The first African country to gain independence from a colonial power, Egypt became at least partially free of Great Britain on Feb. 28, 1922. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Egypt’s struggle for independence.
Egypt first became entangled with the British during the first few years of the 19th century when the British and French fought for control of the country. The British beat the French but only stayed in control for a few years, thanks to the original Muhammad Ali, who was a 19th century Egyptian leader, and who fought the British until they withdrew in 1807. The British would not formally return for another 70-plus-years, until 1880s, when they again seized control of the country following their co-construction of the Suez Canal with the French.
It would take another nearly 40-years for the British to take full control of Egypt, declaring it a protectorate on Dec 14, 1914, six months into WWI. Colonization did not sit well with the Egyptian people who showed their discontent with their British conquerors at all socio-economical levels.
Egyptians were especially angry about their forced involvement in World War I, which they did not see as their war. The British forced 1.5 million Egyptians to work in the Labour Corps. At the same time the army seized control of much of Egypt’s infrastructure. Allied forces including Australians were on Egyptian soil and they brought kangaroos with them.
As dissatisfaction grew, Saad Zaghlul, who was a former education minister, founded the Wafd Party. The translation literally means “delegation,” and so the party was also know as the Egyptian Delegation Party.
The Wafd Party was ahead of its time for African political parties because of its socioeconomic and political diversity. Members were activists from various political parties and classes, as opposed to one ruling class. The party was instrumental in the development of the 1923 constitution and of transitioning Egypt from dynastic to constitutional monarchy.
Wafd quickly grew and by the end of the war was the prominent party in Egypt. It used Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points Doctrine, which stresses all people have the right to self determination as a catalyst and inspiration to promote independence.
On Nov. 13, 1918, two days after the World War I armistice, Wafd founder Saad Zaghlul, along with two colleagues, requested permission to travel to London to officially present Egypt’s independence demand.
The British didn’t go for it, denying the delegation the right to go to London or Paris to talk to leaders about independence.
On Jan. 13, 1919, after Britain continued forbidding Egyptian leaders to travel to Europe, Zaghlul and the Wafd party held a general congress at the home of member Wafd Hamad Pasha Basil. Here Zaghlul spoke about Egypt’s right to independence as championed by Muhammad Ali (the Egyptian leader who first kicked the Brits out in the early 1800s). After the speech, cables were sent to London but no signs of support were received back.
The next few years were chaotic. Zaghlul was arrested on March 8, 1919 by the British and expelled to Malta. Then protests and strikes erupted across Egypt and thousands of protesters marched in Cairo on March 15, 1919. Civil disobedience followed for another three years although it remained non-violent overall.
On Feb. 28, 1922 Britain finally declared limited independence for Egypt. This followed four years of mass protest — 1919 to 1922 — that have been hailed as the first nonviolent mass protest in the Middle East.
Britain only gave nominal independence to Egypt in 1922. A new Egyptian constitution was created in 1923, and in the 1924 Wafd won a large majority of parliamentary seats. Zaghlul became prime minister. The Wafd party was prominent politically until the early 1950s. The Brits retained control of the Suez Canal. Egyptians celebrate their independence day on July 23 each year to remember the Egyptian revolution that took place on this day in 1952. The revolution ended the monarchy and established a republic.
The national day is a public holiday in Egypt with military parades, music and dance honoring the sacrifices of martyrs that helped shape the country’s destiny.