A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Jan. 25 was an Egyptian Holiday Even Before 2011: Ismailia, 1952

January 25 (today) marks the second anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution, and celebrated as a holiday by the current regime and its opponents as well. Many Westerners may not be aware o the fact that prior to 2011, January 25 was already a national holiday in Egypt: Police Day. The protesters certainly thought that a holiday would make more demonstrators available, but also sought to capitalize on the irony that a day originally intended to honor Egypt's police as patriots in the fight to end British occupation, at a time when Egypt's police had come to be seen as oppressors instead of liberators. Egyptian Police Day commemorates a battle between the Egyptian police and the British Army at Ismailia in the Canal Zone on January 25, 1952. There's a video down below you shouldn't miss.

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 had provided for British withdrawal of its troops from Egypt, except for bases in the Suez Canal Zone for the protection of the Canal, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain had invoked a clause allowing it to reoccupy Egypt. After the war British troops did withdraw to the Canal Zone, but kept force levels well above the 10,000 troops allowed in the treaty. After the Wafd Party, Britain's traditional nationalist rivals, won the 1950 elections, the Egyptian government in October 1951 unilaterally abrogated the treaty and demanded that Britain negotiate for its withdrawal.

The Cold War was in full swing and Britain (and behind it the US) were already engaged in a struggle with Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq over Iranian oil, and now faced a challenge to the Suez Canal. The Wafd, and its other traditional rival the King, were both losing influence in Egypt to growing social and economic dissatisfaction and the growth of movements with their own disciplined and sometimes armed militias, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Communists, and others.

The Egyptian government decided to sanction the creation of "Liberation" squads, recruited from vlunteers (many from the Brotherhood), who began a guerrilla war against the British in the Canal Zone. The British responded with proactive moves against the "terrorists," and on January 21 entered Egyptian quarters of Ismailia seeking to uproot the Liberation squads. After coming into conflict with Egyptian police, on the 25 the Lancashire Fusiliers surrounded the Ismailia police headquarters.

The Egyptian Interior Minister, Fuad Seraggedin Pasha (who would survive to head the New Wafd in the 1970s and 1980s), ordered the police in Ismailia to resist the British Army, a dubious decision which, after a six hour siege, left some 50 policemen dead. This video, apparently a British newsreel (there's no sound at least in this version), shows aspects of the British operation, including rounding up prisoners:

Oh, did I mention that January 25, 1952 was a Friday? The next day, January 26, Cairo went up in flames in what is still known as Black Saturday, which I wrote about three years ago. But the day the police fought the British Army in Ismailia became Police Day, until it also became the new Revolution Day.


David Mack said...

Were there any Egyptian forces collaborating with the British Army in this sad affair?

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Not that I know of. Of course who was doing what the next day, Black Saturday, has always been a bit hazy. Then the Egyptian Army stepped in to stop the burning in part because they feared the British would move into Cairo to protect British installations after Shepheards burned.