World War I in Egypt, 1914-18

During World War One the Ottoman Empire fatefully allied itself with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nevertheless, of the 20th century's many Egyptian wars, this had a happy outcome.

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World War I in Egypt

In 1914, after World War I broke out in Europe, the Ottoman Empire in Egypt fatefully allied itself with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The khedive Abbas II was immediately deposed by the British on account of his well-known pro-Ottoman sympathies and prevented from returning from Constantinople, where he had been on a visit.

Britain Declares Egypt a Protectorate

Britain then declared Egypt a protectorate and imposed martial law. Abbas's 60-year-old uncle, Hussein Kamil, was installed as the new head of Egypt. To make sure there was no confusion that the country had severed its ties with the Ottoman Empire, he was given the title of sultan, until then reserved exclusively by the Ottoman ruler.

Anti-British sentiment remained high during the course of the war, and there were increasing expectations that it would be followed by Egyptian independence, especially now that the country had been cut loose from the Ottomans. It was a time of hardship for most Egyptians, especially the poor.

Egyptian wars place an enormous strain on the country's food supplies, which in this case were bought up in large quantities by the British to feed the huge number of troops stationed in the region. With food shortages leading to double pre-war prices, the poor struggled especially hard just to keep themselves from starving. Furthermore, the commandeering of some 20,000 peasants into British labor corps, where many would perish from disease, did little but increase resentment and further fuel the nationalist cause.

Saad Zaghlul

As the world conflict drew to a close towards the end of 1918, the British High Commissioner of Egypt received a visit by three Egyptian politicians. Led by an extremely popular politician by the name of Saad Zaghlul (a lawyer by profession), they had come to demand independence and to be allowed to travel to London to put forward their case. Their request was refused outright. Undeterred, they announced their intention to send a delegation (wafd in Arabic) to the peace conference in Paris to present their argument there.

Further British refusals sparked off waves of nationalist unrest throughout the country. In March 1919, Zaghlul was arrested by the British authorities and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Malta. The result was explosive. Anti-British sentiment erupted into widespread protests, strikes, and violent attacks on British citizens, including murder. The country languished in a state of paralysis as public transport came to a standstill and people stayed away from work.

Although the British soon managed to bring the situation under control, it had become clear that they would not be able to keep the lid on such feverish nationalist sentiment indefinitely. In an about turn, the British government released Zaghlul and allowed him to go on to Paris and London. It was a fruitless mission, however, and a frustrated Zaghlul returned to Egypt in 1921.

The British continued to resist the inevitable for a while longer. Eventually, further riots and violence in the wake of the re-arrest and deportation of Zaghlul brought them to the conclusion that the protectorate was no longer viable. Without consulting the Egyptians, Britain declared Egypt an independent state on February 28, 1922. Finally, a good result from this, the latest in a long procession of Egyptian Wars.