EGYPT (Western Colonialism)

Egypt’s first military confrontation with a modern Western power came with the arrival of the French expedition of 1798. Led personally by Napoleon Bonaparte the campaign aimed to strike at British trade and imperial interests but was also motivated by romantic notions of Egypt. French forces easily defeated the Egyptian Mamluks, first in Alexandria, then again outside Cairo at the Battle of the Pyramids. In time, however, the occupation provoked strong popular resistance that, in combination with joint action by Ottoman troops and the British fleet, forced the French to withdraw after only three years. Although militarily a failure, the French expedition had a more lasting cultural and technological impact by impressing Egyptians with the superiority of modern European warfare and science.

Following the French withdrawal, the Ottomans sought to restore order to the country. After an internal power struggle, Muhammad cAli, an officer of the Albanian regiment sent to Egypt by the sultan, was appointed governor of Egypt in 1805. Over the following decades he consolidated his control over the country, established a dynasty, and laid the foundations of the modern Egyptian state. Muhammad Ali embarked on an extensive program of modernization, the central pillar of which was military reform. Unable to recruit mercenaries from the Caucasus or transform Sudanese slaves into modern soldiers, from 1822 he began to form a new army by conscripting the native Muslim population, using Turko-Circassian officers trained by European instructors. He also developed artillery, engineering, and cavalry corps, as well as a large navy, so that by 1840 Egypt boasted the strongest military force in the region. Initially employing his forces at the behest of the sultan first in Arabia, then later in Greece during the 1820s, in 1831 he began to pursue his own imperial designs by occupying Syria and ultimately threatening Istanbul itself. Under considerable political pressure from the Europeans, particularly the British, who felt their interests threatened, Muhammad ‘Ali was forced to withdraw from Syria and reduce his army to a modest eighteen thousand men under the Treaty of London signed in 1841.

Domestically, Muhammad ‘Ali presided over a significant program of government reorganization establishing a series of departments that would provide the basis of the modern ministries. The country was divided into administrative districts and provincial officials were given responsibility for conscription, taxation, security, public works, agriculture, and industrial development. Turko-Circassians were favored in the higher offices, with Arabic speakers occupying the more junior positions. Due to the need for competent administrators, a series of student missions to Europe was sponsored, the first in 1826 to Paris, where future state bureaucrats received a modern education. A number of specialized local institutions were also set up to provide training in administration, accountancy, medicine, and foreign languages. Reforms were instituted in the systems of taxation and land tenure. In 1814 tax farming had been abolished and villages made responsible for taxes to be paid directly to the state. The granting of land to members of the ruling family, various military men, civil officials, notables, and tribal chiefs developed into a form of ownership dominated by large landowners. Cultivation of the land, especially of cotton, was encouraged, and the irrigation system was kept in good repair. A monopoly system forced producers to sell to the government at lower than market price and guaranteed state revenues. Assisted by improvements in communication and transport, trade with Europe increased, displacing the Ottoman Empire in economic importance. Muhammad ‘Ali’s industrial policy was less successful, though scholars are divided on how much this was due to local factors, such as the lack of a skilled management and workforce, investment capital, and cheap power, and how much to European competition. In 1841 the monopoly system and local industries were dismantled when Egypt was forced to accede to the Anglo-Ottoman trade agreement. Thus, while Egypt under Muhammad ‘Ali was transformed into a centralized state with increased resources and power, at the same time the way was opened to greater penetration by European political and economic interests.

After the death of Muhammad ‘Ali in 1848, his heirs, with the exception of ‘Abbas (1848-1854), continued his policy of modernization. During the reigns of Sa’id (1854-1863) and Ismail (1863-1879), both of whom were European-educated, infrastructure projects proceeded apace. The first railway in Africa was built from Cairo to Alexandria in 1854; a telegraph system and a government postal service linked Egypt to Europe. The centerpiece of this program was the construction of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Completed in 1869 and run by the privately owned Suez Canal Company (though the British government was a major shareholder), the canal enhanced Egypt’s international and strategic importance. An ardent Europeanizer dedicated to the idea that Egypt was part of Europe, Ismail transformed modern Cairo into a European city, encouraged the establishment of European educational institutions, and favored the adoption of European dress among the elite.

