The Nationalist Reaction to British Influence

British Invaded Egypt

The Egypt Uprising — the anti-British Involvement

Reasons for the war 6

Egyptian Bankruptcy

The Nationalist Reaction to British Influence

The British Invasion

The British invasion of Egypt occurred in 1882 and it is also known as the Anglo-Egyptian War. The war was between the British forces and the forces from Egypt and Sudan who were led by Ahmed ‘Urabi’. The war was fought on the pretext to stop a nationalist uprising in Egypt that against the khedive Tewfik Pasha. The war helped establish and expand the British Empire in Africa (E-International Relations, 2009).

The then ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Tewfik Pasha was considered a failed ruler and was accused of making wrong investments on behalf of the country. This led an Egyptian army officer, Ahmed ‘Urabi also known as Arabi Pasha, to orchestrate a mutiny against the ruler. The reason of the mutiny was apparently to protest against the disparity in pay between the Egyptians and Europeans (Jones 2014). But the British and the French, among whom Britain enjoyed good relations with Tewfik Pasha, sent a joint note that supported the rule of and asserted the supremacy of Tewfik Pasha. This event occurred in the month of January of 1882. The note was later rejected by the council now under the control of Urabi Pasha (McGregor 2006).

Soon after, Urabi Pasha created a new government and himself became the minister of war of Egypt. The new Egyptian government took a tough stand against European dominance and influence in the country while also sacking large numbers of Turco-Circassian officers from the army. However, the new government in Egypt was not favored by European powers, who had significant financial and economic interests in Egypt and the Suez canal (Spiers 2004). There was apprehension among the Europeans and especially the British that the new board in Egypt would undermine their financial interests in the country.

Consistent with their apprehensions, the new rule in Egypt opposed the European interests and of the many large landowners in the country. The other groups that also felt vulnerable by the new rule were the elites of the Turkish and Circassian origin, the high ranking Islamic ‘ulama’, Syrian Christians and the wealthiest families of the country. As happens in many rebellions and uprising, the uprising by Urabi Pasha enjoyed the tacit and direct support of most of the common citizens of among the Egyptian population that include the lower ulema, the local leaders and the officer corps.

In this context with rising concerns about the forfeit of their interest in the region, the British conducted an invasion of Egypt. The violence and the riots on the streets of Alexandria on the afternoon of June 11, 1882, was the triggering point of the invasion when the rebel forces of Egypt killed more than 50 Europeans. The invasion began with the bombardment of the city of Alexandria. The invasion essentially started as an intervention and gradually as the rebels against the European forces spread across the country, so did the scope of intervention of the British involvement (Spiers 2004). The invasion of Egypt was completed on September 13 with the capture of Urabi Pasha.

The Egypt Uprising — the anti-British Involvement

During the first half of the nineteenth century, a process of modernization of his governmental apparatus and functioning was initiated by Khedive Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt who ruled the country from 1811 to 1849. The modernization effort also extended to the army of the country and with a modern army Egypt was able to exert and extend its efforts and influence to the neighboring countries of Sudan, Syria and the Persian Gulf region. The intention was to create a dent in the Ottoman Empire that until then had a substantial influence over the region.

However, well-being of the general population of the country hardly changed. The majority of the people remained a class of agricultural laborers and farmers. They did not enjoy the fruits of modernization. Their lives flowed according to the flow of the Nile-just as their ancestor’s lives had been influenced by the changing tides of the Nile (Jones 2014). In comparison to most of the countries of Europe, Egypt remained a relatively backward country despite the modernization efforts and the extensive state-building exercises by the ruler. However, the efforts did reap some rewards such the extensive trade of Egyptian cotton in exchange for British goods after the 1850s. This was aided by the open trade policies and free economic measures adopted in 1846 by the British government ( 2011).

The incident of the accession of Khedive Ismail to the throne of Egypt is considered a turning point in the modern history of Egypt in 1863. He intended to centralize the power in order to create a strong state that was based on the model of the states and countries of Europe. This effort did bring in some social change in the country. It was during his rule that the epic construction of the Suez canal was completed and opened up for transit of ships. To show off the modernization efforts of the country, Egypt even participated in the Paris World Exhibition in 1867 (Spiers 2004).

The infrastructural expansion of the country began under his rule as railroads, telegraphs, harbors, schools and land irrigation projects were built at a rapid pace. Exports also increased dramatically during the rule of Ismail. But the big projects needed money and the ruler tried to get that by increasing taxes from the common people of the country. This was also the reason why the ruler and the country became dependent on foreign funds, aid and debt (Landes 1958).

At this point in history that Egypt became more integrated with European countries like Britain and France. The Suez Canal also began to gain importance as the main thread for the economic development of the surrounding regions. The British became increasingly economically entangled with Egypt and the Suez Canal. During this period, Alexandria became one of the major port cities of Egypt; historians estimate that more than 10000 Europeans had into the city by the year 1880. Thus the Europeans, especially Brtain and France, had deep rooted economic interests in Egypt by way of commerce and trade as well as by funding of projects in Egypt ( 2011).

