Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Egypt and British Empire

Initial Contacts with the British

Trade links had existed between the two countries for as long as anyone could remember. Egypt was a key part of the old spice and trade routes between Europe and Asia. British traders had been loading and unloading their cargoes in Ottoman waters for generations.

British military and political interest in Egypt first manifested itself as it became obvious that in the Eighteenth Century, India was falling under the influence of Britain (and away from France). Despite, the direct sail routes around the Cape of Good Hope, Egypt still provided the quickest way of maintaining communications between Britain and India. It required a brief overland journey, but it was still substantially quicker than circumnavigating Africa.

At this point, it seemed as if the British forces would remain in place and that Egypt would just have remained under British control. Unfortunately for the British, in 1805 a vigorous Egyptian leader came to the fore, known as Muhammed Ali. He took control of the Mameluke army and defeated the British in 1807. This setback forced them to withdraw from Egypt. The British would not formally return for another 75 years.

For the first part of the Nineteenth Century, Britain remained rather hostile towards the Egyptians. Partly due to wounded pride, but also because supporting Egypt would have compromised one of their other stated policy aims, that of protecting and bolstering the Ottoman Empire.

In 1832, Muhammed Ali took advantage of a Russia defeat of the Ottomans by declaring Egypt as independent. 

Whilst Britain, supported by the Austrians, desperately tried to maintain the last vestiges of Ottoman power in the area. Things turned even worse for the Ottomans as they launched an unsuccessful offensive against Muhammed Ali's Egyptian forces.

The Ottomans were defeated at Nisibin and their fleet mutinied and went over to the Egyptians. At this point, the British and Austrians stepped in to save the Ottomans, and landed forces in Lebanon.

These forces defeated the sitting Egyptian army and, combined with a fleet despatched to Alexandria, forced Muhammed Ali to submit and to reign back his forces.

After this event, British attitudes towards Egypt began to improve. Although the idea that Egypt would become a British colony was regarded by most as being highly fanciful.

It was the French who were thought to be the most active in the North Africa region. They funded the Suez Canal and steadily increased their economic base in the country.

British interest in Egypt developed during the American Civil War. At this time, British mills were starved of cotton. Alternative sources had to be found and one such source was to be Egypt whose cotton was actually a particularly good quality product. British companies began investing heavily in the production of cotton in Egypt.

The hugely ambitious public works programs of the ruling Khedives also attracted British businessmen and their wares.

British strategic interest in Egypt was captured in 1869 when the Suez Canal was officially opened. The sailing times from London to Bombay were dramatically cut. British maps and ideas of the world had to be radically altered. The fact that the canal was controlled by the Khedive and the French government was initially a serious concern to the British. 

Although, It is from this point on that British decisiveness and speed of actions which consistently outwitted and out-manoeuvred the French and brought Egypt under Imperial British control.

The first opportunity to pull away from the French was in 1875 when it became obvious that the Khedive had got himself into serious economic difficulties. The only way he could stave off creditors was by raising a seriously large amount of money. 

It was at this point that Disraeli was able to step in and offer to buy the Khedive's shares in the Suez Canal Company. The speed of action on this event left the French reeling. Overnight, the British went from being a minority shareholder to being the controlling shareholder. Her influence had grown considerably as a result.

Suez Canal Shares

Unfortunately for Egypt, the money raised by the sale of her shares, was only enough to keep the government afloat for a few years. In a government reliant on patronage, structural economic reforms were difficult to implement. In only a few years the Egyptian government was again in economic difficulties.

This time, the British and French governments initiated a stewardship of the finances of Egypt. In effect, this stewardship was little more than a joint form of colonization. British and French experts were to be sent to the various ministries in order to take control of day to day business of them.

The Khedive's unwillingness to agree to such loss of control was rewarded by his forced abdication and replacement by his son Tawfiq. The steady loss of sovereignty was keenly felt by many Egyptians. So much so that in 1882, Arabi Pasha initiated a revolt from inside the Egyptian army.

In June of that year, riots broke out against the Europeans in Egypt. From this point on Britain took the initiative. The French refused participation in a bombardment of Alexandria due to political problems back at home. Surprisingly for a Liberal government, 

The British "finally" resolved on intervention and sent an expeditionary force to the Suez Canal. The Arabists were rapidly defeated at Tel el-Kabir in September and Cairo was occupied the next day. Accidentally, the British had found themselves to be masters of Egypt Administration.

Egypt had not been discovered by the British, nor had they requested British suzerainty (who did ?).

And yet, the British controlled the finances, government personnel and armed forces of the country. This ambivalent status would remain for many years. Internationally, the French were kicking themselves because they let the British take the prize of Egypt from under their noses.

Technically until 1914, Egypt was still nominally under Ottoman control, a fiction that suited the British for the time being. In matters concerning the international status of Egypt, the decisions were taken in London, but where the internal administration of the country was concerned, The Consul General's opinions were usually conclusive. The facade of Khedival government was retained, British advisers attached to the various ministries were more influential than their ministers, while the Consul General steadily increased his control over the whole administrative machine.

Attempts by Khedive Abbas Hilmi to challenge British authority over the status of British officers commanding Egyptian forces on the Sudan border resulted in something of a humiliating climbdown. 

