing that any sign of weakness would only encourage more audacity. Milne Cheetham was placed as acting high commissioner in January 1919 while Wingate was returned to England for discussions on the Egyptian Revolution. Soon, Cheetham likewise realised that he was unable to keep order and prevent the strikes from breaking lose, but he was ordered by the British government not to give in to Wafd.

Wingate was replaced by General Edmund Allenby, who came to Egypt on 25th March as the special high commissioner.

Wingate was replaced by General Edmund Allenby, who came to Egypt on 25th March as the special high commissioner. One day later, a meeting was arranged between General Allenby, a group of Egyptian nationalists. The Egyptians managed to convince Allenby to allow the Wafd leaders to go to Paris, on the condition that they will ask the people to stop the strikes. Believing that this is the only solution to the current problem, Allenby asked for agreement with the British government before allowing Zaghlul and his party to go to Paris on April 7.

Milner-Zaghlul Agreement

This time, a mission was sent out by the British governments headed by Lord Milner in May 1919 to inquire if Egypt could be granted some form of self-governance without comprising British interests. This mission arrived in December that year but was opposed by the Egyptian nationalists: the Egyptians would no longer accept the status of Protectorate. Strikes followed and shops were closed, while brochures were distributed to ask Egyptians to oppose the mission.

Realising that the only way to resolve the crisis was through seeking a solution personally with Zaghlul, Milner met him in 1920’s summer privately in London. An agreement was made in the next February such that the British government would cease to treat Egypt as a protectorate in status, but as a nation on her own right.

Zaghlul returned to Egypt on 4 April 1921 and received a warm, resounding welcome by his fellow Egyptians. Allenby was however, determined to break Zaghlul’s great influence among the Egyptians and created a pro-British group that could protect Britain’s interests in Egypt should she become independent. As a result Zaghlul was deported a second time in December, resulting in the same riots and demonstrations across Egypt.

Lord Cromer

The British running of Egypt was not thoroughly smooth sailing without political opposition from the people. The policies of Lord Cromer to concentrate on developing the country economically and not to concentrate on social improvements to the lives of the people eventually led to the resentment of the British occupation from the locals. The free and easy lifestyles of the Europeans were a further impetus for resentment against the British occupation. Lord Cromer for example, had spent money developing a suburb for Europeans rather than to improve the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Likewise electricity introduced to Cairo was enjoyed mainly by the Europeans and elite. These luxuries enjoyed by the Europeans were watched with envy by the ordinary Egyptians with disdain. Moreover, the civil service, the officers and businessmen were all Europeans, mainly British, in an attempt to keep Egypt closely under British hands. Resentment thus led to a natural growth of nationalism in the years following the British occupation.

Egypt, 1882-1914: Traces of Nationalism

Before the British occupation in 1882, Egyptian nationalism against foreign influences had already began to appear. In fact, it was the uprising by Ahmad Urabi (different sources spell his name differently), an officer in the army of Tawfiq, then Khedive of Egypt, that gave the excuse for British interference and the occupation. Ahmad Urabi had spoken out against the harsh rule of the Turks, but this then developed too against the increasing European influences felt in Egypt, and rallied with him the army and the people. British navy shelled Alexandria in response, and eventually landed an expedition in 1882 to quell the rebellion themselves. Unprepared and surprised themselves, they became the virtual rulers of Egypt after pulling down the nationalistic revolt at the battle of Tell-el-Kebir. The British left Tawfik as Khedive, but there was no mistake who was truly running the show behind curtains.

Economic Status of Egypt

Another reason of disdain the Egyptians drew from was the collapse of the local products under competition from cheaper, more plentiful British goods, as mentioned earlier. Industry in Egypt did not make any significant progress and unemployment remained a problem. Even in her primary production, cotton, Egyptians resented against the British for the unfair practices they used: trading below the market price for buying Egyptian cotton. British officers too had personal interests in Egypt , and made use of their power to their own gains. Lord Cromer for example made a fortune out from speculating cotton.

The tiny industrial class that arose from the British occupation was likewise unhappy. Their low wages and work conditions that often lacked basic safety regulations remained a constant source of resentment against the British government, which refused to intervene for the benefit of the Egyptian workers against their British employers. Eventually, trade unions began to form between 1899 to 1907 to bargain for better wages and working conditions. These unions organised strikes, much to the British's displeasure, and opposed these unions. The nationalistic sentiments during Lord Cromer's term rose, and intensified in his last year in the Dinshawi Incident.

