The role of Egypt’s peasantry in the country’s 1919 Revolution is undeniable, though there have been different explanations for it. A study entitled “Peasants in Revolt – Egypt 1919” by Ellis Goldberg published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies investigates the possible reasons for peasant participation in the revolt, Niveen Wahish writes.
The author argues that one of the traditional explanations for the revolution was the anger of the peasants and urban working classes in Egypt against British colonialism and its values, including the coloniser’s Christian religion. Another explanation the author cites is that the Egyptian population at the time was rejecting Western capitalism.
Yet another explanation is that the revolution came in reaction to profits secured by Britain and denied to Egyptians when the 1918 cotton crop was bought up at artificially low prices and sold on the open market at much higher ones.
However, Goldberg believes that none of these explanations explains the events or the persistent attacks on rail and communication lines that took place at the time.
She argues that if these explanations were true, the peasants would not have voluntarily joined the Labour Corps in the early stages of the war. Moreover, she questions why “if the cross was a symbol so hated by the peasants, there were no attacks on churches, nor Red Cross personnel, nor even very much tension between Copts and Muslims.”
The author concludes that Egyptian peasant unrest was more about “hunger, threatening starvation, apportioning the costs of war-induced inflation and forced servitude.”
When the revolution began in March 1919, rail and communication lines were cut by peasants, and Cairo was isolated from the countryside for weeks, the author notes. She says they did this to prevent the transport of agricultural commodities to the cities because they “had good reason to fear that they would go hungry in 1919”.
She shows that the consumption of cereals and pulses in Egypt declined sharply during the war, hitting bottom around 1918 at roughly 80 per cent of the consumption before the war. She says that during the war wheat consumption dropped from 95.9 kg per capita in 1913 to 61.7 kg per capita in 1918, especially in the cities.
This is attributed to “exports, state procurement policies for the army and the tax policies of the colonial state which required peasants to sell food to obtain money,” she says. With food becoming scarcer, the author says that Egypt’s peasants found that they had to fight harder to keep their share.
Egypt’s exports of grain increased dramatically during the war, and its price on international markets soared in 1915 because other sources for the allied countries had been cut off, especially from India, Russia and Romania.
Yet, Egypt’s peasants did not increase their output of grain even when the British placed limits on the areas that could be planted with cotton. This was due to a lack of fertilisers. According to Goldberg, when the areas for cotton were reduced, the peasants switched to growing barsim (fodder) for their animals rather than cereals because they needed it and animal manure to replace the lack of nitrate fertilisers.
The lack of fertilisers was one of the fallouts of the war, first because there was no shipping space for the product and second because explosives required nitrates as well. Thus, “military demand for the battlefield swamped farm demand,” Goldberg says.
The shortage of fertilisers led to a drop in crop yields during the years of the war, though this was not only attributable to a lack of fertilisers. There was also “the impossibility of maintaining normal levels of importation,” Goldberg says. Even in 1913, Egypt had to import approximately 260,000 tons of wheat, about one third of its requirements, she adds.
Although the drop in food production during the war was far from bringing famine, “it was real enough to invite attempts by various sectors of the population to guarantee their own entitlements to food by whatever means they could,” she says. This is why peasants with direct access to commodities would hold onto them to feed their families and their animals rather than exchange them for money in the marketplace.
“Peasant retention of sufficient supplies depended upon sealing off local areas from government requisitions,” she says, and to do that the peasants cut the railway lines.
This was done not only to seal off the access of the British to food, but also to prevent them from recruiting men and acquiring animals for the Labour Corps. Besides being dangerous, Goldberg says, Labour Corps recruitments meant there were fewer men available to work in the fields and raised the price of labour. The requisitioning of animals also created problems for the peasants.
According to Goldberg, much of the fighting in the Western Desert, the Sinai Peninsula and Palestine required camels for transport as well as for fighting. The war had cut off the regular camel trade with the Arabian Peninsula, which brought in 30,000 camels. “The British hoped to purchase 30,000 camels on the Egyptian market in 1915, but they only managed to buy 13,000,” she says.
The drop in the number of camels in rural Egypt caused serious problems because “they provided much of the haulage for farmers to local markets and to train connections to national markets.” It was not only camels that were affected: horses, mules and donkeys as well as buffaloes and cows were all taken by the British for the war effort.
“In the end, it was the poor and the politically defenceless who found themselves in the Labour Corps, just as it was the poor and the politically defenceless who suffered most from the requisition of commodities and animals,” the author writes.
That being the case, she concludes that “agrarian grievances rapidly assumed the character of class grievances and the tensions ignited by the war appeared as class tensions” during the 1919 Revolution.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Countryside resistance