After Britain’s defeat of Egypt in 1882, jubilant Highlanders posed on the Sphinx, a symbol of British success in protecting the Suez route to India from the threat of Egyptian nationalist revolt. Nationalist sentiment was not suppressed, but only in 1956 were the last remnants of imperial authority over the Suez Canal humiliatingly swept away by Egypt’s greatest nationalist - Gamal Abdul Nasser.
In 1900, Lord Cromer, the magisterial occupant of the British Agency in Cairo, had cause to be pleased with the shape of events. In the seventeen years during which he had held power, the country had been transformed. The Egypt that he had found when he arrived in the summer of 1883 - one year after British troops had landed to crush Col. Arabi’s national revolt at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir - was sullen, miserable and loaded with debt. Soon after his arrival a series of military disasters in Egypt’s quasi-empire in the Sudan had led to the triumph of the Madhi, the the Sudanese Muslim “Messiah” and the death of the brave but eccentric General Gordon in Khartoum.
By means of ruthless economies in every government department, Egypt’s financial credit had been restored and foreign capital was once again pouring into the country. British irrigation engineers, headed by a Scotsman of genius, Colin Scott-Moncreiff, had repaired and extended the ruined dams and irrigation canals. In 1900 the great Aswan Dam, an engineering wonder was nearing completion.
Cotton output and exports had greatly increased. The efficiency and honesty of all government departments had been improved by the introduction of upright salaried British officials. The burden of taxation on the peasants had been lightened and the use of the whip and forced labour drastically reduced. The police and the army had been re-organised and retrained so that by 1898 the methodical young Sirdar (Commander) of the Egyptian Army - Sir Herbert Kitchener, could defeat the Mahdist forces at the Battle of Omdurman Nominally Britain and Egypt enjoyed equal sovereignty; in fact, Britain held the real power in the Sudan as it did in Egypt.
The home government did not want to take on more imperial responsibilities. Liberals and Conservatives alike were anxious to to withdraw from Egypt. But they could only do so if it was secure: it never was - there remained a permanent danger of a national movement seizing control of this vital link with Britain’s Indian Empire. The British could neither relinquish control nor seize it outright. The result was the system known as a “Veiled Protectorate”: in stead of Cromer ruling as Governor or High Commissioner, he did so from behind a screen of Egyptian Ministers and with a modest title of British Agent.
In the first years of his rule, Cromer’s task was made easier by having to deal with the colourless and unassertive Khedive Tewfik, who owed his throne to the British and was quite prepared to act as puppet. All the key government department had British “advisers” who held the real power. For much of the period, Tewfik kept as prime minister, Nubar Pasha, a wily Armenian Christian who had a lively awareness of British power.
The situation changed briefly in 1892, when the Khedive Tewfik died and was succeeded by his 18 year-old-son Abbas Hilmi, who reminded people more of his grandfather Ismail “the Magnificent,” Egypt’s last independent ruler, than of his vapid father, was determined not to be a puppet.
Cromer’s attitude towards the Egyptians was typical of that already found among his British contemporaries in Egypt. Even in the 1860’s before the British occupied Egypt, a book on Egypt was slated by a critic sympathetic to the country for being filled with statistics but barely mentioning the Egyptians: “the people are not real people, only parts of the scenery (to the author) as to most Europeans.” During the British occupation when there were scores of English families who devoted the best years of their lives to the Egyptian service and saw nothing surprising in the fact that their servants were the only Egyptians to have entered their villas in the European suburbs of Cairo.
The Egyptians themselves were despised. The mass of them were industrious valley farmers and not the romantic aristocrats of the desert that attracted men like T.E. Lawrence
It was perfectly true that bright young lawyers and journalists were often superficial, irresponsible and over-emotional and, moreover, divorced by their education from the true feelings of the mass of their fellow countrymen who lived in the countryside. Yet they represented a real and growing opposition to the British occupation and the chief reason why they lacked the wisdom of experience was that Cromer denied them any share of political power.
