Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Egypt

Title: Axis prisoners in Cairo, Egypt
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Strategically located in northeast Africa, Egypt was vital to the British effort in World War II to protect the Suez Canal and lines of communication to Middle East oil fields. In 1939, Egypt had a population of about 16 million people.

The British had taken control of Egypt in 1882 to secure the Suez Canal. Supposedly, they had intervened to "restore order," but the British stayed. London ended its protectorate in 1922 and granted Egypt independence as a constitutional monarchy with adult male suffrage, but it did not relinquish authority in key areas. Great Britain retained control over defense, imperial communications (the Suez Canal), protection of foreign interests and minorities, and the Sudan. In August 1936, the same year King Farouk came to the throne, Britain signed a treaty with Egypt whereby it retained the right to defend the Suez Canal until the Egyptian army could do so. The Egyptian government also agreed that, in the event of war, it would grant full use of Egyptian facilities to the British.

Throughout World War II, Port Said and Alexandria remained major British bases for operations in the eastern Mediterranean. As headquarters of the Middle East Supply Center, the Egyptian capital of Cairo was the transit point for half a million British and Commonwealth troops. Cairo was also the headquarters of the Middle East Command, and the city remained a haven for agents and spies. Egyptian nationalists were active, with many Egyptians, including Farouk and Prime Minister Ali Mahir, hoping for an Axis military victory in the war and full independence for Egypt.

Although Farouk was the constitutional monarch, British Ambassador Miles Lampson exercised real power. At the beginning of the war, the British insisted on the imposition of martial law and strict censorship and the arrest of German nationals. The Egyptian government ended diplomatic relations with Germany, but Egypt did not declare war against Germany or, later, Italy. Only reluctantly did Ali Mahir allow the confiscation of Italian property in Egypt. He also refused permission for border guards to fire on Italian troops. In June 1940, the British insisted that Farouk replace Ali Mahir. His replacement was Hasan Sabri, a moderate.

On 17 September 1940, Italian forces invaded Egypt. Despite a pledge that it would declare war if this happened, the Egyptian government merely declared a state of nonbelligerency. In November 1940, Prime Minister Sabri died and was replaced by Husayn Sirry, who headed a coalition government. Axis air attacks on Cairo in June 1941 killed some 600 people, but Egyptian sentiment remained heavily anti-British. That winter, conditions in Egypt worsened with severe shortages of many goods, including food. Bread riots occurred in Cairo in January 1942. With General Erwin Rommel's forces closing on Cairo, nationalist demonstrations in the capital occurred in favor of an Axis victory, and Sirry resigned in early February. The British then insisted that Farouk appoint as prime minister Mustafa Nahas, the pro-British head of the Wafd nationalist party. When Farouk hesitated, British armored cars and troops surrounded the palace, and Lampson demanded his abdication. Farouk then acquiesced, and Nahas formed a government.

Throughout 1942, pro-Axis sentiment remained strong, even among the elites and the Egyptian army. Following the November 1942 Battle of El Alamein, both the Axis threat to Egypt and British authority subsided. Despite Farouk's repeated efforts to remove him from office, Nahas remained as prime minister until October 1944, when the British allowed Farouk to replace him with Saadist leader Ahmad Mahir. The new prime minister secured Egyptian declarations of war against Germany and Japan, but he was assassinated shortly thereafter, in February 1945. The declarations of war were formally proclaimed on 26 February 1945, allowing Egypt to become a founding member of the United Nations.

As elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, World War II heightened nationalism and anticolonialism. Following Farouk's abdication in 1952, the last British troops departed the country in 1954. Egypt did not gain its full sovereignty, however, until 1956 and the Suez debacle.

Robert W. Duvall, Jack Vahram Kalpakian, and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Butt, Gerald. The Lion in the Sand: The British in the Middle East. London: Bloomsbury, 1995.; Cooper, Artemis. Cairo in the War, 1939–1945. London: H. Hamilton, 1989.; Vatikiotis, E. J. The Modern History of Egypt. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.
 

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