by Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid
The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
Saad Pasha Zaghlul
When the victorious Allies promised independence to those people who had been 'long oppressed by the Turk' it seemed Great Britain was about to grant Egypt her independence. But what Great Britain publicly proclaimed and privately resolved were two different matters as Egyptian nationalists were to discover.

The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
Surly Egypt
Anglo-Egyptian relations remained the most vital issue in Egyptian political life for seventy years —from the occupation of the country in 1882 to the evacuation of British forces from the Canal Zone in 1953. It was not only the rock on which innumerable Egyptian cabinets foundered, but also the bane of Egyptian political life, for all other issues were neglected in favour of that one devouring preoccupation. It was also the determining factor in the rise of nationalist parties in the country, and especially in the rise of the Wafd party.

In 1895 a nationalist movement calling for independence from Britain had appeared in Egypt under the impetus of a young orator, Mustafa Kamil, and with the encouragement of the Khedive (ruler) Abbas. But neither Cromer, the British consul-general, nor the British government took this movement seriously; they assumed that the country's well-being was sufficient justification for the continued occupation of Egypt, and anyway Egypt as the lifeline to India was too important to evacuate. Thus when political parties appeared in 1907 with evacuation as a major plank in their platforms, they were treated by Cromer as little better than fifth-columnists. For the occupation, which in 1882 had been described by the British government as a temporary expedient, had by then acquired a character of permanency.

Legally Egypt's position was anomalous. Though the occupation had occurred at the invitation of the Khedive, it had continued in spite of him. Moreover Egypt was a vassal of Turkey. In 1914, when Turkey joined the Central Powers, the link between Turkey and Egypt was severed as Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt, deposed the Khedive and replaced him by his uncle, and announced a state of martial law.

The war years were to blur the picture even more. President Wilson's Fourteen Points which appeared in January 1918 and which laid down the right to self-determination for all nations, roused hopes of independence among many Egyptians. Since the war had rid them of their legal suzerain, Turkey, they thought that Wilson's declaration could rid them of their unofficial suzerain, England. These hopes were strengthened by the Anglo-French agreement of November 1918 in which the Allies promised independence to those peoples 'long oppressed by the Turks', and undertook to set up national governments based on the free choice of the populations. Thus Egyptian politicians together sought for a means of acquiring their independence. The outcome of their consultations was that three men, Saad Pasha Zaghlul, Ali Pasha Shaarawi, and Abd al- Aziz Bey Fahmi, met the British high commissioner, Sir Reginald Wingate, on 13th November 1918 to request that an Egyptian delegation, a wafd, be allowed to travel to Paris and present Egypt's case at the Peace Conference. The Wafd, as this group of men soon came to be known, were acting in concert with the Egyptian government of the day. They had a secret agreement with the prime minister, Husain Pasha Rushdi, that should their request be refused, then Rushdi would himself request permission to travel to London and negotiate with the authorities for some kind of autonomy. For though there were some Egyptians who believed the Allied declarations of good faith, there were others more sceptical who suspected that Britain would not relinquish her hold so easily, and they were willing to bargain for some kind of autonomy under the protectorate.

Both the request of the Wafd and of the prime minister were turned down. From then on what had begun as a delegation representing an educated elite in Egypt, turned into a political party under the leadership of Zaghlul and supported by a group of ideologues, efficient organizers, and a rank and file which, for the first time in Egyptian history, not only included the educated elite, but also elements of the grassroots of the country. It also had a platform advocating reforms of various kinds, but these were entirely subordinated to the issue at hand. One can, therefore, in all fairness say that the Wafd, practically overnight, developed into the first real political party in Egypt, and one which had widespread popular support.

The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
Wafd Riot
The Wafd and Zaghlul have often been treated synonymously — and so they were from 1918 to 1927 - for Zaghlul's personality towered above the other members and overshadowed men who were as able, if not abler than himself. A revolutionary in his youth, he became the most brilliant lawyer of his time, and though originally from humble peasant stock, married the daughter of a pro-British prime minister, Mustafa Pasha Fahmi. He was a friend of Cromer, and known to be pro-British, so that throughout the period of nationalist agitation from 1895 to 1907 he held himself aloof. Several times a cabinet minister, Zaghlul was elected to the legislative council in 1913, and became its vice-president - in which capacity he headed the Wafd. It is only from 1913 onwards that one can trace Zaghlul's ascent as a member of the nationalist group, and as an opponent of the British occupation in Egypt. By then he was in his sixties, a venerable man with an honourable, not to say brilliant, record as a moderate and responsible official. The rest of the leading members of the Wafd, Abd al-Aziz Fahmi, Ali Shaarawi, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, and Muhammad Mahmud, were all respectable, responsible, and wealthy notables, who represented the Egyptian upper and middle class, very few of whom could remotely be described as agitators. Circumstances however were soon to turn them into revolutionaries.

