1940-1949 | Civilians slaughtered | Egypt

British troops in Cairo shoot dead twenty demonstrators with machine guns.

British troops in Cairo c. July 1946.
 © IWM (E 31958)
British troops in Cairo c. July 1946.
© IWM (E 31958)


21 February 1946

On Thursday 21 February 1946, British troops opened fire, with machine guns, on protesters in Midan Ismailiya (now better known as Tahrir Square) in central Cairo, killing twenty and injuring about 300.1  According to a report in the Scotsman the following day: ‘The Square outside the Kasr El Nil Barracks was a smoke-filled battleground when British troops machine gunned rioters.’2

How The Times blamed Egyptians for the Carnage in Cairo

The British press was far from sympathetic. The reaction of The Times was typical. The newspaper placed all the blame on Egyptians. First it pointed the finger at adolescent and working class Egyptians, what it termed ‘the worst elements’ for the carnage, arguing that ‘British troops were compelled to open fire against mobs, who had burned two army lorries, set fire to army huts, and tried to force a way into the British garrisoned Kasr el Nil barracks.’3

Then the newspaper rounded on the Egyptian authorities, nationalist politicians and ‘agitators’ in the crowd, criticizing the ‘unwisdom and danger of almost uncontrolled large-scale demonstrations in a city containing a numerous and malicious hooligan element,’ and declaring that the streets were ‘full of young roughs and street urchins, of whom Cairo has too many…. eddying about looking for mischief.’4

The actual cause of the riot

The Times neglected to mention a more obvious cause to the sudden eruption of outrage and anger. Earlier that day, vast crowds had gathered, after a general strike was called by the Workers and Students Association. Up to half a million Egyptians had come out on to the streets of central Cairo, including the area around the British Embassy as well outside the British barracks in Midan Ismailiya. They demanded the immediate withdrawal of British troops, some shouting ‘evacuation or revolution,’ some calling out ‘Zionist and Arab against the British,’ while others waved banners declaring ‘Down with England.’5

Throughout the morning, despite the enthusiastic shouting of slogans, the mood remained non-violent and reasonably amicable. Everything changed shortly after noon. An AP/Reuters reporter observed that what was a ‘peaceful demonstration… turned to violence after two British army lorries struck demonstrators near the British Army’s Kasr El Nil Barracks.’6

The incident had been triggered by a reckless attempt at around 12.30 pm by the drivers of four British Army lorries to drive through the crowd. This occurred despite an agreement with local authorities that Cairo would be out of bounds to British troops and, as the lorries approached the square, a direction from an Egyptian police officer to the drivers to turn right to avoid the crowd and take a different route.7

Bloodbath in Midan Ismailiya

Ignoring the officer, the lorries drove at a speed of about 55 mph across the crowded square and two struck protesters, killing one and injuring seven more. The horror of the hundreds of onlookers quickly turned to fury, with the Reuters correspondent reporting that ‘enraged students and labourers captured the trucks, smashed and burned them. One British driver is reported injured. Demonstrators then attacked the near-by British barracks with stones and sticks.’8

It was at this moment that British troops opened fire with machine guns from the barracks and also, according to some reports, from an RAF station and several houses overlooking Medan Ismailiya. This use of overwhelming and indiscriminate firepower in the square and elsewhere in central Cairo caused so many bullet wounds, that two additional wards had to be opened at the nearby Kasr el Aini Hospital. 

The figure for the number of injured was officially estimated first at 100, then at 200, and subsequently at 300, but at least two reports noted that ‘the number of injured is extremely difficult to estimate, as many hurt were removed to their homes without hospital treatment.’9  This may have been because the hospitals didn’t have the capacity to treat everyone, or possibly because the wounded feared possible punitive consequences of seeking treatment.

The Egyptian authorities and the British react

The Egyptian authorities, under pressure from the British, reacted by flooding the streets with hundreds of troops and baton wielding police backed up by tanks and armoured vehicles. They also banned all further demonstrations, withdrew copies of Egypt’s leading nationalist newspaper, Al Balagh, off the streets because it published ‘an article calculated to incite further disorders’, and banned Egyptian state radio from broadcasting any internal news for twenty four hours.10 London also ‘demanded punishment for all those (Egyptians) who committed crimes, and reparations for all losses sustained by British institutions and personnel.’11

The attempts to stifle dissent and punish Egyptians only served to escalate the already tense atmosphere on Cairo’s streets with students committing themselves to three days of mourning and a boycott of British goods and the English language, including English language newspapers. Students also declared their determination not to fraternize with British troops and groups of them toured downtown shops, giving the owners one week’s notice to take down any English language signs.

