The acute problems generated by the nature and speed of the collapse of the German and Austria -Hungarian Empires had their counterparts in the Middle East where, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, the principle of self-determination embodied in President Wilson’s famous fourteen Points was embraced as eagerly as in Central and Eastern Europe.
As the war had gone on British civil and military control of Egypt had become progressively stricter. The Egyptian people had been assured that they would not be called on actively to help the Empire defeat its enemies but the British turned to requisitioning, particularly in 1917 and 1918. For instance: the demand for labour to build roads, railways and water pipelines could be met only by the recruitment of fellahin (peasants) whose reluctance to leave their land and families was overcome, often with brutality, by native local officials at whose back stood civil and military authorities enforcing martial law. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force could not move without camel and donkey transport and the fellahin found that their precious beasts of burden were commandeered, as was their hay crop, compulsorily purchased for the fodder of the cavalry divisions. Compensation was paid and the wages of labourers and cameliers were good but the disruption and hardship endemic in a clumsy system of enforcement built up a mountain of anger and resentment. In the cities the students, clerks and lawyers complained that their chances of promotion in the civil service and the professions were blocked by the employment of Englishmen, many of whom were less well qualified than themselves. Since their arrival in the 1880’s the British had proclaimed their ultimate ambition to educate the Egyptians into self-government but by 1918 it seemed that such a development had been indefinitely postponed.
There was relief among all ranks of Egyptians when the Turkish attacks on the Canal were repulsed but as the front line was pushed further into Sinai, Palestine and beyond, the war became both irrelevant to Egypt’s political interests and, in the eyes of nationalists, an exercise in European imperialism. The leading exponent of Egyptian aspirations to independence was Saad Zaghlul, who had held office as Minister of Education in Lord Cromer’s time but had since fallen out with the British administration. Soon after the armistice of November 1918 Zaghiul placed himself at the head of a self-appointed delegation and asked permission to go to London to present Egypt’s case for self-government. Referred to the Foreign Office, Zaghiul’s proposal was turned down flat, as was a similar request from Egypt’s official representative, the Prime Minister, who had been a good friend of the British throughout the war. Thus were informed Egyptians taught the bitter truth that their country was of no significance in a post-war world whose leaders had many more important matters to consider. It emerged that President Wilson supported the status quo of the Protectorate and without American sympathy Egypt was friendless. To add insult to injury Egypt found it invidious and hurtful that, by contrast, the Sharif of the Hejaz, now calling himself King, was invited to send his son Faisal to Europe, where he was received by King George V at Buckingham Palace and accepted by Wilson, Lloyd George and other Allied leaders as the Arab spokesman for the independence of Greater Syria.
Discontent in Egypt simmered in the winter of 1918-19 and boiled over when Zaghiul was arrested on March 8th and deported to Malta. There was an explosion of rage and the country lurched into anarchy; ‘self-elected bodies, calling themselves Committees of Public Safety usurped the functions of authority in the towns, and Soviets of Sheikhs ruled the villages.’1 The schoolboys and students of Cairo, numerous andvolatile, took over the streets, hijacked the trams and built barricades. Unlucky Europeans and other foreigners were assaulted; some were murdered, including eight Englishmen killed on the train bringing them back to Cairo from a visit to Luxor. The railway and telegraph systems were extensively damaged and Egyptian civil servants, either willingly or under intimidation, came out on strike.
The British Government could ignore Egypt no longer and took action. General Bulfin, Allenby’s deputy, hurried down from Syria, organised mobile columns strong enough to put down armed rebellion, restored order in the countryside, repaired the railways and summarily punished those communities which had resorted to murder, thus adding to the long history of authority reacting with exemplary and arbitrary force to outrages on what native inhabitants see as armies of occupation. Allenby himself, who had been summoned to Paris to take part in discussions on the future disposition of Syria, was precipitately appointed Special High Commissioner in Egypt charged with bringing the attempted revolution to an end, inquiring into the grievances which had prompted it and meeting such as were found to be justifiable. He arrived in Cairo on March 25th; on the 31st he telegraphed London expressing his intention of releasing Zaghiul from internment, and made the public announcement to this effect on April 7th, provoking a great outburst of triumphal joy on the streets of the capital. There were some further outbreaks of lawlessness but the civil servants returned to work and the country was relatively calm by the end of May. His admirers praised the wisdom of Allenby’s surprising clemency; his detractors, of whom there were many among old Egyptian ‘hands’ denounced the folly of giving way to violence and blamed ‘that jackass’ Allenby for the dangerous and humiliating loss of face suffered by all those associated with the British régime.2
Soon after sending Allenby back to the Residency at Cairo the hard-pressed British Government had announced that Lord Mimer would lead a Commission to inquire into Egypt’s long-term future, but it did not arrive until December 1919. The commissioners had been judiciously selected and were thought to be broadly sympathetic to Egypt but their terms of reference assumed the prolonging of the
Protectorate and Egyptian nationalists made sure that Milner and his associates were booed and boycotted. Back at home in March 1920 the Commission began the painful process of preparing their report; by August it was ready, with the recommendation that Egypt should be granted its independence subject to the reservation of vital British interests, including the permanence of military bases and control of the Sudan. Unfortunately these recommendations were leaked before they had been put before, much less approved by, the Lloyd George Government, itself a quarrelsome coalition. In Egypt Zaghiul and other nationalist leaders competed in denouncing the concessions the British insisted on. Eighteen more months of turmoil and indecision ensued before Allenby was able on February 28th 1922 to issue a Declaration announcing that ‘the British Protectorate over Egypt is terminated and Egypt is declared to be an independent sovereign state.’3
1 PG Elgood Egypt and the Army, Oxford, 1924, p.349.
2 Cannan & McPherson (eds.), Bimbashi McPherson. A life in Egypt. BBC Books, 1983, ch 14, passim
3 Elgood, op. cit. p369.
Next letter 2nd January 2019
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Engaged in War – the Letters of Stanley Goodland 1914 – 1919
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