The Wafd, which had won a large following by intensive campaigning in the countryside (largely facilitated by the co-operation of Egyptian government officials), soon began a widespread campaign of agitation to force the British authorities into allowing them to present Egypt's case at the Peace Conference. And since even the Hejaz was being given a seat at the Conference, there seemed to the Egyptians no valid reason for turning them down. Wingate had indeed suggested that the Egyptians be given a hearing, but his suggestion was met by a reprimand, and on 8th March 1919 the British authorities, exacerbated by the Wafd's agitation, arrested Zaghlul and three of his friends, and deported them to Malta. This was the spark that set off a revolution. On 9th March and the following days students in Cairo demonstrated in the streets, only to be mowed down by machine gun fire from British soldiers called in to quell the riots. The next few months witnessed nationalist uprisings all over the countryside, some spontaneous, others organized by the Wafd. Railways were sabotaged, communications came to a standstill, and civil servants, lawyers, and students went on strike. Even the ladies of Cairo came out of the seclusion of their harems. Veiled up to the eyes and muffled in black cloaks, they waved banners in support of the Wafd and of independence. Occasionally British officials and soldiers were killed, and retaliation was swift and brutal, especially since the demonstrators were unarmed. The toll of dead soon numbered over a thousand Egyptians and some thirty Englishmen. Men, women, and children were ruthlessly shot down in the streets in an attempt to stop the movement, which only gained momentum.
The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
Lord Lloyd

The Egyptians are ignored

The riots soon had their effect. A week after his arrival in Egypt, Allenby, the new high commissioner, sent a wire to London recommending that Zaghlul and his friends be released, and allowed to proceed to Paris for he recognized that they were indeed representative of Egyptian public opinion. On 7th April Zaghlul and his friends were freed, and left for Paris. But in Paris the victors were too busy apportioning the booty to pay any attention to the Egyptians. To make matters worse, on 22nd April, President Wilson, despite his former declarations, recognized the British protectorate over Egypt. Two months later the protectorate was recognized by Germany and incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles.

Undaunted, the Wafd went to London hoping to get a hearing, but Lloyd George simply showed them the chair reserved for Egypt when it joined the Commonwealth, and left it at that. Nevertheless, in October, a commission of inquiry under Lord Milner was formed to look into the Egyptian situation. The commission left England two months later, and when it reached Cairo it was to find itself the target of a tremendous boycott arranged by the Wafd. Only Zaghlul and the Wafd could speak for Egypt, Milner was told, and after three months in Egypt, Milner fully agreed, and arranged for talks to take place between himself and the Wafd, but on a purely unofficial basis.

The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
Mutual Distrust
The outcome of the talks was a document known as the 'Milner-Zaghlul agreement'; it was in fact not an agreement at all, but simply an 'outline of the bases on which an agreement might subsequently be framed'. Milner believed that Egypt should be granted independence, but the agreement he framed was a treaty of alliance between England and Egypt which would merely give Egypt the outward signs of independence without giving it real freedom of action. Many of the moderate members of the Wafd were willing to settle for that, but Zaghlul who previously might have settled for less, now wanted more, namely complete independence, and he urged that the agreement be further modified. When Milner could offer no further concessions, conversations ended on 11th November 1920, and the Wafd left for Paris.

In Cairo an able politician Adli Pasha Yaghan had been nominated prime minister, and he invited the Wafd to participate in new negotiations with the British government. Zaghlul who had returned to Egypt by then, to be greeted deliriously by the people, agreed, on condition that such a delegation be predominantly Wafdist in membership, and under his leadership. Adli, quite naturally, refused. This marked the break in the nationalist front, for many Wafdists resigned in protest at Zaghlul's high-handedness, both in refusing the Milner Agreement, and then at his treatment of Adli. Zaghlul, an autocrat by nature, had become even more so as a result of public adulation and succeeded in alienating many of his supporters, who seceded from the Wafd to form a party in October 1922 called the Liberal Constitutionalists. But no government in Egypt could make any negotiations acceptable to the Egyptians without the co-operation of the Wafd, for the Wafd had the masses on its side. Adli's negotiations therefore failed.

The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
Allenby Taunted
Meanwhile Zaghlul was moving the masses to daily demonstrations by his oratory, which in spite of a speech defect, was brilliant and compelling. He spoke for Egypt, and was the voice of the nation, but Lloyd George and many British officials still failed to realize that Zaghlul was the only person who could negotiate with Britain, They regarded him simply as a nuisance and suggested that he be deported. So, once again, in December 1921, Zaghlul was arrested and exiled to the Seychelles. Chaos spread over Egypt as strikes and demonstrations broke out in protest at the arrest of the head of the nationalist movement. Allenby, in need of a coup de theatre, pushed the British government into issuing the unilateral declaration of February 1922, which abolished the protectorate over Egypt and declared Egypt independent. Yet the British insisted on retaining responsibility for the security of British empire communications in Egypt, the defence of Egypt and the Sudan, and the protection of foreign interests and minorities in Egypt. The Wafd rejected the declaration outright and branded it a 'national catastrophe', for the four provisos shackled Egypt so entirely as to make a farce of independence. Nevertheless Sultan Fuad accepted it, and became King of a so-called independent Egypt. From then on the King played a dominant and nefarious role in Egyptian politics; coalition cabinets depended on his good will for survival, and subsequently only the Wafd and Zaghlul could force his hand 'in the name of Egypt'.

