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The Great Theft of History: The Egyptian Army in the First World War

A lecture delivered on 27 March, 2019, in a conference titled “The Egyptian Revolution of 1919: The birth fo a nation” organized by the British Egyptian Society, the London Middle East Centre, and the Council for British Research in the Levant

On November 11, 2013, the Military Research Department of the Egyptian Armed Forces staged a huge event commemorating the ninety-ninth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Major-General Amin Hussein assistant to the Minister of Defense delivered a speech which extolled the participation of the Egyptian army in the war and highlighted, quote, “the heroic sacrifices of the Egyptian army in that war, and its magnificent deeds which changed the course of military history, and which contributed to the upkeep of lofty principles of human civilization.” Unquote. According to the Facebook page of the spokesman of the Armed Forces, the celebration consisted of a photo exhibit that relied on recently released documents from the British and French national archives to illustrate the participation of the Egyptian army in the war. In addition, the Facebook page added, there was an exhibition of rare photos illustrating, quote, “the sacrifices of the oldest standing army in the world, and how that army maintained the stability of the Egyptian state, and maintained Egypt’s cultural heritage passed down from the time of the pharaohs till the present day.”

The Armed Forces celebration of the 99th anniversary of WWI, 2013

The Facebook page ended by explaining that the celebration also entailed screening a documentary film that illustrated how the Egyptian army fought in three continents side by side with the Allies; how it succeeded in repelling an Ottoman attack from the east, a Sanusi attack from the west, and a Darfouri attack from the south. The Egyptian army fought in Syria, in Iraq, in Arabia and on the European front with 100,000 soldiers, مقاتل. These troops belonged to the Labour Corps which, the spokesman added, is akin nowadays to the Army Corps of Engineers  المهندسين سلاح   ; they also belonged to the Camel Corps, which, we are told again, is akin to the Border Security Force سلاح حرس الحدود . These 100,000 troops, who fought in France, Belgium, Greece and Italy, we are told, were a major factor behind the Allied Victory in the First World War, and many of these men were subsequently decorated with the prestigious Victoria Cross as recognition of their zeal and bravery.

What was odd about this celebration is not only its reference to recently released British and French documents (for no such documents dating from the First World War were recently released by the British or French national archives), or its claim that the present-day Egyptian army is somehow related to the pharaohs. What was strange was the claim that Egyptian soldiers were decorated with the Victoria Cross, for there is not a single Egyptian among the 1,358 recipients of that award, assuming, in the first place, that receiving such an award from an imperial occupying power is something about which an Egyptian soldier should be proud. 

Mysterious celebrations

Above all, what was truly odd was that this was the first time we hear of the participation of the Egyptian Armed Forces in the First Word War. For ninety-nine years, the army never staged such a commemoration, but then suddenly in 2013 and for the following four years, these celebrations were staged with much pomp and ceremony. In 201420152016 and 2017, the army staged the same huge celebrations in which the same speech was delivered, verbatim, albeit by a different major-general each year. These celebrations culminated with a photo op in which the Egyptian flag was hoisted next to that of European countries, and European military attaches in Cairo appeared eager to correct a huge historical oversight and to recognize the forgotten sacrifices of the Egyptian army in the First World War. 

The Armed Forces celebration of the 102nd anniversary of WWI, 2016

Then suddenly and on the centenary of the War’s end last November, these celebrations ended as mysteriously as they had started five years prior. This time no festivities were held, no speeches were delivered and no pictures were taken. The only article that appeared in 2018 referring to the participation of the Egyptian Armed Forces in World War One was a lead article in al-Ahram, Egypt’s semi-official newspaper, written by Cairo University’s political science professor Aly al-Din Hilal. Hilal’s article repeated the same details mentioned in the army’s communiques of the previous years, but with two important differences. The first is that instead of stating that Egypt contributed with one hundred thousand troops, Hilal claimed that the size of the Egyptian force was 1.5 million men. Secondly, Hilal thanked a certain Dr. Ashraf Sabri, who is identified a specialist in military history, for his diligent research efforts and for unveiling to the world the size and nature of the Egyptian army’s contribution to World War One. 

