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.

It was the strategic foresight of Napoleon that first pointed out the importance of Egypt to Britain. In 1798, he had the audacity of landing an army in Egypt that promptly defeated the Mameluke Army at the Battle of the Pyramids. All of a sudden, British alarm bells began ringing as they realised that their profitable Indian Empire was under direct threat. Fortunately, the Royal Navy was able to save the day, as Nelson destroyed the French Fleet at the battle of Aboukir Bay. Stranded, there was little that the French army could do and Napoleon promptly abandoned them to their fate. A British Army was landed and defeated the remnants of the French force at the Battle of the Sphinx. The French surrendered in 1801

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.

Establishment of Formal Relations

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. This stance was primarily undertaken as a counterweight against Russian influence in Eastern Europe, but it meant that the British found themselves defending Turkish interests in a number of unlikely areas. One such area was to be that of Lebanon, Syria and the Holy Lands in the 1830s. In 1832, Muhammed Ali took advantage of a Russia defeat of the Ottomans by declaring Egypt as independent. Emboldened by the plight of the Ottomans, he advanced into their Near East dependencies. At the time, there were serious political implications in Europe as the French and Russians tried to gain capital out of the ailing Ottoman fortunes. 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. Although, Egypt's inability to pay for these modern conveniences was not yet thought to be a barrier to trade.

Kasr El Nile Bridge
Kasr El Nile Bridge

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 outmanouevered 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 staive 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
Suez Canal Shares

Unfortunately for Egypt, the money raised buy 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.

General View
Cairo and The Pyramids
The unusual circumstances that conspired to give Britain such power and influence over Egypt also meant that she could not technically be considered a colony. Egypt had not been discovered by the British, nor had they requested British suzerainty. 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. 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. Although throughout the occupation the facade of khedivial 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.

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 Franch should have a free hand in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Educated Egyptians were less convinced of the merits of European control as they saw all the most important decisions and jobs remaining in British hands. A growing tide of nationalism was beginning to find its leaders.

The Great War was to temporarily increase imperial control over Egypt. At the outbreak of war, Britain declared that Egypt was now a protectorate. The fate of the Suez Canal was just too serious to take any chances. Indeed, Britain declared that the Canal was closed to all but allied and neutral shipping - despite international agreements to the contrary. Also, when the Ottomans joined the Central Powers, Egypt found itself on the front line of action. Fortunately, events were to prove that the country was not in serious danger, and the war passed rather uneventfully but for the imposition of martial law.

However, with peace came nationalism. The international climate was promoting the ideas of home rule and independence. Egypt's nationalists, temporarily, saw how the rest of the Ottoman Empire was being divided up and wanted to be granted similar rights. Riots broke out and Lord Allenby and Milner were despatched from Britain to try and ascertain what to do next. They quickly came to the conclusion that it was better to grant independence to pro-British Egyptians rather than wait for nationalists to take power for themselves. In 1922, the protectorate was officially ended. However, Britain still reserved four matters to their own discretion: the security of imperial communications, defense, 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. And, in fact, this was demonstrated in 1942 when the King wanted to appoint some government ministers who were dangerously anti-British. In effect, the British launched a mini-coup and forced the King to reconsider. He was left in no doubt as to who the real power brokers were.

