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he Egyptian Nationalist Revolution of 1919 and the British Response to the “Egyptian Problem”


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On 8 March 1919, a heavily armed platoon of British soldiers carried out a dawn raid on the Cairo homes of the prominent Egyptian nationalists Saʿad Zaghlul, Ismaʿil Sidqi, Muhammad Mahmud and Hamad al-Basil. The four were bundled into military vehicles and – still under the cover of darkness – briefly taken to the city’s Qasr-al-Nil barracks before being placed on a warship heading for Malta. The brutally unexpected deportations ultimately caused the Egyptian Revolution.

At the time of their arrests the men had been preparing to travel to France as their country’s representatives at the post-World War One Paris Peace Conference.2 They were the most well-known members of the Wafd (lit. “delegation”) who had effectively been designated to thrash out their nation’s very future in the reorganised world. Egyptians were smarting at not having been granted independence from Britain after the conflict, and these four men were meant to carry their grievances to the major powers. The political, economic and social conditions under which Egyptians had been living since the start of the British Occupation were crucial factors in the social turmoil. The dramatic arrests exacerbated these factors to breaking point.

The myth of charismatic leadership is often applied to Saʿad Zaghlul, the fierce Egyptian nationalist who did so much to forge his country’s recent history. His hero status has never been in dispute, but just how much of it derived from his place within a mass movement is less easy to define. While some view Zaghlul as a classic “man-of-the-people” who ultimately led his country to independence, others position him within an authoritarian, highly-organised elite who were able to impose their will on their country’s development. Indeed, in spite of his impressive legacy, Egyptian historiography is still divided on Zaghlul’s actual contribution to the Revolution. His standing as a compelling chief is discussed by some historians and social commentators who, instead of focusing exclusively upon the individual leader, are primarily concerned with the hugely important role of the masses at grass-root level.

It is therefore legitimate to consider to what extent the nationalist struggle in Egypt was a popular movement from below, or indeed an elitist protest from above. Did Saʿad Zaghlul – an eloquent, erudite and extremely intelligent politician, despite his humble origins – play a unique part in the first truly modern revolution in Egypt; a revolution which involved all regions, age groups, classes, and religious communities? Or was he merely a vehicle for the expression of nationalist hopes and expectations?

A major argument in this chapter is that the events of 1919, as they are related by Western writers, often overlook the Egyptian dimension of the story. An emphasis will therefore be put on Egyptian sources to describe the circumstances surrounding the Revolution in an attempt to add a valuable indigenous perspective which is largely absent from Western literature that tends to downplay the scale of the protest as well as the brutality of its repression. Particular and extensive usage will be made of a previously only carefully and selectively quoted Report drawn up by the Egyptian Delegation which offers a detailed narrative of the Revolution. Furthermore, the document also contains verbatim transcriptions of official Egyptian reports, correspondence, depositions of victims and eye-witnesses, and photographs of atrocities committed by British troops in Egypt. This will be treated as very useful information as we are focusing our attention on the Egyptian records of the events, while being fully aware of their potential slant.

The recently-founded Wafd had been determined to receive authorisation – up to and including passports from the British authorities – to allow them to travel to Paris so as to take up their places at the negotiating table in Versailles. Their intention was to seek the “absolute independence of Egypt” through “peaceful and lawful means”.4 In a letter addressed by the Wafd Delegation to High Commissioner Wingate on 3 December 1918, Zaghlul wrote:

Forbidding our departure makes illusory and inoperative the mission that we have accepted by the will of the country. It is difficult to conciliate this situation with the principles of liberty and justice which the victory of Great Britain and her Allies is supposed to have caused to triumph.

The Wafd’s growing and more vociferous activism prompted Cheetham (acting as High Commissioner in Egypt during Wingate’s absence in London) to address a note to the British Government to request authority to arrest Saʿad Zaghlul and his principal confederates and to banish them immediately.

Did Cheetham’s decision unintentionally spark the unrest? The repercussions of what he did certainly placed question marks against the British authorities’ anticipation of the ill-feeling which inevitably led to Revolution. Cheetham’s resolution similarly cast some doubt about the extent to which the British were prepared to tackle the uprising. The chapter will contend that the British were indeed taken by surprise by what happened.

As the Revolution escalated, the British government appointed General Allenby as Special High Commissioner for Egypt as evidence of a change of approach towards the nationalist movement. What was Britain’s strategy behind the alteration of its policy in Egypt? And what was its outcome? It will be demonstrated that, despite Allenby’s claims of controlling the situation, British power had diminished under the increasing force of nationalist spirit.

This chapter will conclude that Zaghlul’s charismatic leadership was an important element in the process of both individual and collective resistance against British rule. It will also highlight the fact that there was no clear-cut dichotomy between “above and below” as far as the Revolution was concerned. Instead, what emerges is a much more complex picture of interdependence between the elitist and progressive direction of the nationalist Wafd Party and the popular and revolutionary nature of the movement at the grassroots. This complementary relationship helped define “a new age in Egyptian history – the age of Egyptian nationalism” – and, more specifically, a brand of “revolutionary nationalism”. This period of upheaval created panic among those upholding British rule, and showed how ill-prepared they were to deal with this state of affairs.

“Nationalism of the Elite” or Legitimacy Gained at Grass-Root Level?

Zaghlul’s popular myth was reinforced by the title Za‘im al-Umma, the Arabic for “Leader of the Nation”, and he is also often referred to as “Father of the Egyptians”. Obituaries published in the year of his death, 1927, evoked – variously – the “Death of an uncrowned King” and the demise of the “Colossus of the Nile Valley”. The legendary singer Oum Kalthoum dedicated a song to him, while Zaghlul’s home in Cairo was turned into the “House of the Nation” – Beit al-Umma. These early tributes were followed up by Zaghlul’s name becoming imprinted in Egyptian national history. and indeed the collective consciousness. New schools, city and town squares, and streets were named after him, while monuments and statues were erected to him.

Movies portraying Zaghlul leading the country to glory are still shown across Egypt to this day, while radio programmes and plays also perpetuate the legend. Saʿad Zaghlul’s character was also explored in Bayna al-Qasrayn, the first volume of Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy of historical novels, along with details of the anti-British uprising of 1919. There is an emphasis on Zaghlul’s life in school history curricula. In general terms, all manifestations of Egyptian culture are pervaded by a glorious episode of Egyptian history in which Zaghlul headed and ultimately won the struggle against the country’s colonial masters. What is certain is that Zaghlul, who proudly called himself the “son of the rabble”, because of his fellah (peasant) background, developed the ideas behind the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, championing the anti-British nationalism which resulted in nominal independence in 1922.

On 13 November 1918, just two days after the Armistice brought the First World War to an end, members of Egypt’s burgeoning nationalist movement began to assert their presence forcefully. This was one of the reasons why Saʿad Zaghlul, already self-styled representative of the people of Egypt, presented himself at the official Cairo Residency of Reginald Wingate, the British High Commissioner for Egypt. The general subject of discussion was the Egyptian question, but Saʿad Zaghlul, ʿAbd al-Aziz Fahmi and ʿAli Shaʿarawi – all members of the Legislative Assembly – were specifically asking for the abolition of martial law and censorship, two oppressive measures which had both been implemented at the outbreak of the War, and on the establishment of the British Protectorate over Egypt on 18 December 1914.