Students who were members of The Join National Committee of Workers and Students even went as far as to declare their intention of forming ‘underground assault and sabotage units,’ which would ‘operate after the methods of the French wartime resistance movement.’12

Some students eventually agreed to return to continue their studies after the Egyptian government, reflecting the widespread anger of ordinary Egyptians, ‘issued a statement that negotiations on the revision of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty (which defined the limits on British troop deployment in Egypt) would only be held if all foreign (British) troops were evacuated from the Nile Valley.’13 Other students, participating in a strike at Faud El Awal University at Giza with the intention of marching on central Cairo, held out until Egypt’s Minister of Education, Mohammed Hassan, came in person to speak to them.

He assured the students that ‘the government is angry at the regrettable incidents of Thursday, and you will soon see it taking a firm stand. The government will defend your honour.’14 The unrest sparked by the shootings was not confined to universities. Lawyers also went on strike with judges in Cairo courts, entering, sitting and then rising immediately.15 one senior Egyptian official expressed his anxiety to Reuters correspondent Martin Herlimy, reminding him that

‘the country is living on the edge of a volcano which may break out at any time. I am a friend of Britain, but the British people are not acting with their usual fair play. On the Egyptian side there are more than 100 dead and wounded caused by British bullets, but on the British side no lives lost… only a few lorries burned, windows smashed and furniture broken.’16

The Times, in contrast, did not seem to think it appropriate to be concerned about such trivialities as Egyptian casualties. On 1 March, under the headline ‘Calmer Atmosphere in Egypt,’ their Cairo correspondent reflected briefly on the events of 21 February, mentioning specifically ‘the material damage,’ but making no reference to the machine gunning of protesters.

The report described what occurred as a mere ‘incident whose basic importance must not be magnified,’ suggesting instead that ‘last Thursday is better quickly forgotten by both sides.’17 I suspect that had over a hundred British civilians been killed or wounded by Egyptian bullets, The Thunderer (as The Times used to be known) might have carried a more emotive piece.

FOOTNOTES

  1. John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications, London, 2013 p. 178, ‘All Quiet in Cairo,’ The Times, 23 February 1946, p. 4 and ‘Day of Rioting in Cairo,’ The Scotsman, 22 February 1946, p. 5.
  2. ‘Day of Rioting in Cairo,’ The Scotsman, 22 February 1946, p. 5.
  3. Serious Riots in Cairo – Troops open Fire – British Barracks Attacked,’ The Times, 22 February 1946, p. 4.
  4. All Quiet in Cairo.’ The Times, 23 February 1946, p. 4.
  5. ‘Clashes in Cairo: Many Casualties,’ The Daily Worker, 22 February 1946, p. 1 and ‘Tanks Out in Cairo,’ The Western Morning News, 22 February 1946, p. 3.
  6. ‘Tanks Out in Cairo,’ The Western Morning News, 22 February 1946, p. 3.
  7. ‘Trouble with Egypt,’ The Scotsman, 26 February 1946, p. 4.
  8. ‘Tanks Out in Cairo,’ Op. cit. and ‘British to Blame Say Cairo Police,’ The Daily Worker, 25 February 1946, p. 1.
  9. ‘Cairo Now Quieter,’ The Liverpool Echo, 22 February 1946, p. 5, ‘British to Blame Say Cairo Police,’ The Daily Worker, 25 February 1946, p. 1 and ‘Egypt Premier has Protested to British,’ The Daily Worker, 26 February 1946, p. 1.
  10. ‘Tanks Out in Cairo,’ The Western Morning News, 22 February 1946, p. 3.
  11. ‘British Demands Confirmed,’ The Scotsman, 26 February 1946, p. 5.
  12. On students and English language shop signs – ‘Cairo Still Out of Bounds to British Troops,’ The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 6 March 1946, p. 8 and on the Joint National Committee of Workers and Students – ‘A “Holy War on Britain” Report,’ The Daily Mirror, 27 February 1946, p. 8.
  13. ‘Cairo Students to Boycott British,’ The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 February 1946, p. 1.
  14. ‘Students’ Cairo March Dispersed,’ The Gloucestershire Echo, 23 February 1946, p. 1.
  15. ‘Egypt Shooting “Self Defence,”‘ The Daily Worker, 27 February 1946, p. 4.
  16. Martin Herlimy, Reuters correspondent, cited in ‘Egypt Living on the Edge of a Volcano,’ The Northern Whig, 28 February 1946, p. 1 and ‘On Edge of Volcano,’ The Liverpool Echo, 27 February 1946, p. 4
  17. ‘Calmer Atmosphere in Egypt,’ The Times, 1 March 1946, p. 3.

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