Egyptian cab drivers protest colonial animal laws, 1906-1907

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Time Period:  
April 18,
Location and Goals
Primary: repeal of the animal cruelty laws passed by the government with heavy support from the British RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)*

Later in the campaign, nationalists began to see the campaign as one of oppressed Egyptians vs. British imperialists, and so for them and their sympathizers the campaign took on a second goal of increasing Egyptian sovereignty.


Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century was a fast growing city under British control. Many of the British in Cairo saw themselves as “civilizing” or “modernizing” the city as part of “the white man’s burden” to help those “lesser” than him. One such group that sought to do this was the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). The RSPCA opened a branch in Cairo in the 1890’s, where animal cruelty prevention efforts had not gotten off to a very successful start. They did build a hospital to treat animals in the city.

In the eyes of many of RSPCA's members, animal-drawn cab drivers were the epitome of all that was wrong with Cairo. Even though the Cairo tram had been built around the same time that cab drivers exploded in number in Cairo, they saw the latter as more civilized. The RSPCA took aim at the cab drivers, whom it viewed as among the worst at treating animals properly.

Major Jarvis was appointed to the position of special inspector with RSPCA backing sometime at the beginning of the 20th century. His job was to prosecute the cab drivers and others who treated animals poorly by arresting the people and impounding the animals. Cab drivers were not held in very high esteem by most colonial residents of Cairo, who thought that cabbies tended to be dumb, mean and incompetent drivers. In fact, the Egyptian bourgeoisie also looked down on the cab drivers as representing a part of Egypt that was not part of the new century.

The crackdown headed by Major Jarvis led to the impounding of numerous animals and arrests of many cab drivers as well. These cab drivers lost their only source of income and their animals; often times they could no longer provide for their families. Police also beat cab drivers severely, sometimes to death. Initially, they directed their anger at one another, alleging, for example, that if their horse’s stable owner had done a better job, then the horse would not have been impounded.

Soon, the cab drivers began to feel that the blame actually fell on the regulations and the enforcement of those regulations. A group of cab drivers sent an anonymous petition to the government in November of 1906, asking that the police be more restrained and documenting many of the injustices done to the cab drivers. Groups continued to send in petitions, sometimes written by women whose husbands and sons had been imprisoned or fined.

Petitions seemed to do little good for the cab drivers as enforcement of the regulations continued and intensified at the beginning of 1907. The cab drivers had no allies it seemed and little organization with which they could oppose the regulations. However, somehow they managed to organize well enough so that on April 18th between 2,000 and 5,000 cab drivers went on strike.

During their strike on April 18th, some violence did occur. This violence unfortunately mars the protests, and was directed at a range of people including school children and tram riders. However, this violence does not seem to have been part of the plan, given that the cab drivers had never threatened violence before. Furthermore, a contemporary account of al-Ahram says “mixed in with [the cabmen] were fanatics who are considered [mere] street clamorers” (173). The police at times stood by during the violence and even released a number of prisoners.

A police official gave a spoken promise to the protesters that day, saying that owners of sick horses would be fined, but not imprisoned. Nonetheless, most striking cab drivers continued to protest and there was some more violence. At 8pm, an agreement was made that the government would give four concessions. The most unpopular officials would be fired; owners of livestock would be allowed to treat their animals for minor injuries; drivers and owners would not be imprisoned for serious injuries to their animals; and traffic violations would be punished with fines, rather than loss of license. These concessions were sufficient for the cab drivers, who mostly went back to work the next day.

Research Notes

Not Known

Chalcraft, John T. The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories: Crafts and Guilds in Egypt, 1863-1914. New York: State University of New York, 2004. Print. Especially pages 164 – 175

It was only possible to find one source for this case, although the author of that source refers to many articles from the Egyptian Gazette and other Egyptian newspapers during the period of the campaign. These sources were unavailable to the researcher.

Additional Notes: 
The animal cruelty laws that the cab drivers were protesting can make this sound like a more questionable case. It appears that the RSPCA that lobbied for these laws really wanted to improve the lives of Cairo’s horses and pack animals, which probably were indeed often in poor health. However, the law forced many cab drivers out of business and crippled many of them financially. The laws were imposed with little thought for how cab drivers could adapt to these changes. Furthermore, the regulations felt to many cab drivers like another case of the British intruding on their lives. The point of this case study is not to repudiate animal cruelty laws, but to show how the cab drivers protested a poorly implemented idea.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (16/05/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jasper Goldberg 12/12/2009