Economics of Empire
In the early years of the occupation, when Egyptian finances were in disarray, French hostility to British actions was a serious problem. It was difficult to take bold and effective action. However, from 1889 onward there was a budget surplus and consequently greater freedom of action for the Egyptians and the British. A moderate degree of international agreement over Egypt was attained by the Convention of London (1885), which secured an international loan for the Egyptian government. The previous governments may well have been profiligate spenders, but they at least left an infrastructure that was the envy of nearly all other African and Middle Eastern powers. Cotton, light industry and agriculture were all consistent earners for the government. And, it was also one of the first non-European countries to exploit tourism. They also benefitted from the world wars. They were able to supply the allied countries with food and materials. It was the relative economic strength of the country that enabled Britain to declare self-rule for the country in what was an unusually early time frame for decolonisation.
Role within the Empire
The foremost British interest in Egypt was always because of its strategic position. However profitable contracts and business was in the country, it was the fact that Egypt lay between Britain and India that made it so vitally important for the British. This was true even before the Suez Canal was built but was magnified exponentially after it had been completed. It was the communications and transportation hub of the British Empire. British sensitivity to disturbances in the area were partly responsible for the occupation of Egypt in the first place. Further disturbances in Sudan were also to draw British attention to the area. During World War I, Egypt was found to be an extremely useful staging post to launch attacks on the Ottoman Empire. Whereas, in World War II, it was Italian and German interest in the strategic value of the country that led to it being such a bitter battleground.

However, it was to be the British themselves who finally pulled the rug from under their own feet. In 1947, India became independent. In this one action, British rationale for holding on to any power over Egypt and the Suez Canal had been lost. Egypt was no longer the epicentre of the Empire. New Superpowers were waiting in the wings to usurp European power and influence. And, nationalists took heart from the move in international sentiments. Britain was hanging on to the Suez Canal by her fingertips.

Withdrawal from Empire
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. Riots and bombs were directed at both the British and the ruling Egyptian party who were identified as being pro-British. Primarily due to the problem of having to renegotiate the treaties of 1922. Nationalists were concerned that too many compromises were being made. The Prime-Minister was assassinated in 1948. Guerilla warfare broke out in the Canal Zone. By 1951 a state of emergency had to be declared.

The state of emergency exacerbated the political problems. British anti-guerilla actions were followed by huge riots in Cairo. The Prime-minister resigned and was followed by four more in just the next six months. Egypt was ripe for a coup. It was just a matter of who would initiate it. Would it come from the Left or the Right? It was to be the army who filled the political vacuum. They ousted the Royal family in 1952 by Colonel Nasser. Almost immediately, Nasser's authority was challenged by General Nequib and the religious right. Nasser managed to gather a coalition of the security forces and working class citizens to hold on to power.

Interestingly, Nasser was actually a surprisingly moderate and pro-Western leader at first. He quite happily negotiated the independence of Sudan in 1954 (This had been a serious sticking point with previous regimes). Somewhat controversially in Egypt, he also signed an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1954 whereby Britain would gradually withdraw its troops. It was actually to be Cold War concerns that pushed Nasser away from the West.

Israel's repeated mini-attacks on the Gaza strip was one of the first areas of embarrassment to the Nasser regime. The inability of an army led government to defend itself was particularly embarrassing. At this point, Britain was only guilty of association. Israel was a friend of America, America was a friend of Britain. However, this event started a series of dominoes falling. Aggrieved at American support for Israel, Egypt turned to Russia for military aid. When this was granted, the Americans withdrew funding for the High Aswan Dam and requested Britain do the same. When the British complied, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company in 1956 to finance the dam. In its subsequent attack on Egypt in October 1956, Israel was joined by the British, who were enraged by the nationalization, and the French, who were angered by Egyptian aid to the revolt in Algeria. Pressure on the invading powers by the United States and the Soviet Union, however, soon ended the so-called Suez War, leaving Nasser triumphant (despite his military losses) and with the Suez Canal firmly in Egyptian hands. Britain's power in the Middle East had been lost once and for all. The Superpowers had eclipsed the Colonial powers.

map of Egypt
Imperial map of Egypt
Maps of Imperial Era Egypt
Imperial era Flags of Egypt
Old Flags of Egypt
Images of Imperial Era Egypt
Historical Egypt
National Archive Egypt Images
Hotel Posters
From Suez to Khartoum
Stuart Legg explains how and why Britain became involved in Egyptian affairs and how that involvement spilled ever further south into the deserts of Sudan.

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The Life and Times of a Customs Officer
P. B Sweeney recalls the 18 day voyage from Britain to Mombasa through the Suez Canal.

