Unique in modern
Egyptian history were the Green Shirts and the Blue Shirts,
paramilitary youth groups inspired by the success of fascist youth groups
in Europe. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk describes the political climate,
at home and abroad, which produced their rise.
Thirty years ago The Egyptian
Historical Periodical featured an article of mine entitled "Shirts of different
hues". At the time, I thought this study was the final word on the subject.
I had combed through recently declassified British documents (6)
as well as Al-Sarkha and Al-Jihad, the mouthpieces of the Green Shirts
and the Blue Shirts. However, under much more recent inspection
of contemporary editions of Al-Ahram, I realised that there was still much
more to be said.
At least the introduction
to that study still applies, which is why I will dust it off and use it
here: "For about four years, from the end of 1933 to the end of 1937, political
life in Egypt saw the rise of paramilitary youth groups known as the Green
Shirts, founded by the Young Egypt Society, and the Blue Shirts,
founded by the Wafd Party for its younger members." It was my opinion that
this phenomenon was unique in modern Egyptian history, at least as an overt
form of political activity, and that in order to understand why such groups
came into being at that particular time it was important to identify and
understand the features of the political climate that were conducive to
On the one hand, it was a
reaction to the government of Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi whose abrogation
of the 1923 Constitution and subsequent repressive policies had profoundly
rocked society. These policies in effect set the tone for an era in which
other political forces began to resort to unconventional weapons. The palace,
having failed in its bid to create effective royalist parties -- the Ittihad
(Union) in the 1920s and the Sha`ab (People's Party) in the early 1930s,
parties the Wafd Party ridiculed as "artificial" -- cast about for a new
way to solicit support and demonstrate its clout. One solution was to mobilise
a new generation of youth, a generation that palace officials believed
was totally different from that whose consciousness shaped and was shaped
by the 1919 Revolution and thus whose loyalties were naturally disposed
towards the Wafd Party.
The Wafd Party, in turn,
realised that in relying exclusively on its popularity as the "underdog"
could actually be a source of vulnerability, as was amply demonstrated
by the highly unpopular actions the Sidqi government took against it. At
the same time, Wafd leaders were alarmed by their adversaries' unconventional
use of "youth organisations", which inspired them to resort to the same
tactics. The result was the Blue Shirts, made up of Wafdist youth.
At the same time, the new
generation of youth felt that the 1919 Revolution had so far failed to
realise its goal of full national independence and sovereignty. The primary
cause of this failure, in their opinion, was internal fragmentation, which
could only be countered by the promotion of a national front, the solidity
and vitality of which depended first and foremost on Egyptian youth.
That this reaction should
take the form of societies of a militarist stripe was clearly influenced
by global political trends. Specifically, a large segment of Egyptian nationalist
opinion was strongly inspired by the successes of fascist youth groups
in Europe: the Italian bands of Black Shirts who famously marched
on Rome in 1922, enabling the Fascist Party takeover, and the Nazi storm
troopers, or Brown Shirts, whose practices of intimidation against
the adversaries of the National Socialist Party helped Hitler into power.
Also in this paper of mine
I established that a variety of interwoven factors brought all other political
forces into play with this phenomenon. The National Party, for example,
established close relations with Young Egypt Society leaders Ahmed Hussein
and Fathi Radwan. Liberal Constitutionalists, such as Mohamed Ali Alouba,
felt that an association with such youth groups would help compensate for
their party's lacking popularity. Of course, both the British high commissioner's
office and Abdeen Palace had their own reasons for getting involved.
British authorities in Cairo
feared that the spread of such paramilitary youth groups would lead to
a security breakdown and threaten the lives and interests of foreigners
in Egypt. High Commissioner Sir Miles Lampson was also disturbed by the
implications of these groups' obvious inspiration by their counterparts
in fascist Italy. The Italians at that time were the largest expatriate
community in Egypt after the Greeks and the British would not have appreciated
a potential fifth column at the time of increasing tension between London
and Rome following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. In addition, British authorities
had long striven to maintain an even keel between the two major forces
in the Egyptian political arena, the Palace and the Wafd Party. The youth
groups were threatening to throw this policy off kilter. With its overwhelming
popularity and its position in government for two out of the four years
of this period, the Wafd Party was in a virtually unassailable position.