The Egyptians also demanded “complete independence” for Egypt although Saʿad Zaghlul assured Wingate that there would be sufficient guarantees aimed at guaranteeing British interests. This would mean that the routes down to India, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, would be protected, and British forces would be allowed to occupy Egyptian soil in times of emergency. Shaʿarawi further explained that their claim meant “friendly relations between freemen rather than between a slave and his owner”. Zaghlul said that their requests were being put to Wingate because he was acting for the British Government, but made it clear that his Delegation was more than ready to travel to London to negotiate with the government directly if necessary.

Wingate, for his part, wanted an off-the-record conversation – stating that he could make no official promises because he did not know what his government’s views about the demands actually were. Instead he offered assurances that, following the Peace Conference due after the War, Britain would give full attention to the Egyptian question, which was presented as “an imperial and not an international question”. Wingate is even believed to have quoted a line from the Qur’an to make his point: “Allah maʿa al-sābīrīn, idha sabirū” (God is with the patient, if they are patient). Most importantly, Wingate urged caution, insisting that the Delegation did not represent Egyptian public opinion, saying they had come to his Residency to discuss the affairs of a whole nation without having a mandate to do so.

It was, in fact, this crucial question of legitimacy which had galvanised the Delegation. A few hours after the meeting with Wingate, Saʿad Zaghlul and his colleagues met to consider the methods which would empower them to speak on behalf of the nation. They decided to form a board which was called al-Wafd al-Misri (the Egyptian delegation), and which would obtain the mandatory authorisation that would give the board the right to demand complete independence for the Egyptian people.

Al-Wafd al-Misri, Egypt’s first official Delegation, came into being on 13 November 1918. It was made up of: Saʿad Zaghlul as its president, along with seven initial members, ʿAli Shaʿarawi, ʿAbd al-Aziz Fahmi, Muhammad Mahmud, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, ʿAbd al-Latif al-Makabbati, and Muhammad ʿAli ʿAlluba. An additional seven members later joined the Wafd – including members of the pre-war party, al-Hizb al-Watani (the Nationalist Party). They included: Ismaʿil Sidqi, Sinyut Hanna, Hamad al-Basil, George Khayyat, Mahmud Abu al-Nasr, Mustafa al-Nahhas, and Dr. Hafiz ʿAfifi.

They immediately set about drafting a declaration that would allow the Delegation to officially become the representative of the nation and press for its rights. On 23 November 1918, the fourteen members laid down the regulations of the Wafd, which were made up of twenty-six Articles in all. The attainment of complete independence by legitimate and peaceful means was the intended objective of the Delegation. The will of the Egyptian people was announced to be the source of the authority of the Delegation. The final Article stipulated the formation of a central committee for the Egyptian Delegation, whose members were to be chosen from prominent personalities in the country. Its main purpose was to collect donations and ensure correspondence within the Delegation.

The new national organisation was meant to act on behalf of the Egyptian people, but there is little doubt that its membership was initially biased towards the professional classes. Financiers, administrators, lawyers, civil servants and other urban professionals were selected, along with a small religious class (the Copts), but the grand land and property owning class dominated. Cumulatively they provided the nucleus of a landed and commercial bourgeoisie which had an obvious economic interest in political independence.

Saʿad Zaghlul emerged as the Delegation’s leader because of his dynamic personality but also, it was noted, because of his cultured outlook, and religious belief tempered with an enlightened approach to new ideas. The highly experienced reformer soon established himself as the favourite leader of the Wafd Party and the Egyptian people. Zaghlul was certainly different from other politicians of his generation. Rather than coming from a metropolitan household, he was born in Abyana, a country town, in 1856. He was brought up in this rural environment as the son of a fellah (peasant), studying at his village school before going on to al-Azhar University, in the days of Al-Afghani and then Mohammed ʿAbduh. Zaghlul made his political debut as a follower of ʿUrabi. He later learnt French, the foremost diplomatic language of the time, at the Sorbonne University in Paris, as well as taking a law degree. He married the daughter of Premier Mustafa Fahmi – something which increased his social standing enormously.

A cosmopolitan, aspirational background combined with a grounding in Egypt’s rural heartland made Zaghlul admired by all classes. Zaghlul was the one and only Egyptian whom Cromer was particularly impressed by. In his farewell speech on leaving Egypt, Cromer in fact singled out Zaghlul as “one of its future rulers. He possesses all the qualities necessary to save this country. He is honest; he is capable; he has the courage of his convictions... he should go far.” A distinguished legal career saw him appointed a Judge at the High Court in 1892. He was then designated as Minister of Education and, later on, Minister of Law. He was moderate in his views, something which again was appealing to observers, from whichever side of the political spectrum they came from. Zaghlul had a ruthless, uncompromising side too. He was an important figure behind the establishment of the pre-war Hizb al-Umma (People’s Party) in 1907 before being elected to the Legislative Assembly, and then selected for the post of Secretary of the Assembly. Zaghlul was thus a reformer with a commanding, traditional education behind him, and someone with experience in a variety of political roles. His modest origins endeared him to the masses but he could evidently mix with people from all classes. It was the former aspect of his character which was to prove most useful as he moulded the Wafd into a political force which could represent the Egyptian population at large.

So it was that the grassroots base for a popular revolution was laid down by the pressure caused by martial law, censorship, and the First World War. When combined with President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, this pressure became unassailable, as the American president’s heady principles infused unprecedented hope into downtrodden Egyptian political circles. It was now all a matter of coordination between those political circles and the masses. That is precisely where the relation of interdependence between these two spheres comes into play.

Interdependence between the Elite and the Masses

The Delegation was, at the start, little more than a small group of idealistic, high-minded individuals who viewed themselves as nothing less than the leaders of a newly emerging, independent nation. In terms of democratic organisation, the group had few institutional ties with the majority of Egypt’s population.

Soon, however, the group developed into the Wafd Party, which took its place at the head of a mass, broad-based movement including almost every section of Egyptian society. The traditional dynamic of youth – so important to such movements wherever they are formed – was provided by students from the Nadi al-Madaris al-ʿUlya, a strong coalition of Higher Schools’ Club. These bright, hugely energetic youngsters were tasked with the collection of signatures, or Tawkīlat (also mandates), which were to provide written legitimacy to the political grouping. The Tawkīl had only been a hurriedly prepared document drawn up after the delegation’s meeting with Wingate at his Cairo residency, but its subsequent impact was profound. It had provided permission to the Delegation to work towards Egyptian independence through peaceful means, thus ensuring that the organisation was lawful in the eyes of all those involved in the process, and to the watching world.

Beyond this limited aim of the Tawkīl, it had the effect of inspiring political awareness in the mass of people. The Delegation had not envisaged the influence it would have on the people they sought to represent and neither had the British authorities who initially tried to suppress the signatures campaign – such was its immense power on the consciousness of the Egyptian people. As students travelled the length and breadth of the country amassing signatures, they instilled great hope, bringing thousands of Egyptians into their party. Certainly, there is little doubt that the Delegation made far more effective use of their mandate enshrined in the Tawkīl than they did at the Paris Peace conference.