The international status of British control over Egypt remained uncertain for nearly twenty years. It was not until the French and British decided that they needed each other and formed the Entente Cordiale that they decided to come to agreement over the status of Egypt. They basically agreed that Britain should be paramount in Egypt, and the French should have a free hand in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

Theoretically, the British occupation was supposed to have been temporary and the British had hinted that they would leave a number of times. However, as the Suez Canal continued to grow in importance and after 1904, when Great Britain and France agreed on a division of interests in North Africa which left Egypt as the British share ( we are talking a share of a corporation which treated Egypt as a business not a nation with people with aspirations culture history), the conviction grew that the British had no intention of leaving. 

A growing number of educated Egyptians were less convinced of the merits of European control as they saw all the most important decisions and jobs remaining in European hands. A growing tide of nationalism was beginning to find its voice and soon would find a cause.

The Great War was to temporarily increase British imperial control over Egypt. Almost immediately, the press was muzzled, nationalist meetings were prevented from occurring or broken up and the new Legislative Council was suspended. After the Ottomans declared war on the allies on October 29th 1914, the British moved swiftly to break the technical link between the Ottoman Empire and the status of Egypt.

The fate of the Suez Canal was just too important to take any chances and technically it was in enemy territory if Egypt was indeed a suzerain of Turkey. Indeed, Britain declared that the Canal was closed to all but allied and neutral shipping - despite international agreements to the contrary.

The newly created Sultanate of Egypt was declared a British Protectorate rather than colony meaning that its people were subject of the Sultan rather than of King George. Hussein Kamel's accession brought to an end the de jure Ottoman sovereignty over Egypt.  
During the war though, Egypt soon found itself on the front line of action as the Turks sought to take control of the Red Sea and threaten the Suez Canal. The British were able to contain these threats with help from imperial forces from India, Australia and New Zealand. The Dardanelles Campaign brought yet more imperial troops into the country as both a staging area and as a recovery point.

Egypt was then used as a base to launch a land offensive towards Ottoman lands in Palestine and Transjordan. Inflation ravaged the country as the effects of the world war were felt. Martial law was imposed for the duration of the war.

Even more concerning for some was the forced requisitioning of draught animals forced labour conscription. Nationalists were convinced that the British were using the war as an opportunity to convert the temporary protectorate into a permanent colony and certainly to suppress their nationalist aspirations, but with so many soldiers in the country and with such stringent laws in place under the excuse of maintaining the peace during wartime, there was little the nationalists could do but bide their time until the war had finished.

The post-war international climate saw an increase in ideas of self-rule and independence - partly inspired by talk of Wilson's 14 points, but also by a surge in national identities brought about by the war. Egypt's nationalists, temporarily, saw how the rest of the Ottoman Empire was being divided up and wanted to be granted similar rights.

Within days of the armistice Saad Zaghlul, the unofficial leader of Egyptian nationalism, headed to the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Reginald Wingate, and informed him that the Egyptian people wanted their complete independence and that he would like to lead his delegation to London to negotiate with the British government.

The British government initially refused mindful of the continued importance of Egypt as a strategic concern. They did relent to say that they would meet with the Egyptian Prime Minister, but sensing the change in nationalist sentiment in his country, he not only refused but resigned. 

In 1922, the protectorate was officially ended. However, Britain still reserved four matters to their own discretion: the security of imperial communications, defence, the protection of foreign interests and of minorities, and the Sudan. Technically, Egypt was independent. But the real power behind the throne was never really in question.

Attempts to further reduce British involvement in the economy and political situation were made throughout the 1920s and 1930s but usually came undone over the status of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium of Sudan.

The treaty, under which Britain still retained a prominent if diminished influence, was to run for 20 years; both parties were committed to negotiating a further alliance in 1956, at which point Egypt would have the right to submit to third-party judgement the question of whether British troops were any longer necessary in Egypt. The British occupation of Egypt was formally ended, though British troops were to remain in some areas.

As Egypt's self-defence capability improved, they would be withdrawn gradually to the Canal Zone and Sinai where their numbers would be limited to 10,000. And Britain reserved the right of reoccupation with the unrestricted use of Egyptian ports, airports and roads in war-time.

Egypt regained full control over its own security forces. The British High Commissioner became an Ambassador.

An Egyptian replaced the British Inspector-General of the Army and the country's military intelligence was Egyptianised. The number of Europeans in the police was to be reduced by 20 per cent a year, although an Englishman, Thomas Russell, scourge of narcotics pedlars, remained head of the Egyptian police until 1946.

Britain was to sponsor Egypt's entry into the League of Nations. British residents were made liable to Egyptian law rather than British law as Egypt obtained full rights of jurisdiction and taxation (this is the main focus of ocupations- taxes) over all residents.

The Suez Canal was still a vital artery of World trade, it was just that Britain's relative importance in the share of this trade was diminishing and with colonies gaining independence and the rise of air travel, it was becoming less a crucial avenue of imperial communications.

Withdrawal from the Suez Canal Zone

In the post war period, the British would have been content to withdraw from active involvement in Egyptian politics. Unfortunately, a new kind of radicalism had entered Egyptian politics. This was partly Britain's fault.

The creation of Israel brought the Muslim fundamentalists a new unity and cause to champion. These fundamentalists also drew from the tactics by which the Jewish settlers had extracted their concessions from Britain and the wider international scene. Politics was about to become a much bloodier affair in Egypt.




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