Helal’s article in al-Ahram, 11 November 2018

This reference to Dr. Sabri confirmed my suspicion that it was this man who had convinced the army’s high brass of the significance of the army’s contribution to the war effort and of the importance of shedding light on a forgotten episode of Egypt’s military history. Ever since the sudden start of these mysterious celebrations, I have been noticing oblique references to this doctor and have been curious to find out more about his contribution to military history. I managed to identify him in the various celebrations, but I failed to find any publications by him, in Arabic or in any foreign language, on the subject of the First World War or any war for that matter, Egyptian or foreign.  After a couple of google hits, however, I finally came across an interview he gave in 2014 to al-Bawwaba News, an online publication, in which it transpired that he was a doctor alright, but a doctor in undersea medicine, خبير في طب الأعماق  ; that he owns a scuba diving club in Sharm al Sheikh and another one in Alexandria; and that it was while pursuing his hobby off the northern coast of Egypt that he discovered shipwrecks dating from the First World War. This auspicious happenstance is what triggered his interest in the history of World War One, but this interest was not directed at studying the impact this war had on Egyptian society, a subject that is well studied and meticulously documented, but at analysing the participation of the Egyptian army in it, a subject that no one has ever heard of and one that has somehow evaded the attention of the countless historians, Egyptians and foreigners alike, who worked on this War since it ended a hundred years ago.

Dr. Ashraf Sabri in the Armed Forces Celebration of the 102nd anniversary of WWI 2016

 There are two important claims that Dr. Sabri made, claims which the Egyptian army subsequently embraced and repeated for five years, and claims which are intimately connected to the subject of this conference, namely, the 1919 Revolution and how to make sense of it. The first claim is that in 1914 there was indeed an Egyptian national army and that this army fought gallantly on Egypt’s western, eastern and southern borders. The second, is that up to 100,000 Egyptian soldiers belonging to that army (or according to Aly al-Din Hilal, 1.5 million soldiers) participated in the war effort in various theatres of operation, including that of the Western Front.

From an Ottoman province to a British protectorate

Lord Cromer

To elucidate the truth about the first claim, and to help disentangle fact from fiction, and history from propaganda, it is important to consider the nature, size and identity of the Egyptian army during the war and on the eve of the revolution. As is well known (but in this day and age it seems necessary to reiterate basic historical facts), the army that Urabi led back in 1882 did not exceed 13,000 men. After the British had defeated that army in al-Tell Al-Kebir, launching a 72-year-long military occupation, Britain decided severely to reduce the size of the Egyptian army and to cut it down to less than half its original size, a mere 6,000 men. This was the result of the stringent fiscal measures adopted by Lord Cromer but also due to the belief among officials in both the Colonial and War Offices that the defense of Egypt and the Suez Canal was too important a matter to be left to the Egyptians, and that it is Britain which has to undertake the important task of protecting and defending its new prized possession.

Most importantly, though, whatever its size, the Egyptian army was in fact headed by British officers and its commander-in-chief, the Sirdar, was always a British officer. Egyptians were barred from advancing to the senior ranks and few of them were promoted beyond the rank of sagh, that is, major. Regarding the question of this army fighting the Ottomans in the east, i.e. in Sinai, the Sanusi in the West, and the Darfouris in the south, details that I suspect Ashraf Sabri got from Latifa Salim’s book on Egypt During the First World War, this was done in fulfillment of British, not Egyptian policy, and responding to orders by British, not Egyptian, commanders. So, there was indeed an Egyptian army during the First World War, but that army was Egyptian in name only. It was an army that did Britain’s bidding and fulfilled her imperial policy in the region. It is one thing for the present Egyptian army to link itself to the Pharaohs, it is another thing to think of itself as a continuation of a foreign army that occupied the country for 72 years. 

Moreover, the high brass of the Egyptian army might have been British, but its rank and file were Egyptian peasants conscripted according to a conscription law, قانون القرعة , that allowed people to buy their way out of service. Be that as it may, might these conscripts have been those referred to by Ashraf Sabry and Ali al Din Hilal? Is it true that the 100,000 (or 1.5 million) men who fought in Syria, Iraq and Arabia were soldiers fighting in the Egyptian army? Or were they in fact peasants pressed into serving the British imperial army? To answer this important question, a question whose answer, as I hope to illustrate shortly, is intimately connected to the 1919 Revolution and its true nature, we need to go back to the very early months of the War and to follow British policy in Egypt as it evolved month by month.

