A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Remembering Egypt's Revolution of 1919

A little while ago on CNN Shibley Telhami noted that this uprising in Egypt is much more of a revolution than the so-called "Revolution of 1952," essentially a military coup by the Free Officers. The rioting on "Black Saturday" that year was more revolutionary, and — has anyone noted this? — Black Saturday was on January 26, while the current uprising started January 25!

But that's not my point here. A much better model for what we are seeing now is what Egyptians have always called the "Revolution of 1919" (thawra 1919), though many English histories follow the British colonial usage and call it an uprising. Like 2011, 1919 had no clear leadership and was largely a genuine popular uprising. It had its own flag, with the crescent and the cross to show both Muslims and Copts supported it, a symbol which the Wafd continued to use and which I've seen a variant of in at least one crowd scene in the past few days.

Saad (Sa‘d) Zaghloul, right, whose return to Egypt from exile in 1923 was the subject of my first Weekend Historical Video post, was the indirect cause; when the British exiled him and the Wafd Party leadership to Malta to prevent their participation in the Paris Peace Conference, Egyptians (and Sudanese) rose against British rule. Students, workers, religious figures and others rose in protest, and in the countryside there were bloody attacks against British facilities, troop trains, and individuals.

The British responded to the bloodshed, which lasted for months, by replacing High Commissioner Reginald Wingate with a military hero, Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, and sending an investigating commission under Lord Milner to study the situation. Though British accounts tend to see the rising as having eventually been put down, Egyptians note that the Milner Commission recommended an end to the Protectorate and thus the revolt led directly to the British declaring Egypt independent in 1922.

It was a limited independence; Britain retained troops in the Canal Zone and the right to deploy them elsewhere in wartime (as they did in World War II during the North African campaign). Sudan was made an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. But Zaghloul returned from exile and the Wafd swept to power.

The 1919 Revolution is little remembered today outside of Egypt, but it is probably a much better analog of the current uprising than the military coups of Ahmad ‘Orabi in 1881 or the Free Officers of 1952.

Note too that in both the pictures shown here (other than Zaghloul and the flag), women, though veiled, are highly visible.


David Mack said...

Finally, an appropriate historical parallel, other than the French revolution! And right out of Egypt's own history.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the critical distinction between a revolt and a revolution, that after the revolution there is a different government.

By that test, 1919 was a revolt.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

But independence came in 1922 and Zahghloul returned and became PM in 1923, so there was a different government; it just took a while. Anyway, Egyptians call it a thawra and I'm just citing them.

Nathan Patin said...

Thanks for this! I'm reading about the thawra in a literary context: Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy.

Anonymous said...

My 96 year old aunt remembers vaguely the 1919 revolution. My grandfather took his children into the streets and my father was yelling Zagloul Zagloul.