Egypt's 1919 Revolution: A timeline

Amira Howeidy , Friday 8 Mar 2019

1919 Revolution
Demonstrations in Cairo 1919

1882: British troops occupy Egypt at the behest of Khedive Tawfik whose throne is threatened by military commander Ahmed Orabi’s revolution and by foreign control of Egypt.

Orabi is defeated by British forces and, to avoid a repeat of the Orabi scenario, the Egyptian army is reduced and the bulk of its forces stationed in Sudan which had been conquered by Mohamed Ali in 1820.

The British cancel recently enforced laws establishing an elected legislative assembly to which the cabinet was accountable. A new law introduces a two-chamber consultative legislative assembly.

1899: The Anglo-Egyptian condominium effectively places Sudan under British imperial rule. It will be administered by a governor-general, appointed by Egypt but only with British consent, undermining Mohamed Ali’s 1820 conquest of Sudan.

1913: An 83-member Legislative Assembly is elected. It is a consultative body with no authority over the cabinet. Prominent judge and statesman Saad Zaghloul – who wins elections in two constituencies in Cairo – becomes vice president of the assembly.

1914: Britain enters WWI, declares Egypt a protectorate and enforces martial rule. The Legislative Assembly is frozen.

13 November 1918: Two days after the Armistice ends WWI three prominent nationalist figures, Saad Zaghloul, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi and Ahmed Shaarawi, meet with British High Commissioner Reginald Wingate and inform him of their wish to represent Egypt at the 1919 Paris peace conference and make the case for self-determination and national independence. Britain subsequently rejects their request to travel.

By evening the delegation — the Wafd — launches a campaign to secure legal endorsement from the Egyptian people in support of their plans to represent Egypt in Paris.

The campaign to collect signatures continues for months at fever pitch. Print houses refuse commercial work and shift to printing templates for the tawkeelat — the power of attorney allowing the Wafd to represent Egyptians in Paris.

8 March 1919: Alarmed by the impact of the Wafd’s activism and Zaghloul’s popularity British forces arrest and exile Zaghloul and other nationalists to Malta, triggering nationwide protests.

The following day the 1919 Revolution begins: students, women, farmers, clergymen, teachers and workers take to the streets in massive numbers.

The Wafd calls for a total boycott of the British occupation, including any cabinet formed by the British. The pressure forces two premiers to resign.

17 April: After Egypt’s civil servants strike early in April and the Hussein Rushdi government resigns, the British allow Saad Zaghloul and his associates to attend the Paris conference. Egypt, says British High Commissioner Edmund Allenby, is “impossible” to govern.

But the Egyptian delegation is snubbed by world powers busy dividing the spoils of war between themselves. Instead of independence Egypt is officially recognised as a British protectorate, fuelling the revolution back home.

December 1919: Britain forms a mission of inquiry into events in Egypt chaired by Colonial Secretary Alfred Milner. It is boycotted by nationalists who, in a demonstration of the Wafd’s influence, oppose the continuation of the protectorate.

Milner leaves Cairo after three months, his mission a failure. Britain reluctantly recognises Saad Zaghloul as the key figure in negotiations.

May 1920: Talaat Pasha Harb, a prominent industrialist who participated in the 1919 Revolution, founds the first Egyptian bank Banque Misr, owned by Egyptian shareholders. It is the first step in Egyptianising the economy.

6 June-November 1920: The Zaghloul-Milner talks last five months and end in deadlock, with both sides rejecting the proposals presented. The Egyptians want a clear end to the protectorate and a process that leads to independence; the British offer concessions that perpetuate the protectorate and retain sovereignty over legislation, the judiciary, the economy, the administrative authority and the military.

Cracks emerge within the Wafd: “moderates” pivot towards Adli Yakan, a statesman who supports the British proposals for nominal independence.

February 1921: The Milner report is published. It recommends an end to the protectorate and the negotiation of a treaty between Egypt and Britain. It is rejected by the British government and Milner resigns.

17 March 1921: The Adli Yakan cabinet is formed. Its programme pledges to reach an agreement that secures Egypt’s independence. An assembly is formed to write a constitution.

