Egypt is one of the most prominent nations when one considers ancient civilizations and the continent of Africa. Early interactions with Europe came in the form of the Greeks and later, the Ancient Romans. Under the Ptolemaic rule, a small percentage of Greeks entered Egyptian society and spread Greek influence.
Similar to British citizens in India, the Greeks formed a new upper class in Egypt, but were not subject to the laws of the land they lived in. Similarly, they never considered themselves Egyptian, many only viewed themselves as Greeks living in another country. Roman rule left much of the Greek changes the same, only putting more Romans in power under the Greek system. Much later, France and the Ottoman Empire became involved in Egyptian affairs, as well. Napoleon ventured to Egypt in hopes of disrupting British trade and making the Suez Canal in order to become a stronger naval power. He began his campaign in Egypt trying to spur an overtaking of the Middle East. Though Napoleon ended up having to desert Egypt, there were several positive changes. He created libraries, laboratories, health care, and museums.
During this period, there was discontent among Egyptians, culminating in a 1798 uprising against Frenchmen in Cairo. When Muhammad Ali of the Ottoman Empire began ruling, with the support of the people, he completely altered Egypt into a land more similar to what we see today. His plan involved a modernized military, a better economy, and a dynasty that would be his own. He benefited the people by creating thousands of jobs by introducing new industries to the country. He also spurred the cultivation of cotton along the Nile, which generated significant revenue. People were able to achieve social mobility by gaining a European education.
British involvement and subsequent occupation of Egypt was prompted by a self-serving motive. There were several reasons for Britain to want to be involved with Egypt, but the main motive is connected to the Suez canal. As a global super power, especially one with major naval prowess, having control over different parts of the sea was crucial for success. In particular, the Indian Ocean was a desirable area because of its access to India and Asial.
India, as a colony, had resources that were necessary to Britain. The Suez canal reduced trips to India by 7,000 km. This substantial reduction made trade and interaction with the “jewel in the crown” more manageable and profitable.
Financial instability in the African country also made Britain remain in Egypt and become more engaged with its proceedings. Previously, in an effort to rapidly modernize through the Suez canal and other means, Egypt had gone bankrupt. As a result, France and Britain took control of culturally significant aspects of Egyptian life, including railways, ports, and finances. By stabilizing the nation, it would become much easier to work with the country and conduct trade. The government would also gain revenue by forcibly taxing Egyptian citizens. In addition to steep taxes, only 50 percent of the countries revenue would belong to Egypt with the remaining half going to European governments under the 1880 Law of Liquidation.
The year 1879 sparked a turning point for European interaction in the Northeast country; Colonel Ahmad Urabi began a revolt, fueled by the hatred of the current Khedive, Tawfiq Pasha, whom he viewed as a weak ruler who gave into European demands. He was against both the current leadership and the fact that foreign, British and French, powers held so much control in a nation that was not theirs. By 1882, Urabi had gained a number of allies who were put into government positions. After Britain and France attempted to maintain Tawfiq Pasha’s legitimacy via letter, Urabi obtained even more power. Later that same year, fifty Europeans were killed in riots that broke out in Alexandria, forcing active European intervention.
The British forces greatly outnumbered Urabi’s, 31,000 to 16,000, and he was defeated within days. Once Urabi’s forces were defeated in the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir on September 13, 1882, he and his followers were exiled to Sri Lanka. While Britain was in power, the Egyptian figurehead Tawfiq Pasha kept his position with the actual power belonging to Lord Cromer, who adhered to British interests. He viewed Egyptians as incompetent rulers who needed tight control from outside forces in the form of direct rule. This view is emphasized by his statement: “It is absurd to suppose Europe will look on as a passive spectator whilst the retrograde government based on purely Muhammadan principles and oriental ideas, is established in Egypt.
The material interests at stake are too important.” He shared this message in 1916 while describing Britain’s goals for Egypt. His disdain was evident, and Baring ruled with his view of islamic inferiority in mind. Lengthy British occupation, British officials in office, and compliant Egyptian “rulers” were his steps towards success. For militaristic power, the old military, which had been in place during the mutinies, was disbanded and re-organized under a British model. Additionally, there was a major shift in agriculture cotton becoming a cash crop.
This was enforced so Britain could have cotton to resell at a higher price in the Egyptian market. This gave the European nation more control. A veiled protectorate, in which Egyptian rulers were actually ruled by the British, was also put in place. Understandably, the average Egyptian was frustrated with life as both a veiled protectorate and an official one. Despite some improvement to the nation under this rule, the invasion of the British in all aspects of life was toxic; the British were taking historical artifacts and their natural resources. The overall population suffered from low literacy rates and a larger wealth gap. A new hierarchy emerged, with the upper class working alongside the British, the middle class working in stores and factories, and a lower class that picked cotton.
Some of the few characteristics that remained the same were the major religion and the strong nationalism. Ironically, access to European education led to the creation of an educated upper class that would later form revolutions, similar to the start of Indian resistance.