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Egypt and Europe in the 19th Century

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved)
Go to the syllabus or the reading on French imperialism or the British in West Africa.


  1. Introduction
  2. British Interests
  3. Egyptian Indebtedness
  4. Nationalist Reaction
  5. The British Occupation of Egypt


Although Egypt's influence on European history dates back more than 5000 years, at the beginning of the 19th century, it was still a mysterious and relatively unknown place to Europeans. One reason was that Egypt was Muslim and Europe was Christian, and the bitterness engendered by the Crusades and subsequent wars hindered open communication. Another reason was that most knowledge of ancient Egyptian society had been lost some time before the Greeks occupied the coast, so even though many people had seen the pyramids, temples and hieroglyphics, no one knew their origin or purpose.

All of that began to change during the Napoleonic Wars when a French army led by General Napoleon himself landed near the western mouth of the Nile River in 1798. His goal was to disrupt Britain's trade with India, and although he was not successful--the French defeated Egypt's Ottoman defenders but then had its fleet sunk by the British--Napoleon's invasion kindled European interest in ancient Egypt and its history. The new science of "Egyptology" received a boost when a small group of French soldiers uncovered a stone table near Rosetta that contained inscriptions that enabled scholars to decipher hieroglyphics.

After Napoleon's invasion force withdrew, an Ottoman military officer named Mehemet Ali established his own independent government in Egypt by 1811. By the time he died in 1849, he had also invaded the Sudan and Syria, created an educational system modeled after the one used by the French, nationalized all farm land, reformed and expanded the army and introduced new crops and technology. Not all Egyptians appreciated Ali's modernizing efforts, and subsequent governments were caught between supporters of full cooperation with Europeans and those who favored resistance to outsiders.


Britain's main interest was in stabilizing the region, so the government tended to support the Ottoman Empire (theoretically sovereign over Egypt) against all challengers, while British merchants tried to find business opportunities in the Nile Valley and Suez. An "overland route" opened between the port of Alexandria and the Gulf of Suez in the 1840s and Robert Stephenson's railroad, completed in the 1856, improved the route. Although it could not handle bulk cargoes, which traveled by ship around Africa, the railroad and telegraph line sped up communications between Britain and India, and was put to especially good use in organizing military forces to put down the 1857 Indian Mutiny.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 complicated the British position in Egypt. The government had opposed the construction of the Suez Canal from the beginning, but only managed to force the Egyptian government into a partnership with the French to build the canal. British canal opponents feared that British shipping would gravitate towards the canal and become dependent on it, making it vulnerable to interruptions during war time. The opponents were partially correct--the canal was enormously successful and British merchant shipping abandoned the route around Africa in its favor. In its first thirteen years of operation, the freight that travelled through the canal each year increased from just under a half million to more than five million tons, and by 1882 more than eighty percent of it travelled in British ships.

At first, the British government tolerated that arrangement, since British ships paid only nominal fees to pass through a canal owned by European (mostly French) investors (55%) and the Egyptian government (45%). According to the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, Britain had no interest in possessing Egypt as long as Egypt was "well-run and hospitable"; i.e. British merchants could operate freely there. But the process of modernization, with its dependence on French military advisors, British capital and other foreign influences, stimulated the Egyptian nationalist movement. The nationalists' demonstrations against foreign interference ultimately provided a pretext for the British government to get directly involved in the canal.

The trouble started in the 1870s when the Egyptian nationalist movement became active and began to target Europeans as well as Turks. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War encouraged Egyptian nationalists who rejected Mehemet Ali and his successors as "Turks." One of them was Ahmed Arabi (later known as "Arabi Pasha"), a native Egyptian who received officer training in a school founded by Ali and promotion to the rank of colonel under Ali's son Said (ruled 1854-1863). Arabi and his colleagues were particularly incensed at how Egypt became indebted to foreigners during the reign of Said's nephew Ismail.


Under Ismail (ruled 1863-1879), the Egyptian government debt rose from £3 million to nearly £100 million, largely due to Ismail's efforts to modernize Egypt. In addition to completing the Suez Canal, he hired veterans of the civil war in the United States to train his army, built more than a thousand miles of railroads, developed a deepwater port at Alexandria, financed land reclamation and irrigation projects to create more farm land and paid Ottoman authorities in Constantinople to allow his son Tewfik to succeed him.