Dinshawi Incident and the Rise of Nationalism

In, 1906 in a village called Dinshawi, near the Egyptian delta, British officers shooting pigeons for sport shot and wounded the wife of the iman (religious leader) by accident. The villagers, angered, surrounded the British officers and in the confusion wounded two of them. The officers in response opened fire and fled. Eventually, one of them died of his wounds while returning to camp. The ensuring response from the British was explosive. An Egyptian peasant was beaten to death by British soldiers after the dead officer was found. Fifty-two Egyptians involved in the incident were charged, and four sentenced to death with others sentenced heavily with hard labour or public flogging. National sentiments were increased after the incident and political parties started to form in protest to British rule with the ultimate aim of independence.

New Parties

Political parties were set up, mainly Mostafa Kamel's National Party (Watani Party) and Mahmud Sulayman Pasha's People's Party (Umma Party). Both campaigned among Egyptians for Egypt 's independence and set up party newspapers to rally the people behind them. The National Party called for the immediate end to British occupation and though Kamel believed Egypt did need to reform and renew, she did not need Britain 's hand in her affairs. Religion was key in Kamel's thought and Islamic traditionalists and conservatives in Egypt were especially attracted to it.

On the other hand, the People's Party, though likewise contained religious ideas, was not as radical as the National Party. Ahmad Lutfi as Sayyid, the main member of the People's Party, focused more on the society rather than Islam. Though the ultimate aim remained independence, the party however believed it would come through the growing involvement of Egyptians in politics and the reform of her laws and institutions, and not through active hostility and the use of force. Constitutional monarchy, he believed, was the way for Egypt in future and that cooperation with the British and negotiation would lead to that future.

The National Party rejected the ideas of the People's Party. Eventually, people come to distinguish the two groups as 'extremists' and 'moderates' in their quests for national sovereignty. These two parties however, declined. After the death of Kamel, the National Party, although still a major force in politics, was not as strong as before. The People's Party likewise faded from politics after the First World War. Egypt 's national sentiments however, were to continue to rise.

Lord Herbert Kitchener

Lord Herbert Kitchener replaced Sir Gorst after his four-year term in 1911. Faced with growing nationalistic sentiments that Sir Gorst had failed appease, Lord Kitchener amended the constitution and with the Organic Law of 1913, set up a legislative assembly, locating it in Cairo . Before the British occupation, Egypt had an assembly which only gave advises to the government. This is the Assembly of Delegates that had already stopped functioning before the British occupation. Now, the new legislative assembly was larger and had more powers than its predecessor. This was the starting of a parliamentary system after that of Britain 's. The British had always been worried that the locals would reject the English way of governing, and introduced the assembly both to appease the rising nationalism and also to ensure Egypt would follow the English model after independence, should there be independence.

Then came 1914. The complicated diplomatic tensions in Europe exploded with the outbreak of World War 2 after the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Francis Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. The Eastern Question that Austria-Hungary and Russia had tried to contain for more than 3 decades, had finally been answered with a declaration of war from Austria-Hungary on Serbia and Russia 's declaration on Austria-Hungary in return. The entangled alliance system pulled in the great rivalry and spirit of national vengeance between France and Germany and soon, the whole of Europe found herself engulfed in war.

On one side were the Allies,

comprising mainly of Britain , France , Russia and Italy that joined later.

On the other were the Central Powers; Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

The war was to have profound impacts on Egypt .

Ottoman Empire

The addition of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers brought the war to the Middle East . Egypt became an evermore-important possession; Egypt now safeguarded British shipping through the Suez Canal, thus ensuring communications between Britain and her many colonies, and was a base of operations against the Ottoman Empire . As a result, after the Ottoman Empire officially entered the war on the side of the Central Powers on the 29 th of October 1914, Egypt immediately changed in significance. But was the country firmly under their control?

Martial Law

On the 2nd of November, martial law was declared on Egypt as the British prepared to make diplomatic maneuvers to consolidate their control over Egypt . The next day, on the 3 rd of November, Britain declared Egypt her protectorate to cut off her relations with the Ottoman Empire . Khedive Abbas, the successor to Khedive Tawfiq who died in 1892 meanwhile, had been in Istanbul when the war broke out. The British did not trust him and believed him to be pro-German. Thus, they deposed him and Abbas' uncle, Husayn Kamil, replaced him with the title of sultan. Egypt was now firmly under British control. Lord Kitchener was now called back to England to assume the post of Minister of War and Sir Henry MacMahon, followed by Sir Reginald Wingate assumed the post of British high commissioner in Egypt .