It was also during this time that there was growing resentment within Egypt about the rising debt and the near bankruptcy of the country. The increasing influence of the European powers was also a source of bitterness of Ismail’s governance. This was the seed that grew into the nationalist rebellion that was led by the army captain Urabi Passha, which ultimately overthrew the government in Egypt. Fearing that their interests in Egypt would be hampered and the continuing resentment of the new government under Urabi Pasha against the Europeans kept the British on the edge. The sacking of a large number of Turco-Circassian officers forced the British to send their war ships to the Egyptian coast near Alexandria (Landes 1958).

Reasons for the war

Though there are conflicting beliefs and a point of historical debate about the reason behind the British sending their troops to the coast of Alexandria, it is an established fact that the British were concerned about the internal condition of Egypt. There are also reports that state that the British were concerned about the attitude of the new formed government under Urabi Pasha and their treatment of the Europeans (Brendon 2008). The possibility of the diminishing of the significant role of the British in the economy of Egypt was one of the prime reasons for the British to send troops to the coast of Alexendria. Their intention, according to many historians, was to intervene in the short-term, to stabilize the political condition of Egypt.Historians like Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher argue that the British wanted to douse the uprising under the leadership of Urabi Pasha and to protect the British interests in the Suez Canal so that the shipping route of the British through the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean was maintained.

However, historians like A.G. Hopkins rejected that theory stating from historical documents and second hand sources that the uprising in Egypt during 1880s did not have any presumed significant threat to the British interest in the Suez Canal and from the Urabi movement. He claimed that commentators of the time had claimed that the uprising was not chaotic but rather disciplined and structured maintained law and order (McGregor 2006). The real reason behind the British Parliament sending troops to the coast of Alexandria was to protect the financial and economic interest of the British people who had purchased and held bonds in the British investments made in Egypt in the preceding years. The measure manifested as a popular domestic effort at that time.

The construction of Suez Canal by the then Egyptian rulers had forced the country to accept great debts especially from the British. Moreover, British investment was also present in the numerous infrastructure projects going on in the country (McGregor 2006). Thus the British government and many of British citizens had massive economic and financial interest in Egypt. There were also large volumes of trade and commerce between the two countries. These reasons were combined with the then ruling Liberal party’s desire to gain local popularity in Britain by formulating and pursuing a militant foreign policy to gain in competition to the Conservative party. This is evident from one of the letters written by the British consul general in Egypt at the time, Edward Malet to a minister in the then government stating that the victory in the invasion of Egypt would increase the popularity and the power of the Liberal party and the government headed by the party (Brendon 2008).

Despite the ambiguity over the reason of the British to invade Egypt, the invasion was seen a temporary measure. The plan was that the British would retreat from the country after the establishment of a popular government and after restoration of law and order. However the invasion and occupation of Egypt that happened in September of 1882 continued for much longer than expected and planned by the British (Brendon 2008). The reason for the staying back of the British was their apprehension that once they left then Egypt would come under the influence of other European powers. For the British the Nile and the Seuz Canal was very important and there was fear that European powers could interfere into the Suez and the Nile as they possessed the technical resources to interfere with it. Apart from staying back Egypt, the British government also managed to convince and negotiated agreements through diplomacy and military maneuvers, the Italians and the Germans to stay away from the Nile and the Suez Canal. Bu the British were not able to rope in the French who were adamant that the British withdrew from Egypt (Landes 1958).

Egyptian Bankruptcy

During the modernization spree in Egypt under the rule of Ismail, the country had run into mountains of debt. The numerous and often unrealistic infrastructure projects needed funds from foreign sources. The Europeans were the ones to fund the projects but the biggest watershed in the economy was the construction of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian rulers. The mega million-dollar project took Egypt nearly to the brink of bankruptcy. The opposition to the ruler described Ismail as a reckless, ambitious, and voluptuous ruler who had taken the state to a condition where all of the elements that are indicative of a national bankruptcy and ruin reigned supreme and hovered menacingly over the economy (McGregor 2006). This condition of the economy had opened up doors for the European powers to make significant financial inroads into Egypt and influence the economy of the country.

More than 44% of the total stock of the Suez Canal was purchased by the then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who had purchased a large portion of the government share in the project in 1875. All these situations led to Egypt being declared as a bankrupt state in 1880. This resulted in the British being the largest creditor of the country. By the time Egypt was near bankrupt, more than 88% of the country’s exports went to Great Britain and nearly half of the imports were of British origin (Jones 2014). At the time of the British invasion in 1882, the debt of the Egyptian government rose from 3 million pounds to nearly 100 million pounds. This was under the rule of Ismail who ruled from 1863 to 1879.

Among the huge projects that Ismail undertook were the construction of the Suez Canal as already discussed, the hiring of former army men of the civil war in the United States in order to train and professionalize the national army of Egypt, building of more than a thousand miles of rail tracks and roads across Egypt, development of a deep-water port at the city of Alexandria to facilitate exports and imports, financing of land reclamation and irrigation projects with the aim of creation of more farm land and made payments to the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople so that they would allow his son Tewfik to succeed him to the throne of Egypt (O’Rourke 1936).