The Delegation had, of course, made representations to the British Government, asking if they could travel to London to negotiate directly, but such requests were constantly turned down. British politicians said they were too busy, but it remains unclear as to whether the British anticipated spokespersons of the Wafd Party travelling to Paris. The Egyptians viewed this as a sleight as – for obvious reasons – they saw their peremptory claims as being of paramount importance.

Things moved rapidly and, on 4 March 1919, the Wafd sent letters to the agents of foreign countries in Egypt protesting against British policy as it contradicted the wishes of the Egyptian people. On 6 March, General Watson – the Commander of the British forces – threatened “to take strong action” against the Delegation if it carried on with “the discussion of the existence of the Protectorate”. The Delegation’s reply was short and to the point – they published a letter of protest addressed to Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, reiterating their call for complete independence. This had a serious consequence on the British government, whose wholly negative reaction was to arrest Saʿad Zaghlul, Muhammad Mahmud, Ismaʿil Sidqi and Hamad al-Basil and to deport them to Malta on 9 March. ʿAli Shaʿarawi took over the leadership of the Wafd in the meantime.

This section had sought to address the following question: did the Revolution of 1919 start from above – under the auspices of the intensely charismatic leader Saʿad Zaghlul – or was it a genuinely popular movement which emanated from the grassroots? The dynamic of the Egyptian Revolution came from a combination of two compelling forces: the first was Zaghlul, and the second was his vast power base among the masses. So it was that the Wafd succeeded in becoming a recognised mouthpiece for the millions who had undergone unprecedented social turmoil and bitter hardship during the First World War. This experience of the chaos caused by worldwide conflict, when merged with Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination, ensured they were determined to get rid of their colonialists from Britain. But while the Wafd leaders and those operating at the grass roots had the same overall purpose, they diverged on the means of achieving that result. In 1918 Egypt’s first truly modern revolution began with peaceful negotiations aimed at terminating the newly declared British Protectorate on the country. By 1919, it had escalated into widespread protest and physical attacks firmly directed against the British administrative and military presence on its soil. As far as political action was concerned, violence was replacing the gradual, piecemeal approach of the Wafd, as a new brand of radical, “revolutionary nationalism” started to emerge.

“Revolutionary Nationalism” Crushed by the “Barbarism” of Empire Troops

The sudden deportation of Saʿad Zaghlul and his three colleagues was, as far as the stability of the British Empire was concerned, a fatal move. As previously mentioned, it sparked a popular uprising and strikes right across Egypt, precipitating a period of violent confrontations between the Egyptian people and British troops known in Egyptian historiography as the 1919 Revolution. Over several months, Egyptians of all classes and religions participated in the upheaval. The novel nature of the clashes was highlighted by the fact that, for the first time in history, upper-class Egyptian women openly took to the streets for a political cause and thus showed their solidarity with the nationalist movement. The chronology of what happened was minutely recorded by the Egyptian Delegation in a Report which was later addressed to the newly-appointed British High Commissioner, Allenby, on 30 March 1919. The Report recounts that the protests began with peaceful student demonstrations on 9 March – the very day that the Wafd leaders were deported to Malta. In order to paint a comprehensive picture of the dramatic events, we will also be relying on the records of other observers, whether local historians and participants or British officials whose despatches were mainly based on eye-witness accounts.

In Cairo, agitation first flared among students of law, engineering, agriculture, medicine and commerce. All were joined by students from Dar al-‘Ulum (an institution which combined modern secondary teaching with Islamic studies) and the School of Jurisprudence. “Nearly three hundred were arrested.” On 10 March, students of al-Azhar and secondary school pupils also got involved. The marches were deliberately organised to pass the houses of political agents, with those taking part chanting their concern for the very future of Egypt, for their own freedom to be reinstated, and for the end of the Protectorate. Later in the 10 March rally, there were numerous heavy-handed attacks on everything from trams to shops, especially those owned by foreign nationals. The Report points out that, on 11 March, “another peaceful manifestation of students was received by a volley of shots which killed a certain number of them”. And, on 12 March, “similar peaceful manifestations were suppressed by machine-gun fire which caused the death of more young people”. Also on 12 March, dissent reached Tanta. British troops responded with more definitive expressions of violence, killing and wounding Egyptian demonstrators with their firepower. There were similar scenes of repression on the 13 and 14 March in Cairo, with the British Army intervening against public displays of opposition all over the city in an attempt to disrupt further peaceful processions organised by students “without arms”. Such action inevitably exacerbated the problems.

The revolutionary spirit spread, as anti-British activity fanned out across the whole country. The next day, 15 March, transport workers succeeded in severely disrupting communications all over Egypt. On that day alone there were more than 4,000 railway workers on strike. Strategically crucial areas which experienced sabotage included Imbaba, the gateway to Upper Egypt, where railway lines were destroyed, thus preventing engines from moving. On 16 March, the craftsmen also engaged in the dissent. Two days later, on 18 March, protests moved from Bulaq to al-Azhar. It was in al-Azhar that there was even more resistance from British troops, and serious fighting broke out. Again, demonstrators were killed and wounded by Empire troops. The violence prompted the inhabitants of districts including al-Azhar, al-Sayyida Zaynab, al-Husseiniyya and Bab al-Sha‘ariyya to erect barricades. They also dug long, deep ditches to prevent the easy movement of military vehicles. By this time, shops and financial institutions had all been closed since 11 March. It had been on the same day that the legal profession had also organised meetings and agreed to go on strike as an objection against the deportation of the four nationalist leaders. By 12 March, the agitation extended to major cities including Alexandria, Tanta and al-Mansura. In the latter city students had attacked police stations, also setting fire to railway stations and damaging telegraph and telephone lines. Again, a number of demonstrators were shot dead or seriously wounded by British troops. A key example was the slaughter in Tanta, where a British unit fired at them near a railway station, killing 16 and wounding 49.

Following these cataclysmic events, disturbances propagated to Mudiriyyat al-Buhaiyra, al-Gharbiyya, al-Minufiyya, al-Daqahliyya, Assiut and al-Fayyum. Rioters in these regions followed the revolutionary example, once again destroying railway lines, and cutting telegraph and telephone poles. The first railway line was cut on 13 March, between Tanta and Tala. Damage was done to numerous other parts of the rail network, to the extent that Cairo was separated from other regions. The British military authorities had to put out a declaration on 17 March instructing people living in communities near demolished or impaired railway lines and stations to pay for the cost of repairs themselves. This did not prevent agitators at Dayrut and Dir-Muwas to assail the train from Luxor to Cairo on 18 March, mortally wounding three British officers and five soldiers. As a result, on 20 March, British army officials ordered that the settlement closest to the attacks be raised to the ground.

Bedouins also took part in the Revolution, with numerous engagements between them and the British, especially at al-Fayyum, where there was solid support for the nationalist Hamad al-Basil. On 19 March, a group of Bedouins from West Fayyum were involved in a conflict with British Guardsmen. Around 400 demonstrators were killed or wounded. Bedouins also besieged the Diwan of Itsa, demanding that the police gave up their weapons and horses. The isolated forces of authority refused and heavy fighting ensued, with the Bedouins eventually defeated. Bedouins in Mudiriyat al-Buhaiyra made an assault on the Kum Hamada district and British troops were sent by the military administration to subjugate them.