The war began to arouse whiffs of nationalistic sentiments in the locals soon, as soldiers from various British allies and colonies came to Egypt . In Cairo , British, New Zealand and Australian troops, amongst others arrived. The common people started to suffer as prices of goods rose steeply while on the other hand, British troops enjoyed the many luxuries not available to the ordinary Egyptian. Australian troops too, came to Egypt and spent much money in Cairo everyday, enjoying themselves and were having more fun than the work in hand. These were seen day by day by the Egyptians who grew to resent the excesses of foreigners. As compared, Egyptians were in very dire states. The souring prices as mentioned, meant a shortage of goods for the people. In the countryside, the situation was much worse. The British purchased cotton and requisition of fodder from the peasants below market prices. The very poor conditions of living due to poverty and lack of food led to a higher death rate than birth rate in 1918. These hardships borne by the people encouraged the ridding of British control in Egypt .

Closure of Suez Canal

The British closed the Suez Canal to all foreign shipping in their efforts against the Central Powers. Meanwhile the British were at work against the Ottoman Empire . They incited the Arabs in the Ottoman Empire to fight the Turks for independence, the movement led by the famous T.E. Lawrence who was portrayed in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The encouragement of Arab independence from the Turks found echoes on Egypt, and the more the people watched they watched the Arabs struggle against the Ottoman Empire for independence, the more they were drawn into the idea of an independent Egypt free from the British.

Furthermore, the British forced around 500,000 peasants into the Labour and Camel Transport Corps to serve in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. In 1917, the British actually encouraged the kidnapping of peasants to serve in the war fronts in Palestine , Syria , Mesopotamia and France . This move further aggravated the Egyptians against the British.

More Martial Law

In 1916, the British imposed once more martial law over Egypt . Military judges took over in civilian courts. Furthermore, the Legislative Assembly was suspended in an attempt to check the growing middle-class led nationalism. Egypt 's nationalistic drive was being cramped down slowly and Egyptians treated more as a dangerous enemy to be contained than an ally in the war. Still, the Egyptian nationalists held their hands throughout the war and no major disturbances broke out in Egypt , fortunately for the British.

End of World War I

World War 1 ended with the surrender of Germany and disintegration of Austria-Hungary in 1918 and the allies victorious. The Ottoman Empire on the other hand, ending the war with a harsh peace treaty, was likewise similar to Austria-Hungary , disintegrating. The Arabs, supported by the British in the war soon gained independence, though this was rather, more appearance than truth. Britain and France instead shared influences in the vacuum the Ottomans left behind. The Egyptians however, wanted the similar rights the Arabs had to be granted to them by the British. Furthermore, the international climate is one promoting home-rule and self-determination. US President Wilson had stated his Fourteen Points and expressed his hope to see the new world build upon these guidelines, amongst which self-determination.

Moreover, the post-war situation in Egypt was bad. Prices and unemployment were high. As mentioned in the Effects of British Colonisation, the peasants grew cotton in order to sell it at the high prices offered after the war. This resulted in a lack of food grown and the people starved. None of these helped to curb nationalism that was increasing across the country.

Thus, the nationalistic movement did not die off with the end of the war. In fact, it was rising. The nationalistic movement was gaining strength, and eventually accumulated in the Wafd movement that rose up across Egypt .

Egypt's Independence

Egypt was declared independent on 28 February 1922. The British government proclaimed this without any discussions with representatives from Egypt, leaving the details on 4 issues, namely the communications security of British occupation in Egypt, Egypt’s defense, foreign affairs of Egypt, minority races’ protection, and the state of Sudan to be ironed out later. On this day, Egypt’s Independence Day, Sultan Ahmad Fuad became King Fuad I. Faruk, Fuad’s son, was his heir. In April, there was a new constitution formed, including a new law that introduced parliamentary elections.

