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The birth pangs of freedom
Published in Daily News Egypt on 09 - 03 - 2009

LONDON: When the victorious powers met in Paris at the end of the First World War, their high-minded rhetoric about the need to end all future conflicts was not lost on the people of Egypt.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was among those pontificating about the need to replace violence with negotiation, but his words did nothing to stop the brutal quelling of a popular uprising in a key part of his country's Empire.
The supreme irony of the Egyptian Revolution, which broke out on March 8, 1919 - 90 years ago last Sunday - was that it was a direct result of the ongoing peace conference which had started in the French capital a few months earlier.
Nationalist ideals - the feeling that Egyptians could govern themselves without their colonial masters from London - were stirred up by the lofty idealism of a gathering ostensibly aimed at formulating and ratifying a range of treaties which formally brought the so-called 'Great War for Civilization' to a close.
The 'Big Four' countries of Britain, France, Italy and the United States had a strategy centered on the establishment of the League of Nations - the union of enlightened states committed to resolving international problems rationally and without recourse to fighting.
This unprecedented target fostered a spirit of high idealism, not to say utopianism. With representatives of no less than 32 countries turning up in Paris, many believed that some form of global democracy would, for the first time in human history, be obtainable.
It was American president Woodrow Wilson, the most influential figure in Paris, who championed the principle of self-determination. Wilson outlined the 14 Points which would become the basis for the terms of the German settlement, as negotiated in Paris and documented as the Treaty of Versailles.
Aspiring for utopia
Point 14 reads: "A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.
The Egyptians in particular had seen Point 14 as their salvation. Strong nationalist feelings had spread across Cairo following the British invasion and occupation of 1882, and London's behavior during World War I intensified claims for independence.
In November 1914, the war time government had proclaimed Egypt a British Protectorate. Martial law had been enforced and the country had been used as a garrison over-flowing with cheap labor and produce. No less than 500,000 people had been drafted into the Labor and Camel Transport Corps in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Local cotton and fodder were forcibly purchased at well below market price, as British and Commonwealth troops flooded major cities and towns.
Set against the background of such unwelcome intervention from Britain, Wilson's words could not have come at a more opportune moment for the Egyptians.
The Armistice raised tremendous optimism, hope and expectation. Nationalists seized upon Wilson's 14th Point, believing it would persuade High Commissioner Sir Reginald Wingate to end the British Protectorate in Egypt.
Cairo activists even called for a place around the negotiating table in Paris.
Led by Saad Zaghloul, the dedicated group included other prominent members of the Umma Party including Lutfi Al-Sayyid, Mohamed Mahmoud, Ali Sharawi, and Abdel-Aziz Fahmi.
On Nov. 13, 1918, just two days after the Armistice was signed, 'Yawm Al-Jihad' (Day of Struggle) had seen members of the Al-Wafd Al-Misri meet with Sir Reginald to call for qualified independence, with Britain still allowed to use the Suez Canal as its principal trade route to India. London would also be allowed to supervise Egypt's public debt.
But, initially at least, there would be no trip to Paris for the Wafd. They were instead arrested and deported to Malta, with Saad Zaghloul writing to Georges Clemenceau, president of the Paris peace conference: "In contradiction to the new principles born of the Allied victory, brutal force prevents us leaving our country to submit to the conference our demands and national aspirations.
Suppressing the uprising
The outrage sparked the uprising, with Egyptians of all social classes taking part in the struggle. Initially peaceful mass demonstrations were held in support of the deported Wafdists, with strikes by civil servants, transport workers, peasants, leaders of ethnic and religious minorities and students.
British road blocks were ignored during marches, prompting violent clashes as the revolution spread.
Within a week, the whole country was paralyzed by a general strike.
Sporadic fighting turned to serious rioting. One fascinating development was the appearance of Egyptian women on the barricades, with many also helping with the destruction of railway and telegraph lines.
In correspondence with General Sir Edmund Allenby, the newly appointed High Commissioner of Egypt, Zaghloul 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.
