In September, 1881, an Egyptian born officer, Colonel Arabi Pasha, rose up against the Khedive and demanded the dismissal of all his ministers. Britain and France were unsure of what they should do to protect their investments in the Suez Canal. They were agreed that the Ottoman Turks should not go to the rescue of what should have been an Ottoman colony. The Suez canal had become too strategically important to the Imperial powers to allow its ownership to fall into dispute or into hostile hands.
Arabi Pasha had chosen a good time to strike. He had succeeded in rousing his countrymen against the ruling clique of Turks and Levantines surrounding the corrupt Khedive. In fact, the Khedive was living far beyond his and his colony's means. It had been shortages of money that had led to his selling of his stake to the British just six years earlier in 1875. Arabi Pasha had also succeeded in talking the Egyptian officer class and many of the rank and file soldiers into overthrowing their imperial masters. Additionally, despite being overtly anti-European, Arabi Pasha was able to tap into some support from liberally minded politicians in Britain and France who were sympathetic with nationalist liberation movements in general and thought that Egyptians should be able to rule over themselves. In fact, the Turks had recently made themselves very unpopular in the British and European press due to various atrocities committed in the Balkans during the 1878 crisis. It was also known that the British Prime Minister Gladstone had come to office in part due to his opposition to needless imperial adventures and might be reluctant to order any necessary military intervention.
Whilst the British and French prevaricated, Arabi Pasha moved to consolidate his uprising. In January 1882 he declared a new constitution, sacked the prime minister and declared himself the minister of war. The British and French fumbled for some kind of diplomatically negotiated end to the crisis but found Arabi Pasha to be uncompromising and hostile to their approaches.
As it became clear that no deal was forthcoming, the British and French planned to send a combined fleet to the port of Alexandria to protect the sizable European community there. Unfortunately, the arrival of the combined fleet served only to heighten tensions. Only a few weeks later a row would erupt over a disputed fare between an Egyptian donkey boy and a Maltese man. This lead to a full scale riot breaking out around the city. Several hundred people were killed, including about 50 foreigners. As far as the British and French were concerned blame for these events was to be placed firmly at the door of Arabi Pasha.
Arabi Pasha had formed his own conclusions about the intentions of the fleet and ordered his commanders in Alexandria to start fortifying the city. New earthworks were thrown up, new gun batteries were brought into the city including modern Krupp guns which were aimed out at the Anglo-French fleet lying at anchor.
On June 10th, the British admiral, Sir Beauchamp Seymour, sent an ultimatum to the Egyptians. He threatened that if these new fortifications were not surrendered they would be destroyed by naval bombardment. It seemed as if a showdown could not be avoided. But it was at this point that tensions between the British and French gave Arabi Pasha renewed hope that he could indeed face down the imperial powers. A domestic political crisis in France saw its fleet being ordered back home. It seemed as if Britain might have to back down too. Arabi Pasha ignored Seymour's ultimatum and awaited further developments.