The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
German Cartoon
In April a constitutional committee was established to draw up a constitution and an electoral law. In spite of Zaghlul's absence the Wafd continued to make itself felt in public life through speeches, strikes and demonstrations. Bombs exploded throughout Cairo and under the noses of successive prime ministers, but damaging little save their dignity. Finally, in March, Zaghlul was released.

The elections of 1923-24 gave the Wafd 190 seats out of 214, and Zaghlul formed a cabinet. The new government in England was a Labour one headed by Ramsay MacDonald, a friend of Zaghlul's, and a feeling of optimism pervaded Egypt as hopes of a settlement began to appear. But neither Zaghlul nor MacDonald were willing to make concessions. Zaghlul could not ask for less than he had done in the past, and MacDonald would not, or could not, offer more. A few months later the assassination of the British commander-in-chief in Egypt, Sir Lee Stack, brought about Zaghlul's resignation, and for a while, his retirement from public life. But it was not for long.

The Wafd: Egypt 1918 - 1927
King Fuad
In 1925 new elections produced a Wafdist majority, as did all subsequent elections when they were not rigged by the government. But the new High Commissioner, Lord Lloyd, who believed in gunboat diplomacy, and regarded Zaghlul with suspicion, prevented him from becoming premier by calling a gunboat to Alexandria. Lord Lloyd was to call out the gunboats on several occasions in order to force Egyptian cabinets into following his instructions. Coalition cabinets succeeded one another, but they could negotiate no settlement, for Zaghlul was the only man capable of coming to some arrangement with England, and he died in 1927. Mustafa al-Nahhas succeeded him as head of the Wafd, and eventually under the force of circumstances — of war in Ethiopia —the Wafd was able to form a coalition cabinet and conclude a treaty with England in 1936.

The Wafd, born of a desire for independence, developed into the only popular party Egypt has ever known. Zaghlul's personality, plus widespread campaigning, efficiently planned and executed by his supporters, brought the Wafd into every Egyptian village. For years after Zaghlul's death peasants continued to vote Wafdist for 'Saad' and later on al-Nahhas became every bit as popular. The Wafd continued to be the majority party in Egypt until it was disbanded, with all other parties, after the revolution of 1952. Zaghlul's achievement had been considerable.

Egypt and Sudan in 1922 Map
Egypt and Sudan in 1922 Map
Middle East
1918 Wafd formed in an attempt to lobby for Egyptian rights at Versailles
1919 Zaghlul Arrested, Revolution in Egypt
1920 Milner-Zaghlul Agreement
1921 Zaghlul Banished to Seychelles
1922 Egypt declared independent, but with Britian retaining responsibility for maintenance of communications, defence, protection of European interests and the question of Sudan. Sultan Fuad becomes King Fuad I. Tutankhamen discovered.
1924 Governor General of Sudan Assassinated, British suppress Egyptian Mutiny in Khartoum
1927 Zaghlul dies
1929 Britain agrees to withdraw some troops from Egypt, but not from canal zone.
1930 King Fuad dismisses Wafd Parliament and suspends Constitution
1935 Anti-British riots. Two dead, 88 hurt.
1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty signed, Farouk II becomes King.
Further Reading

Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954
by Joel Beinin

Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution
by J Berque

Egypt From Independence to Revolution: 1919-1952
Selma Botman

The British in the Sudan: 1898-1956. The Sweetness and the Sorrow.
by Robert Collins

The Making of Modern Egypt
by Auckland Colvin

Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1934
by M Daly

Challenging Colonialism: Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920-1941
by Eric Davis

Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs The Search for Egyptian Nationhood 1900-1930
by I Gershoni

Sudan Tales: Reminiscences of Wives in the Sudan Political Service, 1926-56
by Rosemary Kenrick

The British in Egypt

Anglo-Egyptian Relations: 1800 - 1953
by John Marlowe

Arab Nationalism and British Imperialism: A Study In Power Politics
by John Marlowe

Cromer in Egypt
by John Marlowe

Egypt and Cromer
by Alaf Lufti al-Sayyid Marsot

Egypt's Liberal Experiment, 1922-36
by Alaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot

England in Egypt
by Alfred M Milner

Curzon: The Last Phase 1919-1925. A Study in Post-War Diplomacy.
by Harold Nicolson

Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt
by Robert Tignor

This Article Originally Appeared in the History of the 20th Century by Purnell

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