Ismail also spent money to expand the Egyptian cotton industry. During the shortages caused by the US Civil War, this effort was successful, but once the war ended Egypt was left with an enormous debt and declining export revenues. Efforts to refinance the debt only made things worse because service fees on foreign loans absorbed a large part of their value. In one instance, Egypt received only £35 million from five loans worth £55 million, and because Egypt paid interest on the full value of the loans, the contractual interest rate of seven percent turned into an effective rate that went as high as twenty percent.

By 1875, even though Egypt had repaid £29 million on its loans, it still owed £46 million and the country was near bankruptcy. British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli learned from private sources that the Egyptian shares in the Suez Canal were for sale. Acting without parliamentary authorization, he bought them for the British government and thereby greatly increased the British stake in Egyptian stability.

Ismail's government requested British financial advisors in 1876, so Disraeli sent Stephen Case to investigate. Case reported that Egypt's economy was basically sound but recommended more direct European influence in its management. Acting on Case's recommendations, the governments of France and Britain (Egypt's largest creditors) sent representatives to oversee the Egyptian finances. In 1878 Britain sent Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer) to act as the Controller of the Revenue while the French sent M. de Blignières to serve as the Controller of the Expenditure. Other Europeans served briefly in the Egyptian ministry in 1878-1879, but the French and British representatives remained until 1882.


Although they made some progress in reducing the Egyptian debt, the presence of foreigners in the Egyptian government aggravated the nationalists. Their cause was further aided by abnormally low flooding of the Nile in 1876 and 1877 which caused food shortages and starvation in Upper Egypt. As the government went further into debt, it fell behind on payments of wages to the army. Elements of the army began to mutiny in February 1879 and Ismail was overthrown by a second army revolt in June 1879.

Before the nationalists could propose another candidate, Ismail's son Tewfik took over. Europeans supported the change because they believed Tewfik would be a weak ruler who could be influenced easily. Unfortunately, Tewfik proved too weak to control the Egyptian nationalists and his reign turned out to be a disaster. Egyptian military officers rose up against Tewfik's government in February 1881 and again in September, both times under the leadership of Colonel Ahmed Arabi Pasha. In the hope of placating the nationalists, Tewfik dismissed the pro-European Prime Minister Cherif Pasha and replacing him with a nationalist, Mahmoud Pasha Sami. Sami then placed the nationalist leader Arabi Pasha in charge of one of the government ministries.

Fearing that the nationalists had become too powerful, France and Britain tried to strengthen Tewfik by signing a secret "Anglo-French Joint Note" on January 8, 1882, which pledged support for Tewfik against anyone who disturbed the peace. The move backfired, however, when Egyptian nationalists learned about it interpreted it as a signal that the Europeans would invade to protect Tewfik. Their fears were heightened in May 1882, when France and Britain each sent small naval squadrons to protect "European interests." Tensions mounted until, on Sunday June 11, a riot in Alexandria resulted in the death of about 50 Europeans including three British military personnel. The British responded by bombarding Alexandria on July 11, and in response, Arabi's army set siege to Alexandria and cut off its water supplies.


Arguing that Egypt was descending into "anarchy" which threatened the Suez Canal (located about 180 miles to the east), the British government sought international support for an invasion of Egypt. Neither the Ottoman sultan nor any European governments joined in, so in August 1882, Britain acted alone. Within two months, they captured the canal and defeated the Egyptian army at Tel-el-Kebir. Arabi and the other nationalist leaders were sent to exile in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka).

Although British prime minister Gladstone tried to withdraw the British forces immediately, there was no Egyptian government left to maintain order, and even worse, the British invasion ignited a revolution by fundamentalist Muslim forces in the Sudan on the Upper Nile River under the leadership of a man known as the Mahdi. Under British pressure, Tewfik withdrew the remaining Egyptian forces (and their British advisors) from the Upper Nile, but not before General Gordon, a British officer employed by Egypt, was killed at Khartoum in January 1885. The news of his death reached Great Britain while the Congress of Berlin was still underway, and made him a martyr in the minds of the British public. For many years afterward, the cry "avenge Gordon" was sufficient to rouse enthusiasm for imperial expansion.

Gordon's death triggered endless recriminations and criticism of Britain's Egypt policy. Critics argued that the Egyptian intervention was fought on behalf of British investors using taxpayers' money. Later, others charged that Egypt was the prototype for a form of financial imperialism that used loans of questionable value to gain an interest in local affairs, and then a subsequent default as justification for invasion to protect "European interests."

Go to the syllabus or the reading on French imperialism or the British in West Africa.