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  • Object Lessons in Violence:The rationalities and irrationalities of urban struggle during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919
  • W.J. Berridge


"From a collection of reasonable individuals, a crowd can quickly become a solid, united mass, capable of any violence and reckless of the consequences."2 The words of Thomas Russell, the commandant of the Cairo police at the time of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, echoed the ideas of contemporary crowd psychologist and Orientalist Gustav LeBon, who claimed that the Egyptians' lack of "elite" society made them particularly prone to crowd violence. In a phrase that would later contribute to Freudian ideas of group psychology, LeBon argued that in a crowd "a man descends several rungs on the ladder of civilisation."3 Whilst such statements were clearly a continuation of Victorian pseudo-scientific and racial thought, they also had a political purpose. As Charles Tripp has observed, public disorder is a powerful image just as much as it is an actual event, for it grants political leaders the opportunity to exploit fears of social anarchy.4 In the case of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, the British authorities attempted to undermine the nationalist movement by stigmatizing the pro-independence demonstrators as violent and irrational.

Nevertheless, a number of scholars have stressed the rational and economic factors behind the events of the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, as well as Nathan Brown, have focused on the economic motivations for protest in urban and rural environments respectively.5 Meanwhile, Juan Cole has highlighted the role of foreign and Christian minorities in monopolizing commerce in Egypt and controlling food prices.6 One writer on twentieth century social movements now acknowledges the 1919 revolution as one of the most impressive examples of what could be achieved by non-violent resistance.7

Other historians have explored the political violence of the revolution. Malak Badrawi for example has emphasized the irrational aspects of the nationalists' thought. He has argued that "erroneous perceptions" and "the anarchic spirit rampant in Europe" influenced Egyptian youth during the revolution.8 It is undeniable that the violent fringe of the Egyptian nationalist movement exposed by Badrawi did exist. Nevertheless, the nationalist mainstream made considerable efforts to deter violence and demonstrate that a handover of power to the nationalist Wafd9 party would not herald widespread social anarchy, as British critics argued. This article will focus mainly on urban violence in Alexandria and particularly Cairo in order to analyse the efforts of an educated class of nationalists to establish the Egyptian right to self-rule—by mimicking, in Homi Bhabha's sense, colonial rhetoric and colonial ideals in order to remove the colonial raison d'être.10 However, as will be seen, by appropriating colonial discourses the nationalist leaders marginalized and stigmatized sections of Egyptian society in a manner similar to the British.

If anti-colonial violence has often been described as irrational, imperial counter-insurgency is frequently depicted as detached, rational and controlling. Thus the transition from formal imperial rule to nationalist self-government in Egypt is seen as a smooth and well-managed transfer that effectively enabled the British to maintain real control. John Darwin uses Egypt as an example in his argument that "with a League of Nations whose trusteeship ethos was notably indulgent to the old colonial powers, the decentralisation of the British Empire seemed safe enough."11 However, this article will demonstrate that the British very definitely did lose control of the process of decolonisation in Egyptian during the revolution of 1919. This loss of control began on 9 March 1919, when acting high-commissioner in Egypt Milne Cheetham made the decision to deport nationalist leader Sa'ad Zaghlul, who had for months been demanding that Egypt be allowed to send its own delegation to the postwar peace conference at Versailles. The injudicious nature of this decision was best indicated by Ronald Graham, the acting permanent undersecretary of state at the Foreign Office. He observed that Cheetham's hasty decision had forced the British into a position where subsequently they would have to release Zaghlul in response to widespread nationalist agitation—thus giving the Egyptians an "object lesson" in the merits of...

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