Egypt was enjoying increasing prosperity during this period from export earnings, principally from its cotton crop, which was particularly profitable during the years of the American Civil War when Egypt was the principal source of supply for European textile manufacturers.

However, the great cost of development projects caused the Egyptian state to sink seriously into debt. Ismail’s extravagant personal lifestyle added to the financial burden, as did the expense he incurred to secure the title of Khedive and the right to contract loans without authority from the sultan. In order to placate European banks and bondholders, the Egyptian government was forced to reorganize its finances and accede to various political demands. The system of Dual Control established in 1877 gave British and French representatives the authority to supervise government expenditure and revenue and in August 1878 Ismail’s agreement to the formation of a ”European cabinet” under Nubar Pasha that included an English finance minister and a French minister of public works extended European financial and political control. In June 1879 European pressure on the Ottoman sultan saw the dismissal of Ismail and his replacement by his more malleable son, Tawfiq. The increasing influence of European states on the governance of Egypt prompted a reaction from alienated local military officers and civil officials. In September 1881 a group of nationalist officers, led by Ahmad Urabi, surrounded the palace and insisted on the formation of a constitutional government headed by Sharif Pasha. A joint note issued by the British and French governments in the following January isolated Sharif and made European intervention against Urabi increasingly likely. When a series of riots broke out in Alexandria in June 1882, British warships anchored offshore bombarded the city and landed troops to restore order to the country. Now war minister, Urabi sought to resist British forces but his troops were defeated at Tel al-Kabir on September 13. Egypt was now under British occupation.


Although the declared aim of the British government was to stay in Egypt only for as long as it took to put Egyptian finances in order, the occupation would last seventy-four years. Until 1914 it was maintained by a small army of occupation numbering twelve thousand men and by the appointment of British officers to senior positions in the Egyptian army. British advisers took up prominent positions in the civil administration. In 1905 British nationals occupied 42 percent of higher posts with only 28 percent held by Egyptians, and the remaining number by Syrians and Armenians. Political control was maintained through the Egyptian government. Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring), the British consul-general from 1883 to 1907, exercised considerable authority in the choice of ministers who, like Mustafa Fahmi Pasha, prime minister from 1891 to 1893 and 1895 to 1908, were mostly drawn from the Turko-Circassian elite. Tawfiq proved a weak ruler and although his son ‘Abbas Hilmi II tried to exercise greater independence of action he was consistently outmaneuvered by Cromer. Because Egypt was still formally part of the Ottoman Empire during this period, Britain maintained a certain legal deference toward Istanbul but with the outbreak of the First World War and the Ottoman decision to join Germany, Britain formally annexed Egypt as a protectorate in 1914.


British rule emphasized economic rectitude. Financial arrangements were quickly put in place to pay off Egypt’s national debt, including the costs of damage caused during Urabi’s uprising. Economic policy sought to develop Egypt as a source of raw materials for British industry. To this end cotton production was intensified, effectively making Egypt a monocultural economy. An active public works program was pursued that maintained and extended irrigation works, including a system of barrages and dams (the first Aswan Dam was completed in 1902), as well as the road and rail networks. The cotton crop was largely responsible for the transformation from a subsistence to a monetary economy—by 1914 it accounted for 93 percent of Egyptian export earnings—but this led to economic growth rather than development. The industrialization of the country was neglected and low tariffs made competition with foreign imports difficult. Little investment was made in public education and literacy rates remained low. The result was the continued domination of large landholders and an increase in the number of landless peasants. The negative impact of these policies would later be central to the future economic crisis.

