I cannot think of any other region in the world which has a more complicated and cluttered history and politics than the Middle East. World War – I had drastic effects on the region, with major European powers claiming their lands like a family property settlement after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its disintegration.
The European Powers, British, French and Russian claimed rights in the region like claiming property in their father’s will. In their Great Game to control Middle-East which could serve as a commercial and military base and access route to other territories sabotaged the local and regional politics, interests and concerns with their less-informed and self-interested tactics.
But with the strengthening power hold of the colonizers over the Middle-East, the ever disillusioned and frustrated population could read through the vested interest of the foreigners which led to the rise of resistance and nationalism in these territories. To understand the nature of such nationalist movements and revolution in detail, I would restrict the scope of this article only to Egypt which caused a lot of trouble for its British masters.
The British had occupied Egypt way back in 1882 mainly in order to secure the Suez Canal as a strategic route to India and other South Asian countries. The occupation was supposed to be temporary, although it lasted until the early 1950s. As the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany-Austria-Hungary, the British felt it was necessary to change the temporary nature of their occupation to protect its hold over Egypt. On December 18, 1914, Britain declared Egypt a protectorate of the British Empire, deposed the pro-Ottoman Khedive Abbas Hilmi, and replaced him with a relative.
Rise of Nationalism in Egypt: The events of 1919 in Egypt show how the First World War played a crucial role in affecting the country’s history after the war ended. The interwar years saw a political dance take place between the British, Egyptian nationalist politicians, and the Egyptian king, who mistrusted the nationalists.
The careless intrusion of Allied forces in Egypt and its conversion as a military base during WWI had ruined and disturbed the local population in Egypt. The presence of thousands of Allied troops had a whole series of knock-on effects on Egypt. Many soldiers, especially Anzac troops from Australia and New Zealand, got into fights with Egyptians in cities such as Cairo, often fuelled by alcohol, and often damaged property. So many soldiers created a boom in prostitution, created many (badly-paid) employment opportunities for Egyptians, and contributed to widespread inflation in the Egyptian economy. Thousands of Egyptian men, especially peasants (fellahin) were recruited, often forcibly, into the Egyptian Labour Corps, The laborers were often treated appallingly, and the removal of men from the countryside exacerbated the hardship there caused by wartime inflation, unemployment and the shortage of goods and foodstuffs.
Britain had ‘squeezed’ Egypt during the war, but what Egyptians received in return for their contribution to the war effort once the fighting had stopped was refusal of their demands for independence, deliberate restriction of their participation in international peace affairs, followed by unleashing of force on the Egyptian population finally resulting in the arising of the historic Egyptian Revolution. The arrests of Egyptian nationalist politicians such as Saad Zaghlul and others who were drawing from both Egyptian nationalism and the promises made by US President Woodrow Wilson for people to enjoy ‘self-determination’ by the British forces and their exile to British-controlled Malta sparked the Egyptian Revolution. Egyptians from all religions and classes united against the British and agitation unfolded in multiple forms and places such as student demonstrations, strikes by transport workers supported by trade unions, riots in the capital and other cities and finally a national general strike that paralyzed the country. A significant aspect of the Egyptian Revolution was the participation of several hundred Egyptian women who joined in the protests led by the wives of the exiled Egyptian nationalist politicians, Safia Zaghlul, Mana Fahmi Wissa, and Huda Sha‘rawi, the women refused to obey British orders to disperse. The Revolution was a key moment in the history of Egyptian and Islamic feminism.
Some of the reasons for the gradual withering of the revolution were the violent interaction between the peasants and the British in the countryside entailing killing on both sides with the British effectively losing control of most of Egypt. The release of the Egyptian nationalist politicians, and British permission for them to travel to Paris for the Peace Conference, led the politicians to sign a letter calling off the demonstrations. The aftermath of all the hullabaloo was Egypt finally being declared as an independent country on February 28th, 1922, but the British had other crafty plans to keep Egypt under their control with the situation on the ground suggesting their limited independence. The negative effects of the world war on Egypt unleashed powerful forces in Egyptian politics and society that cannot be ignored.