Shortly after the end of World War I, Australian troops bloodily suppressed a popular independence revolution in Egypt.
This overlooked episode in Australia’s military history has never prompted much national soul-searching — but it should. The war in which some 60,000 Australians died was supposedly fought for liberal democratic values and the right of peoples to pursue national “self-determination”.
Episodes like the Egyptian revolt suggest that a squalid imperial reality underlay the noble rhetoric, which is why it has been relegated to obscurity.
Speaking in Cairo in December 2010, foreign minister Kevin Rudd glossed over the darker aspects of Australian involvement in Egypt when he summed up the period with the following statement: “During World War 1 … Australian troops were stationed … at the foot of the Pyramids.
“For the young Australians, who found themselves in an ancient land, on the edge of a city renowned for its style and culture, it was a time to remember.”
Rudd's remarks create the impression that Australian soldiers approached Egypt and the Egyptians with a sense of respect, even reverence. Unfortunately, the reality was very different.
Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt increasingly fell under British hegemony. By August 1914, when the war began, Europeans controlled more than 90% of the Egyptian economy, despite making up only 2% of the population.
Fearing a recurrence of the nationalist revolts that had shaken Egypt in the early 1880s, Britain diverted tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand volunteers to Egypt in late 1914.
From the outset, the ANZAC presence in Egypt was about more than military training. They were there to keep a watchful eye on the general population, ready to respond if the “darkies”, “niggers” and “wogs” (as ANZAC diarists conditioned by racist ideology often described Egyptians) got any rebellious ideas.
When the Australians arrived in Egypt, they did so not as sensitive cultural tourists but as a contemptuous force that amounted to an army of occupation.
The ANZAC presence was a godsend to British colonial authorities, whose regular regiments were heavily committed on the Western Front.
As is well known, Australians and New Zealanders “played up”, earning a reputation for looting, arson and assault. The riotous behaviour reflected the ANZAC’s racist attitude toward a subjugated population.
British and Dominion troops drained resources and created runaway inflation. In addition, more than half a million peasants were conscripted into labour and transport units serving the British war effort. For this vital service they were poorly paid and awarded little recognition.
Middle-class unemployment was also a problem. Thousands of well-educated young people had no future in the system that ensured all key public service appointments were held by British personnel.
Egypt’s incorporation into the rapacious capitalist imperialist system had not benefited the mass of ordinary Egyptians. It is easy to see why they were seeking an alternative by the end of 1918.
Following the armistice, the Wafd [Delegation] party was formed by the Egyptian nationalist politician Pasha Zaghul.
Its adopted flag was a Sunni crescent and Coptic cross set on a green background, symbolising the peaceful unity of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians. Wafd leaders demanded the right to negotiate for independence with the British government in London.
The British responded to the Wafd movement by arresting Zaghul on March 8, 1919. He was swiftly deported, an injustice that galvanised the entire country into taking direct action.
All classes took to the streets and squares in protest, shouting Wafdist slogans. There were many notable acts of resistance, such as on March 16, when hundreds of women marched together against the British occupation. This marked the entry of Egyptian feminist activists into politics.
With large crowds of strikers and protesters defying British roadblocks in Cairo, Alexandria and other centres, Australian and New Zealand mounted troops (who constituted the bulk of available forces) were ordered to take decisive action.
On March 17, a small detachment opened fire on a 1000-strong crowd at Minet El Qamh.
According to the article Keeping the Peace — Egypt 1919 by Canberra-based historian Dr. Michael Tyquin: “Thirty-nine locals were killed and 25 wounded, while 40 men drowned trying to escape across an adjoining canal. The Australians sustained one casualty.”
Another attack took place on March 27, when an Australian patrol encountered demonstrating Egyptians tearing up a railway line at Zagazig.
“While under no immediate threat to themselves,” Tyquin noted, “the troopers immediately opened fire, killing 30 as the crowd fled.”
In a secret brief distributed to British and Australian officers on April 1, 1919, the motivation behind the heavy-handed police operation was disclosed.
Britain would never withdraw, because “it could not see another power gaining Egypt and incidentally the Suez Canal”.
What the British authorities meant by the phrase “another power” is fairly clear: the Egyptian people themselves.
By the summer of 1919, about 800 Egyptians had been killed in clashes with Allied (mainly Australian) troops and twice that number had been wounded. In total, the Australians sustained 20 casualties, including at least one death.
The independence movement had been crushed, though ongoing popular resistance forced the British to grant a measure of independence to Egypt in 1922. The British kept control over the canal, however, and continued to dictate Egyptian policy through a proxy ruler.
Australia has played a key role in suppressing the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. This reactionary policy was reflected in the Wafd massacres of 1919 and, in more recent times, by successive governments’ support of the dictatorial and corrupt Mubarak regime.
If the Gillard Labor government really wants to employ “creative middle-power diplomacy” and foster Egyptian democracy in the wake of the 2011 uprising, it should face up to past crimes committed in the so-called national interest.