In the years following World War II, Egyptian anti-colonial activists wrote tracts and joined demonstrations protesting the continued British occupation of the Suez Canal Zone. In 1951, these organizing efforts culminated in a mass movement: a diverse array of clubs, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad’s Youth, Daughters of the Nile, Young Egypt, and the Workers’ Vanguard rallied together to demand British evacuation. As students formed “Liberation Battalions,” converted campuses into training fields, and boarded busses to fight in the Canal Zone, Egyptian newspapers and magazines celebrated the arrival of the “1951 Revolution.” Dramatically, however, this revolution came to a crashing halt with the Cairo Fire of 26 January 1952. “Black Saturday” gave the government casus belli to launch a counter-revolutionary crackdown in the name of public safety—and six months later, the Free Officers launched a successful military coup that toppled the monarchy. Paving over memories of the failed 1951 Revolution, the new regime quickly constructed its own myth of the glorious “1952 Revolution”; this revolutionary myth would cast a long shadow over subsequent histories of modern Egypt.
Historians began to reassess these narratives in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars like Selma Botman, Brynjar Lia, and Joel Gordon reconstructed the rise of the Egyptian communist movement, tracked the organizing strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and studied the Nasser regime’s revolutionary mythmaking. However, the Canal Struggle and “1951 Revolution” have remained relatively unstudied as a revolutionary moment in Egyptian history. In an important corrective, this paper explores the failed 1951 Revolution from the perspective of recovered protest tracts, club circulars, Egyptian newspapers, popular poetry, and activist accounts of events on the ground. Focusing on the question of emotional politics and engaging with a new generation of theory on emotions in revolutionary movements, the paper tracks Egyptian efforts to mobilize emotions against the British. As internal Egyptian debates about “emotional liberation” show, activists engaged in many forms of emotional labor (forging a community of sentiment with members of the 1919 generation, appealing to international audiences, and disciplining the emotions of the movement to undercut British charges of fanaticism). Studying these processes proves informative for a variety of contexts, shedding light on broader questions of how activists exercise agency while participating in highly emotive movements, how powerbrokers inscribe emotions in power relations and imagined “emotional geographies,” and how these understanding have guided understandings of “Middle Eastern emotions.”