This new wave of Egyptian nationalism found a natural leader in a slender and passionate youth named Mustafa Kamil (not Mustafa Kemal of Turkey). Kamil was one of Cromer’s “Gallicised Egyptians” who hurled himself into politics as a schoolboy and founded his own party , the National Party in 1894, when he was only 20. He knew France’s leading pro-Egyptian political and literary figures. He travelled in Austria and Germany seeking support for his cause and in 1900 denounced in his own paper the British occupation.
Cromer chose to ignore Kamil yet as he neared the end of his work in Egypt, he appointed as Minister of Education, the party’s rising young star, Saad Zaghlul, who was to become the champion of unfettered Egyptian independence and Britain’s implacable enemy.
Zaghlul’s rise was aided when, in 1906, an event occurred that permanently embittered Anglo-Egyptian relations. In June of that year, a party of British officers went out shooting pigeons near a village which valued them as food. The villagers unsurprisingly set upon the officers one of whom was injured and died of sunstroke on his way back to camp despite being helped by a friendly Egyptian. Both men were found by a party of British who, assuming the native had murdered the Brit, beat him to death. The incident had been caused by the officers insensitivity but punishment on the Egyptians was harsh
Cromer’s successor, Sir Eldon Gorst, small, intense and bustling with ambition, would have seemed just the man to reform British rule if he had not been so unpopular. His colleagues disliked his Teutonic earnestness of purpose which he showed as much on the tennis-court as in the office. He was mistrusted by Cromer and detested by Kitchener. To cap it all, he owed his appointment in part, to his friendship with King Edward VII and the King’s mistress Mrs. George Keppel.
He commented gleefully in his journal: “Throughout the British Empire (though Egypt was never formally part of the Empire,) there is no place in which the occupant enjoys greater freedom of action than that of the British Agent and Consul-General in Egypt.” Having decide on sweeping reforms, Gorst summoned all Anglo-Egyptian officials to Cairo and informed them that he intended to promote Egyptians to positions of greater responsibility. Most officials were appalled and did nothing to help Gorst carry through his new policies.
In 1908, a new government was formed under Boutros Ghali Pasha, a Coptic Christian, but he was assassinated in 1910 by a young nationalist and Gorst’s liberal experiment was at an end. His attempt to change Britain’s Egyptian policy was praiseworthy, but he had no chance to learn from his mistakes. In 1911 he died from cancer and it was decide that a firmer hand was necessary. The man chosen for the task was Kitchener.
Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, as he had now become, was at the height of his prestige. In 1905, as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, he had emerged victorious from a blazing row with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon and Curzon had resigned in disgust.
His vision of Empire matched his prestige. He shared Rhode’s dream of an all red route the length of Africa and dreamed of ending Turkey’s nominal suzerainty over Egypt, creating a new vice-royalty of Egypt and Sudan with himself as Viceroy.
In 1914, the slow developing struggle between Egyptian nationalists and Britain was put into abeyance by the outbreak of war and Kitchener’s reign cut short by his appointment as Secretary for War.
Egypt was not to be formally incorporated into the British Empire: its people were subjects of the Egyptian Sultan and not of King George V. But Egyptiansed and could be forgiven for failing to se the difference. Although Egypt was nominally neutral, martial law was declared and British troops arrived to defend the Suez Canal against possible Turkish attack. With the launching of the Gallipolli campaign in 1915, Egypt became a huge military transit and hospital camp for the Allies. Australians and New Zealanders (the Anzacs) thronged the Egyptian bars and brothels.
By the end of the conflict, very few of the British in Egypt were aware of the country’s explosive mood. It was thus a considerable shock when, two days after the signing of the Armistice , Saad Zaghlul, now universally acknowledged as the unofficial leader of Egyptian Nationalism, presented himself at the head of a delegation in the office of Sir Reginald Wingate, the High Commissioner, to inform him that the Egyptian people wanted their complete independence.
They had good reason for confidence. Declarations by the Allies, including the United States, had promised self-determination to the peoples freed form Turkish rule. Already the Arabs of Arabia, whom the Egyptians regarded as more backward than themselves, were looking forward to independence. But British imperial interests in Egypt were too great for the government to consider granting their request.
