The revolution in Egypt of January and February 2011 led to the resignation of the nation's president, Hosni Mubarak. The revolution put the population in a state of potential chaos and some political commentators felt that it would be difficult for Egypt to become a functioning society in the near future. This was not the first time that the Middle Eastern region saw a political revolution within one of its nations, nor would it be the last. The recent public execution of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi illustrates the fiery nature of the region and the continued likelihood of political unrest. Commentators made connections between the current situation and similar occurrences in the past without noting how these similarities could telegraph the potential successes of the revolution. The region, known for violence and quick temper, is unsurprisingly a location of frequent insurgency and revolution. History has a way of repeating itself and this is certainly true of the country of Egypt. The 2011 Revolution mirrors a similar time of political upheaval that occurred in that same nation in 1919. Nearly a century separated the two incidences and yet they have much in common.
After the end of the First World War, occupied countries were slowly being allowed to regain their sovereignty and take control of their own governments. A group of nationalists, led by Sadd Zaghul appealed to the High Commissioner of the British Protectorate that Egypt should be allowed to become once again its own country. One of their requests was that they have a voice in the Paris Peace Conference where they would appeal their case to the larger world court (Ibrahaim1). In 1919, following the war, Egypt was occupied by foreign countries. The nation of England occupied both Egypt and Sudan. This was still the time of the British Empire where the English had colonies all over the world. It wouldn't be long the case however, as the original nations because tired of their occupation and determined to overthrow their imperialist oppressors. The British had ordered a popular Egyptian leader, the same Saad Zaghul, to be exiled from the country because the officials feared that he would lead the Egyptian people in a revolution. The British Empire was notorious for its treatment of indigenous people. According to Wilfrid Blunt, "It is one of the evils of the English Imperial system that it cannot meddle anywhere among free people, even with quite innocent intentions, without in the end doing evil" (66). Revolution is what was expected. This is just exactly what wound up happening.
The following photograph was taken in 1919 and shows Egyptian men and women who were in support of Zaghul and the revolutionaries. Unlike other nations where the women were continually marginalized, many of the women of Egypt were directly involved in the peaceful revolution. (See Figure1).
In order to receive more international support, the Egyptians had written a letter to the then-President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, and implored him to speak on their behalf. Britain also asked Wilson to make a declarative statement in their favor. In the end, Wilson and with him the power of the United States, took sides against the Egyptian people. This would be the final straw that would break the camel's back. After Wilson's announcement to support the British against the Egyptian revolutionaries, violence broke out throughout Egypt. Angry citizens from all backgrounds met in the streets against British soldiers to demand their right to sovereignty and to expel the British from the land.
Zaghul and members of the Wafd Party led the people to revolt later in the year 1919. After more peaceful attempts at independence had resoundingly failed, the people and their leaders felt that there was no other recourse than to demand their freedom from England through force. When one cannot achieve their goals peacefully, the attempts usually become violent or the protestors give up their cause and accept defeat. Obviously, the Egyptians chose the former method. They demanded to regain their sovereignty and to become an independent nation. They also wanted British forces to retreat from Sudan and to gain control of that territory. The British accepted the first stipulation and officially recognized Egypt as an independent country in 1922. However, they would not relinquish control of the Sudan area or the Suez Canal region, two important areas.
The Egyptians had much to be dissatisfied with. During the war, they were forcibly entered into the service of the British forces against the Axis Powers (Shakry). Following the war, the Egyptians were still being placed in positions of limited funding and power by their British rulers. People who were native citizens of the country were being ordered around and completely dominated and domineered by the foreign occupiers. Thus, what would become a fully-fledged revolution originated in a labor dispute between those who were of the working and lower classes and those of the ruling upper classes. According to historian Omnia El Shakry, "From the perspective of the emergent dominant national ruling elements, it did not aim at the radical transformation of the social structure of the class relations, but rather at the assertion of territorial nationalism in the face of British colonialism" (Shakry).
Unlike more violent revolutions that would occur both before and after the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, these revolutionaries practiced less violent and bloody forms of protest. They mainly practiced civil disobedience. They went into the various townships and asked for the citizenry to sign petitioners and documents in which they could provide support for the cause of the revolutionaries. Afet Zaghul and some other leading revolutionaries were exiled to Malta, the people who had so far practiced primarily peaceful acts of defiance, devolved into madness and mania. In the last two weeks of March of 1919, more than 3,000 Egyptians were killed by British soldiers (Tignor 1). In addition, a great deal of property was destroyed including railroads, homes, and even entire villages that were burned to the ground.
To end the bloodshed, British emissaries were sent to the country of Egypt to analyze the situation and determine what the best course of action was to be. This group was called the Commission of Inquiry, also often referred to as the Milner Mission for its leader, Lord Milner. Yet, these proceedings were not altogether fair or right. Instead of dealing directly with the revolutionaries, the British met with Egyptian leaders who were not involved with Zaghul (Ibrahaim 1). The Egyptian people refused to abide by these negotiations. They realized that the British were trying to set up a puppet leadership which would have little real power and would allow them to keep control of the region. The leadership and independence would be in name only. When the new came out about the negotiations, letters poured in and picketers outside the proceedings made it known that any decision that was reached by that body would be unrecognized by the people. The only representative that the citizenry would give permission to speak for them was Zaghul himself.
It was determined by Lord Milner that England was failing as a protectorate of the Egyptian people. He felt it was better for the British to abandon their posts in Egypt and relinquish control of the area to the native peoples of the land. It would take some time and Egyptian independence wasn't declared until February 22nd, of 1922 (Ibrahaim 1). However, British forces did not completely exit from Egypt and the militia from Great Britain was still to be seen in the land. Egyptian independence was initially considered probationary, which meant that if the British did not believe that the Egyptian people were proving themselves capable of leading their own government, the independence could be revoked.
Egypt has a history of overthrowing the leaders and institutions it find to be unsuitable for the citizens of that country. According to the social contract theory of politics, a government is indebted to the people and if that government stops functioning in a manner that is beneficial to those people, the citizens are well within their rights to find a government system which is better suited to them.
This is important to understand because Egypt has not been a completely peaceful nation following the 1919 revolution. Just this year, Egyptians were involved in a revolution. As in the previous revolution, the people were determined to protest through non-violent, civil disobedience. Rather than viewing this as an isolated event, historians and researchers of the region argue that the 2011 Revolution is a direct incident which was somehow inevitable considering the violent history of the area. What made the more recent revolution so interesting was that it was not just one group of people who were uprising against an oppressive regime. Rather, a large conglomeration of dissatisfied and disaffected citizens all convened with the mission that they deserved and demanded a new system of government and leaders who would better suit their needs.