Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2005
Issue No. 748
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

The colour of shirts

Unique in modern Egyptian history were the Green Shirts and the Blue Shirts, paramilitary youth groups inspired by the success of fascist youth groups in Europe. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk describes the political climate, at home and abroad, which produced their rise

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El-Nahhas would forbid youth organisations from carrying weapons, demonstrating in the streets or appearing in public wearing blue shirts

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (602)

Thirty years ago The Egyptian Historical Periodical featured an article of mine entitled "Shirts of different hues". At the time, I thought this study was the final word on the subject. I had combed through recently declassified British documents as well as Al-Sarkha and Al-Jihad, the mouthpieces of the Green Shirts and the Blue Shirts. However, under much more recent inspection of contemporary editions of Al-Ahram, I realised that there was still much more to be said.

At least the introduction to that study still applies, which is why I will dust it off and use it here: "For about four years, from the end of 1933 to the end of 1937, political life in Egypt saw the rise of paramilitary youth groups known as the Green Shirts, founded by the Young Egypt Society, and the Blue Shirts, founded by the Wafd Party for its younger members." It was my opinion that this phenomenon was unique in modern Egyptian history, at least as an overt form of political activity, and that in order to understand why such groups came into being at that particular time it was important to identify and understand the features of the political climate that were conducive to their rise.

On the one hand, it was a reaction to the government of Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi whose abrogation of the 1923 Constitution and subsequent repressive policies had profoundly rocked society. These policies in effect set the tone for an era in which other political forces began to resort to unconventional weapons. The palace, having failed in its bid to create effective royalist parties -- the Ittihad (Union) in the 1920s and the Shaab (People's Party) in the early 1930s, parties the Wafd Party ridiculed as "artificial" -- cast about for a new way to solicit support and demonstrate its clout. One solution was to mobilise a new generation of youth, a generation that palace officials believed was totally different from that whose consciousness shaped and was shaped by the 1919 Revolution and thus whose loyalties were naturally disposed towards the Wafd Party.

The Wafd Party, in turn, realised that in relying exclusively on its popularity as the "underdog" could actually be a source of vulnerability, as was amply demonstrated by the highly unpopular actions the Sidqi government took against it. At the same time, Wafd leaders were alarmed by their adversaries' unconventional use of "youth organisations", which inspired them to resort to the same tactics. The result was the Blue Shirts, made up of Wafdist youth.

At the same time, the new generation of youth felt that the 1919 Revolution had so far failed to realise its goal of full national independence and sovereignty. The primary cause of this failure, in their opinion, was internal fragmentation, which could only be countered by the promotion of a national front, the solidity and vitality of which depended first and foremost on Egyptian youth.

That this reaction should take the form of societies of a militarist stripe was clearly influenced by global political trends. Specifically, a large segment of Egyptian nationalist opinion was strongly inspired by the successes of fascist youth groups in Europe: the Italian bands of Black Shirts who famously marched on Rome in 1922, enabling the Fascist Party takeover, and the Nazi storm troopers, or Brown Shirts, whose practices of intimidation against the adversaries of the National Socialist Party helped Hitler into power.

Also in this paper of mine I established that a variety of interwoven factors brought all other political forces into play with this phenomenon. The National Party, for example, established close relations with Young Egypt Society leaders Ahmed Hussein and Fathi Radwan. Liberal Constitutionalists, such as Mohamed Ali Alouba, felt that an association with such youth groups would help compensate for their party's lacking popularity. Of course, both the British high commissioner's office and Abdeen Palace had their own reasons for getting involved.

British authorities in Cairo feared that the spread of such paramilitary youth groups would lead to a security breakdown and threaten the lives and interests of foreigners in Egypt. High Commissioner Sir Miles Lampson was also disturbed by the implications of these groups' obvious inspiration by their counterparts in fascist Italy. The Italians at that time were the largest expatriate community in Egypt after the Greeks and the British would not have appreciated a potential fifth column at the time of increasing tension between London and Rome following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. In addition, British authorities had long striven to maintain an even keel between the two major forces in the Egyptian political arena, the Palace and the Wafd Party. The youth groups were threatening to throw this policy off kilter. With its overwhelming popularity and its position in government for two out of the four years of this period, the Wafd Party was in a virtually unassailable position. Not only could it lend all the moral encouragement it wanted to the Blue Shirts, it could also fund them, if not directly out of the pockets of the Wafd Party, then out of the secret funds at the disposal of the prime minister.