Not only could it lend all the moral encouragement it wanted to the Blue
Shirts, it could also fund them, if not directly out of the pockets
of the Wafd Party, then out of the secret funds at the disposal of the
The palace during this period
was in an increasingly shaky position. The governing system it had brought
into being with Prime Minister Sidqi had begun to tear at the seams while
the king himself suffered a serious decline in his health, raising the
spectre of his imminent death. Palace influence reached its lowest ebb
with the fall of the Sidqi government, after which it succumbed to British
pressure to install an interim government under Tawfiq El-Nassim until
new parliamentary elections could be held, and to dismiss the king's powerful
right-hand man Zaki El-Ibrashi. Following the death of the king on 28 April
1936, it appeared that the Wafd now held the incontestable upper hand,
especially as its party leaders, after having been voted into power, were
in a position to choose the key members of the regency council. Its good
fortune was not destined to last, however. On 29 July 1937, the young King
Farouk reached the age of majority and as though in an early attempt to
assert his independence, demanded a coronation ceremony different from
the one his Wafdist regents had planned for him. Although Wafd Party leader
Mustafa El-Nahhas's opinion prevailed on this issue, the incident was an
omen of his government's impending fate. High Commissioner Lampson was
increasingly of the opinion that the Wafd was getting a little too smug.
After its success in negotiating the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 and
in bringing an end to the foreign Capitulations System the following year,
the party was riding a wave of popularity that made it feel it could simply
ignore Lampson's ultimatums. By the end of 1937, the Wafd's overbearingness
would bring the defection of two of the party's key members -- Ahmed Maher
and Mahmoud Fahmi -- and the collapse of El-Nahhas's government. With this
development, the phenomenon of Blue Shirts and shirts of other colours
began to fade until they eventually vanished altogether with the defeat
of the fascist and Nazi regimes in World War II.
Under the headline, "Shirt
colours in Egypt and the need for group organisations", an Al-Ahram editorial
of 11 July 1936 offers its opinion on the subject. On the whole, the newspaper
was supportive of the idea. It urged the government to ignore recent demands
to prohibit the wearing of coloured shirts as a political and ideological
emblem. These shirts were "the uniform of the renaissance of youth in our
times and the symbol of dedication to the service of the nation," it argued.
"The Black Shirt policy in Italy succeeded in arousing a spirit
of patriotic zeal unlike any seen for centuries... This is because it is
founded on the power of organisation, the instilling of a sense of pride
and dignity and the conquering of the feelings of weakness and timidity."
It adds, "Egypt, like other nations, still needs to organise groups that
are active among the people who are the source of authority."
Although the editorial admitted
that such groups could become tools in the hands of forces aspiring to
dictatorial rule, as occurred in Germany and Italy, it felt that they had
positive aspects from which Egyptians could benefit. Among these was their
ability to inculcate a sense of order and discipline, moral rigour and
a spirit of dedication and commitment. Bearing these advantages in mind,
"we could permit for a diversity of these groups the democratic framework
upheld by the constitution, whereby each group operating beneath the emblem
of a specific colour would perceive it as its duty to eradicate a form
of weakness in the national body. Then the value of each 'shirt' would
be assessed on the basis of the service its wearers performed for the nation."
That such organisations could work within democratic systems was evidenced
by Sir Oswald Mosley. And admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, the British
politician had described parliament as a "talk shop" and had also founded
a group that distinguished itself by a dark-coloured shirt. On this phenomenon,
a British minister said, "Let Sir Mosley say what he wants and wear the
colour of shirts he likes. His fascism will always be too weak to harm
our long established democracy."
In a subsequent article,
the newspaper expressed its hope that the government would not disband
the youth groups on the pretext of maintaining public order. "There are
soldiers and police whose purpose it is to serve the nation by maintaining
law and order, not to subject the nation to the order of the police and
the department of public security."
Encouraged by the Al-Ahram
position, Faculty of Law student Mohamed Zuhdi Afifi contributed a lengthy
article on "Fascism in Italy". Before the rise of this movement, he wrote,
Italy was in the throes of chaos. The fascists seized upon this situation
to march on Rome where they easily forced themselves into power. Soon after,
Mussolini issued his famous declaration, "The means to power is not the
will of the people but force. Force is the foundation of the law and it
imposes the law." Afifi then states that Mussolini restored order to Italy,
rooted out communism which had almost torn the country apart and brought
workers' strikes to a halt so that business could resume in full vigour.
The Italian dictator further brought discipline to the ranks of the Italian
people and instilled in them a new spirit. They had come to look to him
as the reviver of ancient Rome. "The new order has done Italy a great service,
having remedied the lethal ills from which it had suffered," Afifi concluded.
