USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945


The British-controlled (or influenced) territories in the Middle East and Egypt were far greater in size than the French. From Egypt to Iraq, from Palestine Iran, British policy shaped the political life of the post-WWI Islamic world. Egypt had been part of the British sphere of influence since the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century Britain controlled Egypt’s politics and economy. During this period, westernizing Egyptian elites took on British lifestyles of secularization and education. The great flow of elites to British universities began during this time. By the First World War, a deep split had emerged in the Egyptian population. Many elites and educated members of the middle class supported British rule, or at least British-style rule. Others were dedicated to returning Egypt to its status as an Islamic state.

A wave of popular unrest was released in 1919 when Britain tried to tamp down increasing popular dissent. Egyptians rose up against British rule and won independence in 1922. It is important to note two things about Egyptian independence in these years. First, Britain might have given up direct control of the country, but it won rights to keep a substantial military force in Egypt and the Sudan to protect its interests, foremost among them control over the Suez Canal, the key link to India. Egypt, though having a popularly elected parliament, still had a king through whom the British wielded extensive influence. Second, the rulers who emerged in Egypt represented the pro-European secular branch of dissenters, not the Islamic side. These secular and economic elites began a campaign, much like Ataturk, to transform Egyptian society from an Islamic one into a secular one.

Disaffected members of the population turned to new ideologies and organizing principles to challenge the elite and the British-backed system. An Egyptian communist party cropped up in the early 1920s. Toward the end of the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged, an organization that would become a force in Egyptian and regional life until today. The Brotherhood sought to link nationalism with Islam in what would be a potent social and political message. We see this strong national-Islamic link in the words of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood: 
The love for one’s country and place of residence is a feeling hallowed both by the commands of nature and the injunctions of Islam…. The desire to work for the restoration of the honour and independence of one’s country is a feeling approved by the Qur’an and by the Muslim Brotherhood….However, the love for party-strife and the bitter hatred of one’s political opponents with all of its destructive consequences, is a false kind of nationalism. 

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