The palace during this period was in an increasingly shaky position. The governing system it had brought into being with Prime Minister Sidqi had begun to tear at the seams while the king himself suffered a serious decline in his health, raising the spectre of his imminent death. Palace influence reached its lowest ebb with the fall of the Sidqi government, after which it succumbed to British pressure to install an interim government under Tawfiq El-Nassim until new parliamentary elections could be held, and to dismiss the king's powerful right-hand man Zaki El-Ibrashi. Following the death of the king on 28 April 1936, it appeared that the Wafd now held the incontestable upper hand, especially as its party leaders, after having been voted into power, were in a position to choose the key members of the regency council. Its good fortune was not destined to last, however. On 29 July 1937, the young King Farouk reached the age of majority and as though in an early attempt to assert his independence, demanded a coronation ceremony different from the one his Wafdist regents had planned for him. Although Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas's opinion prevailed on this issue, the incident was an omen of his government's impending fate. High Commissioner Lampson was increasingly of the opinion that the Wafd was getting a little too smug. After its success in negotiating the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 and in bringing an end to the foreign Capitulations System the following year, the party was riding a wave of popularity that made it feel it could simply ignore Lampson's ultimatums. By the end of 1937, the Wafd's overbearingness would bring the defection of two of the party's key members -- Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi -- and the collapse of El-Nahhas's government. With this development, the phenomenon of Blue Shirts and shirts of other colours began to fade until they eventually vanished altogether with the defeat of the fascist and Nazi regimes in World War II.

Under the headline, "Shirt colours in Egypt and the need for group organisations", an Al-Ahram editorial of 11 July 1936 offers its opinion on the subject. On the whole, the newspaper was supportive of the idea. It urged the government to ignore recent demands to prohibit the wearing of coloured shirts as a political and ideological emblem. These shirts were "the uniform of the renaissance of youth in our times and the symbol of dedication to the service of the nation," it argued. "The Black Shirt policy in Italy succeeded in arousing a spirit of patriotic zeal unlike any seen for centuries... This is because it is founded on the power of organisation, the instilling of a sense of pride and dignity and the conquering of the feelings of weakness and timidity." It adds, "Egypt, like other nations, still needs to organise groups that are active among the people who are the source of authority."

Although the editorial admitted that such groups could become tools in the hands of forces aspiring to dictatorial rule, as occurred in Germany and Italy, it felt that they had positive aspects from which Egyptians could benefit. Among these was their ability to inculcate a sense of order and discipline, moral rigour and a spirit of dedication and commitment. Bearing these advantages in mind, "we could permit for a diversity of these groups the democratic framework upheld by the constitution, whereby each group operating beneath the emblem of a specific colour would perceive it as its duty to eradicate a form of weakness in the national body. Then the value of each 'shirt' would be assessed on the basis of the service its wearers performed for the nation." That such organisations could work within democratic systems was evidenced by Sir Oswald Mosley. And admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, the British politician had described parliament as a "talk shop" and had also founded a group that distinguished itself by a dark-coloured shirt. On this phenomenon, a British minister said, "Let Sir Mosley say what he wants and wear the colour of shirts he likes. His fascism will always be too weak to harm our long established democracy."

In a subsequent article, the newspaper expressed its hope that the government would not disband the youth groups on the pretext of maintaining public order. "There are soldiers and police whose purpose it is to serve the nation by maintaining law and order, not to subject the nation to the order of the police and the department of public security."