To illustrate the unity and tolerance of the whole of Egyptian society in revolt, many authors have emphasised the participation of women and religious minorities in the nationalist movement. There is no doubt that the appearance of women on the barricades was a fascinating development. Many of these women indeed went so far as to assist with the demolition of railways lines and telegraph poles. In correspondence with General Sir Edmund Allenby, the newly-appointed High Commissioner of Egypt, Saʿad Zaghlul commented upon the extraordinary social change, noting how “the most distinguished women in Egyptian society were not able [...] to see their fellow countrymen treated in this way and keep silent about it”.

On 16 March, nearly three hundred upper-class women had demonstrated under the leadership of his wife, Safiyya Saʿad Zaghlul, Huda Shaʿarawi, wife of one of the original members of the Wafd and organiser of the Egyptian Feminist Union, and Muna Fahmi Wissa. Zaghlul also testified that: “[T]he British soldiers surrounded them on all sides, with fixed bayonets pointed towards them, and compelled them to remain two hours under a broiling sun.”

The involvement of women in the movement was certainly unprecedented. Middle-class women played important roles in the struggle, taking part in the political process along with upper-class women and fellahat (female peasants). These women organised all kinds of strikes, protests, and boycotts of British goods and wrote petitions, circulating them to foreign embassies. Zaghlul himself commented that, “[T]he curtain that ordinarily separates our women [...] from the outside world did not prevent them from expressing their sentiments.” Historians have often remarked how the 1919 Revolution effected a huge transformation in relation to women’s place in Egyptian society. It took women – as the historian Ramadan put it – from the harem to the public arena and the labour market.

Another significant moment as far as potentially disparate groups were concerned saw the Wafd choose both the cross and the crescent as an emblem, signifying national as well as religious concord. Leading Egyptian Copts sent correspondence expressing their empathy with the nationalists, with the Egyptian Association, a group formed soon after Wilson’s arrival in Paris to advocate independence, adopting a flag showing the symbols of Egypt’s three principal religious communities – a crescent, a cross, and a star of David. This badge was displayed on a scarlet background to signify the union of Egyptians of all faiths in the national struggle.

In a letter to Georges Clemenceau, the President of the Paris Peace Conference, dated 28 June 1919, Saʿad Zaghlul presented a brief statement about the different kinds of atrocities which had been committed in Egypt. All stressed the increasing “barbarism” of Empire troops. Hoping that Clemenceau would raise Egypt’s grievances at the Conference, he wrote forcefully:

The British authorities in Egypt were as much disturbed as provoked by the extent of the movement, and astonished at their powerlessness to stop it. It was then that the spirit of vengeance got the better of them, and that they allowed themselves to indulge in the most disgraceful excesses. No longer content to stop the demonstrations by means of rifles and machine guns, they were guilty in several places of rape, of the assassination of peaceful villagers, of pillage, of arson – all with the most trifling pretext or even without pretext. No longer was it a question of individual crimes committed by stray soldiers. [...] No longer was it a question of blows and thefts in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Attacks began to be made by strong military detachments, under the command of their officers, in villages as well as cities.

Thus Zaghlul underlined the paradox between discourse at the Paris Conference and British actions in the real world. There was a deep irony in the sight of a reactionary British Army subduing nationalist hopes in Egypt, while these same hopes were being put forward in Paris as the very basis of a new world order.

Elements of those involved in the Egyptian uprising had, of course, been violent, but their actions were nothing as aggressive as the British. “Peace keeping” measures included the beheading of revolutionaries. There were numerous incidents of serial rape, arson, pillage and flogging, all carried out by ordinary “Tommies”, many already battle-hardened during First World War campaigns. The detailed description of British atrocities provided by Zaghlul to Clemenceau was based on literal translation of complaints and sworn testimony. He had gleaned facts from the memorials of the complainants, police registers, the correspondence of the Ministry of the Interior and telegrams the Wafd was able to get copies of.

For example, a police record was established in the district of Bulaq, in the Egyptian capital, on 14 March 1919, reporting a rape case as follows:

The victim [...] was a girl named Zeinab Mohammed Aly. [...] She was only ten years old. She had been violated and death had ensued. The medical report qualifies this crime as one of “abominable barbarism”.

Other instances of rapes are abundant. Mohammed Ahmed Goma, a 35-year-old teacher at the girls’ school at Manial al-Rodia, thus described what happened in his village at Giza on 30 March 1919:

The whole night, the soldiers mixed with the women [...]. They shamefully attacked their chastity, and violated many of them. The reason why I do not mention particular cases is that our peasant women would never confess such shame that would leave ineffaceable marks of disgrace upon themselves and their husbands.

A merchant called Hussein Sayyid al-Mohr, aged 46, who lived in Nazlet al-Shobak, reported what his wife as well as other women underwent:

I, with my very eyes, had to see my own wife, Aisha, being raped. I think no woman escaped that disgrace, as the soldiers remained in the village from the afternoon until the next morning.

In the same village, Mahmud Ibrahim ‘Abdel Hadi, aged 32, stated that two soldiers caught his sister ‘Aziza, aged 30, and “took her to a room where both of them committed rape on her”. He added :

I myself saw the raping with my very eyes while I was unable to do anything. One of the soldiers shot her, and one of them looted all the money and jewellery which they found. Then they set fire to the house by pouring some fluid from bottles which they had with them. They also poured some of that liquid over my murdered sister and burnt her. I went up to the roof and jumped to an unburnt house and continued jumping from one roof to another until the morning.

The situation worsened, with the number of punitive campaigns increasing. Examples of the rising intensity of British repression included a statement by Mahmud Mansour al-Dali, ʿOmdeh (Mayor) of Badrashin, in the Province of Giza, which related to events that occurred on 25 March 1919:

[A]t 4.30 a.m. my house was attacked by 40 British soldiers. [They] entered my bedroom, where they found my wife, my daughters and daughters-in-law. From the room in which I was held, I could hear their cries and sounds of struggling. Their distress was heart-breaking. I wanted to fly to succour them, but was immobilized by a stroke from the butt of a rifle. [...] Having obtained permission to dress, I entered my room where I found the women, trembling with fear and indignation at the ignominious treatment which they had received from the soldiers. [...] Other troops pillaged the village [and] soldiers divided the spoil between them.

He added that he “saw the flames mount from homesteads and heard the cries of distress, interrupted by the noise of a fusillade”. He later found out that, “Ibrahim ʿAtwa al-Dali, my cousin, was killed by a bullet in his home, after having been divested of his money”. Among other casualties was also ʿAbd al-Gawad Sayyid Marsouf who “was shot in his house, his head cut off, and the soldiers amused themselves with it as if with a ball”.

There were further examples of gratuitous acts of retaliation. For instance, Ibrahim Rashdan, Mayor of Aziziyya, wrote on 25 March:

The British were going to burn the village, and ordered the inhabitants to leave their homes as soon as possible. Men, women and children hurried away, carrying what they could. [...] They subjected the women to the most shameful treatment, but the fellaheen hide these details for the sake of their women’s reputation. [...] A sacred banner embroidered with the Moslem formula of faith was also desecrated.