When the War broke out in August 1914, Egypt was in a uniquely awkward position diplomatically and legally. Ruled since 1840 as a semi-autonomous province by a local dynasty—the Mehmed Ali dynasty—Egypt was technically and legally still under Ottoman suzerainty and the Ottoman sultan was its official sovereign. Practically, however, and since their military victory in el-Tell el-Kebir in 1882, the British were the effective rulers of the country. So, when the war broke out in August, the British, on the fifth of August, forced the Egyptian government to associate itself with the British declaration of war against Germany and Austria; accordingly, the Khedival government expelled Austrian and German diplomats and seized Austrian and German assets. More seriously, when the Ottomans entered the war on November 2, Britain found herself in a very precarious position in Egypt, for Egyptians, technically subjects of the Ottoman sultan, had as such the right to carry arms against their sovereign’s enemies, i,e, the British. To deal with this anomaly, Britain announced martial law on November 2, giving the commander of British troops in Egypt, General John Maxwell, enormous power to arraign people, prevent public gatherings and censor the press.

General John Maxwell and a show of British military power in Cairo

Furthermore, and as is well known, Britain decided to end Egypt’s confusing, and to them dangerous, ambivalent legal status and on December 18, 1918, declared Egypt to be a protectorate. On that day Cairenes woke up to read in the papers and on the walls of their city the following proclamation:

His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs gives notice that, in view of the state of war arising out of the action of Turkey, Egypt is placed under the protection of His Majesty and will henceforth constitute a British Protectorate. The suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt is thus terminated, and His Majesty’s Government will adopt all measures necessary for the defence of Egypt, and protect its inhabitants and interests.

British officials also announced the deposition of Khedive Abbas, who since his accession to power in 1892 had opposed British influence and who, purely by accident, was in Istanbul when war broke out in Europe. In Abbas’s place as Sultan of Egypt the British selected his uncle Husayn Kamil, regarded as sympathetic to British interests. In the brief span of five months Egypt had moved from an autonomous province of the Ottoman empire, temporarily occupied by British forces until order should be restored, to a British protectorate under martial law. Its Khedivate had been replaced by a Sultanate, and its ruler, Abbas, a promoter of nationalist and anti-British activities, had been replaced by a pro-British monarch.

Most crucially, concerned about where the loyalties of Egyptians lay and suspicious of the depth of their sympathies with the sultan doubling as caliph, the British issued a declaration on November 7 recognizing the religious and moral ties that Egyptian may have towards the caliphate, and exempted them from military duty and announced that it alone will carry the burden of defending Egypt.

The Egyptian Labour Corps

A “volunteering” contract

However, given that the war dragged on for months and months with no end in sight, and given that throughout 1916 and early 1917, the British were facing serious difficulties in the Gallipoli campaign, in al-Kut in southern Mesopotamia, and closer to home, in the Sinai/Palestine campaign, British officials in London were having second thoughts about their earlier decision to exempt Egypt from the war effort. According to Kyle Anderson of SUNY who conducted research in the British National Archives, the War Office wrote in May 1917 to the Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which, again, was “Egyptian” only in name, and which had been established a year before, telling him that, quote, “It is essential that all parts of the empire should share in the strain [of the war] as far as local conditions admit . . .As regards Egypt, I am not satisfied that this is the case.” By June 1917, the War Office suggested that forced conscription into the British imperial force be instituted with the aim of raising 17,000 men for the war effort. But after opposition form the Egyptian government, and from the British-led Egyptian army, the idea of forced conscription was dropped, and, instead, Egyptian peasants were to be asked to volunteer to serve in the imperial war effort in exchange for exemption from conscription. So, on 20 October 1917, the minister of war in London issued a decree modifying the Egyptian Conscription Law (قانون القرعة) so that “every person liable for military service . . . shall be exempt from the obligation to such service if he shall enlist in and serve for a continuous period of one year with . . . any auxiliary service attached to the Britishtroops.” Thus was born the famous Egyptian Labour Corps to whom both Ashraf Sabri and Ali Al Dina Hilal refer. 

