Home Front Egypt: Famine, Disease, and Death During the Great War

My monograph project, Home Front Egypt is a social history of hunger, examining the impact of World War I on the Egyptian peasantry (primarily agricultural workers–the fellahin–and the urban poor.

The official history of the Egyptian nation that was formulated in the 1930s under King Fu’ad I posits that the 1919 uprising was nothing less than “The Egyptian Revolution of 1919,” a moment in which all sectors of society—rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, urban and rural—came together to rally against British occupation of Egypt (1882-1923) and in support of Egyptian independence.

At the same time, the lowest strata of Egyptian society has long been considered uninterested in politics, although they widely participated in the uprising. Since the 1980s, historians have sought additional causes for widespread support of the revolt across social lines. Studies have looked at, for example, organized Marxist movements among middle class laborers (Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman), at the role of urban factory workers and guilds (Joel Chalcraft), and the colonial political economy (Aaron Jakes). Kyle J. Anderson has examined recruitment into the Egyptian Labour and Camel Corps (ELC and ECC). All have partially touched on the lowest stratum, but more work remains to be done.

Home Front Egypt is a pre-revolutionary history exploring how the war impacted the poorest and rural Egyptians. I argue that government food management policies caused food scarcity, leading to malnutrition, disease, and civilian suffering during the war, and that these pressures contributed to the politicization of the peasant class. Using government price data, the Egyptian press, and archival material, I show how government policies intended to ensure a consistent supply of “primary need” commodities for the civilian population failed to achieve their goal–I demonstrate that the average Egyptian family was unable to afford sufficient food by the autumn of 1916 and spent the rest of the war in a stage of increasing hunger.

This period was also one of violence. Food collection by central authorities took place under the threat of structural violence (if violent actions did not actually take place), leaving little for those who worked the land. For a variety of reasons—explored in the book—small agricultural landholders were unable to subsist on their own production and were not insulated from market inflation and food scarcity.

I trace the impact of the resultant malnutrition by examining the dramatic increase in epidemic diseases, which culminated in the “Spanish influenza” pandemic, which killed nearly two percent of the country’s population in the last two months of 1918. The Spanish influenza in particular has been largely omitted from the history of Egypt as it disproportionately impacted the rural poor, and I spend some time examining the epidemic’s heretofore unexplored impact on Egyptian society.

I argue that the intense pressure that wartime famine, disease, and death exerted on Egypt’s most vulnerable demographic constitutes a period of what environmental historian Rob Nixon has described as “slow violence,” a passive violence that plays out over years. The lens of slow violence allows us to view the 200,000 Egyptians (out of 13 million) who died from disease and hunger during the war as casualties rather than collateral damage, without deliberate action or intent on the part of government actors. Seen in this light, the behavior of the peasantry in 1919 take on a different and more urgent meaning.

My work in the environmental-medical turn in Egyptian history echoes recent scholarship that explores the experience of the Egyptian underclasses during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Home Front Egypt will contribute to this historiographical turn by exploring the evolving nature of state-citizen relations during World War I (itself an understudied period of Egyptian history). I also engage with scholarship on the impact of the war in colonial settings, noting the similarities between Egypt and locations as diverse as Guinea, Nigeria, India, and Indochina where similar policies enacted by British and French colonial authorities yielded similar results.