A particularly fierce punitive campaign was recounted by Ragheb Effendi Biachi who reported, on behalf of the inhabitants of al-Chabannatt, the following episode:

On 25 March 1919, at half-past ten a.m. a group of British soldiers surrounded the house of the Mayor of our village. [...] On my arrival there I was immediately surrounded by armed soldiers. The Colonel then informed me that at 2 o’clock on 24 March, one of the Indian soldiers (Gourkas), who was guarding the railway line, had been killed. He informed me that our village would be burnt if the criminal was not denounced and handed over at once.

Continuing his narrative Ragheb wrote:

In the meantime the village had been encircled and the inhabitants, old and young, ordered out of their homes. They were pushed along at the point of the bayonet without pity for woman or child.

Ragheb then cited one significantly cruel spectacle:

A poor woman, bearing child, was expelled violently. She was in terrible pain, but every time she tried to sit down [...], the soldiers prodded her on with the points of their bayonets. [...] he died a few hours later.

The officer then executed fifty of the inhabitants and the whole village was burnt and abandoned. “This is a true story of what British soldiers did to our village and to our people. Even this did not satisfy them, for they declared their intention to burn three more villages to avenge the death of one Indian soldier.”

A similar carnage occurred in the village of al-Shobak on 30 March 1919. One vivid scene of atrocities describes how the “Sheikhs and other notabilities of the village [...] were strangled and buried upright and their heads covered over by grass”. The massacre was followed by burning which “continued from Sunday at 3 o’clock p.m. until Monday morning at 10 a.m.”. During these events, twenty-one people were killed and twelve wounded. On top of that, one hundred and forty-four houses were burnt, fifty-five animals were killed and a large number were stolen.

On 9 April 1919, two days after the atrocities committed in the villages of Imbaba, Aziziyya, Badrashin and Nazlet al-Shobak:

[T]the inhabitants were still able to point to the bodies of the victims in the cornfields and canals. No estimation can be made of all the animals destroyed. The maize which was on the roofs of the houses has been sprinkled with benzene and burned. Thus, the entire harvest of the peasantry had been destroyed.

The brutality of British rule was also illustrated by the way troops resorted to flogging as a means of retaliation. Zaghlul noted in his correspondence to Clemenceau, that:

Under pretext that a shot had been fired at a British patrol which was passing at a certain distance from the village of Kafr Moussaed, the soldiers entered the said village, and also in the villages of Choubra-al-Charkieh and Kafr-al-Hagga, as well as in the hamlets that depend upon them. They compelled the whole masculine population to appear and condemned them to be flogged on the stomach and on the back. [...] In the district of Kafr-al-Charkieh, the British authorities made use of the whip a regular thing, and forced the mayors to furnish men to be flogged.

Egyptian men were depicted in graphic photographs with their bare torsos covered in whip marks. The nationalists who took the images placed the name and social position of each man under each photograph: pictures of peasants, students and religious scholars were all included so as to provide evidence of the broad social support for the revolutionary nationalist movement. British soldiers also forced the Mayors and businessmen of the villages to sign their names to a document acknowledging the British Protectorate over Egypt.

There were detailed reports of violent incidents at Saft-al-Melouk on 12-13 April 1919. Egyptian men were severely tortured in an attempt to get them to admit the name of one alleged criminal, or to show the British authorities where arms were concealed. Each man.

... was seized by soldiers who undressed him, took all his money away, and, as soon as he was naked, placed him with his head through a hole. Four soldiers held him outside this hole while four groups of soldiers, each composed of three soldiers held his feet and hands in lifting up his body. Two other soldiers then flogged him mercilessly without taking any care as to where the blows might fall. This over, the victim was thrown out of the kiosk and beaten and kicked by other soldiers outside the kiosk. Some of these men fainted from the pain inflicted. Others vomited blood. There was no doctor there to take care of those wounded or to prevent those who were ill or feeble already from being thus tortured.

The Delegation’s report notes that no exceptions were made by the British according to the social status or age of the victims. Approximately five hundred men were brutalised in this fashion and lodged a complaint in Cairo. However, the report states that those who could not come to Cairo were “more numerous”.

In view of the deaths and abuse perpetrated by British soldiers, Zaghlul felt entitled to put the following questions to Georges Clemenceau:

Can we Egyptians remain with folded arms and keep absolute silence in the presence of the different forms of martyrdom the British military authorities are inflicting upon us, especially when our conscience is free from having committed the slightest crime? [...] Can we hold our peace and not complain when it is decided that every Egyptian, of whatever rank, must stand up and salute passing British officers? Can we preserve our serenity when our women are violated, our villages burned, the innocent assassinated en masse?

Thus, Saʿad Zaghlul summed up his own country’s tragedy with typical eloquence.

Despite the barbarity with which the British went about quelling the revolt, more railway lines were cut at Meit al-Qirsh, Tafahna al-Ashraf and Dandit. Again, the British authorities responded with more repressive violence. When the inhabitants of al-ʿAziziyya and al-Badrashin villages burnt the railway stations at al-Hawamdiyya and al-Badrashin, troops responded by, on 25 March, burning these villages in addition to the village of al-Shabanat near al- Zaqaziq. On 30 March, villagers from Nazlet al-Shobak in al-ʿAyyat district, attacked a train, and the British burnt this village as well.

In Assiut, demonstrators seized local ammunition dumps as well as police arms. They also set private and public buildings on fire while shops were looted. Revolutionaries also targeted the British forces in the city, but following the arrival of military supplies, the insurrection was suppressed and law and order restored. At al-Minya, a nationalist committee was formed which took responsibility for protecting foreigners and their property and tried to maintain peace generally. The committee also upheld a basic form of local government, to the extent that consuls and foreigners observed that conditions for foreigners remained remarkably safe.

On 30 March, a British force commanded by Brigadier General Huddleston settled at the Diwan al-Mudiriyya and sent for the thirty or so committee members. Six of them – namely Muhammad Tawfiq Ismaʿil, Dr Mahmud Bey ʿAbd al-Razaq, Muhammad Effendi Rahmi, Hassan Effendi ‘Ali Tarraf, Riyadh al-Jammal and Sheikh Ahmad Hatata – were arrested and accused of usurping the authority of the Government.

It was at Zifta that a revolutionary committee formally declared independence as they raised a national flag and distributed literature announcing that they were now the main authority in the town. Wafd Party member Yusuf al-Jundi gave clear instructions for the committee to be convened at Cafe Mustawkli. The committee was made up of some Aʿyan (wealthy landlords), the educated, and minor merchants, such as ʿAwad al-Kafrawi, Sheikh Mustafa ʿAmayim, Ibrahim Khayr al-Din, Admun Burda, Muhammad al-Sayyid and Mahmud Hassas. Yusuf al-Jundi also led a large demonstration, with many of those carrying guns and clubs. But Ismaʿil Hamad, the Maʾmūr (local chief) of the area, was hugely proud of his country. In order to avoid fighting and further bloodshed he capitulated, surrendering the town, and weapons to the British. However, insurgents were still in control of the railway and telegraph stations.

