Egypt: Happy Fourth of July, America

Happy 4th of July

by Jimmy Dunn

What Cambyses began in 525 BC, Gamal Nasser put an end to in 1952. Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the U.S., when Americans celebrate their freedom from British colonial rule. Egypt has many things in common with America, and one of these is that they too had to finally win their independence from the British.

Egypt, like the U.S., is today a land of many faces and many nationalities where people from Africa, various countries in the Middle East and elsewhere come for the opportunities and freedom that is often lacking in their homelands. It is a country where common men and women often rise from poverty though hard work and intelligence to find wealth and a new way of life. Today, it is a democracy with a maturing free market and a spirited people with an eye to the future. But it was not always this way. No other country suffered foreign rule longer than the Egyptians, and so no one deserved to finally win back their freedoms more than the Egyptians. While Gamal Nasser, the first independent President of modern Egypt was not a particularly popular figure in the West, he did give the Egyptians their freedom for the first time in modern history. For this, he deserves our respect, because almost by definition, he was the greatest liberator the world has ever known. Where George Washington delivered the Americans from several hundred years of colonialism, Nasser bought freedom to the Egyptians for the first time in over 2,500 years.

Former President of Egypt, Gamal Nasser

Former President of Egypt, Gamal Nasser

It was Cambyses, a Persian, who bought an end to Egyptians ruling Egyptians. However, he only began a this long period of foreign rule in Egypt. From the Persians, the Greeks would first take power in this ancient land, but than came the Romans (in several flavors), the Arabians, once again the Persians, the Turks and Ottomans, the French and finally the British.

Some would say that Egypt really won back its freedom much earlier than 1952, but this is an awful myth of the colonial world. James Aldridge in Cairo, Biography of a City explains that:

"Foreign swindling and roguery, mainly by the greatest banking houses of Europe, aided and abetted by their governments, who finally got hold of the economy of Egypt by a process of unscrupulous and dishonest mortgages."

The British had ruled Egypt formally in the past, and they did so up until 1952 first, by controlling the country's economy and financial institutions. Egypt was their security for outrageous loans made to its Turkish rulers, and in the end, they simply foreclosed, leaving the common Egyptians as mere collateral and the property of European banks. With the financial collapse, Britain once again occupied Egypt.

However, by the First World War, Egyptians were very tired of European rule. With the occupation of Egypt, prices rose and while Europeans were having the time of their lives in Egypt, poverty and malnutrition, particularly in the countryside, were so bad that in 1918 more people died than were born.

During the first Great War, Britain declared Egypt as a protectorate and in 1916, introduced martial law. Egyptians were judged in military courts and soon, peasants were even being kidnapped to serve in labor battalions in Palestine. Colonel P.G. Elgood says in The Transit of Egypt, "Fellahin were seized on the highway and in the fields and sent under escort to the army." There belongings, including Donkeys, camels and even their food was commandeered. Emil Ludwig in his book, The Nile in Egypt, tells us that during the 1914-1918 war, the British sent one hundred thousand "free Egyptians" to Syria, eight thousand to Mesopotamia and ten thousand to France.

So by the end of the war, the Egyptians were very tired of their plight. It was in fact, the Americans that provided Egyptians with some hope of independence when President Wilson issued his Fourteen Points. Afterwards, a great Egyptian national named Saad Zaghlul went knocking on the door of the British Residency one day, demanding Egypt's right to self-determination under Wilson's policy. He was listened to politely, allowed to leave, but was arrested a month later and deported to Malta. Egypt immediately erupted, and practically overnight, Cairo became a revolutionary city. Chaos ruled the day, and there were armed conflicts in the streets.