Before looking closely into the composition of this force, and before raising the central question of whether these men were peasants or soldiers, and before determining which army they served in, it may be important to clarify how many men we are talking about. Here, Kyle Anderson again, gives the most up to date estimates based on information culled from the British National Archives. Using official British correspondence, Anderson calculates that a little over a quarter million men were gathered from villages throughout Egypt and pressed to serve in the newly created Labour Corps, in addition to an extra one hundred thousand men who formed different auxiliary units. The total is therefore 327 thousand men.

The first deployment of these men was as transport workers assisting the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in its campaign in Sinai and then in Palestine. There, they extended railway lines, and in unloading supplies from surf boats off the coast of Palestine. But they also served in Aqaba, Mesopotamia, Salonkia, Mudros, and France.

Kyle Anderson, “The Egyptian Labor Corps: Workers, Peasants, and the State in 
World War I;” International  Journal of Middle East Studies, v. 49 (2017), 5–24.

All efforts to rely on Egyptian archival sources in order to flesh out the history of these thousands of men or to corroborate their number have ended in failure. The Egyptian National Archives, which is a real treasure trove that is extremely rich in the history of Egypt in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, has effectively been shut to researchers. Security permits issued by a mysterious security agency have always been necessary to have access to this supposedly open research institution, but lately these permits have been denied to Egyptian and Foreigner researchers alike in ever increasing numbers. At the same time, the military archives, دار المحفوظات المركزية بالقوات المسلحة  is an institution whose very existence is not even known to the public, and as far as I know there are only two Egyptian researchers, a historian and a political scientist who were given access to it (to publish studies on the 1967 war). As a result, researchers eager to find out more about the Egyptian Labor Corps, who its members were and how they experienced war have to rely on non-Egyptian, primarily British, sources. 

I have already referred to Kyle Anderson’s research into British correspondence housed in the National Archives at Kew. Anderson takes us into the nitty gritty details of the recruitment process and how these men were “volunteered” into service by their umdas and their provincial governors. Two key points become immediately obvious from Anderson’s careful research. Firstly, these men were never considered soldiers akin to Australian, New Zealander or Indian troops. The members of the Egyptian Labour Corps were civilians through and through: they were never given military ranks, never received military training and never handed military uniforms. However, as we shall shortly see, they were subjected to very harsh military discipline. Secondly, the Egyptian Labour Corps into which these men were volunteered was part of the British, not the Egyptian army. 

Members of the Egyptian Labour Corps in Palestine, 1917

«يا عزيز عيني وأنا بدّي أروّح بلدي»

Alia Mossallam

Indeed, and as I pointed out before, to press peasants into “volunteering” to the Labour Corps, which was called in Arabic فرقة العمال المصرية , peasants were given an exemption from conscription into the Egyptian army. Using British archival sources, Dr Alia Mossallam, who has done more than anyone else to flesh out the daily experiences of these men, has found this interesting document in the British National Archives which clearly shows how volunteering into the Egyptian Labour Corps was, legally speaking, a service rendered to the British army to be paid for by the British, not the Egyptian, government. 

Amazingly, Alia Mossallam conducted an oral history with these men to get at their experience in the Labour Corps into which they had been pressed. She did this in an ingenious manner. She tracked down a particular song that these men used to sing. The men, she tells us, used to sing a particularly sad song in Sinai, in Palestine and in France. They sang it while working on railway lines, while unloading supplies from surf boats and while digging trenches on the Western front. Alia Mossallam listens to the men singing, and in addition to analyzing the words of the song and its music, she paints a detailed picture of their living conditions, their relationship with their British commanding officers, their homesickness, their hunger, their sickness and their death. 

When I say she conducted oral history, I don’t mean of course that she interviewed these men. Rather, she relied on British archival records which referred to this song and to the men singing it. Specifically, Alia Mossallam tracked down accounts by British officers commenting on this sad song, and by tracking down the dates and locations of these official accounts, she managed to follow the men, and their singing, from Cairo to Arish, to Rafah, to Acre, to Beirut, to Latakia and finally on board the ships that took them to Boulogne a few miles behind the Western Front. She also found British reports of the same song being sung by these Egyptian workers upon returning home in 1918. As I said, it is an ingenious oral-cum-social-cum-cultural history of these men in distress. 