Well after the Blue Shirts
became an established phenomenon, National Party leader Hafez Ramadan protested
that he had fathered the idea of the Blue Shirts, but that the Wafd
had stolen the idea from him. In 1932, he wrote, he had founded the Falcons,
an association for fostering the physical, mental and moral uplifting of
youth. He had chosen the falcon as its emblem because "this bird is known
for its energy, as it leaves its nest before the rising of the sun, and
because it symbolises courage and strength, and because ancient Egyptians
depicted it with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. It thus represents
the unity and solidarity of the Egyptian people." The members of this association,
which he insisted was entirely non-partisan, had been wearing blue shirts
for years. "It never occurred to them to lay claim to that dress code even
though this is what they wore when, in the era of those governments formed
since 1932, they engaged in physical training or sporting outings in Wadi
Hof, at the foot of the Pyramids or in the barren desert. Nor did it ever
occur to any of those governments to outlaw the Falcons because they themselves
had never contemplated serving as a tool for intimidating and pressuring
As though in response to
this letter, Al-Ahram dispatched a correspondent to interview Blue Shirts
leader Ahmed Bilal on the aims and structures of this organisation.
The idea, Bilal relates, dated to the student uprising of November 1935
in demand for the restoration of the 1923 Constitution. The student demonstrations
had much in common with military organisations. "We would march in organised
files that filled the breadth of the street. At the head of each file was
a student officer. By the time the uprising ended, we had come up with
the idea of the blue shirt worn by students and workers." The blue shirt,
he continued, became the symbol of unity and equality among youth, whether
they were rich or poor, young or old, educated or not. This, however, did
not obviate the need to screen potential members on the basis of moral
rectitude, character, patriotism and other qualifications. The "soldiers"
of this organisation were not permitted to bear arms other than a billy
club worn on the belt as a symbol of military order. To this could be added
a knife of the sort used by scouts, taken on camping excursions. Knives,
guns or other weapons forbidden by law or requiring a special license were
forbidden to Blue Shirt members.
In "Shirts of different hues"
I discussed the adversarial relationship between the Blue Shirts
and Green Shirts and the clashes that invariably resulted in the
withdrawal of the latter, leaving the field open to the former. However,
contemporary Al-Ahram editions lend a sense of immediacy that no academic
study could convey. At the same time, I did not delve into the relationship
between the Blue Shirts and the Wafd Party or the Wafdist government headed
by El-Nahhas, having accepted the assumption that the paramilitary youth
organisation was merely a means with which the Wafd intimidated its adversaries
who resorted to the same tactics. The assumption was an oversimplification
of reality, as we discover in Al-Ahram.
On numerous occasions, the
Shirts displayed an initiative that indicated that the Wafd did not
have as tight a control on the reigns of this organisation as it thought.
These occasions proved to be extremely embarrassing for the Wafd government,
incurring as they did the scorn of the British high commissioner and incensed
the opposition press. Indeed, even the predominantly Wafdist parliament
was moved to question the government on the activities of this organisation.
One of the most notorious
outbreaks of violence took place in the summer of 1937 in Damanhur. Young
Egypt Society leader Ahmed Hussein had filed suit in the Damanhur court
in defence of the right of his group to open a club in that city.
On the day he appeared, "a
huge crowd surrounded the court building from all sides and began to shout
in support of El-Nahhas and the Wafd Party." The Al-Ahram report goes on
to say that the police raced to the rescue of the beleaguered Young Egypt
leader, bringing in a police van into which they bundled Hussein and sped
off to Alexandria. Even so, a segment of the crowd chased after the police
car, throwing stones and bricks at it and succeeding in breaking its rear
window. Most of these were Blue Shirts, of course.
One evening in Cairo's ancient
Al-Gamaliya quarter, a street sweeper was busily doing his job when a gust
of wind blew some of the sand and dust he was collecting into the Blue
Shirt training camp. One of the youths rushed out of the camp and physically
assaulted the sweeper, inflicting several wounds. The injured worker reported
the incident to the police and when an officer came to the camp to summon
the perpetrator, a fight broke out between the police and the Blue Shirts.
The police overcame their adversaries, broke into the camp and arrested
the street sweeper's assailant and four others. Then, another skirmish
erupted outside the Al-Gamaliya police station, following which nine more
Blue Shirts were arrested. The 14 were brought to trial and sentenced to
fines varying from 100 to 200 piastres. Some were able to pay and were
released. Those who could not afford the fine asked to serve time in detention
instead, for which purpose they were transferred to Al-Sayida Zeinab police
In Damietta, a band of Blue
Shirts passing by the ceremonial tent the Alayli household had erected
for the celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet fell
into a brawl with some of those inside the tent. Police arrived to separate
the brawlers, after which the contending parties marched off shouting assorted
slogans. "Six people were injured and sent to the emergency clinic to have
their wounds treated," the Al-Ahram report concludes.
In Minia, two rival Blue
Shirt gangs engaged in a brawl leaving two of them seriously injured.