British colonialism also came to have a significant social influence in Egypt. Historically Egyptian society had always been ethnically and religiously pluralist, a tendency manifested by significant Christian and Jewish communities living alongside the majority Muslim population. During the nineteenth century Muhammad ‘Ali had encouraged many with relevant skills to migrate to the country in order to assist in its development. Armenians, Greeks, Maltese, and Italians, many of them leaving difficult circumstances at home, arrived in large numbers to take advantage of the economic opportunities. As European influence increased, and especially after 1882, other Europeans from Britain, France, and Belgium came to form a significant part of the bourgeoisie. They benefited from the Capitulations, the system of legal and economic privileges granted by the Ottomans to those with European nationality, but also from the British policy of favoring the use of foreigners in government posts. Under the British, pluralism became increasingly identified with colonial rule, an association reinforced by the British government’s arrogation to itself of the role of protector of foreign interests in the country. This policy extended to the Copts, the local Christian population, who were in government employment. Indeed, some historians regard this practice as a significant cause in the development of the religious tensions between Muslims and Copts that surfaced during the first decade of the twentieth century and reappeared at various times thereafter.


After the crushing of the Urabist movement in 1882, it took more than a decade for an Egyptian nationalist movement to stir. In the late 1890s a young lawyer, Mustafa Kamil, with support from ‘Abbas Hilmi II, began to campaign for Egyptian independence and the evacuation of British forces. In December 1907 he formed the National Party as a vehicle for nationalist activity. Around the same time, the more moderate Umma Party, led by Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, was also established. Unwilling to countenance a change in Egypt’s status, Britain clamped down on any expressions of nationalist agitation. After World War I (1914-1918), Egyptian leaders, expecting the loyalty of the country to be rewarded, renewed their calls for independence and sought to send an Egyptian Wafd (delegation) to the Paris peace conference in 1919. When the British refused to permit the presence of an Egyptian delegation, a series of uprisings, known as the 1919 or National Revolution, broke out throughout Egypt, protesting the continued British occupation. The British responded by deporting to Malta the members of the Wafd, now the de facto nationalist leadership, including its leader Sa’d Zaghlul. A commission of enquiry headed by Lord Milner, sent to Egypt in November 1919 to report on the situation, made little progress because of an Egyptian boycott. Unrest and extended negotiations continued into 1921 without resolution. Finally, to break the deadlock, the British government declared a unilateral settlement on February 22, 1922, which granted Egypt self-government with its own constitution, monarchy, and a parliamentary system, but which reserved to the British government four areas of authority: the security of imperial communications, the defense of Egypt, the protection of local foreign interests and minorities, and the status and future of Sudan.

The new constitutional arrangements inaugurated the so-called liberal period (1922-1952), but even within the terms of the settlement there were significant limitations on the Egyptian government. The constitution gave the monarchy considerable authority, regularly exercised by King Fu’ad (1922-1936), to install a series of minority governments and keep the mass-supported Wafd out of office. In addition, it was soon evident that the British continued to wield a great deal of informal influence. In November 1924, following the assassination of Sir Lee Stack, the commander of the Egyptian Army, the British high commissioner, Sir Edmund Allenby, issued a harsh ultimatum to the Egyptian government. So humiliating were its terms that Zaghlul, now prime minister, felt obliged to resign. This pattern of British interference continued, particularly during the term of Sir Miles Lampson (later Lord Killearn) as British high commissioner (1933-1946). Throughout the interwar period the question of the legal relationship between Egypt and Britain remained an active political issue. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, a mutual defense pact signed in 1936 and prompted by the increasing threat of war, provided the legal basis for the British use of Egypt as a base of operations during World War II (1939-1945). It also, however, included a British agreement to withdraw from Egypt in twenty years’ time and pledged that Britain would support Egyptian demands to abolish the Capitulations at the Montreux Conference in 1937. Nevertheless, wartime brought confrontation. In February 1942, concerned by the pro-Axis sentiments of the Egyptian government of ‘Ali Mahir, Lampson ordered British tanks to surround Abdin Palace and forced King Faruq to install a pro-Allied Wafdist government. The event vividly demonstrated the illusion of Egyptian independence and served thereafter as a source of humiliation for Egyptian nationalists.

