The First World War was ended, in large part, by the Russian and German revolutions. Revolutionary uprisings followed in many other countries thrown into turmoil by the war. In March and April 1919, revolution shook the Egyptian government and British military rule. Strikes, huge demonstrations, the participation of women and unity across religions occurred – as in the 2011 uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s 31-year rule.
Until the First World War, Egypt was an autonomous state within the Turkish Ottoman Empire. During the mid-nineteenth century the hereditary ruler, Khedive Ismail, attempted to modernise the country to compete with European powers. The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, was part of this project. Heavy debts to European bankers who lent the money caused bankruptcy in 1875. Government shares in the Suez Canal Company had to be sold to the British government at one-quarter of their value and unpopular taxes imposed.
The British navy and troops suppressed an uprising in 1882, leading to military occupation. A ‘Protectorate’ was established – supposedly protecting Egypt from foreign powers but in reality, protecting the vast British Empire to the east.
Foreign domination of the economy
Seventy per cent of shares in Egyptian companies were owned abroad in 1914. Foreigners living in Egypt held much of the rest. The so-called Capitulations exempted them from local laws, justice and taxes. Wealthy Egyptians were kept off company boards.
A free trade policy was created to help pay the debt. This led to a big increase in land growing cotton, which by 1914 accounted for nearly 90 per cent of exports. The small farmers who grew cotton did not benefit from this trade. They worked tiny plots of land while large landowners, along with merchants, reaped big profits.
Imported British manufactured goods were cheaper than those locally produced in small-scale workshops, leading to many being forced out of work. New industries, however, developed to process raw materials. The textile industry employed 73,000 by 1917, including 19,000 women. A similar development took place in the spinning, furniture, leather and shoe trades.
Factory work was unsafe, dirty and paid poverty wages for 12 to 14 hour days. Workers who were injured or ill were sacked. Families moving into the cities for work were crowded into hovels without sewage or water supply. Their children had to work instead of receiving an education.
Some trade unions were organised including cigarette makers, cotton spinners, warehouse and rail workers, with strikes for better pay and safety.
Growing nationalist anger
Nationalism grew throughout this period, stoked by resentment at wealth being exported out of the country, the privileged status of foreigners and the control of government policy by its British ‘protectors’.
The World War greatly increased this anger. British military authority took control of Egyptian government policy. Peasants were forcibly conscripted to serve the British army as labourers in its campaign to seize Syria and Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Many were sent to labour on the Western Front in Europe. By the end of the war over one and a half million men had dug trenches, laid pipes and built railways. Animals and fodder were requisitioned. Families left behind went hungry. Resentment was further fuelled as large numbers of British and allied troops were shipped to Egypt. Martial law banned public meetings and assemblies of more than five.
Cotton prices rose over four times from their 1914 level. Landlords who planted more cotton and less food crops made big profits. Poor peasants, workers and the unemployed suffered.
Goods previously imported from Europe were in short supply, so local industry quickly developed as landowners invested their new profits. The number of factory workers increased, along with more rail and dockworkers. There were 250,000 industrial workers in 1920, out of a population of 13 million. Seventy per cent of the working population worked on the land.
Sensing the growing nationalist mood, the British government set up a Special Commission to examine the Capitulations and constitutional reform in December 1917 (weeks after the Russian revolution!). They hoped this would prevent a struggle breaking out.
Egyptian capitalists and landlords wanted independence
The independence movement grew, but many of its leaders owned land and businesses. The developing Egyptian capitalist class wanted foreign domination to end, so they could build their own wealth and power. They also wanted an end to the servile Egyptian government of the old aristocracy that collaborated with the British.
As a secular moderate movement, it appealed to wealthy Coptic Christian landowners who felt excluded by the more traditional Islamic rulers. Coptic Christians made up ten per cent of the population. Women were also attracted to this movement, which offered them improved status.
The independence leader was Saad Zaghlul, a lawyer and vice-president of the Legislative Assembly. On November 11th 1918 (Armistice Day) Zaghlul and his group asked the British Consul-General, Sir Reginald Wingate, to meet a delegation requesting permission to present their demands for independence to the British government in London. Right from the start, they conceded that the British could continue to supervise the Suez Canal and the public debt. However, Wingate considered the delegation had no official capacity and made it clear he was only having a friendly chat.