After 1923, there were 3 main political powers in Egypt:

Political Power

Power Source

Strength of Power


Army and police

- Large power,

- self-interests will cause their power to overrule the King and Wafd
- Considered Wafd a huge threat to their control - tried to destroy Wafd and used the King to deal with the Wafd


Rights based on constitution formed in 1923

- Choosing Prime Minister

- Dissolving Cabinet and Parliament

- Stronger than Wafd
- But a democratic elective system will cause a threat to the King


Support from people, majority presence in Parliament

- Power could be easily lost

- But presence in Parliament creates large influence and threat to the other two powers
- Democratic system is an advantage as they will be voted by their large base of supporters

On 12 January 1924, Wafd achieved a resounding majority of 179 seats out of 211 in the Parliament in election. There were two other opposition parties, the National Party and the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (LCP), who attained one seat each. The LCP was in very good relationship with the British.

Wafd felt it had a duty to achieve complete independence from the British. Zaghlul carefully created a cabinet with people chosen from a variety across the Egyptian society, thus called the ‘People’s Ministry’, that was sworn in on 15 March 1924 by the King. This began the first Wafdist government.

Decreasing the power of the Wafd

Due to an assassination of British governor general of Sudan in Cairo, Sir Lee Stack, on 19 November 1924, along with many other assassinations of British officials, Allenby wanted revenge for Stack and to humiliate the Wafd and destroy its power in Egypt.

He demanded Egypt to:

  1. Give an apology

  2. Charge the assailants

  3. Pay 500 000 for the damages

  4. Call back all military personnel from Sudan

  5. Agree to limitless rise in provision of water to Sudan

  6. Surrender to cease opposition

With such stringent requests, Zaghlul decided to resign than to accept them. His cabinet was forced to accept all but the fifth and sixth terms. Zaghlul resigned on 24 November 1924, after requesting the Finance Ministry to pay the 500 000. Three years after his resignation, he passed away.

The King's Actions

After 1924, the King prevented elections from taking place until 1926 due to hatred of the Wafd. In 1926 however, the Wafd still won the election. 2 years later, a new leader of the Wafd, Mustafa Nahas Pasha, emerged and became Egypt’s Prime Minister. The new government made a new law stating that the king cannot rule without the parliament. Knowing that Wafd could control the country anytime, the King froze the constitution. Despite that, the next election in 1930, Wafd won it again. Thus in 1931, the King used his powers to fire Nahas and suspended the 1923 constitution.

In the 1930s, there was a new opposition to the Wafd – Ismail Sidqi. He got rid of the 1930 constitution and increased the power of the King with a new constitution. He also created the al Hizb ash Shaab party, which combined with the Ittihad Party in 1938. In the same year, disillusioned Wafd members left and created a party named after Saad Zaghlul - the Saadist.

In 1936, Faruk succeeded King Fuad after his death on 28th April. Elections in May resulted in Wafd still winning the majority of seats – 89% of votes, 157 seats in Parliament.

Anglo-Egyptian Treaty

On 26 August 1936, a treaty was signed after discussions resumed between the Egyptian and British counterparts on the 4 issues that had remained unsolved since Egypt gained her independence in 1922. Nahas led the Egyptians, while the British were lead by their high commissioner Miles Lampson.

The treaty includes

However, the Wafd continued to demand full control of Sudan by Egyptians

Aftermath of Treaty – The decline of Wafd

The treaty in August 1936 gave Egypt the assurance that Britain would limit her interference on the country. Nevertheless, there was no complete independence for Egypt yet, for it was little more than an empty declaration. The treaty evoked emotions of many, creating anti-Wafd and anti-Britain strikes. Many thought that the Wafd wandered away from the nationalist mission by signing the treaty. Due to this and other developmental problems caused by the Wafd, its power decreased in Egypt as her popularity waned. Wafd, though a voice of the nation, did not manage to solve local internal problems such as unemployment, high costs of living and slow development. It also did not execute the social and economic reforms it had called for earlier. There were strong opinions against the Wafd especially with their indecisive dealing with the British.

In the 1930s, the more extremist and violent military-fashioned groups such as the Al Ikhwan al Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood), which pushed for an Islamic state in Egypt, and Misr al Fatat (Young Egypt), a radical nationalist party with religious ideas, wore away people’s support of the Wafd.

A year later, a paramilitary youth wing of Wafd, League of Wafdist

Youth, was formed. They were soon known as the Blueshirts. In February 1938, Faruk and the Wafd had great tensions between them, and Nahas was sacked from his Prime Minister position.

Egypt 1919: The Revolution that Shocked Naguib Mahfouz

Egypt 1919

September 1, 2006