Egypt 1800-1936

EGYPT in The Time of Muhammad Ali

Napoleon Bonaparte, was a brief interlude, for the French never acquired full dominion or control. The grain-producing regions of Upper Egypt remained in Mameluke hands. Napoleon's invasion was too short-lived to have any lasting impact, but it marked the beginning of a renewed European interest in Egypt. In 1801 an Anglo-Ottoman force expelled the French. For the next few years, struggles between Mamelukes and Ottomans for mastery ruined the country until Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman general of Albanian origin, seized power with the cooperation of the local population. In 1805 the Ottoman sultan declared him the governor of Egypt.

Muhammad Ali, a man of genius, slowly and methodically destroyed or bought off all his opponents until he became the only source of power in the country. To gain control of all the trade routes into Egypt, he embarked on wars of expansion. He first conquered Al Hijaz (the Hejaz, now in Saudi Arabia) in 1819 and Sudan from 1820 to 1822; by 1824 he was ready to help the Ottoman sultan put down an insurrection in Greece. The European powers, however, intervened to halt Egyptian advances in Greece, and Muhammad Ali was forced to withdraw his army.

At home, Muhammad Ali encouraged the production of cotton to supply the textile mills of Europe, and he used the profits to finance industrial projects. He established a monopoly over all commodities and imposed trade barriers to nurture industry. He sent Egyptians abroad for technical education and hired experts from Europe to train his army and build his manufacturing industries (which, however, were never as successful as he hoped they would be).

In 1831 Muhammad Ali invaded Syria, thereby coming into conflict with his Turkish overlord. The Egyptians defeated the Ottoman armies, and by 1833 they were threatening the Turkish capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Once again, Russia, Britain, and France intervened, this time to protect the sultan. Muhammad Ali's forces withdrew, but he was left in control of Syria and Crete.

Egyptian expansion and control over trade routes conflicted with Britain's growing interest in the Middle East as a market for its burgeoning industrial production. The threat to the integrity of the Ottoman Empire also disturbed Britain and roused fears of Russian encroachment in the Mediterranean. For these reasons the British opposed Egypt, and when Muhammad Ali again rebelled against the sultan in 1839, they stepped in for the third time to make him back down. He was offered hereditary possession of Egypt, but had to give up his other conquests and remain an Ottoman vassal.

Bankruptcy and Foreign Control

After the death of Muhammad Ali in 1849, Egypt came increasingly under European influence. His son, Said Pasha, made some attempt to modernize the government, but left a huge debt when he died. His successor, Ismail Pasha, increased the national debt by borrowing lavishly from European bankers to develop the country and pay for the Suez Canal, which was opened in 1869. These spendthrift rulers drove the country into bankruptcy and ultimately into the control of their British and French creditors. In 1876 an Anglo-French commission took charge of Egypt's finances, and in 1879 the sultan deposed Ismail in favor of his son Tawfik Pasha. Army officers, disgusted by the government's weakness, then led a rebellion to end foreign control. Tawfik appealed to the British for help, and they occupied Egypt in 1882.

Egypt Under the British

British interest in Egypt stemmed from the Suez Canal as the short route to India. Promises to evacuate the country once order had been restored were broken, and the British army remained in occupation until 1954. Although Tawfik remained on the throne as a figurehead prince, the British consul general was the real ruler of the country. The first and most important consul general was Sir Evelyn Baring (known after 1892 as Lord Cromer).

A nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kamil, a European-educated lawyer, was backed by Tawfik's successor, Abbas II, during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Kamil agitated for self-government and an end to the British occupation but was ignored by British authorities.

In this period Egyptian agriculture was so completely dominated by cotton grown to feed the textile mills of Lancashire, England, that grain had to be imported to feed the rural population. Irrigation projects were carried out to increase the arable land, and in due course the entire debt to Britain was paid.

British promises to evacuate diminished as Egypt and the Suez Canal became an integral part of British Mediterranean defense policy. The illegal occupation was, in fact, internationally sanctioned in 1904, when France recognized British rights in Egypt in return for British acknowledgment of French rights in Morocco.

Protectorate Declared

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought nationalist activities in Egypt to an end. When Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany, Britain declared Egypt a protectorate and deposed Abbas II in favor of his uncle, Hussein Kamil, who was given the title of sultan. Legal ties between Egypt and Turkey were finally severed, and Britain promised Egypt some changes in government once the war was over.

The war years resulted in great hardship for Egyptian peasants, the fellahin, who were conscripted to dig ditches and whose livestock was confiscated by the army. Inflation was rampant. These factors were responsible for increasing resentment against the British and set the stage for the violent upheaval that was to come after World War I ended in 1918.

The Puppet Monarchy

Allied promises that former Ottoman territories would be allowed self-determination raised hopes in Egypt of independence once the war was over. A new nationalist movement, the Wafd ("delegation"), was formed in 1918 to plan for the country's future. Hopes were dashed when Britain refused to consider Egyptian needs, and Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the Wafd, was exiled. The country erupted in violent revolt, and Britain was forced to reconsider its decision. Zaghlul was released, but his efforts to get a hearing at the Paris Peace Conference were thwarted by the British. Violence continued until 1922, when Britain unilaterally declared Egypt an independent monarchy under Hussein's successor, who became king as Fuad I. The British, however, reserved the right to intervene in Egyptian affairs if their interests were threatened, thereby robbing Egypt of any real independence and allowing British control to continue unabated.

The new constitution of 1924 set up a bicameral legislature but, under pressure from the British and Fuad, gave the latter the right to nominate the premier and to suspend Parliament. The result was a tripartite struggle for mastery over Egypt involving the king, the British ambassador, and the Wafd, which was the only grass-roots party. One government after another fell after trying unsuccessfully to extract concessions from the British. In 1936, under pressures caused by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, an Anglo-Egyptian treaty was finally signed, but it continued the physical occupation of Egypt by the British army and the involvement of the British army in internal affairs.