Following the armed conflict between British soldiers and Egyptian policemen near the Suez Canal — a five-hour shootout which left 50 natives dead and another 80 wounded — citizens of Cairo took to the streets in protest on January 26, 1952. “Black Saturday,” as it would come to be called, resulted in extensive vandalism and looting in some of the most expensive shops in the city, not to mention raging fires set by arsonists still unknown to authorities today.
Anti-Western sentiment, simmering under the surface after decades of occupation by the British, became more and more public as the 1950s began. Increasing assertion of sovereign rights for the Egyptians near the Suez Canal — the last real British-held territory in the nation — left many of the soldiers on guard near the important waterway feeling a heightened sense of an impending threat.
In some respects, the tension felt by the 7,000 British troops was justified — local Fedayeen militias had targeted European men and bases since the 1940s. The possibility of increased guerilla assaults on one of the arteries of international commerce left commanders on the ground with difficulty distinguishing friend from foe. Orders were issued for the nearby Ismailia police, holed up in the Bureau Sanitaire, to surrender their weapons early on the morning of January 25,1952. Following orders from the Minister of the Interior in Cairo, the 700 Egyptians opted to fight back.
During a five-hour assault on the compound, British forces attacking under the auspices of Operation Eagle brought superior numbers and weaponry to bear on the Egyptian opposition. Making use of heavy armor and disciplined advances by soldiers, the professional troops methodically moved through the resistance, inflicting 130 casualties — including 50 “sufficiently gruesome” deaths, according to a frustrated British diplomat who surveyed the scene later.
Reports reached the public in Cairo on January 26, 1952. Within hours angry citizens were decrying the heavy-handed British response. All over the city, Egyptians acted out in their own way: Almaza Airport staff ignored British airliners arriving at the gates; local policemen protested at the Abbaseya barracks; students and residents stood outside the offices of Prime Minister Mustafa el-Nahhas calling for war with Britain.
Seizing on the unrest, criminals broke into British-owned businesses to gather up whatever goods they could carry. Arsonists set fire to a number of storefronts, theaters and banks, as well as the Casino Opera. A handful of members of the exclusive Turf Club, frequented by wealthy British expats, were killed. Millions of dollars in property damage occurred, owing in part to the slow response of the Egyptian Army. (Some believe leadership only acted out of fear the British would mobilize to capture Cairo.)
With order restored, the weaknesses of the national government were exposed. As King Farouk I and the Wafd parliament under el-Nahhas pointed fingers, martial law became the rule. Furious, the king dissolved the legislature. The inability to produce arrests for the arson left Egyptian officials with little credibility in the eyes of both the British and local residents. Thoughts of a revolution slowly gained steam.
Six months later, a group of Egyptian soldiers calling themselves the Free Officers Movement organized a coup. Sweeping in to surround the royal palace in Alexandria on July 23, 1952, the new government would be in place until an uprising began on January 25, 2011.
Also On This Day:
1564 – The final statement from the Council of Trent is revealed, creating a distinct separation between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism
1788 – The British First Fleet establishes Sydney at Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour)
1841 – Hong Kong is formally occupied by British forces
1905 – The 3,100-Carat Cullinan Diamond is discovered at the Premier Mine outside Pretoria, South Africa
1950 – The Republic of India comes into effect
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