One of them, Mahmoud Rashed Shirkas, died of his wounds. The other was
permanently disfigured. The animosity between the two groups stemmed from
a power struggle that had begun several months earlier.
Meanwhile, the Wafd Party
was heading for crisis. In forming his fourth government on 1 August 1937,
El-Nahhas excluded a major pillar of the Wafd, Mahmoud El-Nuqrashi. The
rift in party ranks that this triggered naturally rebounded on the Blue
Shirts. El-Nuqrashi himself called for the dissolution of the Blue
Shirt bands in Cairo and the provinces, and others took up his call. Prime
among these was Mohamed Kamel El-Damati who had broken off from the Blue
Shirt general command headed by Bilal in order to form the General-Command
of the Independent League. In response to El-Nuqrashi's call, the Damati
faction had a ceremonial burning of their blue shirts in the league's
camp in Abbasiya.
The uncontrolled outbreaks
of violence combined with the internal debacle of the Wafd had severely
undermined the party's moral credibility. In the face of attacks in both
the Egyptian and British press, Wafd leaders began to feel they had to
act in the face of the youth groups that were causing them such embarrassment.
In the Manchester Guardian we read that in response to the growing anxiety
among both Egyptian and foreign circles in Cairo over the coloured shirt
movement and over the rapid spread of the Blue Shirts in particular, "Wafd
leaders have recently made it clear that they are disinclined to continue
carrying a child that has shot up so quickly." Similarly, The Daily Telegraph
reports that El-Nahhas had prohibited the Blue Shirts from parading
in the streets in their official dress. Apparently, the organisation had
gone even beyond the Wafd leader's control, for the newspaper adds that
the Blue Shirts obeyed his instructions for a while but soon were seen
again, "carrying truncheons and knives and claiming that they were above
In parliament, Ibrahim Desouqi
Abaza confronted the minister of interior with the following protest: "The
country is crying out in anger and pain at the illicit and illegal acts
being perpetrated by the Blue Shirts. They abuse public order in
order to sew corruption, attack people individually and in groups, and
trample the liberties guaranteed by the constitution." Increasingly on
the defensive, the government had to do something to bring the Blue
Shirts under control. It was decided to place them directly under the
command of El-Nahhas, to forbid them from carrying weapons of any sort
or to demonstrate in the street or appear in public wearing blue shirts.
In addition, the government issued a new statute regulating the creation
and activities of such youth organisations and it initiated prosecution
proceedings against group leaders for the crimes they and their followers
Apparently, such actions
had little immediate effect, for in a speech on 17 November 1937, El-Nahhas
complained of "those who flout law and order in order to cause unrest."
Tougher action was required. At El-Nahhas's instructions, the Ministry
of Interior began to regularly patrol the Blue Shirt camps, sending
them a clear signal that their days were numbered. The end came sooner
than expected. On the day before the end of 1937 the El-Nahhas government
A Diwan of contemporary life (602)
August 15th (Alexandria) 1936
Left the Residency at 10.45
a.m. for a farewell audience with Regents at Ras-el-Tin Palace at 11 o'clock.
They were all in extremly good fettle. They talked once more at great length
about Nahhas his abominable unpunctuality: they also spoke of his increased
s headedness. Mohamed Aly referred to the increasing predominan Blue
Shirt organisation. He felt it was imperative something sho done to
check it; I said I quite agreed but I didn't quite see who was going to
have it stopped. If one analysed the history of the creation of Shirts
it became clear that it had been a Wafd counter-move to the organisation
of the Green Shirts. Now the thing had reached dimensions which were certainly
not easy to handle, at least not for any outsider but I thought that all
these para-military organisations ought to be stopped.
November 24th (Cairo) 1936
10.15 a.m. Keown-Boyd. Nothing
very special: the only item of shop he brought up was the question of employing
certain Egyptian members of his staff in the European Dept.
We also just touched on the
question of the Blue Shirts; and I told him that the British Government
were seriously worried at the outlook. An organisation was being created
here which might very easily get out of hand and take charge of the situation;
and I mentioned in particular the draft bill now before Parliament in England
forbidding the wearing of uniforms, etc. by any political association.
I knew that in connection with that measure the British Government had
been collecting information from all Capitals as to the practice followed
in various foreign countries. It occurred to me that this information might
prove useful to the Egyptian Government. Of course we all knew what was
the practice in Germany and in Italy, but I hoped that Egypt was not going
to follow their example. Wassif Ghali laughed and said that the information
I had mentioned would certainly be very useful and though he did not say
so I gained the distinct impression that he himself doesn't at all favour
this blue shirt business.