The principal committee established smaller groups to preserve order and to collect dues, and also set up groups of students and other learned people in the towns. These conducted patrols in the streets, while others made sure that provisions were not stolen, and indeed worked to prevent British spies from entering. It was one such faction which published and distributed a newspaper called Al-Jumhur (The Public) containing its decisions, as well as directions and news.

Following the release of Saʿad Zaghlul and the granting of permission to the Wafd to travel to Paris on 7 April 1919, a revolutionary committee continued to exist in Zifta. This situation was sustained until the British Military Authority finally sent a unit of Australian troops to put down the revolt. The approach of the soldiers led to the inhabitants digging trenches in main roads, but the invaders began shelling before seizing Mahlaj Rinhart and Kishk School on the outskirts of the town. It was left to Ismaʿil Bey Hamad to intervene, and he acted as mediator between the soldiers and the committee. It was only at this point that the soldiers went into the town and finally restored government authority.

The 1919 Revolution was a major watershed in the progress of the Egyptian national struggle. It formed, according to the prominent Egyptian historian ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Rafiʿi, “the basis for all the developments that followed”. It was the first truly popular revolution in Egypt, which included all regions, age groups, classes, and religious communities. In the words of Saʿad Zaghlul, it brought “all the Egyptians, from highest to lowest” together. Another Egyptian historian has written that the 1919 Revolution augured, “a new age in Egyptian history the age of Egyptian nationalism – which replaced the idea of the Islamic community that made Egypt part of the Ottoman state”. It is apparent that Western history books make little mention of the brutality which characterised British rule in Egypt. Some 800 Egyptians and 60 British soldiers and civilians died in the clashes that Spring, and thousands more were wounded. In March 2009, however, an article published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (The Egyptian Today) on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Revolution, stated that the ruthless subduing had made “1,000 Martyrs” in total. The violent disturbances of the period naturally worsened connections between the British and the Egyptians. This deterioration in relations was to hamper all future attempts at negotiation.

A New Brand of Egyptian Nationalism which took the British by Surprise

The Wafd’s novel brand of nationalism, which so surprised the British, was very different to pre-war versions. It was based upon the legacy of Egypt’s extensive participation in World War One – a conflict which exposed the country to a range of previously unheard of sufferings, thus altering its social face. In particular it transformed the nationalist movement from one mainly involving an educated urban elite into one supported by an extremely broad cross-section of socio-economic groups. This new kind of nationalism discarded the pan-Islamic and pro-Ottoman beliefs of pre-1914 nationalism, instead putting forward positivist ideas rooted in the framework of a liberal political philosophy.

The realisation that economic power played an important role in political advancement was another post-war development. Landowners, financiers, administrators, lawyers, civil servants and other urban professionals dominated the Wafd membership. Together they made up a concentrated group of aspirational citizens in both metropolitan centres and the countryside who were invested in Egyptian independence. The Wafd thus ensured that the influence of the collaborative groups which had propped up the British administration was now eroded.

The Wafd also distinguished itself by its efforts to build a solid political and economic alternative to British rule. This differentiated the party from the older Turco-Albanian aristocracy, of which Prime Minister Rushdi was a prominent member. The British civil and military authorities failed to foresee this turn of events. During the few crucial months between Rushdi’s resignation in December 1918 and the outbreak of the revolt on 9 March 1919, Egyptians affairs were run by British advisers. They had nonetheless been unable to comprehend the extent to which the Wafd managed to mobilise the endorsement of groups representing every strata of society.

The Residency turned to the Adviser to the Ministry of the Interior to ensure that they were able to follow public opinion around the country, but during that period Haines had made little effort to do so. Moreover, the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff was under strain because many officers had been demobilised after the war, or else were on long leave. Accordingly, the Residency received “totally insufficient and misleading information as to the true nature and character of the Nationalist political movement”. It was these observations which led Cheetham to report to the Foreign Office on 24 February 1919 that Zaghlul was widely distrusted and that the trouble which he had been creating was dying out. The British government thus seemed to view the nationalist movement as a minority group made up of a few disgruntled politicians, and with little real power, let alone influence on the mass of the population.

Consequently, when the Wafdist agitation became more of a concern in March 1919, the British authorities’ reaction was a traditionally brutal one. It was entirely conditioned on British experiences pre-1914 when outbreaks of nationalist activity were violently crushed. Then, the arrest and deportation of nationalist leaders had always succeeded in quelling putative uprisings. By 1919, however, the decision to deport Zaghlul and his three fellow nationalists to Malta could only have been described as a disastrous miscalculation. It severely underestimated the amount of popular support enjoyed by Zaghlul’s group. The British government thus realised in March 1919 that their initial obstinacy first shown towards Zaghlul’s demands had been ill-advised in the extreme, and was more than partly to blame for the subsequent rebellion. It was only when wide-scale upheavals erupted that officials in London finally began to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

Thus, the “temporary reaction in our favour” which had been anticipated by Wingate in London did not materialise. Instead the incarceration and then deportation of the Wafd leaders was met by student demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria on 9 March. These were followed by a wave of strikes involving transport workers, judges and lawyers. In a highly significant display of intercommunal unity against the British enemy, the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo was opened up to Coptic preachers. Upper- and middle-class women took to the streets for the first time in Egyptian history. By 15 March, the unrest had spread to large parts of the countryside, ensuring a temporary loss of British control in numerous districts as logistical networks were targeted and destroyed, or at least momentarily put out of action.

British rulers, finally acknowledging that the disturbances were not solely isolated incidents which could be put down by intimidation and deportation, but a far-reaching national revolt, rushed General Allenby, “the strong man of the East”, to Egypt on 22 March. Allenby reached Cairo on 25 March and, as Special High Commissioner, was ordered “to exercise supreme authority in all matters military and civil, to take all such measures as he considers necessary and expedient to restore law and order, and to administrate in all matters as required by the necessity of maintaining the King’s Protectorate over Egypt on a secure and equitable basis”. In order to carry out these instructions, Allenby resorted to an apparently contradictory combination of military repression in the provinces and limited but effective concessions to nationalist opinion. These compromises included the release of Zaghlul and his associates and permission for them to travel to London and on to Paris. By 29 April, Allenby reported that the situation was “much improved”. Yet as will be shown, Allenby’s cruel legacy has not been particularly successful. In effect, the broadening of the Wafd’s attractiveness beyond the educated urban elite constituted the real rupture with the past and altered British policy dramatically.

The much-vaunted, rhetorical utopianism of mainly western statesmen at the post-war Paris Peace Conference in 1919 certainly stirred a nationalist consciousness in Egypt. However, Egyptians were only too well aware that lofty ideas about self-determination had done nothing to stop the British using maximum force to stamp out a popular uprising in their own country. The pragmatic, and far from idealistic, reality was that the Egyptian Revolution grew directly out of the Peace Conference which took place in the French capital in January 1919.

Allenby’s modus vivendi: Britain’s New Policy towards Egypt

As has been demonstrated throughout this chapter, the events of the Egyptian Revolution had an effect across the country. Cheetham, the British Chargé d'affaires in Egypt, had this in mind when he wrote to the British government:

Latest reports are that preaching in favour of cessation of work has taken place in some mosques in Cairo. Were it not for this feature it would probably be our best policy to deport or intern here the rest of Saad’s deputation, and to treat similarly others who might openly replace them. Alternative is to discover some ground for reconciliation, and I may wish to recommend a concession to native feeling.