In consequence on March 1, 1919, the Egyptian Prime Minster, Rushdi Pasha and his whole cabinet resigned.
Thereafter, Anglo-Egyptian relations deteriorated rapidly. Zaghlul called upon the country to protest; the British authorities in Egypt, making use of martial law which was still in force, deported Zaghlul to Malta. In consequence there occurred what Egyptians refer to as the 1919 Revolution.
Beginning with violent student demonstrations and strikes, protest spread first to civil servants and to professions and then - to the astonishment of Anglo-Egyptians who believed the fellahin were impervious to student agitation - to the countryside. Telegraph wires were cut, railway tracks torn up and stations burned down. Individual Britishers were murdered.
In the worst incident seven unarmed soldiers and one civilian were killed and mutilated by a frenzied mob on the train from Luxor to Cairo. At each station along the line, the train bearing the bodies was greeted with shouts of joy.
News of the events in Egypt was as unwelcome as it was unexpected to the Lloyd George government, which was heavily involved in the affairs of the Peace Conference in Paris. They decided to give full military and civil powers to General Lord Edmund Allenby, who, in 1917, had taken Jerusalem and then forced the capitulation of Turkey, to restore law and order in Egypt.
On his arrival in Cairo, he quickly reached the conclusion that many of the Egyptians’ grievances were justified. He also had a strong belief that the Egyptians should be allowed to administer themselves as far as possible. He persuaded a reluctant British government to allow the immediate return to Egypt of Zaghlul. Allenby’s hopes that the country would settle down were not fulfilled and in 1919 the British government sent out a high-powered Commission of Enquiry under Lord Milner who formally an arch imperialist had now mellowed.
On Milner’s return in March 1920, he recommended that both Britain and Egypt should sign a treaty recognizing Egypt as an independent constitutional monarchy but - to safeguard British interests - with its independence qualified in a number of respects, of which the most important was the establishment of a permanent military alliance. It was hopeless, no Egyptian political leader would agree to terms which implied so many limitations to Egypt’s sovereignty.
Britain’s unilateral declaration of Egypt's independence was made on February 28th 1922, Sultan Faud, who had succeeded on the death of his brother Hussain in 1917, became King Faud l, with considerable powers provided by a parliamentary constitution. But independence was severely qualified; for Britain reserved rights on four matters: the security of imperial communication,; the defence of Egypt; the protection of foreign interests and minorities; and the Sudan.
Zaghlul returned from exile in 1923 to triumph the following year in Egypt’s first parliamentary election from which he emerged as Prime Minister. But Zaghlul’s hopes of reaching a settlement of the four reserved points with Ramsay Macdonald’s newly elected Labour government were soon dashed. Agitation once again increased, especially over the vexed question of British rule in the Sudan. On November 19, Sir Lee Stack, the Sirdar of the Egyptian Army (who was also Governor General of Sudan), was murdered as he was driving through Cairo. Allenby immediately demanded retribution in the form of a £500,000 fine and various sanctions. When Zaghlul’s government rejected several several terms of the ultimatum the British reacted to enforce them and Zaghlul helplessly resigned.
It was an impossible situation, rendered many times more complex by the British need to fight both King and the Wafd(parliament), and by the struggle between these two. Although Lord Lloyd the latest High Commissioner, was critical of the system he had inherited from Allenby , he honestly attempted to make it work. Fuad, (and his son Farouk who succeeded him in 1936) saw the Wafd rather than Britain as the enemy.
In June 1930, the Wafd returned to power after a period of being dissolved, and in an odd reversal of its extreme nationalist policies ; signed a treaty under terms for independence. Six attempts to reach an agreement with Britain had been made during the previous 14 years by various governments and all had broken down. There was however now good reason for signing, as they were alarmed at the rise of Fascism: Mussolini’s imperial ambitions in Africa, against which Egypt would be virtually defencelessly without Britain as an ally. The treaty under which Britain retained a dominant if diminished influence was to run for 20 years; both parties were committed to negotiating a further alliance in 1956. The British occupation of Egypt was formally ended.
