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20|20 Centenary: How the British treated Egypt as a ‘new Ireland’

As England’s oldest territory, Ireland was evoked both as model and warning in British-occupied Egypt

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Monuments men: British infantrymen pose for a photograph on the Great Sphinx at Giza in March, 1920. Photo: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

Monuments men: British infantrymen pose for a photograph on the Great Sphinx at Giza in March, 1920. Photo: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

Monuments men: British infantrymen pose for a photograph on the Great Sphinx at Giza in March, 1920. Photo: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

In his 1920 poem ‘The Second Coming’, WB Yeats pictured the global unrest that had begun to shake the world the year before as an Egyptian sphinx, awakening “somewhere in the sands of desert” west of Bethlehem. His choice of image wasn’t surprising: after what seemed like “twenty centuries of stony sleep”, Egypt was suddenly aflame. At the end of World War I, Britain and France had promised to leave the territories they occupied in the Middle East, but as their intentions to the contrary became apparent, thousands of men and women took to the streets in protest. War-weary peasants staged sit-ins, tore up railroad tracks and seized buildings across Egypt, Libya, Palestine and Tunisia. By 1920, the tremors had spread to Iraq and to Morocco, where guerrillas declared independence from the semi-colonised kingdom. Sudan was engulfed by protests in 1924; by 1925, Syria was in the throes of a full-blown war. When the newly established British Royal Air Force bombed Egypt and Iraq in an attempt to crush the revolutions, the air strikes only energised them instead.

Just as Egyptian revolutionaries had paid close attention to the events of Ireland’s Easter Rising, Irish intellectuals and activists followed the antique land’s sudden eruption into revolt with great interest and sympathy. A popular vaudeville song ‘The Irish were Egyptians Long Ago’ went:


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