Despite the political differences between the Wafd and the pro-palace parties the Egyptian elite was drawn from the traditional landowning class and promoted little substantial economic or social reform. The establishment of Misr Bank by Tal ‘at Harb in 1920 was an attempt to nurture Egyptian-owned industry and promote a national bourgeoisie in place of the comprador bourgeoisie, but this approach had only limited success. The new political forces from both the left and right that would more effectively challenge colonialism and ultimately the legitimacy of the traditional ruling class came from other quarters. The Egyptian Communist Party, first established in 1922, was quickly suppressed by the government. The movement reemerged in the 1940s, however, and came to play an influential role after the war with its radical, secular, and anti-imperialist program. Appealing to a very different constituency, the Muslim Brotherhood had been formed by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 as a reaction to the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 and the increasing Western influence in the Islamic world. By the 1940s it had developed into a significant political force articulating a program of Islamic modernism. Another political party, Young Egypt, formed by a group of university students in the early 1930s, combined nationalist, fascist, and Islamic elements.

The period from the end of World War II until 1952 was one of increasing political instability and social tension in Egypt. Large public protests were held against the continued British occupation. In February 1946 a demonstration organized by a coalition of students and workers ended with the death of a number of protestors, caused by British action. Political violence grew with the assassination of two Egyptian prime ministers, Ahmad Mahir (d. 1945) and Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi (d. 1948), as well as Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949). The defeat of Egyptian forces by the Israelis in the Palestine War of 1948 to 1949, compounded by a scandal regarding the inferior state of Egyptian arms, added to the atmosphere of crisis. Despite the demands of a growing population, a series of governments failed to deal with Egypt’s pressing economic difficulties, particularly the urgent need for land reform (2 percent of the population now owned 50 percent of the land), the lack of industrial development, and the low rates of literacy. The last Wafdist government elected at the beginning of 1950 was in many ways the last throw of the old political order. However, it proved cautious and unwilling to effectively tackle the crisis even if it finally gave way to public pressure and abrogated the 1936 treaty in October 1951. Large demonstrations against the British occupation were held in Cairo and Alexandria during the following month. On January 25, 1952, a gun battle broke out between Egyptian police and British troops in Ismailia in which a large number of policemen died. An anti-British riot in Cairo the following day, ”Black Saturday,” resulted in a fire, begun by parties unknown, that burnt down much of the modern city center. King Faruq responded by dismissing the Wafdist government and a series of weak cabinets followed during the first half of 1952.


Within the Egyptian military the continuing state of national crisis, the impotence of the political class, and the debacle in Palestine had politicized some junior officers. In late 1949 Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir formed a group called the Free Officers, many of whom were members of the first class of Egyptian graduates of the military academy; though not united in their political views, all were agreed on a broad nationalist program. On the night of July 22-23 the Free Officers seized power in a virtually bloodless coup later known as the July Revolution. The new regime was made up of a group of young officers, later formalized as the Revolutionary Command Council, fronted by a more senior officer, Brigadier General Muhammad Nagib, although Nasir was always the dominant figure. Having immediately sent the unpopular Faruq into exile, the new government embarked on a program of land reform and reconfiguration of the political order, banning all political parties in January 1953 and declaring Egypt a republic in June of the same year.