Zaghlul then set out to show popular support for al-Wafd al-Misri (The Egyptian Delegation).
Hundreds of thousands signed a petition collected by followers – often village headmen – throughout the country, demanding that Zaghlul and the others be recognised as speaking for the nation. Wafdist agitation increased, opposing the Egyptian government in the palace. On 8th March 1919, Zaghlul and two other leaders were arrested and deported to Malta the next day.
Revolution breaks out
This was the spark that ignited a revolutionary uprising. Students at Al-Azhar University walked out and demonstrated the next day, followed by students from secondary and professional schools. Crowds gathered at the rail station and then spread throughout central Cairo. On March 10th the Al-Azhar students called a general strike. Police were overwhelmed by the numbers on the streets. General Watson called in the army to set up machine gun posts at key road junctions.
On March 11th lawyers started a strike, joined by clerks from the Ministries of Education and Public Works. On the 12th 3,000 demonstrators in the delta city of Tanta tried to storm the rail station. British soldiers fired at the crowd, killing eleven and wounding fifty-one.
On March 15th 10,000 students, workers and professionals marched to Cairo’s Abdeen Palace where thousands more joined them. Protests throughout the country of workers, peasants, street traders, lawyers, students and even Bedouins were taking place.
Women join the movement
Women from all classes joined these demonstrations in an unprecedented way. Bourgeois and middle-class women frequently demonstrated separately from men, whereas working class and peasant women often demonstrated alongside men. Peasant women took part in railway and telegraph line sabotage. When the railways were restored some women distributed pamphlets banned under martial law, hiding them in shopping baskets and passing them to teachers at each station.
Another feature of the movement was the absence of religious sectarianism. Huda Sha’arawi, a leader of the feminist movement and wife of one of the exiled Wafd leaders, wrote, “The British claimed our national movement was a revolt of the Muslim majority against religious minorities. This slander aroused the anger of the Copts and other religious groups. Egyptians showed their solidarity by meeting together in mosques, churches, and synagogues. Sheikhs walked arm in arm with priests and rabbis.”
The Islamic crescent and Christian cross were fused into a shared symbol (as seen during the 2011 uprising). Jews carried the Star of David and Egyptian flags, and rabbis made speeches cheered by large crowds.
British military repression
Collective punishment was meted out. Villages closest to damaged rail tracks were bombed by the Royal Air Force, machine-gunned and mortared. Diplomat Sir Ronald Graham advised the Foreign Office “that any communiqués from Egypt dealing with the burning of villages etc, should be carefully censored before publication, otherwise questions in Parliament are almost certain to arise.”
Far from being cowed by the bombing of villages, those in the cities were enraged. Cairo tram workers struck on March 13th and stayed out until April 15th. Around 4,000 rail workers joined them on the 15th. On the 16th Alexandrian workers struck and demonstrated at the railways, docks, lighthouses, post office, government workshops, customs authority and trams. Cairo was effectively cut off from the rest of the country. No rail, telephone or telegraph services to other provinces were operating.
A revolutionary council was set up in Zifta, in the northeast of the country, which included merchants and professionals and proclaimed the town’s independence from the British Empire. Although similar developments took place elsewhere, soviets or workers’ councils did not become widespread.
Nationalist leaders hold movement back
The size and scope of demonstrations and strikes shocked the Wafd leaders who worried that the movement was spiralling out of their control. They attempted to call off the transport strike that “harmed the people…and could stop the transport of crops and hamper commercial transactions”. Most strikes and demonstrations were not called by these ‘leaders,’ who struggled to stay at their head.
Between 15th and 31st, March at least 800 Egyptians were killed and numerous villages burnt down. Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State of War and Air, told the House of Commons that the whole of Egypt was virtually in insurrection.
The British government backed down on April 7th, releasing the three Wafd leaders, permitting the Delegation to attend the Paris peace conference and setting up a commission under Lord Milner to investigate autonomous government for Egypt under British protection – on condition that demonstrations were called off.