Egyptian Ministers of 1924 and Saad Zaghlul

However, the British, long experienced in the ways of colonialism, replaced the Resident with a new special high commissioner named E.H.H. Allenby. He immediately ordered the release of Zaghlul from Malta, and perhaps more than any other political or military act, this allowed Britain to rule Egypt for many years to come. Yet, the seed of independence had been planted, and Zaghlul and his original delegation to the Residence had now become the basis for a new political party called the Wafd (delegation). While the Nationalists demanded the instant withdrawal of British control, the Wafd instead wanted to negotiate British out of Egypt, and it was they who quickly took the 1919 revolution in hand. They organized strikes and demonstrations, but now with the revolution under control, Allenby once again declared martial law in Egypt and crushed the strikes one by one.

Regrettably, it would be the U.S. that would finally crush Egypt's bid for independence. After Zaghlul was released from Malta, he again went knocking on the doors, this time in Paris at the peace conference hoping again to win Egyptian independence under Wilson's Fourteen points. But on April 20, 1919, the United States itself recognized the British "protection" of Egypt, thus destroying any hope he had of convincing the big European powers to allow Egypt to rule herself.

Yet the period between World War I and World War II did see some minor improvements in the Egyptian condition. There seems to have been almost a constant struggle as the Egyptians tenaciously moved towards their final independence. Some new allowance were made by the British allowing, for example, the Egyptians to be tried in their own courts. However, while the Europeans continued to live the good life in Cairo, Charles Issawi, the Egyptian Association for Social Studies in 1938 showed that poor Egyptians, which constituted about 90 percent of the population, lived five to six persons in one room, got seven and a half weeks work per year, and earned an average of nine Egyptian pounds per year. They had the highest death rate in the world, with two of every four children dying before the age of five. They also had the highest number of blind per capita in the world, and lived on a diet that had little or no fish, eggs, milk, meat, butter or even wheat.

The riggers of World War II would finally provide the Egyptians with the opportunity of self rule. It was during the war that a group of young Egyptian army officers secretly formed the Revolutionary Committee. While they were able to keep the Committee hidden from the eyes of the British, it did not have much chance of success without a social basis within the Egyptian population. In the end, it was Britain herself that supplied a new economic and social strata for her own expulsion.

Nasser as a young military officer

Nasser as a young military officer

With the home front in Britain under considerable economic stress during World War II, she needed Egypt's help. Rather than shipping everything from oversees to Egypt, overnight great repair workshops for the army were set up in Cairo, and the British employed and trained thousands of Egyptians as fitters, mechanics, electricians, drivers and engineers. Later, the Americans too would set up a vast repair depot near Cairo, also training the Egyptians to grind lenses, repair instruments and reconstruct complicated and sophisticated equipment. But not only military equipment was needed. The Egyptians were also trained to repair their own trams, trains, machinery, cars and buses. Egypt began to weave its own cloth, food processing became important for the army, and other industries grew up, including even the production of Arabic films. Perhaps the most important advances were in mining, petroleum refining, cement and in the new chemical and metallurgical industries.

These changes not only bought a new working class to Egypt, but also allowed the country to build capital. While the Egyptians could do little to win their independence during the War with all eyes turned to the upheaval of that conflict, it did manage to accumulate huge sterling balances which came to four hundred million pounds by the war's end.

Yet the rise of the middle class and the accumulation of capital was still not enough to change the complex political situation in Egypt. It took the corruption of the nominal royalty and the elder Egyptian politicians to allow the young army officers and other youth of Cairo to bring about Egypt's final independence. This revolution was almost exclusively planned in Cairo, either at the Egyptian Officers Club, at the home of Gamal Abdel Nasser, or in the small cafes and streets. On February 21st, a strike was called by trade union leaders, and thousands of students and workers took to the streets of Cairo, attacking the Kasr el Nil barracks where the British were still in occupation. The British opened fire, killing thirty and wounding another fifty, which sent the whole city into instant chaos. Afterwards, the British were forced to withdraw from Cairo and Alexandria, but only so far as the Suez Canal where the still maintained their occupation of Egypt.

The Free Officers Corp

Left: The Free Officers Corp

But this was only the beginning of Egyptian pressure for their freedom. Almost continual strikes, street violence and even assassinations took hold of the country, and for each strike or act of violence, there would be bloody suppression.