Significant Individuals
Gamal Abdul Nasser
1798 Napoleon arrives in Egypt to destroy British trade and influence in the area. He defeats a Mameluke army at the Battle of the Pyramids. But, the British destroy his fleet at Aboukir Bay.
1799 Napoleon conquers Middle and Upper Egypt before he returns to France.
1801 The French in Cairo and Alexandria are compelled to surrender to the British.
1805 Mohammed Ali proclaims himself Pasha
1807 With the support of the Mamelukes he defeats the British forces which had occupied Alexandria and Rosetta and forces them to withdraw.
1827 In the Battle of Navarino in the Greek War of Independence the Turkish and Egyptian fleets are annihilated.
1832 After Turks defeated by Russians, Mohammed Ali shakes off Ottoman Suzerainty and advances into Syria.
1839 The Turkish Government tries again to enforce its authority over Mohammed Ali. The Turkish Army is annihilated at Nisibin. After the death of Sultan Mahmud II the entire Turkish fleet, under Ahmed Pasha, the Turkish High Admiral, goes over to Mohammed Ali. However, the European powers intervene, and the Egyptians are defeated in Lebanon by a British and Austrian expeditionary force. A fleet appears off Alexandria and compels Mohammed Ali to submit
1841 The Turkish Government grants hereditary soveriegnty to Mohammed Ali and his heirs.
1848 Mohammed Ali dies. Replaced by Abbas I
1854 Said takes over. He is an enthusiastic moderniser and supports construction of the Suez Canal.
1858 Alexandria to Suez Railway Opened
1867 Ismail is made Khedive of Egypt and achieves political autonomy. However, he embarks on a hugely expensive modernisation programme.
1869 Suez Canal opened
1875 Disraeli buys the Khedive's 40% holding in the Suez Canal company. Britain is now the largest single shareholder.
1876 Anglo-French control of Egyptian finances
1879 Khedive Ismail forced to abdicate by Ottoman Sultan
1881 British and French stewardship brings finances under control. However, this loss of independence causes a nationalist uprising led by Urabi Pasha.
1882 British forces land at Alexandria. French forces were intended to take part in the operation but domestic political problems precluded their involvement. The British bombardment of Alexandria and the defeat of the Nationalists at Tel-El-Kebir means that British power is now paramount in Egypt.
1883 The Mahdi leads a revolt in the Sudan. His forces defeat two Egyptian columns led by British officers (Hicks Pasha and Baker Pasha)
1884 Gordon sent to Khartoum to organise its evacuation. He remains there and is killed by the Mahdi's forces.
1885 Britain and France declare the Suez Canal neutral.
1892 Abbas II Hilmi becomes the Khedive, but his actions are limited by the British authorities.
1896 General Kitchener launches British and Egyptian army to recapture the Sudan.
1898 Mahdists defeated at Omdurman. Potential flashpoint with French at Fashoda is averted.
1899 Sudan declared to be an Anglo-Egyptian condominium.
1900 First Cairo to Khartoum Train runs
1902 Aswan Dam completed.
1904 French confirm that British power is preeminent in Egypt. Upsurge in Anti-European feeling.
1908 Gorst tells Egyptians that they are unripe for self-government
1909 Congress of Egyptian Youth demands withdrawal from Egypt
1914 Britain orders all foreign vessels out of Suez canal. Also, declares Egypt a protectorate
1915/17 Turkish and Senussi attacks on Egypt are repelled
1918 Ottomans defeated
1919 More troops are sent to Egypt to deal with nationalist unrest. Riots in November. Britain grants constitution to Egypt. Allenby appointed Special High Commissioner
1921 Rioting in Cairo and Alexandria
1922 Egypt declared independent, but with Britian retaining responsibility for maintenance of communications, defence, protection of European interests and the question of Sudan. Sultan Fuad becomes King Fuad I. Tutankhamen discovered.
1929 Britain agrees to withdraw some troops from Egypt, but not from canal zone.
1935 Anti-British riots. Two dead, 88 hurt.
1936 Farouk becomes King. Anglo-Egyptian treaty signed.
1929 Farouk declared to be the Caliph
1940 Italians bomb Suez Canal and enter Egypt from Libya.
1942 British force King to reappoint a more Pro-British government.
1945 Premier Ahmed Maher Pasha is shot dead
1946 Anti-British riots, bomb explodes in British Services Club in Alexandria.
1951 State of Emergency declared
1952 Military Coup. General Neguib comes to power. King Farouk leaves Egypt
1953 Britain and Egypt discuss future of Suez Canal. British families advised to leave Egypt.
1954 Britain agrees to withdrawal of 65,000 servicemen. Nasser ousts Neguib.
1955 Israelis raid Egyptian held Gaza strip. Britain and Egypt agree to independence of Sudan.
1956 Nasser assumes full executive powers and nationalises Suez Canal Company. Expels British, French and Zionist residents. British, French and Israeli forces react. But, diplomatic problems force the withdrawal of the British and French armies. Israel keeps Gaza strip.
Governors of Egypt
Sir Evelyn Baring
(Lord Cromer)
1885 - 1907
Sir Eldon Gorst
1907 - 1911
Field Marshall Lord Kitchener
1911 - 1914
Witness: Suez
A BBC audio program about the Suez Canal Crisis
Suggested Reading
Abbas II
by Sir Evelyn Baring1915