Celebrations as British government concedes
As news spread, two days of mass celebrations on the streets broke out. “Yahiya el Watan!” (Long Live the Nation!) was tirelessly chanted. A Washington Post journalist wrote, “Anybody could see that this was a festival of joy, with animosity to nobody. There were no parties or classes in this freedom carnival. Egypt was indulging in a joyous and innocent orgy of national consciousness.”
When the three Wafd leaders returned from Malta, a huge mass parade was organised to greet them. Marching at the front were Wafd leaders, Cabinet officials and members of the Legislative Assembly, judges and lawyers, doctors and men from the upper and middle classes. They were followed by workers and male school students. Then came upper-class women in cars and finally working class and peasant women in carts. The message was clear – an independent Egypt would be ruled by businessmen and landlords. Everyone was expected to know their place.
Misplaced confidence in US President
The Wafd optimistically expected support from President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, who had spoken for national self-determination shortly before the end of the war. But Wilson represented the interests of US capitalism in competition with the European imperial powers. The US government certainly did not want Egypt following the example of Russia, where a bourgeois revolution had been followed months later by a successful workers’ revolution, led by the Bolshevik Party.
The British government was assured its allies, including the USA, would support a continuing British protectorate in Egypt and not genuine independence. It could, therefore, allow the Wafd to attend the Paris Peace Conference, knowing that their demands would not be agreed.
What they got was a declaration from the British government that the protectorate would end in 1922. Egypt would be recognised as an independent sovereign state – but Britain would retain control over four key areas “of vital interest to the British Empire”. These were the security of imperial communications (i.e. military bases along the Suez Canal), defence of Egypt against outside aggression, the protection of foreign and minority rights (i.e. its commercial interests) and Sudan. Egypt did not finally throw off British military and political domination until the Free Officers’ coup brought Nasser to power in 1952.
Workers continue the struggle against the new government
Strikes continued over the next three years as workers attempted to win real gains from the struggle. A 65-day rail strike took place in the autumn. Suez Oil Refinery workers struck for 113 days and Cairo Tramway for 102 days. The number of unions doubled to 95. A similar wave of independent trade union formation and strikes took place after the 2011 uprising.
A labour protection law was postponed until the new Egyptian government was installed in 1922. It was then shelved! Foreign owners of Egyptian companies opposed its introduction and declared they would not submit to it. Egyptian capitalists urged the government not to impose burdens on the young Egyptian industry that could cause it to fall behind foreign competitors.
There was no independent working class party that could warn workers against placing confidence in capitalist ministers, put forward a socialist programme – on wages, jobs, housing, land reform – and call for a democratic workers’ state. Small socialist groups began to appear in Cairo and Alexandria in 1919 (many of whose members were Greeks or Italians). In 1920, the Socialist Party of Alexandria Workers was set up, which got support from the first Confederation of Egyptian Labour, including over twenty trade unions with 50,000 members.
The Communist Party was founded in 1922, at first with mostly foreign and intellectual members. It did not take part in the nationalist movement against the British occupation, leaving it isolated from the large numbers who did. What was necessary was to turn to this movement with a programme of independent working class action.
The Communist Party needed to explain that the Wafd leaders were more frightened of working class action than of the British occupation. Genuine independence could only be won by a socialist revolution, as took place in Russia. The mass of peasants in the countryside could have followed a determined working class movement that was guaranteeing redistribution of land, cheap credit with bank nationalisation and a programme to improve their lives.
In 1924, Saad Zaghlul, now prime minister, banned the Red Confederation of Trade Unions under Communist leadership and imprisoned its leaders. Government employees and transport workers taking action were threatened with fines and imprisonment.
These lessons are as relevant today, eight years after the magnificent 2011 uprising. That too was an opportunity for the working class to take power, but the absence of a revolutionary party with a socialist programme left the majority looking to liberal capitalist or Islamic politicians for change. When their hopes were dashed as capitalist exploitation continued, the army and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took control. Workers’ rights were crushed and trade union activists arrested and imprisoned.
Laying the basis of a new mass revolutionary party is the task that Marxists must work towards, preparing for future mighty struggles. The working class today is far stronger in numbers, education and means of communication than it was one hundred years ago. News of revolution spreads around the world far faster than it did after the Russian revolution. Socialist revolution would detonate movements around the world.
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