Conquered by the Ottomans in 1517, by the end of the 18th century, Egypt paid little heed to the sultan’s government in Istanbul (Constantinople). The country was dominated by autonomous military leaders who owed only nominal allegiance to the Ottoman empire. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, to be defeated by a coalition of Britain and Russia with the Ottomans. However, the French invasion, while it defeated the Egyptian Mamluk warlords, did not result in the firm re-establishment of Ottoman power in Egypt.
Into the resulting chaos stepped a powerful Ottoman governor, the Turco-Albanian officer Muhammad Ali, who took control of Egypt in 1801 as pasha. His portraits all show a genial man, but he was a ruthless ruler. He son consolidated his position by slaughtering the existing Mamluk leadership. Those who escaped fled south into the Sudan, where they were to cause problems for years to come. In an attempt to modernise Egypt’s military capacity, Muhammad Ali hired an array of Western officers and soldiers, including Scots, Germans, French Islamic converts, Italians, Americans, British as well as many of his Albanian and Bosnian comrades from his early days.
With this stiffening of his army, Muhammad Ali began to expand Egypt’s territory southwards along the Nile into Nubia and the northern part of the Sudan. His ambitions to take over control of Palestine and the Lebanon were thwarted by Istanbul, aided by another coalition between Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Muhammad was obliged to reduce the strength of his army and submit fully to Ottoman rule. Muhammad Ali died in 1848 to be succeeded briefly by his son Ibrahim, who died that same year. Muhammad’s grandson Abbas Hilmi became pasha, to be succeeded by his uncle Muhammad Sa’id in 1854.
Muhammad Sa’id was another moderniser, who came under French influence. In 1854 he granted to the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps a concession for the construction of the Suez Canal. The British were much opposed to this unilateral privilege and opposed its ratification by Istanbul for two years. To grease the wheels, Sa’id made two concessions to the British by allowing the Eastern Telegraph Company to set up and for the formation of the Bank of Egypt. These and many more of his reforms drained the Egyptian treasury and he began
the national debt that would soon bring the country to its knees by borrowing more than
£3 million. In January 1863, Sa’id Pasha died and was succeeded by his nephew Isma’il, a
son of Ibrahim Pasha.
Isma’il was the first of his dynasty to enjoy the title of khedive or hereditary autonomous ruler of Egypt. Khedive Isma’il had great ambitions for his country, but was aware that the Egyptian army had declined considerably since the glory days of Muhammad Ali. he also began importing foreign mercenaries but was convinced that success depended on a Europeanised officer corps – the current officer corps was in desperate need of reform, suffering from bitter ethnic rivalry
between Turks, Circassians, Albanians and officers of Arab-Egyptian origin. The pasha
(civilian and/or military authority) system meant that senior commanders regarded their regiments almost as personal property. They resented outside interference and were often unwilling to delegate even minor tasks.
Isma’il’s first mercenaries had come from Europe – many from France – but in the late 1860s he and Napoleon III quarrelled over the financing of the Suez Canal. Work had commenced on the canal late in 1858 and took 11 years to complete, opening for business in November 1869, by which time all but three French officers had been sent home, to be replaced by many American officers. Under this new regime, Isma’il began a conquest of the whole horn of Africa, attacking Ethiopia in 1875, but it was an expensive disaster, and Egypt’s national debt mounted alarmingly.
In these circumstances Isma’il resorted to desperate measures and, among them, sold Suez Canal shares to the British government, surrendering Egyptian control of the waterway. Britain now had many investments in the country and began to enquire more deeply into the financial situation. It was quickly established that under the existing administration national bankruptcy was inevitable. Exploiting his indebtedness to them, the British and French began to take over many aspects of Isma’il’s administration. One result was the establishment of Dual Control on behalf of the British and French bondholders in 1876. Under this system, an English official looked after the revenue and a French official oversaw the country’s expenditure.
Two years later, Isma’il got rid of his European-dominated cabinet by means of a staged riot in Cairo, and reverted to his old autocratic methods of government. Britain and France – alarmed at their loss of influence – retaliated by persuading the sultan to force Isma’il out of office, which was done on 26 June 1879. A telegram from the sultan informed him that his son Tawfiq (Tewfik) was appointed his successor.
Khedive Tawfiq faced a great deal of unrest, not only among his people, who felt oppressed by foreigners, but also among the Arab-Egyptian officer corps. Petty ethnic squabbling also played a part, with the Arab officers complaining of the preference shown to those of Turkish origin. The fact that the grumbling turned into open protest was, ironically, through the efforts of a lowly-born officer, Ahmed Urabi, who had benefitted from the modernising reforms of Khedive Isma’il, which abolished the exclusive access to the Khedivate’s officer corps by a minority of Turkish, Balkan and Circassian men. In 1849, Urabi entered the army and moved up quickly through the ranks, reaching Lieutenant Colonel when he was only 20. His disaffection with Tawfiq is understandable when the khedive passed a law blocking peasants from becoming officers. Urabi led the protests against the preference shown to Turkish officers. He and his followers – most of the army – were successful and the law was repealed. In 1879 Urabi founded the Egyptian Nationalist party, effectively an anti-foreign movement.
He was first promoted, then made under-secretary of war, and ultimately a member of the cabinet. Urabi planned to create a parliamentary assembly. Torn between placating Egyptian sentiments by supporting Urabi and the pressure from Britain and France to quell what was becoming open revolt, Twefik eventually appealed to his sovereign sultan in Istanbul the Sublime Porte – as the sultan’s administration was known – hesitated. The British, concerned that Urabi would default on Egypt’s massive debt and that he might try to gain control of the Suez Canal, sent warships to intimidate the nationalists. The British and French fleets arrived off Alexandria in May 1882, although the French backed down, leaving Britain to go it alone.
On 11 July the British fleet bombarded the city (a description of which may be read in the Big Action Library novel Avenging Khartoum). The forts were taken after heavy bombradment and following bitter street fighting, Alexandria was occupied. But it wasn’t sufficient to bring an end to the revolt. The British then landed troops at Ismailia, on the Suez Canal, under General Sir Garnet Wolseley, and suppressed the revolt by the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September 1882.
Urabi was captured and sentenced to death. But under pressure from Lord Dufferin, the British ambassador at Constantinople, who had been sent to Egypt as high commissioner, the sentence was commuted and he was exiled under `British protection to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He was allowed to return in 1901 and remained in Egypt until his death in 1911.
British claims that this was only a temporary intervention, the government’s words were hollow. Egypt was officially made a British protectorate until independence was granted in 1922
(although British troops would remain in Egypt until 1956).
Even as Wolseley was winning the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, to the south in the Sudan, nationalist elements were taking advantage of the distractions in the north to begin what became known as the Mahdist War, as the discontented tribesmen rallied around the jihadist call of the Mahdi to throw out all foreigners, including the ‘Turks’ as they called the Egyptian garrisons, and kill all unbelievers.
Khedive Isma'il Pasha, with two attendants.
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Khedive Tawfiq (above) and (below) the thorn in his side,
Ahmed Urabi Pasha, who wanted Egyot for the Egyptians.
Viceroy Muhammad Sa'id.
Isma'il Pasha so impoverished Egypt that he had to sell the country's Suez Canal shares.