Encouraged by the Al-Ahram position, Faculty of Law student Mohamed Zuhdi Afifi contributed a lengthy article on "Fascism in Italy". Before the rise of this movement, he wrote, Italy was in the throes of chaos. The fascists seized upon this situation to march on Rome where they easily forced themselves into power. Soon after, Mussolini issued his famous declaration, "The means to power is not the will of the people but force. Force is the foundation of the law and it imposes the law." Afifi then states that Mussolini restored order to Italy, rooted out communism which had almost torn the country apart and brought workers' strikes to a halt so that business could resume in full vigour. The Italian dictator further brought discipline to the ranks of the Italian people and instilled in them a new spirit. They had come to look to him as the reviver of ancient Rome. "The new order has done Italy a great service, having remedied the lethal ills from which it had suffered," Afifi concluded.

Well after the Blue Shirts became an established phenomenon, National Party leader Hafez Ramadan protested that he had fathered the idea of the Blue Shirts, but that the Wafd had stolen the idea from him. In 1932, he wrote, he had founded the Falcons, an association for fostering the physical, mental and moral uplifting of youth. He had chosen the falcon as its emblem because "this bird is known for its energy, as it leaves its nest before the rising of the sun, and because it symbolises courage and strength, and because ancient Egyptians depicted it with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. It thus represents the unity and solidarity of the Egyptian people." The members of this association, which he insisted was entirely non-partisan, had been wearing blue shirts for years. "It never occurred to them to lay claim to that dress code even though this is what they wore when, in the era of those governments formed since 1932, they engaged in physical training or sporting outings in Wadi Hof, at the foot of the Pyramids or in the barren desert. Nor did it ever occur to any of those governments to outlaw the Falcons because they themselves had never contemplated serving as a tool for intimidating and pressuring others."

As though in response to this letter, Al-Ahram dispatched a correspondent to interview Blue Shirts leader Ahmed Bilal on the aims and structures of this organisation. The idea, Bilal relates, dated to the student uprising of November 1935 in demand for the restoration of the 1923 Constitution. The student demonstrations had much in common with military organisations. "We would march in organised files that filled the breadth of the street. At the head of each file was a student officer. By the time the uprising ended, we had come up with the idea of the blue shirt worn by students and workers." The blue shirt, he continued, became the symbol of unity and equality among youth, whether they were rich or poor, young or old, educated or not. This, however, did not obviate the need to screen potential members on the basis of moral rectitude, character, patriotism and other qualifications. The "soldiers" of this organisation were not permitted to bear arms other than a billy club worn on the belt as a symbol of military order. To this could be added a knife of the sort used by scouts, taken on camping excursions. Knives, guns or other weapons forbidden by law or requiring a special license were forbidden to Blue Shirt members.

In "Shirts of different hues" I discussed the adversarial relationship between the Blue Shirts and Green Shirts and the clashes that invariably resulted in the withdrawal of the latter, leaving the field open to the former. However, contemporary Al-Ahram editions lend a sense of immediacy that no academic study could convey. At the same time, I did not delve into the relationship between the Blue Shirts and the Wafd Party or the Wafdist government headed by El-Nahhas, having accepted the assumption that the paramilitary youth organisation was merely a means with which the Wafd intimidated its adversaries who resorted to the same tactics. The assumption was an oversimplification of reality, as we discover in Al-Ahram.

On numerous occasions, the Blue Shirts displayed an initiative that indicated that the Wafd did not have as tight a control on the reigns of this organisation as it thought. These occasions proved to be extremely embarrassing for the Wafd government, incurring as they did the scorn of the British high commissioner and incensed the opposition press. Indeed, even the predominantly Wafdist parliament was moved to question the government on the activities of this organisation.

One of the most notorious outbreaks of violence took place in the summer of 1937 in Damanhur. Young Egypt Society leader Ahmed Hussein had filed suit in the Damanhur court in defence of the right of his group to open a club in that city.

On the day he appeared, "a huge crowd surrounded the court building from all sides and began to shout in support of El-Nahhas and the Wafd Party." The Al-Ahram report goes on to say that the police raced to the rescue of the beleaguered Young Egypt leader, bringing in a police van into which they bundled Hussein and sped off to Alexandria. Even so, a segment of the crowd chased after the police car, throwing stones and bricks at it and succeeding in breaking its rear window. Most of these were Blue Shirts, of course.

