The occupation of Egypt


The Anglo-Egyptian War occurred in 1882 between Egyptian and Sudanese forces under Ahmed ‘Urabi and the United Kingdom. It ended a nationalist uprising against the Khedive Tewfik Pasha and vastly expanded British influence over the country, at the expense of the French.

The British fleet bombarded Alexandria from 11–13 July and then occupied it with marines. The British did not lose a single ship, but much of the city was destroyed by fires caused by explosive shells and by ‘Urabists seeking to ruin the city that the British were taking over. Tewfik Pasha, who had moved his court to Alexandria during the unrest, declared ‘Urabi a rebel and formally deposed him from his positions within the government. ‘Urabi then reacted by obtaining a fatwa from Al Azhar shaykhs which condemned Tewfik as a traitor to both his country and religion, absolving those who fought against him. ‘Urabi also declared war on the United Kingdom and initiated conscription. The British army tried to reach Cairo through Alexandria but was stopped for five weeks at Kafr-el-Dawwar. In August, a British army of over 40,000, commanded by Garnet Wolseley, invaded the Suez Canal Zone. He was authorised to destroy ‘Urabi’s forces and clear the country of all other rebels. Wolseley saw the campaign as a logistical challenge as he did not believe the Egyptians would put up much resistance.

The first, decisive advance inland on the route which Rhodes was later to envisage joining the Cape to Cairo took place in 1882, when British troops occupied Egypt. This event sparked a lively debate among contemporaries, and it has made a distinctive contribution to theories of imperialism from that time to the present day. As far as modern scholarship is concerned, the Egyptian case is best known for the central role assigned to it by Robinson and Gallagher in Africa and the Victorians. In their view, the occupation of Egypt was the product of a crisis on the periphery prompted by a proto-nationalist revolt. Britain was reluctant to intervene, but did so because the breakdown of law and order posed a threat to her strategic interest in the Suez Canal, which guarded the route to India. This decision had far-reaching consequences: it destroyed the informal understandings which had governed the major powers in their dealings with Africa, drove the French to seek compensation in west Africa, and pushed the British up the Nile and into east Africa in pursuit of strategic security. Southern Africa was too remote to become the final domino in this particular ‘great game’, but British policy towards the Boer republics nevertheless exemplifies the paramountcy of ‘excentric’ and strategic considerations in understanding the essentially defensive imperialism of the late Victorians.

Robinson and Gallagher’s view of events is indeed very close to the official interpretation put forward at the time. The question, however, is whether the authorised version also provides an acceptable explanation of the problem under review, and the evidence now available suggests that it does not. As we shall see, the official account was formulated with at least one eye on the need to ensure that the controversial decisions taken by Britain presented her in a favourable light; the other was uninterested in recording causes of actions which lay beyond the immediate reasons given for them by the participants themselves. A more plausible interpretation, we suggest, is one that sees the crisis of 1882 as a moment of conjuncture arising out of the long-term interaction between the expansion of British interests and the aspirations of Egypt’s rulers.

Britain’s commercial ties with Egypt grew rapidly after 1815. Manchester’s quest for new markets coincided with the modernising policies of Egypt’s ruler, Mohammed Ali, and led to the development of a sizeable export sector based on the exchange of cotton goods for raw cotton. However, this emerging complementarity could not disguise the fact that Mohammed Ali was a centralising autocrat who favoured state monopolies and protectionism, and had expansionist ambitions of his own, whereas Britain was treading a path towards free trade and minimal government, and needed to create obedient and pacific satellites. The spread of cash crops had already begun to have destabilising consequences within Egypt in the 1820s, and these led, indirectly, to expansionist ventures in the 1830s. After 1838, when Britain imposed free trade on the Ottoman Empire (of which Egypt was formally a part), Mohammed Ali’s chances of achieving economic independence disappeared. State monopolies were destroyed, military expansion was checked, and Egypt’s rulers were forced to rely increasingly on internal taxation and foreign borrowing.