It was Cheetham who put forward the idea that Egyptian nationalists should not be prevented from travelling to Europe to air their grievances. He also believed that an investigatory commission should travel to the country to provide recommendations about how the situation could be ameliorated. All of this would happen once the Paris Peace Conference had formally recognised the British Protectorate over Egypt, and indeed accepted the mandate.

Cheetham sought the help of the United States in convincing the British Government to adopt a more conciliatory policy. So it was that on 18 March he summoned the American Consul General, telling him that “at no time since the Araby rebellion in 1882 has the state of affairs been so critical”. Cheetham made it clear that he had not received orders from London. As the American Consul General reported in a telegram:

[H]e desired me to report the serious conditions to my government in the hope that it would exert promptly some influence over his own government and thus make them appreciate the gravity of the situation.

The Consul General also recounted that Cheetham had called him to his official Residency “to tell me that the situation is getting beyond control and to ask if I will be prepared to help in the matter if the worst comes”. Yet despite such a seemingly pacifying turn of events, the Foreign Office instructed Cheetham to take further repressive measures so as to ensure that order was maintained. Consequently, the General Commander-in-Chief sent for a number of selected Wafd members on 16 March. At a meeting, he held them personally responsible for outbreaks of trouble. The next day, the Wafd produced a letter protesting against what the British Commander had said, sending a copy to the consuls of all foreign countries represented in Cairo.

With the Revolution escalating, the Government ministers forming the British delegation in Paris soon became aware of the immense power of the nationalist movement that they were up against. Attempts to control it by deporting its leaders would be doomed to failure, they realised. Egypt was faced with a bona fide nationalist uprising throughout the country. Accordingly, these British ministers sent a telegram to London on 18 March reversing Curzon's policy:

[O]rder must be restored immediately and without bargaining, and then a competent government carrying the requisite authority formed. When this had been done, HMG were prepared to discuss in London any grievances with Egyptian Ministers, and these Ministers could be accompanied by persons qualified to represent the Nationalist cause, even if they were extremists.

It was at this point that General Allenby was appointed by the British Government as High Commissioner for Egypt. He set about implementing a policy which had been broadly delineated by the British delegation in Paris in its message to the Foreign Secretary on 18 March. Allenby arrived in Cairo on 25 March. As quickly as the next day he summoned a group of Notables and Aʿyan, including members of the Wafd, and firmly told them that his mission in Egypt involved: the restoration of law and order in the country; a thorough investigation of the root causes of the Revolution; and the use of the law to try and eliminate these grievances.

Allenby called on all of them to work with him closely towards a fair and equitable settlement of the issues which had led to the Revolution. It appeared that, within days of arriving in Cairo, Allenby had already made his mind up about a solution to the Egyptian problem. It might even have been that he had worked out a solution before arriving. His policies were to be as follows: a just, transparent training policy ultimately designed towards getting Egyptians administrating their own country; a firm ban on bargaining in political affairs; some reduction in the strength of British Forces in Egypt.

Yet despite these measures which were clearly aimed at expunging the deeper origins of the Revolution, Allenby did not call a halt to the military action undertaken by General Bulfin, Brigadier General Huddleston and Major John Shea. On 29 March, it was reported that the punitive campaign led by Brigadier General Huddleston in Assiut was ongoing, as the military commander attempted to restore order in neighbouring districts. It was also the case that Major John Shea was moving south to the Middle Egypt region, leading a full-strength army unit for the same purpose. The 1 April official account included intelligence about 16 mobile platoons working in Upper Egypt. It was recorded on 4 April that their repressive activities were intensifying. Lord Lloyd criticised General Allenby, saying it was imperative to complete the work initiated by General Bulfin as he tried to re-establish British authority in the country, and put an end to the unrest. It was only after he had eradicated the trouble that he would discuss the removal of the sources of Egyptian grievances.

Despite the violence taking place across the country, Lord Allenby’s policies were certainly tempered with a more benevolent spirit. He allowed military force to be used in quelling the March Revolution, but at the same time he negotiated with Wafd members and Egyptian leaders to try and deal with the causes of the Revolution. General Allenby understood clearly that “force could never solve the problem of Anglo-Egyptian Relations”. As will be explained, however, this policy – directed as it was towards the immediate suppression of the Egyptian Revolution and the continuation of the British Protectorate – did not achieve its desired objectives.

On 30 March, the members of the Egyptian delegation submitted a report on Egypt’s complaints, and what they considered as the genesis of the Revolution. The Wafd argued that Egyptians viewed the British protectorate over Egypt as something which had been made necessary by the war. They said all had been forced to endure a military regime during the war, while maintaining the hope that the Egyptian question would be settled in favour of the aspirations of the Egyptian people. This hope had all but disappeared after the end of the war, with the British refusing to authorise the Egyptian delegation to travel to England and indeed France in order to test Egyptian claims for independence before world public opinion. The Wafdists were concerned that representatives of British Wilāyāt (dependent provinces) had been allowed participation at the Peace Conference in Paris, while Egypt
– generally regarded as a more civilised nation which had actually helped to conquer these countries
– was banned from the Conference.

Not only had Britain put down Egyptian nationalist ambitions, but it had also arrested the head of the Egyptian delegation and his three colleagues. As discussed, this had directly led to bloodshed, with students and then other groups taking part in peaceful demonstrations against the British. Violence was met with violence, as the Egyptian people fought back against British troops who had been firing at them. The Delegation’s report thus repeated the advice which it had first offered the military in a letter dated 24 March. In order to put an end to the agitation and general confusion, it suggested the formation of a new popular ministry – an advice which had been promoted by the notables, scientists, ministers, representatives and Aʿyan of Egypt. This view had indeed been expressed in the aforementioned letter which they had sent to the General Commander-in-Chief.

On the following day (31 March), General Allenby summoned the members of the delegation and the members of Rushdi’s ministry who had resigned so as to review the report presented by the Wafd. Allenby made it clear that he saw the report as an extremely positive development, and suggested that the two parties had come closer to one another, so ensuring that an agreement was possible. On the same day, Allenby wrote to the British Government recommending that the Egyptian nationalists should be allowed to travel to Europe regardless of the nature of their demands. Allenby stated that he had been influenced not only by the Wafd members, but also the ex-ministers. These senior politicians had stated that “this concession would restore tranquillity and guarantee the formation of a ministry”. The British Foreign Office, which viewed this proposal “with grave misgiving”, passed it on to the British delegation in Paris. In turn, the delegation concluded that Allenby’s advice “cannot be disregarded”, and accepted his considerations. They also requested Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary in London, to “avoid any appearance of mistrusting” Allenby’s present policy.