Initially, the new regime was received favorably by Western governments and particularly the United States. On October 19, 1954, after extended negotiations, Britain and Egypt reached an accord that provided for the withdrawal of British troops from Egyptian soil. (The last troops departed in June 1956.) However, Egyptian foreign policy was beginning to give Washington and London cause for concern. Early in 1955 Egypt refused to join the pro-Western Baghdad Pact and in April Nasir played a leading role in the establishment of the non-aligned movement at the Bandung Conference. More alarming for the Western alliance was Nasir’s decision, after failing to purchase arms from the West, to conclude the Czech arms deal in September 1955. These concerns in part explained the American decision to withdraw its offer to finance the building of the Aswan High Dam in July 1956. Nasir’s response, the announcement of the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company on July 26, prompted the Suez crisis, which ended with Egypt in control of the canal. This outcome enhanced Nasir’s international status, particularly in the Arab world, and provided a clear sign of Britain’s imperial decline. Suez also signaled a closer relationship between Egypt and the Soviet Union, which had agreed to fund the Aswan Dam and assist in the modernization of Egyptian military forces. However, the move toward the Soviet Union was more pragmatic than ideological in motivation. Arab nationalism was the most critical ideological element of the Nasir regime. The creation in 1958 of the United Arab Republic, the union between Egypt and Syria, seemed to embody Pan-Arab aspirations, but the merger lasted only three years partly because of Egyptian unwillingness to genuinely share power. The episode made clear that, despite all the Pan-Arab rhetoric, there were considerable political differences within the Arab world. In fact, Nasir’s call to revolution would bring him into conflict with conservative Arab monarchies and other republican regimes, such as the one in Iraq, which sought to steer their own course; it would also lead to a civil war in Yemen. Nasir continued to be preeminent in the Arab world throughout the 1960s, and sponsored progressive movements throughout the Arab world, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In the domestic arena, Egyptian policy turned significantly to the left in the early 1960s with its espousal of Arab socialism. A series of decrees in July 1961 nationalized a wide range of banks, shipping companies, and industries and economic policy promoted industrialization and economic self-sufficiency. The following year the National Charter provided a blueprint for the government’s political program and established the Arab Socialist Party as the official political party. In 1965, after a government campaign of severe repression, the Egyptian Communist Party agreed to dissolve itself in return for some of its members receiving important positions in the regime. However, the Muslim Brotherhood continued to be dealt with harshly and many of its members were imprisoned. These economic and political changes brought significant social transformations as well. In the interwar period Egypt had continued to attract foreigners, many of whom continued to occupy significant social and economic positions after 1945. In the course of the 1950s and early 1960s this population substantially departed the country. This was partly because of external events, such as the Suez crisis, which saw the expulsion of British and French nationals, many of them long-time residents. As Israel asserted itself in the region the position of the local Jewish population became increasingly precarious. Other ethnic communities, such as the Greeks and Armenians, while never expelled, found that the heightened Pan-Arab rhetoric and nationalizations made life more difficult, even as opportunities for migration to the United States, Canada, and Australia made the idea of leaving more palatable. The result was an Egyptian postcolonial society that lost a considerable amount of human expertise and was less pluralist and more overtly Arab in character.

The spectacular defeat of Egypt by the Israelis in the 1967 War fatally wounded the pretensions of the Arab nationalist project and though Nasir remained president until his death in September 1970, he was no longer the radical force he had been. He was succeeded by Vice President Anwar Sadat, who proceeded to overturn much of the Nasserist program and move the country ideologically to the right. In 1972 Sadat expelled Soviet military advisors from Egypt. His initially successful surprise attack on the Israelis in the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the end led Egypt into a closer relationship with the United States, a fact dramatically demonstrated when he signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979, after extended negotiations under American auspices. This treaty ended the state of belligerence between the two countries and gave Egypt back the Sinai (occupied by the Israelis since 1967), but it resulted in a decisive break with the rest of the Arab world and Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League. Domestically, Sadat pursued a policy of economic liberalization (infitah) that significantly opened up the economy to market forces, though popular riots in 1977 persuaded him to draw back from fuller implementation. His policy of political liberalization granted a limited right for opposition to operate. By the end of the 1970s Sadat’s increasingly pro-Western policies were provoking considerable domestic opposition from leftists, Islamists, liberals, and even the Coptic Church. After a large-scale crackdown against his critics, he was assassinated in October 1981 by Islamic militants. He was succeeded by Husni Mubarak, who in less flamboyant style has maintained a close political relationship with the United States; indeed, Egypt continues to be the second most important American ally in the Middle East after Israel. It was accepted back into the Arab League in 1989. Because Egypt was directly influenced by British imperialism until 1952 and shaped by the imperatives of the Cold War thereafter, scholars remain divided over the question of whether the legacy of colonialism or indigenous factors best explain Egypt’s current economic and political difficulties.

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