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The Arab Spring of 1919 by Hussein A.H. Omar (LRB blog), 4 April 2019

8 April 2019

1919 was a year of travelling revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings were triggered by the efforts (sometimes secret, sometimes not) of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to colonise the Middle East and to divvy up its territories at the end of the First World War. As their intentions became apparent – after both Britain and France had repeatedly promised otherwise – thousands of men and, for the first time, women took to the streets in protest. War-weary peasants staged sit-ins, removed railroad tracks and occupied buildings across Libya, Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia. By 1920, the tremors had spread to Iraq and Morocco, where guerrillas declared independence from the semi-colonised kingdom. Sudan was engulfed by protests in 1924. By 1925, Syria was in the throes of a full-blown war. The recently established RAF bombed Egypt and Iraq to put an end to the revolutions. Instead, the bombardment energised them.

These uprisings have often been understood as isolated national revolutions, but they may be better thought of as a single (if protracted) wave that lasted from 1918 to the early 1930s, much as the Arab Spring movements that began in 2011 continue to reverberate today. The revolutionaries shared slogans, ideas, ideals and personnel.

In November 1918, Tripolitanian peasants established a free republic independent of Italian Libya. It inspired copycat movements all over North Africa. A few months later, the Egyptian town of Zifta in the Nile delta declared its independence from the newly minted monarchy and elected a president. Just days after that, the entire province of Minya in Upper Egypt did the same. British officials, convinced these were ‘soviets’, insisted that the Mufti of Egypt issue a ‘Fatwa against Bolshevism’ in the hope that the revolutionary struggle might die out. It had the opposite effect. British soldiers raped, flogged, arrested and exiled the revolutionaries. In the UK, Egyptians were targeted in the race riots that broke out in Manchester, Cardiff and Liverpool.

The Washington Post ran headlines such as: ‘EGYPT PERIL TO EAST | Rise of Bolshevism Threatens to Renew World Warfare | CAIRO IS INFECTION CENTER.’ In the United States, meanwhile, the demands for full citizenship of returning African American servicemen were stymied by allegations that they, too, were ‘Bolshevik’. President Wilson – a great defender of the Klu Klux Klan and a staunch segregationist – had privately remarked that ‘the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.’ There was a spate of lynchings of African American servicemen, which provoked condemnation from Egypt.

Egyptian revolutionaries recognised that Wilson didn’t intend his doctrine of self-determination to apply to everyone. They drew parallels between their own struggles and those of their African American counterparts against the global ‘colour line’. ‘All the Wilsonian principles,’ one Egyptian wrote in a telegram to his wife, ‘Liberty and Equality and Self-determination are nothing but hot air … The Americans class us as Niggers and with them a Black doesn’t count.’

W.E.B. Du Bois saw the connection. ‘The sympathy of Black America,’ he wrote in the Crisis,

must of necessity go out to coloured India and coloured Egypt … we are all one – we the Despised and Oppressed, the ‘niggers’ of England and America … our hearts pray that Right may triumph and Justice and Pity over brute Force and Organised Theft and Race Prejudice, from San Francisco to Calcutta and from Cairo to New York.

And yet such solidarities are absent from most popular histories of the 1919 revolutions.

Erez Manela wrote in the New York Times last month that the Egyptian revolution was inspired by Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination. The revolutionaries, he argued, first turned to Wilson as their saviour before he ‘betrayed’ them by refusing to recognise their rights. But Manela’s thesis, developed more fully in The Wilsonian Moment (2007), misses the rich history of debates about the nature and meaning of ‘self-rule’ and ‘emancipation’ among Egyptian and other Arabophone thinkers across three decades before Wilson made his Fourteen Points. These activists may have adapted their ideas and adopted ‘Wilsonian’ idioms when appealing to the haughty white men assembled in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, but their intercepted telegraphs show that in private they articulated a critique of Wilson’s white supremacist thought.

The notion that a white supremacist could have been mistaken for a saviour by the natives says a good deal more about the historian’s faith in American imperialism, then and now, than it does about the ideas of the revolutionaries themselves. Wilson was described in graffiti on the streets of Cairo as a ‘Son of a Dog’ not merely because he was seen to have broken some promises or to have been a hypocrite, but because he personified the colour line between Egyptians and their aspirations to sovereignty. It wasn’t only Wilson that Egyptians criticised, but American imperialism as a whole. Many had opposed the colonisation of the Philippines, not least because General Pershing insisted that the American Philippines should take British-occupied Egypt as a model.

To see every political action in the non-Western world as a defective imitation of an imagined Western prototype is to reproduce the arguments that imperial officials used to dismiss colonised peoples as unready for self-rule. Identifying the putatively Western origins of certain ideas cannot explain why thousands of people – many of them unlettered – become willing to die and to kill in defence of abstract ideas, as they did across North Africa and the Middle East in both 1919 and 2011. As Walter Rodney once said of the uprisings in Nyasaland and the Congo in 1915 and 1921, ‘the fact of the matter is that it was not really necessary to get the idea of freedom from a European book.’