Egyptian workers on board the steamer taking them to Bologne

The song, of course, is nothing other than يا عزيز عيني that Sayid Darwish composed and Na’ima al-Masriyya sang in the years just before the outbreak of the war. Going through the history of the phonograph industry in Egypt, Mossallam argues that “Ya ‛aziz ‛aini” (Oh Apple of my eye) is originally a folkloric song that dates to even earlier times, and that its lyrics of estrangement and loss might be reflective of earlier conscription experiences. As someone who has worked on conscription in Mehmed Ali’s army some eighty years earlier, I find the argument about the sentiments caught by this song very plausible.

Oh apple of my eye, I want to go back home!

Oh apple of my eye I want to go back home

Oh apple of my eye, your absence is beyond me

My darling arose ready to depart,

and he came to bid me farewell

He wept, drenching his handkerchief, and I asked

“Why do you do this?”

“Is crying your sport, or are you teasing me?”

“Crying is neither my sport nor am I teasing you”

The talk of the  ‘awazil is bitter and painful

Oh, apple of my eye, how I feel sorry for myself.

Na’ima al-Masriyya singing ‘ya ‘aziz ‘aini

Analysing the song, Alia Mossallam argues that the song is layered in format. It sways back and forth between the experience of those who were sent tothe war in the refrain (O Apple of my eye I want to go back home), and the bitterness of those left behind (Is crying your sport, or are you teasing me? )

Crucially, Mossallam remarks that in later versions of the song , versions contemporaneous with the war, the words of the refrain changes to بلدي يا بلدي والسلطة خديت ولدي , or “My home country, My home country, and the authoritieshave taken my son”. The song, in its different versions plucks at chords of estrangement experienced in Upper Egypt prior to the war and extending through it.

The peasant revolution, a precursor to the 1919 Revolution

In another brilliant study Alia Mossallam analyses this key term, al-sulta, the authorities. Continuing her pioneering oral history project, she listens to performances and jokes by workers on local and war fronts overheard and documented in detail by an overseeing lieutenant, as well as chants and slogans during the 1919 revolt that show an anti-government and often anti-Wafd sentiment. She then grafts this aural material, so to speak, onto the amazing memoir by Ismat Sayf al-Dawla published in two volumes in 1995 and 1996, only a few months before the author’s death. 

Ismat Sayf al-Dawla’s two-volume masterpiece

Sayf al-Dawla was a renown Egyptian lawyer and pan-Arab thinker, and his Memoirs of a Village shows a perspective observer of village mores that he analyzes with a keen anthropological eye. But what concerns us here is his description of his grandfather’s experience in the Egyptian labor Corps, which he includes in the second volume of the memoir. The entire volume can in fact be read as an extensive gloss on this key term, al-sulta, the combined imperial military and local administration during the War. I read Sayf al-Dawla’s memoire carefully and was captivated by his insights and his amazing command of language. But I prefer to rely again on Alia Mossallam and her careful reading of  Sayf al-Dawla’s complex text with regard how al-sulta tried to control the lives and bodies of the thousands of men who were pressed into the Labour Corps, and how these men resisted such sulta

One particularly poignant tale that Sayf al-Dawla relates and that Mossallam analyses is that of Abbas Abdalla, the village intellectual, and his nephew Younis. Abbas, realizing that volunteering is exactly this, volunateering, تطوع , concludes that it has to be based on consent. He therefore makes a subversive suggestion: peasants from his village, al-Himamiyya from Upper Egypt, who refuse to be pressed into the Labor Corps should sign a petition stating their objections. Anticipating the petition gathering tactic of al-Wafd, Abbas pursues a legal tactic that would challenge al-sulta by al-sulta. After collecting signatures of peasants from his and neighbouring villages who objected to being volunteered into the Labour Corps, he struggles to present his petition to the authorities, al-sulta. But then, and in Mossallam’s words, just when he thought he tricked the law by the law, he found himself outsmarted by it.  For when he attempted to use the logic of the law to opt out of the war, and when he approached the Assiut police station after many unsuccessful attempts, his petition was finally given the attention that he had requested for months.