4 April 1921: Saad Zaghloul returns from exile via Alexandria for the first time in two years. He is greeted by thousands of Egyptians. The crowds that gather in Alexandria and on the streets of Cairo are described as “unprecedented”.

Emboldened by the show of support Zaghloul attacks Yakan in the press and at public rallies. He argues the government will be worthy of confidence only if it ends the protectorate and secures internationally recognised independence for Egypt.

He famously says that Egypt’s prime minister is appointed and dismissed at a signal from the British High Commissioner and that Yakan’s would-be negotiations with Britain amount to “George V negotiating with George V”.

Massive protests, which result in casualties, erupt against Yakan and his government.

The “moderates” defect from the Wafd.

12 July 1921: Yakan’s delegation and British secretary of state George Curzon start talks that end after four months. Curzon’s proposals are more stringent than Milner’s and leave Yakan with no option but to reject them. He returns to Cairo and resigns.

23 December 1921: After refusing orders to quit politics Zaghloul, his nephews, Wafdist leaders Mustafa Al-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid and other Wafdists are arrested and exiled to the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean.

28 February 1922: Britain unilaterally announces an end to its protectorate over Egypt and grants nominal independence with the exception of four “reserved” areas – foreign relations, communications, the military and Sudan.

The move is rejected by the Wafd. From his exile Zaghloul calls it “a deceptive ruse”.

19 April 1923: Egypt’s first Constitution is promulgated. It adopts a parliamentary system based on the separation of, and cooperation between, authorities.

Despite the Wafd’s denunciation of the 28 February declaration and the constitution its positions influence the debate within the drafting committee.

The constitution that emerges is considered modern – even revolutionary – by the standards of the time. It reflects the tensions between progressive (revolutionary) and regressive (the monarchy, occupation and feudalists) forces in society. In other words, it mirrors the balance of power prevailing in Egypt.

The document stipulates that the monarch is at the helm of the executive branch; he is granted legislative power in participation with parliament; the nation is the source of all powers; its bicameral legislature consists of an elected house of representatives and a partly appointed senate; the government is accountable to parliament. It enshrines equality, civil rights, guarantees freedoms and the principle of a free press and right to assembly within the limits of the law.

17 September 1923: Saad Zaghloul is allowed to return to Egypt from exile and receives a hero’s welcome. His and the Wafd’s popularity is at its peak. Zaghloul continues his attack on the 28 February declaration, calling it “treason” and the “greatest catastrophe in the country”.

27 September 1923-January 1924: Zaghloul and the Wafd Party contest the elections which are held in two stages and win 90 per cent of the seats.

26 January 1924: Majority leader Zaghloul becomes the first elected prime minister under the 1923 Constitution. He forms a new government which lasts only eight months, setting a pattern for Egypt’s new parliamentary system.

Until his death in 1936 King Fouad consistently attempts to undermine parliament and the constitution with British support. Parliament is dissolved ten times during his reign.

1930: King Fouad suspends the 1923 Constitution and promulgates a new constitution that grants him absolute power and limits the role of parliament to an advisory body. Opposition to the move forces Fouad to restore the 1923 Constitution five years later. 

26 August 1936: The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty requiring Britain to withdraw its troops from Egypt, with the exception of the Suez Canal and its surroundings, is signed with Mustafa Al-Nahhas Pasha’s Wafd government.

27 August 1937: Saad Zaghloul dies at the age of 70. He is succeeded by Mustafa Al-Nahhas as leader of the Wafd.

March 1950: The Wafd Party wins elections. The new government, under Al-Nahhas, enters talks with the British to renegotiate the 1936 treaty, seeking to annex Sudan and terminate the British military presence in Egypt. The talks fail. In response Al-Nahhas abrogates the agreement in 1951.

23 July 1952: The Free Officers overthrow the monarchy. The 1923 Constitution is abrogated five months later by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), whichpromises a new constitution.

January 1953:the RCC bans all parties.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: 1919 Revolution: A timeline

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