Egypt's incredible independence revolution

The story of Egypt’s revolution and limited independence is an interesting one, especially for an African country. Egypt achieved limited independence in 1922, 35 years before Ghana achieved full independence. This was achieved almost entirely non-violently, following three years of organised and strategic boycotts, petitions, pamphleteering, demonstrations and a sustained general strike by students, professionals and workers.

During World War I the British conscripted hundreds of thousands of Egyptian peasants, forcing many to work for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Forced conscription, martial law and inflation fuelled the desire for independence among Egyptian students, political parties and parts of the working class.

Opposition leaders such as Saad Zaghlul, Abd al Fahmi and Ali Sharawi put together a delegation to the 1918 Paris Peace Conference to advocate for Egyptian independence. When they were refused on claims that they were not legitimate representatives on Egypt, Zaghul’s followers gathered money and signatures confirming his legitimacy. Britain confiscated or otherwise ignored these petitions, forcing Zaghlul to respond by sending memoranda instead.

Zaghlul and other opposition leaders were arrested and exiled in March 1919 for their continued efforts to achieve independence. This triggered an unprecedented uprising. Isolated student uprisings turned into isolated workers strikes, which themselves turned into a national general strike that brought the country to a standstill. Small-scale riots in major cities were violently suppressed, killing hundreds of protestors.

The largest demonstration of the uprising happened on March 15 1919, when 10 000 students, workers and professionals marched to Adbin Palace in Cairo. The following day, hundreds of traditionally veiled women led by the wives of the exiled leaders gathered to protest. These women played an integral role in the resistance by organising strikes and boycotts of British goods and petitioning foreign embassies.

These protests forced Britain to invite Zaghlul to London for private talks in 1920. These talks led to the abolition of the protectorate as a condition for the negotiating of a new treaty. Zaghlul returned to a hero’s welcome in Egypt. His popularity threatened Britain’s plans to install a puppet group in Egypt, and in December Zaghlul was again exiled.

The British declared limited independence for Egypt in February 28th, 1922. The decleration did not involve any opposition leaders, allowing Britain to determine key details regarding what independence would mean. This included retaining control of Sudan and the ability to intervene in Egyptian affairs. Political tension continued for years, and it was not until the 1952 revolution in which reformist military officers overthrew the monarchy that Egypt finally wrested itself from British influence.

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Afrika Matters Initiative NPC 2018/033657/08