Modern Egypt
by Sir Evelyn Baring1909

War on the Nile

Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954
by Joel Beinin

Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution
by J Berque

Objective: Egypt
by Gregory Blaxland1966

The Regiments depart
by Gregory Blaxland

Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt

Victorian Military Campaigns

Egypt From Independence to Revolution: 1919-1952
Selma Botman

The Leisure of an Egyptian Official
by Lord Edward Cecil

The Making of Modern Egypt
by Auckland Colvin

Challenging Colonialism: Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920-1941
by Eric Davis

Victoria's Enemies

Tinker, Tailor, and Textile Worker: Class and Politics in Egypt, 1930-1952
by Ellis Goldberg

Report of the British Naval and Military Operations in Egypt

The Baghdad Air Mail
by Wing Commander Roderic Hill

Tales of Empire: British in the Middle East
by Derek Hopwood

Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs The Search for Egyptian Nationhood 1900-1930
by I Gershoni

Redefining the Egyptian Nation: 1930 - 1945
by I Gershoni

Power And Passion In Egypt: A Life Of Sir Eldon Gorst
by Archie Hunter

Suez: the Forgotten Invasion
by Robert Jackson

Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East
by John Keay

Queen Victoria's Enemies

Egypt Since Cromer
by Lord Lloyd

Egypt 1879 - 1883

The British in Egypt

Anglo-Egyptian Relations: 1800 - 1953
by John Marlowe

Arab Nationalism and British Imperialism: A Study In Power Politics
by John Marlowe

Cromer in Egypt
by John Marlowe

Egypt and Cromer
by Alaf Lufti al-Sayyid Marsot

Egypt's Liberal Experiment, 1922-36
by Alaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot

Military history of the Campaign of 1882

England in Egypt
by Alfred M Milner

Curzon: The Last Phase 1919-1925. A Study in Post-War Diplomacy.
by Harold Nicolson

Cotton and the Egyptian Economy 1820-1914: A Study in Trade and Development
by E Owen

Colonial Bridgehead: Government and Society in Alexandria, 1807-1882
by Michael Reimer

Social and Diplomatic Memoirs
by Rennell Rodd

Suez 1956 The Crisis and its Consequences
by William Roger Louis

Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt
by Robert Tignor

Egypt and the Sudan
by Gabriel Warburg

Lord Cromer (Official Biography)
by Lord Zetland

For Colonial Egyptian Items