Book Review-The Egyptian Revolution of 1919. Legacies and Consequences of the Fight for Independence
Hellyer, H.A. and Springborg, Robert. 2022. The Egyptian Revolution of 1919. Legacies and Consequences of the Fight for Independence. London: I.B. Tauris.
The 1919 Egyptian Revolution occupies a prominent place alongside the contemporaneous Irish wars of independence and disturbances in the Punjab, constituting critical elements within what John Gallagher (Gallagher 1981) has aptly labeled as “Britain's crisis of empires”. In fact, as articulated by James E. Kitchen (Kitchen 2015), the years spanning from 1919 to 1922 marked a pivotal juncture for British Imperial Rule, representing a temporary hiatus. The Egyptian nationalist movement emerged as a formidable challenge to British authority in 1919, not only within the boundaries of Egypt itself, but also held the potential to resonate among other groups across Britain's nascent Middle Eastern Empire (Kitchen 2015). Numerous publications have delved into Egyptian politics’ transformative journey(s) over the years, until now, yet, there has been a noticeable absence of a comprehensive text that thoroughly examines the causes, consequences and legacies of the pivotal 1919 Egyptian Revolution. Addressing this crucial gap is the purpose behind H. A. Hellyer - a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Senior Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal Institute for Defence and Security (RUS) and Cambridge University Fellow - [LG1] and Robert Sbrinborg’s –Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies, King’s College in London, as well as Professor of Politics and Director at the London Middle East Institute of SOAS - meticulously crafted book, The Egyptian Revolution of 1919: Legacies and Consequences of the Fight for Independence, published by I.B. Tauris in 2022.
Involving a cast of Egyptian and non-Egyptian scholars, this remarkable publication sets out to achieve a direct yet non-trivial ambition to explore the multifaceted aspects of the 1919 revolution and its profound impact on subsequent political beliefs, practices, institutions, and the enduring legacy as a means of regime legitimation. Through nine insightful chapters, the book uncovers how the 1919 Egyptian Revolution divided the British opinion while uniting the Egyptian people, highlighting a myriad of events, demonstrating how the revolutionary fervor eventually gave way to attempts at restoring Britain's influence, coupled with a reassertion of monarchial authority. Although these efforts enjoyed some tactical success, they failed to achieve long-term strategic gains, primarily due to the fact that the 1919 revolution unleashed nationalist forces that could never be fully contained.
The ultimate goal of this book is to provide a comprehensive analysis. Each chapter offers intriguing insights on diverse socio-political and economic themes. Firstly, the Revolution brought elements of Egyptian society to redefine themselves, from healthcare to labour conditions. For instance, Beth Baron (Chapter 1) uncovers the resistance against British colonial encounters by examining inequalities in the colonial healthcare system and challenging them through medical practices. When demonstrations broke out in 1919, Egyptian medical students rushed to join them, and imperial medicine in Egypt was contested at many stages while also being translated by Egyptian doctors for local contingencies. In Chapter 2, Mohamed Elsayed focuses on the engagement of the working class, particularly those laboring on the Suez Canal, illustrating how the allure of the revolution extended far beyond the elite class. After the first demonstration in Port Said in May 1919, Arab workers of the Suez Canal Company (SCC) united with European comrades for the first time in Egypt and made the headlines by carrying out the largest and longest strike in history.
Among its outcomes, the Revolution of 1919 eventually influenced both the political and religious-ideological parties of Egyptian society, as seen in particular in Mark Bebawi’s and in Philip Marfleet’s chapters. On the one hand Bebawi (Chapter 3) explores the tensions between religion, ethnicity, and identity within the context of Egyptian nationalism during that era, while on the other hand Philip Marfleet (Chapter 4) delves into the uprising as a mass movement, bringing forth new forms of public activism and raising expectations of radical political and social change - expectations that were never fully realized.
The book does not neglect the relation with the United Kingdom and the weight of the colonial encounter in the revolutionary narrative. James Whidden, author of Chapter 5, examines the impact of the 1919 Revolution on the British Empire, forcing the Crown to reconsider their relationships with their colonies in the early 20th century.
In Chapter 6, Zeinab Abul-Magd studies the role of Lord Allenby, a notable British figure who, unlike many of his peers, supported to some extent Egyptian independence, though the following chapter authored by Kyle J. Anderson sheds light on the racism exhibited by Britons towards Egyptians and how it manifested during that time.
Then, in the penultimate chapter, Taqadum Al-Khatib delves into the dynamics of exile among Egyptian political activists, comparing those who left Egypt in the years leading up to the 1919 Revolution with those who departed decades later. Finally, recognizing the diverse nature of the 1919 Revolution and the lack of a detailed account of the ideas and actions of the multitude who participated, Khaled Fahmy's “Chapter 9 acknowledges the sacrifices made by thousands of individuals.
Overall, the book is certainly a remarkable achievement in the field of historical scholarship. Its comprehensive approach offers readers a nuanced and varied understanding of this pivotal moment in Egyptian history. Each chapter demonstrates a meticulous research process, which is made evident through abundant archival material and the insightful highlights that enrich the narrative. The book's well-structured organization allows for a coherent exploration of the Revolution, guiding readers through the complexities of the period. By delving into the socio-political and economic dimensions of the revolution, the author presents a holistic portrayal of the events and their broader significance. One notable limitation is the occasional lack of broader contextualization. Although the book dives deeply into the intricacies of the Egyptian Revolution, it could have benefitted from providing more extensive connections to the regional and global dynamics of the time. Readers seeking a more detailed historical examination may find certain sections lacking. Despite this, however, Hellyer and Springborg’s work is on the whole a highly valuable resource for scholars, students, and anyone interested in gaining a comprehensive understanding of this transformative chapter in Egypt's history.
Indeed, the 1919 Revolution is a pivotal yet complex historical event that requires further examination, particularly in understanding its broader regional and global implications, and the persistent struggle for comprehensive and enduring change in the face of systemic challenges that continue to reverberate in Egypt's present and future.
Gallagher, John. 1981. Nationalisms and the Crisis of Empire, 1919-1922. Modern Asian Studies 15: 355—368.
Kitchen, James. 2015. Violence in Defence of Empire: The British Army and the 1919 Egyptian Revolution. Journal of Modern European History 13 (2): 249-267.
by Yasmina Dionisi
Former intern at Istituto Affari Internazionali