The Battle of Omdurman in 1898, which smashed the Sudan Dervishes, heralded British rule over the Sudan and prepared the way for and administrative system that, even by the demanding standards of the Indian Civil Service, was remarkable for its high-mindedness, idealism and effectiveness. It also mirrored the attitudes and prejudices of the English upper middle-classes.
Like Egypt, the Sudan was not absorbed into the Empire, Instead, it was organised as an “Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.” In practice this meant that as in Egypt, itself, the British were the effective rulers. The Sudan Political Service, as a result of the country’s peculiar political situation, did not fall under the umbrella of the Colonial Office and was run as a separate service. But the background, abilities and conduct of the men who were recruited provide a vivid illustration of what the British regarded as ideal in those selected to rule the colonial empire.
High academic qualifications were not required and there was no competitive examination. As Lord Cromer, the virtual ruler of Egypt, put it, candidates needed no more than “good health, high character and fair abilities.” It was taken for granted that applicants possessing these qualifications would have the right social background. One successful candidate in 1911 attributed his selection to his performance in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Candidates were also expected to be ethnically respectable, and on occasions this consideration was made explicit.
Sport-loving young officers, academically unqualified with minimal Arabic, found themselves in charge of a sub-district the size of Wales and succeeded in making themselves trusted and respected by its people. Good order in the Sudan improved the economy, revenues increased tenfold between 1900 and 1913. New cotton-fields were planted, railways built, and the slave trade was reduced to a small scale.
After a tour of inspection in 1909, Sir Eldon Gorst, Cromer’s successor in Egypt, declared complacently, “I do not suppose that there is any part of the world in which the mass of the population have fewer unsatisfied wants.
A new and hopeful period seemed to have opened. The treaty was popular,; the Prime Minister, Nahas Pasha, and even Sir Miles Lampson, the British Ambassador , were cheered in the streets. Fuad’s young successor Farouk, a handsome outgoing 16-year-old, was wildly popular in the streets. This heady mood of optimism did not last. Farouk, although not unintelligent, was spoiled and willful. With astonishing speed, the golden boy-king declined morally and physically into premature middle-age and an object of ridicule.
At first there was no apparent loss of harmony. But Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940 transformed the situation. Many Egyptians both expected and hoped for an Axis victory, because they believed it would finally rid them of the British. Matters came to a head in February 1942, when General Rommel was advancing into Egypt from Libya and his name was chanted in the streets of Cairo. Farouk, who was anyway suspect, because of the numerous Italians in his entourage, was thought to be on the point of appointing a Prime Minister with pro-Axis sympathies, when the formidable figure of Sir Miles Lampson forced his way into his presence and present him with the choice of abdication or forming a Wafd under Nahas. The King gave way and reluctantly sent for Nahas.
After the War, the Egyptian government believed that the country’s fulfillment of its treaty obligations during the war gave it the right to generous treatment from Britain. The decision had anyway been taken to grant independence to India, removing the chief historical reason for the continued occupation of Egypt. In 1946 Britain accepted the principal of total evacuation, but once again failed to reach a firm agreement on terms; Egypt refused to accept British sovereignty over the Sudan. British troops remained in the Canal Zone, 80,000 of them, eight times as many as stipulated by the 1936 treaty, a constant affront to Egyptian pride.
The nationalists initially incensed by Farouk’s feeble capitulation and the Wafd’s wartime collaboration with Britain, was now an additional grievance. In the army, an organisation formed during the war by a brilliant young captain, Gamal Abdel Nasser, plotted the overthrow of the monarchy.
The regime tottered from crisis to crisis. In 1948 its ill trained and ill equipped army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the new state of Israel. In 1950 King Farouk turned in despair to his old enemies, the Wafd, who, still anxious to prove their soiled nationalist credentials, stepped up the anti-British campaign, denounced the 1936 treaty unilaterally and launched a sabotage and guerrilla campaign against the Suez Canal one.