Before the reply from the British Government had arrived, Allenby had written, on 4 April, to re-emphasise his proposition, and to issue a warning to his own Government about the seriousness of the situation, indicating that “there is evidence that movement is influencing Palestine and Syria, besides Egypt, and danger is a very real one”. Simultaneously, Allenby reiterated to his government “the importance of obtaining an early announcement that our protectorate is recognised by powers”. On 5 April, Allenby was told that his policy had been agreed to. He was guaranteed all support in implementing it. An alternative plan was, however, also put to him. This was that a commission of the highest importance, headed by Lord Milner, should immediately be sent to Egypt to conduct a probe into the current situation and produce an account about the future make-up of the Protectorate. Adopting this substitute measure would have changed the centre of the political dynamic concerning Egypt’s future from Europe back to Cairo, and it might also have made it simpler to fulfil Egyptian requests without making out that violence had led to previously unsatisfied demands being met. The decision as to which action to pursue was left to General Allenby. On 6 April, Allenby telegraphed his government, outlining the steps to be followed to carry out his strategy. In terms of the scheme of sending out Milner’s Commission to Egypt, Allenby stated that “the proposed commission might be desirable later, but would be useless now”. There was always the possibility that it might be sent when the ministerial deputation left Egypt for London.

Allenby’s priority was to implement his guidelines as soon as possible. On 7 April, he gave permission to the Egyptians to travel to Europe following their release from prison in Malta. On 9 April, Hussein Rushdi formed the Ministry. Even so, Allenby’s decision was severely criticised. As one British national in Egypt wrote:

The proclamation of April 7th came as a bombshell to us. As affecting British Prestige and security in Egypt, General Allenby’s action is regarded as nothing short of calamitous. Men who were previously prepared to stand by us simply had to go over to the other side for protection.

Lord Lloyd made it clear that he considered this “reversal” of policy would make it appear that violence as a tool of political action had succeeded. He accordingly described Allenby’s action as unjustifiable. What alarmed Sir R. Graham, he said, was that two weeks of violence might lead to Britain surrendering what it had failed to yield during four months of negotiations. What was immediately apparent, however, was that the news had a sudden effect right across Egypt and the Sudan. It was hailed as great national triumph, with political agitation giving way to popular celebrations.

It certainly seemed that the change in British policy in Egypt took place after Britain had reached guarantees about the recognition of the Protectorate by the major powers which had convened at the Peace Conference, and by the United States in particular. The U.S. President informally recognised the Protectorate on 19 April, just as Zaghlul and his delegation, which had left Malta a few days earlier, landed in Marseilles on their way to the Paris Peace Conference. The official recognition which came on 21 April delighted British officials. Curzon was among those who were convinced that a “severe rebuff” in Paris – and most definitely one which had come from the U.S. President – had to be seen as a vital step in diminishing the danger from Zaghlul’s damaging extremism. He believed that Wilson’s formal acknowledgement was “a very important step in the right direction”. George Lloyd, who in the 1920s would serve as the British High Commissioner in Egypt, said later (without trying to disguise his happiness) that the U.S. validation of the Protectorate assured that “Zaghlul’s last hope of effective action in Paris disappeared”. The statement showed how concerned the British had been about the possibility of President Wilson giving Zaghlul a hearing in Paris. The Wafd delegation was, in turn, “shocked” at news of the recognition, and “despair began to steep into their hearts” about the prospects of what they had set out to achieve. The nationalists had seen Wilson as the personification of their hopes. Accordingly, the final U.S. decision left them with a sense of betrayal. In his memoirs, Muhammad Haykal said that this resolution by the Americans fell upon the nationalists “like a bolt of lightning”:

Here was the man of the Fourteen Points, among them the right to self-determination, denying the Egyptian people its right to self-determination and recognising the British protectorate over Egypt. And doing all that before the delegation on behalf of the Egyptian people had arrived in Paris to defend its claim, and before President Wilson had heard one word from them! Is this not the ugliest of treacheries?! Is it not the most profound repudiation of principles?!

Notwithstanding this harsh reverse, the Wafd representatives got to the French capital in April and began pressing for Egypt’s independence from Britain. While there were Wafd members who viewed the American stance as a mortal wound as far as Egyptian aspirations were concerned, others, including Zaghlul himself, decided to keep reiterating their stated aims. The entire population of Egypt, Zaghlul was to record in his diary, had become a “revolutionary people determined to achieve independence and willing to pay a price for it”, and they would not accept failure.

Through the execution of its new policy in Egypt, Britain was seeking to guarantee the containment of the Egyptian Revolution as well as the alleviation of its current impact on the British position in the country. Was Allenby’s modus vivendi a success? What was the direct outcome of his via media which combined the restoration of law and order with negotiations with the nationalists? Allenby’s balance sheet turned out to be quite unimpressive.

The celebrations which followed the release of the Wafd delegation from Malta were only temporary. Within a couple of days strikes and riots once more blighted the whole country, and especially Cairo. There is no doubt that the government had been fully reshuffled, but as soon as the Prime Minister, Rushdi Pasha, returned to office on April 9, he was warned with an ultimatum by government officials who had been on strike. They called for the Cabinet to officially recognise the Egyptian delegation as the principal legal power in the country, but also demanded that it should refuse to recognise the British Protectorate. They also requested the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt, stating that they should be replaced by Egyptian troops. After numerous and vain negotiations, Rushdi Pasha resigned on 21 April. The next day, General Allenby issued a proclamation ordering that the striking officials, under threat of being fired, should go back to their posts. They grudgingly obeyed. Other strikes were outwardly crushed by the repressive measures of martial law, but nationalist spirit remained at the grassroots level. Ordinary Egyptians were, perhaps more than ever before, resolved to abolish the Protectorate and liberate Egypt from foreign “usurpers”.

By forcefully ensuring the resignation of the Rushdi Pasha ministry, the Wafd had dismissed the theory that British control was crucial to Egypt’s future. Over a period of more than 30 years, the Egyptians had only nominally governed Egypt with the assistance of English advisers, but the country had actually been administered by a British bureaucracy headed by a Consul-General or a High Commissioner. As far back as Lord Cromer’s time, this administration had worsened to such an extent that it was almost entirely alienated from the population it was designed to be serving. Under such a system, where there was little if no mechanism for public opinion to be heard, Egyptians were naturally disinclined to accept that British plans to train an Egyptian governmental class had worked. They considered that the number of Egyptians in the public service was in fact decreasing and they “were treated more and more as inferiors and not as collaborators”. They also complained that “the British official world had steadily cut itself off from any intimate contact with Egyptians save with those who were prepared to have no opinions of their own”.

It was clear to all that an out-of-touch, largely irresponsible civil service had to go. After the stepping down of the Rushdi Pasha Cabinet, it took General Allenby a month to convince Mohammed Saʿid Pasha to form a new government. This government went on to survive for eight months, but it was inevitably unable to prevent the swelling tide of nationalism which was sweeping the country. British control was close to breaking point.

The British authorities in London conceded this when on 15 May 1919, it informed the Westminster Parliament that “a strong mission”, led by Lord Milner, would soon arrive in Cairo to investigate the causes of the revolution and to make recommendations about what it saw as the necessary measures to protect foreign interests in the country and in “shaping for the protectorate a system of prudent and ever-enlarging enfranchisement” as well as addressing the “claims of the Egyptian people to a due and increasing share in the management of the affairs of Egypt”.

What was particularly noticeable about these developments was how many women took part in the Egyptian social movement calling for change. For the first time in history, upper- and middle-class female members of the population were rallying on the streets, and indeed providing the intellectual ideas which underpinned their country’s commitment to independence.