One evening in Cairo's ancient Al-Gamaliya quarter, a street sweeper was busily doing his job when a gust of wind blew some of the sand and dust he was collecting into the Blue Shirt training camp. One of the youths rushed out of the camp and physically assaulted the sweeper, inflicting several wounds. The injured worker reported the incident to the police and when an officer came to the camp to summon the perpetrator, a fight broke out between the police and the Blue Shirts. The police overcame their adversaries, broke into the camp and arrested the street sweeper's assailant and four others. Then, another skirmish erupted outside the Al-Gamaliya police station, following which nine more Blue Shirts were arrested. The 14 were brought to trial and sentenced to fines varying from 100 to 200 piastres. Some were able to pay and were released. Those who could not afford the fine asked to serve time in detention instead, for which purpose they were transferred to Al-Sayida Zeinab police station.

In Damietta, a band of Blue Shirts passing by the ceremonial tent the Alayli household had erected for the celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet fell into a brawl with some of those inside the tent. Police arrived to separate the brawlers, after which the contending parties marched off shouting assorted slogans. "Six people were injured and sent to the emergency clinic to have their wounds treated," the Al-Ahram report concludes.

In Minia, two rival Blue Shirt gangs engaged in a brawl leaving two of them seriously injured. One of them, Mahmoud Rashed Shirkas, died of his wounds. The other was permanently disfigured. The animosity between the two groups stemmed from a power struggle that had begun several months earlier.

Meanwhile, the Wafd Party was heading for crisis. In forming his fourth government on 1 August 1937, El-Nahhas excluded a major pillar of the Wafd, Mahmoud El-Nuqrashi. The rift in party ranks that this triggered naturally rebounded on the Blue Shirts. El-Nuqrashi himself called for the dissolution of the Blue Shirt bands in Cairo and the provinces, and others took up his call. Prime among these was Mohamed Kamel El-Damati who had broken off from the Blue Shirt general command headed by Bilal in order to form the General-Command of the Independent League. In response to El-Nuqrashi's call, the Damati faction had a ceremonial burning of their blue shirts in the league's camp in Abbasiya.

The uncontrolled outbreaks of violence combined with the internal debacle of the Wafd had severely undermined the party's moral credibility. In the face of attacks in both the Egyptian and British press, Wafd leaders began to feel they had to act in the face of the youth groups that were causing them such embarrassment. In the Manchester Guardian we read that in response to the growing anxiety among both Egyptian and foreign circles in Cairo over the coloured shirt movement and over the rapid spread of the Blue Shirts in particular, "Wafd leaders have recently made it clear that they are disinclined to continue carrying a child that has shot up so quickly." Similarly, The Daily Telegraph reports that El-Nahhas had prohibited the Blue Shirts from parading in the streets in their official dress. Apparently, the organisation had gone even beyond the Wafd leader's control, for the newspaper adds that the Blue Shirts obeyed his instructions for a while but soon were seen again, "carrying truncheons and knives and claiming that they were above the law."

In parliament, Ibrahim Desouqi Abaza confronted the minister of interior with the following protest: "The country is crying out in anger and pain at the illicit and illegal acts being perpetrated by the Blue Shirts. They abuse public order in order to sew corruption, attack people individually and in groups, and trample the liberties guaranteed by the constitution." Increasingly on the defensive, the government had to do something to bring the Blue Shirts under control. It was decided to place them directly under the command of El-Nahhas, to forbid them from carrying weapons of any sort or to demonstrate in the street or appear in public wearing blue shirts. In addition, the government issued a new statute regulating the creation and activities of such youth organisations and it initiated prosecution proceedings against group leaders for the crimes they and their followers had perpetrated.

Apparently, such actions had little immediate effect, for in a speech on 17 November 1937, El-Nahhas complained of "those who flout law and order in order to cause unrest." Tougher action was required. At El-Nahhas's instructions, the Ministry of Interior began to regularly patrol the Blue Shirt camps, sending them a clear signal that their days were numbered. The end came sooner than expected. On the day before the end of 1937 the El-Nahhas government resigned and with it the Wafd's militant Blue Shirts vanished as well.

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