The Ma’mur of the station asked him if he could testify orally, and in writing, that every villager mentioned in the petition did indeed object to volunteer for the war; and also, and that any villager that was not on the petition would by implication be willing to volunteer. Having made sure that this included all 45 men within the mentioned criteria, Abbas testified and signed to this; not realising that he had forgotten to include his own name in the petition. As soon as he signed, Abaas was arrested, on account of the fact that, according to his own testimony, those villagers whose names were not in the petition would not object to being volunteered for the war.

At this point Younis, Abba’s nephew, steps in. Seeing that his uncle was dragged to the Labor Corps after his attempt to spare his fellow villagers had failed, Younis stepped forward and offered himself as a replacement to Abbas, and his account is the only one we have of any peasant who served on the Western front and returned alive. According to Mossallam, Younis’s account, as told by Sayf al-Dawla, is the most compelling account we have so far of the experience of Egyptian workers (workers, it has to be stressed, not soldiers), on the Western Front. Younis provides graphic details of the brutal existence these men faced in the trenches: the meagre clothes they were given, the hostility of the locals, the bad food, the cold, the mud, the stench and the disease. And all of this because al-sulta decreed to send them to a senseless war that European countries had started and that soon engulfed the world ultimately reaching their own village, al-Himmamiyya. 

As miserable as the men felt, they also soon realized that being sent as workers meant that they possessed a key asset that they can use against al-sulta, namely their own labor. In their camp near Calais, one of them, Thabit, is appointed as their leader, rayyis, and they are assigned to a Moroccan sergeant, Khalifa, who acted as as their translator and overseer. 

Soon Rayyis Tahbit gives them an important lesson. What matters most to the French, he tells them, is that we don’t stop working. So every time we needed something, we would sleep in a little longer; so the French would come and shout in their language, and the Moroccan would tell them that we didn’t want to work because the food was too little, and they would provide us with more. Everything we needed, even the heavy tea, even tobacco, even red meat, we would never ask for. We learned that if we ‘asked’ we would never get what we requested’. We learned that they are people who ‘khaf ma yekhtushuh – have fear but no shame’. Our weapon was ready. We stop working and Thabit would say “The men want this…” and they bring it straight away. We were happy as ever”.

Member of the Egyptian Labour Corps, Bologne, 1917

This audacity, however, soon attracts the wrath of the French military authorities. Younis explains how, when winter set in, one of his fellow laborers, Qubaissy, already sick and malnourished, literally froze to death. The men ask for hot water to cleanse his body and a blanket to use as a shroud, but the French authorities refuse both and rushed to snatch the dead body, piled it on a wooden carriage and took it away. The group was thrown into panic. To die in ghurba is one thing, but not to be buried properly meant another degree of loss; it meant oblivion. The group therefore decided to go on strike, to stand as one, and to demand to go back home. The strike of food and work went on for five days at the end of which a French General dubbed as “Jinn el-nar” (Jinn of fire, a pun on general), comes to negotiate with the men. His negotiation fails so he ordered them to stand in the rain. In defiance, they sit down. The general returns; an argument ensues; al-Rayyis Thabit loses his temper; attacks the general and kills him. At this point, the French soldiers fire at point blank killing Thabit and the entire group, with the exception of Younis, who feigned death and lived to tell the story from his mandara back in al-Himamiyya.

What is amazing about Ismat Sayf al-Dawla’s memoire is that it doesn’t stop at offering this unique account of the lives of members of the Egyptian Labour Corps on the Western Front. Rather, the last third of the second volume takes us back to al-Himamiyya and follows a particularly brutal power struggle over land, land owned by absentee landlords who reside in Cairo, and which the peasants consider to be rightly theirs. When Younis returns from the front, in 1918, the countryside is already teaming with rebellion. After four long years of hardship during which time peasants saw their cattle snatched, their crops confiscated, and their men dragged to serve in a war that meant nothing to them, they finally had enough. Already in summer and autumn of 1918, a good six months before the official outbreak of the Revolution, the countryside is seeing acts of sabotage, of arson, and of murder. As was the case elsewhere in the world, in Algeria, and in West Africa, and earlier in Russia, peasants rose against al-sulta. In Egypt, this peasant revolt, which Ellis Goldberg and Reinhard Schulze have dubbed the largest peasant revolution in modern Egyptian history, is the true beginnings of the 1919 Revolution. The sulta that these peasants rebelled against was at once that of the British military authorities who occupied their country, the authority of the Egyptian government who did their bidding by requisitioning their produce and snatching their men, as well as the authority of the landlords who counselled moderation in hopes of wringing concession after the war. 

