Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Scenes from Egyptian history

Samir Sobhi continues his examination of Egypt’s modern history with episodes from World War I

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Egypt became a British protectorate. The then ruler, the khedive Abbas Helmi, was deposed, martial law declared and the country’s legislative assembly dissolved by the British.

For the next four years overt political activity came to a standstill, and ordinary people suffered from the effects of wartime inflation and requisitioning, with the intelligentsia and the professional classes being frustrated by restrictions on personal freedom and the evident British intention to convert a temporary protectorate into a permanent colony.

By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, the country was at boiling point.

British General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate was governor-general of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan during the period, having previously served in India and Aden from 1881 to 1883 until he joined the Egyptian army on its reorganisation by British general Sir Henry Evelyn Wood with the rank of major.

Wingate took part in operations on the Sudanese frontier in 1889, his principal work being in the intelligence branch. He served in the 1896-1898 campaigns that resulted in the British re-conquest of the Sudan, including the battles of Atbara and Omdurman and the later expedition to Fashoda. In 1915, he was awarded the Order of the Nile.

From 1916 to 1919, Wingate was commander of British military operations in the Hijaz, now part of Saudi Arabia. In 1917, at the age of 56, he succeeded Sir Henry McMahon as British high commissioner in Egypt, a post he held until 1919. Wingate was chosen not only because of his close relations with the country’s then nominal ruler, the sultan Hussein Kamel, but also for having mastered Arabic, which he had learned during his service in Sudan. He knew Egypt well and had good relations with a number of Egyptian dignitaries. 

During Wingate’s administration, he and his wife visited government institutions, museums and schools across the country. They visited the then royal library, and they were received by the country’s Coptic Christian pope, who presented Wingate with a diamond cross. He also visited Al-Azhar and met with Sheikh Selim Al-Beshri, the grand imam of the institution, as well as with Sheikh Mohamed Bekhit, the grand mufti and minister of religious endowments.

With the onset of the war, the British, French and Ottomans created labour corps to support the logistical needs of their respective armies. However, the British quickly realised that they desperately needed the support of Egyptian labour in a land thought at the time to be inhospitable to Europeans. As a result, from 1916 to 1919 some 33 per cent of the country’s male population in the countryside between the ages of 17 and 35 laboured either as transport workers or in the construction of fortifications for British military units.

As the war progressed, securing volunteers proved difficult, and local Egyptian collaborators utilised a host of coercive methods to meet the quotas the British army required. Although the Egyptians who served in the Egyptian Labour Corps were not technically soldiers and were paid a daily wage, a large number of them suffered from injuries and disease, in some cases leading to their deaths. These men were often from extremely poor villages and the daily pay of seven piastres and the rations were very attractive to them.

When money and food were not enough to raise the required number of men, military authority under the terms of the protectorate was imposed over all Egyptian officials and civilians. Local mudirs and omdas (the mayors of Egyptian towns and villages) organised press gangs and armed guards to keep the labourers at work. Recruits enlisted for six months and were given an advance of three pounds sterling to provide for any dependents.

Such policies led to conflicts between the Egyptian government and the British army, and Wingate raised the matter with the British foreign office. As a result, it was agreed that recruitment should be on a voluntary basis in return for an appropriate wage and according to the customs of the country with regard to the period of service.

It is important to note that Egyptians took part in the fighting alongside the British army on three fronts during the War, the eastern front against the Ottomans, the western front towards Libya and the southern front in Sudan. After the war ended, the 1919 Revolution saw a widespread uprising against the British. History does not repeat itself, but some historical scenes may be repeated, including the role played by the people when they rise up in revolt to rewrite a country’s history.

When one chapter of history closes, another chapter begins.

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