In January 1952, after a particularly severe British act of retaliation against Ismailia Police Headquarters, which were being used as a centre for guerrilla activity, the frenzied Cairo mob burned the centre of the city, concentrating their fury on buildings with British and other foreign associations. It was not until the evening that either the King or the government made any move to call in the army to restore order.
When they did they were prompted by the real fear that the British might intervene from the Canal Zone. The King blamed the disaster on the Wafd and dismissed Nahas. But the country was now virtually ungovernable. As a result in July 1952, Nasser’s Free Officers were able to overthrow the monarchy and parliamentary regime with astonishing ease. The British made no attempt to intervene. At first, all went well with the new government. Whatever Britain’s doubts about the ability of a bunch of young colonels to govern Egypt, they seemed able to maintain order and protect foreign interests.
They also showed political sagacity by announcing their willingness to separate the Sudan question from that of the Suez Canal Zone and the British base- a move that could have solved Anglo-Egyptian difficulties at a stroke. It was also an astute move to oust Britain from the Sudan , and preserve Egyptian influence there. When, in 1951, Egypt’s Wafdist government declared Farouk King of Egypt and Sudan, and enacted its own Sudanese constitution, Britain refused to recognise the move and proceeded with plans for Sudanese self-government under a British Governor -General. The situation was completely changed by the Egyptian coup of 1952. The new regime formally accepted the right of the Sudanese to self-determination and therefore to the choice of independence.
In the end , a formula was found whereby the base installations would be maintained on a seven-year lease with a cadre of British civilians on contract to British firms. The final agreement was signed in Cairo on October 18, 1954. On March 31, 1956, some three months earlier than was provided for in the agreement, the last British troops pulled out of their base at Port Said.
At the signing of the 1954 agreement Nasser remarked:”A new era of friendly relations based on mutual trust, confidence and co-operation exists between Egypt and Britain and the Western countries. We want to get rid of the hatred in our hearts and start building up our relations with Britain on a solid basis of mutual trust and confidence which has been lacking for the past 70 years”. It was not to be. The antagonisms engendered during the negotiations over the Sudan and the Suez base grew into something much worse. In 1954 Gamal Abdel Nasser began to look far beyond Egypt’s borders towards a creation of neutral and independent Arab bloc under Egyptian leadership allied to other nations in Asia and Africa. The British government, still inclined to patronise Egypt as a natural Western satellite, soon came to regard Nasser’s revolutionary regime as a mortal danger to the remaining British interests in the Arab world. The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, developed an almost pathological hatred of Nasser whom he regarded as the source of all Britain’s troubles in the Middle East.
The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden developed a pathological dislike for Nasser and wanted to see him out of the way. Both the grounds and the opportunity were soon to be provided. In 1955, the Western Powers had not altogether given up hope of keeping Egypt within their orbit. Their weapon was two edged: economic control which would, it was assumed, lead to political control.
The U.S. and British governments began discussions with Egypt to finance the building of a huge dam on the Nile south of Aswan. Desperately worried by Egypt’s breakneck population growth, which was not being matched by increased production or exports, the Free Officers were pinning their hopes for the future on the dam.
In February 1956, a provisional agreement was announced by which the World Bank would lend $200,000,000 on condition that the U.S. And Britain would between them lend another $70,000,000 and Egypt would provide the equivalent of $900,000,000 in materials and labour.
The West attached stringent terms to the loan which Nasser hesitated to accept. When he finally made up his mind it was too late. Whether the British and U.S. Governments ever seriously expected the project to be approved by Congress and the British Parliament is doubtful, but by the summer of 1956 they had decide to administer a sharp rebuff to Nasser, intending to topple him or render him more pliable. On July 19, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, coldly informed the pro-America Egyptian Ambassador in Washington that the U.S. had decided not to give any aid to the dam because the Egyptian economy was too unstable for so large a scheme. The World Bank and Britain immediately withdrew their offers.
To their surprise Nasser retaliated. A few days later he told a vast cheering crowd in Alexandria that the Suez Canal - “our Canal” in his own forthright words - had been nationalised. Egypt would build the High Dam with the revenues from the Canal and if the imperialist powers did not like it they could “choke on their rage.”
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