The beginning of the end came when all the Egyptians working for the British in the Suez Canal zone went on strike, and a sort of guerrilla warfare broke out, which culminated in a battle between eight hundred Egyptian auxiliary police and the British army at Tel el Kebir on January 24, 1952. Armed mostly with only rifles, the Egyptians were eventually barricaded in the quarters in the desert as the British attacked with tanks and heavy artillery. When they asked the old, corrupt government in Cairo what they should do, they were told to resist, which is what they did. Seventy of the Egyptians were killed, while the government who urged them to fight on did nothing to help. This caused the population in Cairo to go mad with anger, and on Saturday, January 25th, 1952, they set European Cairo ablaze. It was a day that the Europeans referred to as Black Saturday, but to the Egyptians, after more than 2,500 years of foreign rule in one manner or another, it would soon lead to their freedom.

The Cairo Fire

The Cairo Fire

In reality, the fires of Cairo that day were started by a handful of people, while most of the population were simply interested in demonstrating for their freedom. Yet by the end of the day, four hundred buildings had been destroyed, with an estimated cost of damages of around twenty-three million pounds. It is said that the nominal king in Abdin Palace gave a banquet that day, and apparently without having it interrupted by the disturbances. When he did react, it was to fire his prime minister, which only began a process of replacing government after government in a helpless succession as he tried to hold on to his rule. The king even turned to the Americans, who's ambassador was Jefferson Caffery, but this time the Americans apparently decided that propping up the old system was no longer an option.

The Free Officers Executive Committee

The Free Officers Executive Committee

The Free Officers, as the Revolution Committee was now known, under the leadership of Nasser, at first set a date of March, 1952 for their coup, but one of the officers deserted and for security reasons, they changed that date. However, on July 16, their presence was well enough known by the king that they decided immediate action was needed. One July 20th, they met again and the officers were only than told the overall military operation for their coup, which would be carried out on July 22nd. So close was their timing that on this final day, the operation had to be moved up one hour, because the king was about to have them all arrested.

In fact, as Nasser, who now worked at the staff college, was correcting cadets' examination papers, he learned that the general staff was actually meeting at GHQ to decide on how to deal with the young officers. He remarked that "we can start an hour earlier and take them all together", making everything simpler.

The coup went remarkably well, with no opposition at all with no opposition. Economically there was almost no alternative, and socially Egypt was finally ready. By now, the Wafd had gown out of its spirited birth, and no longer spoke for the farmer, the artisan, the intellectuals or the workers, but for its own privileges. Yet there was no disciplined and organized political party in the country which could rival the Wafd, so when the young officers suddenly appeared at the gates of the Abdin Palace, all Egypt was already with them without really knowing who they were.

The king was in Alexandria at the time, and heard about the coup by phone, while the British at the Suez Canal apparently heard nothing of it at all. By 2 Am in the morning of the 23rd, Cairo was in the hands of the Free Officers. In fact, the population of Cairo only found out about it at seven that morning when they heard the news on local radio. In fact, General Mohammed Naguib, who was made nominal leader of the revolt, even though he played no part in it, only found out at five o'clock. However, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser who had engineered the who affair, and when Naquib wanted to bring back the old guard politicians, it was he Nasser who relieved him from that leadership.

Like the Americans after their revolution that terminated in freedom from colonial rule, the Egyptians likewise forged new friendships with their former masters. Colonialism is an institution of the past that more than a few governments sponsored (including the ancient Egyptians). Today, Egypt enjoys a fine relationship with Britain and the British people, who swarm to Egypt on tours and for the fine Red Sea beaches. In the finest of old English traditions, they have taken their hard knocks from the past in stride, moving on into the modern world, embracing it with the very spirit that freedom and the right of self government inspires. We at Tour Egypt salutes America's Independence, along with all of the people of the free world.

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011