Just as pertinently, Zaghloul highlighted the increasing barbarism of Empire troops.
Newly-acquired documents from Cairo Archives underline 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 nothing as aggressive as the British response. 'Peace keeping' measures included the beheading of revolutionaries. There were numerous incidents of serial rape, arson, pillaging and flogging, all carried out by ordinary 'Tommies', many already battle-hardened during First World War campaigns.
Much of the worst repression was minutely recorded by the Wafd in a widely distributed report. On March 30, 1919, for example, hundreds of soldiers arrived in the village of Chobak near Cairo, raping local women and killing their men folk if they resisted. More than 140 houses were destroyed by fire, leaving only 56. The mayor and four members of his family were buried up to their waists before being cut to pieces by bayonets. In all, there were 21 murdered and 12 wounded.
A few days later there were reports of an Egyptian man having his head cut off and used as a "football by soldiers. Serial rapes in the district of Boulaq in the Egyptian capital led to the death of a 10-year-old girl.
Ibrahim Rashdam, mayor of Aziziya, wrote at the end of 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. . Rapes took place. A sacred banner embroidered with the Muslim symbol of faith was desecrated.
"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.
Photographs of recently tortured Egyptians were taken by the nationalists.
According to the British Foreign Office: "Some 800 Egyptians and 60 British soldiers and civilians died in the clashes that spring and thousands more were wounded.
History on repeat
It was Allenby who called a halt to the slaughter by releasing the Wafd leaders on April 7, 1919 and allowing them to travel to Paris. They finally arrived - far too late to have any significant impact on proceedings. The only person who agreed to see them was Italy's Premier Vittorio Orlando.
Rather than entertaining nationalist aspirations, Britain's overriding aim was clearly the preservation of its Empire. Even the ever-idealistic Wilson saw little reason to end Britain's stranglehold on one of its key overseas colonies.
Soon after the Treaty of Versailles was signed with Germany, the American president returned home without even meeting the Cairo delegation. Wafd nationalists who had rallied to the cry of "Long Live Wilson! felt utterly betrayed.
Neither the peace conference, the 14 Points nor the establishment of the League of Nations had achieved any kind of short term gains for the Egyptians. Rhetoric about a "durable peace and promises of national self-determination had all rung hollow. The abject failure of the US and Britain to deliver on their promises had been seen; the Egyptian Revolution was ruthlessly crushed. Instead it took much more disorder - and the further strict enforcement of martial law - to persuade the British, on Feb. 28, 1922, to nominally declare Egypt independent, with the country remaining vastly under British influence.
Any of us looking back nine decades to this turbulent period in history might well draw parallels with the current situation in Iraq, where claims about a fair, peaceful end to the war there are continually met with accusations of brutality by US-led coalition forces, including the British, against Muslim communities. As in 1919, there have been all kinds of horrors, from torture to the desecration of religious sites.
Many of today's most critical international problems emanate from the many errors of the First World War peace makers. The muddled redrawing of national boundaries in Paris laid the foundation for huge suffering in the Middle East - particularly in Palestine - but also in countries like Iraq.
In the words of Saad Zaghloul, Za'im Al-Umma (Father of the Nation): "We demand our right to live. In virtue of what laws or of what principles of politics and morality should we be rewarded for the aid we have furnished the victors by the application of the treatment worse than that inflicted upon the vanquished enemies?
"Is it conceivable that the Egyptian people can be treated like ordinary merchandise in the political market, and this in the 20th century by the will of a conference that has not ceased to proclaim as its raison d'être the liberation of small nationalities and the laying down of worldwide conditions which will ensure a durable peace?
Thus Zaghloul summed up his own country's tragedy with typical eloquence in 1919. When applied to other Muslim countries struggling to accept settlements imposed on them by victorious Western powers, his words are perhaps as relevant now as they ever were.
Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist based in London. She is a PhD candidate at The London School of Economics. The 1919 Egyptian uprising is the subject of her dissertation.


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