Deconstructing the traditional narrative on the 1919 Revolution

In March 2019, Hakim Abdelnaeem published an article in Maha Masr titled “What is the first thing that pops to your mind when 1919 Revolution is mentioned?” The article is a thoughtful analysis of the popular imagination of the 1919 Revolution, and Abdelnaeem concludes that this imagination is primarily a visual one, shaped by film and TV series. He also argues that this visual imagination locates the revolution in the city, primarily in Cairo, and reduces the revolution to a series of demonstrations protesting against the arrest of Saad and his colleagues, and culminates in the army opening fire on the demonstrators on 10 March. Then there are of course the cliché images of upper-class women participating in the demonstrators and Coptic and Muslim clerics holding hands. Absent from this popular imagination, Abdelnaeem argues, are scenes of the workers strikes in urban centers and the peasant uprisings throughout the country, in the Delta and al-Said. 

Fahmy’s death in “Bayn al-Qasrayn”, Hasan al-Imam, dir., 1964

Relying on the scholarship of Hakim Abdelnaeem, Kyle Anderson and Ali Mossallam, in this article I tried to point out to recent research that beseeches us to locate the origins of the Revolution not on March 9, 1919, when Saad was arrested, but in a much earlier period, in the summer and autumn of 1918, and not to restrict the Revolution to Cairo and other cities, but to look for the origins in the countryside among peasants who saw their livelihoods destroyed after four years of war. This was a war in which, as the Arabic saying goes, they neither had a camel or a she-camel لا ناقة ولا جمل, but a war to which they were dragged to serve for years on end losing in it limb and life. 

The sacrifices endured during the First World by Egyptian peasants, by far the overwhelming majority of the population, are what lay behind the 1919 Revolution. A key factor in this hardship was being “volunterred” in the Egyptian Labour Force. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian men were dragged into serving in this dreaded force as part of the British imperial war effort. The months they spent in the different fields of operation, in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Gallipoli and the Western Front, hardened them and threw the injustice they suffered from back home into sharp relief. While most were eager to return to the comfort of their loved ones, few must have also been radicalized on the Front. Upon returning home, and upon finding that their compatriots had fared only slightly better due to what al-sulta had subjected them to, the situation was then rife for a nationwide revolution to erupt.

The facebook page of the spokesman of the Armed Forces, 11 November 2013

However, the present Egyptian army is now making preposterous claims that distort the historical record. By relying on a charlatan, it has convinced itself that the Egyptian Labor Force was composed of soldiers not of peasants, that this force was part of the Egyptian not the British army, and that the sacrifices endured during the war were endured by the military rather by the civilian population. Behind these claims is not the desire to point out a long forgotten chapter in the nation’s history or to uphold the right of the Egyptian people to live in peace and dignity, but rather and as the army spokesman himself admitted to have the opportunity to “raise the Egyptian flag in London and in Greece next to the mightiest armies of the world.”

The army can have its flags and it can have its cheap photo ops. But snatching the 1919 Revolution from us, just as it has robbed us of the 2011 Revolution, is something that should not and will not pass.

You can watch a video recording of this lecture below (the lecture starts at 2:45:00)

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  1. Yassin
    Yassin 06/05/2021

    Incredible effort (y)

  2. Dr fatima zohra Hamrat
    Dr fatima zohra Hamrat 20/10/2022

    Thank you for this article and for all the new references which certainly will help me in broadening my knowledge next week since I will participate in a conference about the role of the Britih press during the first world war in Egypt. In my presentation, I will shed light on the participation of Egypt in the war and of course about the Egyptian Labour Corps/ Camel corps and how they were presented in the press in Britain. It’s a topic which I dealt with in my Phd dissertation few years ago. The idea of Alia Mossalem to follow the testimonies of British soldiers about a song sang by the Egypian workers to unveil at the end the daily sufferings away from their homes is an ingenious research methology.

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