The assimilation of Egypt into Britain’s free-trading regime generated a substantial increase in foreign trade and investment from the 1840s onwards. One manifestation of the growth of European influences was the rapid expansion of the principal port, Alexandria, which became a colonial enclave long before Egypt became, effectively, a colony. The French presence was sizeable and pervasive; but Britain was the most important foreign trading partner, and in 1880 took 80 per cent of Egypt’s exports and supplied 44 per cent of her imports. Commercial expansion was accompanied by railway and harbour construction and by the installation of industrial machinery, all of which gave employment to British manufacturers and personnel. Export growth was funded largely by private capital flows, which came chiefly from British sources. State bonds began to be marketed externally from 1862, principally to finance the construction of the Suez Canal and to underwrite the military budget. British investors held more than half the public debt in 1873, shortly before a rash of short-term loans temporarily raised the proportion held by the French. Even so, the funded debt remained largely in British hands. Moreover, Britain’s financial stake in Egypt increased following Disraeli’s purchase of the Egyptian government’s shares in the Suez Canal in 1875 and the consolidation of the public debt in 1880, which led many French investors to sell their unified bonds in London.

Britain was therefore the principal creditor when Egypt subsided into bankruptcy in 1876. However, it does not follow, as a matter of logic or necessity, that financial considerations played a determining part in subsequent events leading to the occupation of Egypt in 1882. This possibility, like others, must stand or fall by empirical tests. In fact, British governments were reluctant to give guarantees to private investors because they rightly feared the consequences of signing blank cheques for City speculators. At the same time, governments also acknowledged a general obligation to support Britain’s interests, including her economic interests, abroad. A case for intervention could be made, for example, where British lives or property were endangered by the break-down of law and order. As far as Egypt was concerned, the British government had a formal commitment to ensure that the loans made to the Ottoman Empire in the 1850s would be repaid, and recognised, too, that default would have sizeable consequences for financial and manufacturing interests in Britain. The Egyptian case was one among an increasing number of others in the late nineteenth century which left open the possibility of intervention providing that the reasons were weighty and respectable, either in reality or in presentation.

It now seems clear that Britain adopted a much more assertive policy towards Egypt than Robinson and Gallagher allowed. In resolving to make Egypt pay her debts, Disraeli’s Conservative government (1874–80) soon blurred the line between official neutrality and unofficial assistance. The banker, Goschen, was given semi-official support in negotiating the agreement which led to the establishment of Dual (Anglo-French) Control over Egyptian finances in 1876. Harsh measures were imposed to balance the budget and to enable debt service to be resumed; when these provoked opposition in Egypt in 1879, the British government came very close to taking military action. In the event, the Khedive was deposed, the system of dual control was tightened, and the Law of Liquidation was passed in 1880. This measure consolidated the public debt and rescheduled repayments: it also bound the European signatories to see that it was carried out.

The advent of the Liberal government in 1880 altered the tone but not the direction of policy. Gladstone was vaguely in favour of the ‘nationalists’ in Egypt; but, unlike his fellow Liberal, John Bright, he was not against intervention at any price. In this particular case Gladstone himself had good reason to calculate the cost because no less than 37 per cent of his total portfolio was invested in Egyptian stock in 1882. This is not to say that Gladstone was motivated by crude self-interest; but it does suggest that he was likely to see the creditors’ point of view with some clarity if it could be presented as an issue of principle, and especially one that was in the wider public interest. Gladstone was also out-manoeuvred by the hawks in his government, headed by Hartington and Dilke, who were keen to shift the Liberals towards a strong foreign policy as a means of showing that the party could be as patriotic as the Conservatives in defending Britain’s interests abroad. This group began to devise ways of imposing an aggressive policy in opposition to Gladstone’s internationalism, and sought specifically to replace Dual Control by British supremacy. In this aim the militants were well supported by the ‘men on the spot’, particularly Colvin, the British Controller-General, and Malet, the British Consul, who sent increasingly lurid reports purporting to show that Egypt would soon be governed by an authoritarian military clique dedicated to the elimination of European influences unless Britain took decisive action.


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