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How Did Nationalism in Egypt Come About

Updated on August 23, 2016
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia has a Bachelor's degree in Spanish and English Literature.

Wafd Flag
Wafd Flag | Source

Nationalism in Egypt arose as a result of British colonial rule that formally lasted from 1882 to 1922, although the British preserved some of their prerogatives even after that year. The rise of nationalistic sentiments in Egypt is attributed, broadly speaking, to the following factors:

  • Exploitation of the native peasantry by the British
  • Favoring British civil servants over Egyptian despite their inefficiency
  • The ability of the landed elite to mobilize the peasantry for the national enterprise
  • The rise of the Wafd, a nationalist party in Egypt


Discontent With British Colonial Rule

Arguably every colonial model is based on economic exploitation of the native people. The British were no exception; they invaded Egypt for its strategic location by the Suez Canal and in order to use peasants to grow crops for export. In a move particularly disliked by the Egyptian landed elite, they established a Cotton Control Commission with large powers over production in Egypt. As a result, Egyptians lost control over their own lands. The economic model developed in Egypt is called agrarian capitalism, which is based on large-scale crop production. It also meant that peasants were economically dependent on landowners; thanks to this, the landed elite was able to repress any uprisings and mobilize the peasantry for the national purpose of regaining full control over production.

The economic situation in Egypt worsened drastically under British rule. The costs of living and the price of food were higher than ever after World War I due to the fact that the British exported many crops to their troops in other parts of the empire. The food supply was limited causing poverty and hunger to many. Other things that weren’t to Egyptians’ liking involved, for instance, the preferment of young inexperienced British civil servants over more experienced Egyptian ones.

Saad Zaghloul
Saad Zaghloul | Source

Saad Zaghloul and the Wafd

The Wafd, Egypt’s most influential nationalist party was formed in the aftermath of World War I. One of its founders and most vocal proponents of independence, Saad Zaghloul, was a key figure in Egypt’s peaceful attempts at regaining independence on the international scene. After World War I he petitioned High Commissioner Reginald Wingate to grant Egypt independence, but his request was denied.

Not discouraged by his first defeat, Zaghloul and his colleagues started campaigning among Egyptians to collect signatures supporting their case and present them at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The plan never worked, however, because Zahgloul and his closest allies were deported to Malta.

The Wafd Is Gaining Support

But the deportation of its leader couldn’t halt the nationalist movement at that moment; if anything, it ignited it even more. A strike that started out in Cairo spread to villages and other parts of Egypt. Egypt saw disturbances from 1919 to 1922, to the year it became an independent state. Protesters attacked trains with food that were to leave the country and murdered random British people. The situation was especially dire for the railway companies in Egypt, as the majority of engineers were British. As a result of attacks, the railways companies saw a shortage of qualified staff. To make things harder, it was nearly impossible to lure more engineers from Britain to work in such dangerous conditions. Egypt experienced in that period frequent communication break-downs.

The British government was afraid to crash the nationalist movement decidedly, as they thought it could sway moderate Egyptians to the nationalist side. The country was paralyzed. In response to what some people saw as bad governing, the Non-Official British Community was established with people who had more experience with anything that concerned Egypt and Egyptians. They proposed to either adopt a heavy-handed attitude towards the nationalist movement, or grant Egypt independence. They argued that this situation couldn’t last anymore.

Creating an Independent State

And it couldn’t, indeed. Egypt was finally granted independence in 1922 on some conditions, however. The British were to preserve influence over the Suez Canal, Egypt’s defense, foreign policy, the governing of Sudan and they were entitled to the protection of foreign interests and inhabitants in Egypt.


Frantz Fanon, ‘The Wretched of the Earth (On National Culture)’

Francis Robinson, ‘The British Empire and the Muslim World’

Lanver Mak, ‘British in Egypt Community, Crime and Crises’

Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti, ‘Nationalism and the Colonial Legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia: Introduction’


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      Setank Setunk 13 months ago

      Egypt is an historical paradox. Despite the oppressive dominance inherent with Islam the Egyptians maintain a sense of ethnic unity. They have been ruled by outside interests, political and religious, for about 25 centuries. I think they are accustomed to tolerating invaders while remaining ethnically distinct. I much admire them.