As a part of the modernization spree, Ismail also expended a large amount of money to increase and expand the cotton industry in Egypt. The cotton industry flourished during the period the civil war prevailed in the United States. Nevertheless, the cotton exports started to decline after the end of the U.S. civil war, which left the country with enormous debt and shrinking revenues from exports. Efforts of restructuring of the foreign debts that the country had made backfired and the country ended up paying more in interests to debt (McGregor 2006). The restructuring resulted in service fees on foreign loans absorbing a large part of their value leaving just half of the value to be used by the country.

The country neared bankruptcy in 1875 when its foreign debts remained at 46 million pounds despite the country having repaid 29 million pounds of the debt (O’Rourke 1936). At this stage, the then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, bought a major share of the Suez Canal from the Egyptian government and hence increased the British economic interest and stake in the stability of the country. The influence of the British in the economics of Egypt increased more after the Egyptian government requested the British government to send financial advisors to oversee the economy and the financial condition of the country. Recommendations were made in favor of more European investment in the country which increased the British and the French economic interest in Egypt in 1876 (Cleary 2015).

The Nationalist Reaction to British Influence

The Ismail government was under fire from a large section of the Egyptian population that included a section of the national army. The near bankruptcy of the country and the increasing taxes and lowering levels of life in the country had a big negative impact on the general population (E-International Relations, 2009). The nationalists were aggravated by the Egyptian debt as well as the continuous presence and influence of foreigners and the British in the Egyptian government. The abnormally low flooding of the Nile in 1876 and 1877 caused shortage of food and resulted in starvation like conditions in Upper Egypt. This provided the nationalists with an opportunity to come out against the rulers. The rising debts of the government resulted in the government not being able to make wage payments to the soldiers and the army. All these factors resulted in the nationalist uprising and a second rebellion against the ruling government over threw the Ismail government in June 1879 (Jones 2014).

However, in the melee that followed the toppling of the government and before the nationalists could propose an appropriate candidate to head the government, Ismail’s son Tewfik usurped the throne and took over reigns of the country. Tewfik was a favorite candidate of the British and the Europeans as they were confident that he would a weak ruler the Europeans could have their economic interests well protected under his rule. They also felt that their rising influence in the economics and internal affairs of the country would continue to grow as long as Tewfik remained at the helm of affairs.

However, to the utter disappointment of the British and the Europeans, Tewfik could not control the nationalists. The officers in the army of Egypt rose up against the ruler and another rebellion was brewing under his leadership. This was the opportunity that colonel Urabi Pasha was looking for. He gathered a rebellious army and toppled the government to become the minister of war of the country in 1881 (E-International Relations, 2009). During this time, though Tewfik continued to be the head, the government was essentially being run by nationalist leaders.

This was not a welcome thing for the Europeans, especially the British who had a huge economic interest in the country. In a note jointly sent by the British and the French in January of 1881, both the countries asserted their support for Tewfik against any force that tended to disturb the peace and law and order of the nation. This was understood by the Egyptian nationals as a signal of an impending invasion by the British and the French to protect the interests of Tewfik (Cleary 2015). This was aggravated by the British and the French sending out naval troops to the cost off the city of Alexandria a few months later on the pretext of protection of the interests of the Europeans residing in the region. There was rising tension within the country between the nationalists and the Europeans. This culminated in a riot in the city of Alexandria on June 11, 1882 in which more than 50 Europeans, including many British, were killed. The British bombed the city a month later to protect the deterioration law and order and try stop the rioters. This started the Egyptian war as soon after, Urabi Pasha sent his army to lay siege of Alexandria in response to the British bombardment.

The British Invasion

The bombardment of Alexandria was the trigger point of the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. The British naval forces that were present off on the coast of Alexandria were challenged by Egyptian and Sudanese forces led by Urabi Pasha, a rebel leader of Egypt and the then minister of war of the country (Cleary 2015). The British had sent the troops to the coast of Egypt citing that the country was nearing anarchy an given the anarchist nature of the ruling nationalist forces then ruling the country, the security of the Suez Canal would be under threat and that would affect the British trade interest in the East. The attack on Alexandria and the retaliation by the Egyptian army encouraged the British to embark on further intervention in Egypt and gradually the British forces first took over Alexandria and then moved forward into the interior of the country (E-International Relations, 2009).

Now, the British had sought the help of the European forces but neither the French, which also had substantial economic interest in Egypt, neither the other European forces, agreed to take part in the invasion. Hence, the British forces decided to go alone and started the Egypt offensive campaign in August 1882. The operations lasted just two months during which they took control of the Suez Canal and defeated the Egyptian army in the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Nationalist leaders including Urabi Pasha were captured and were sent to exile in Ceylon, a colony of the British (Jones 2014). The British had planned to make a fast retreat after the invasion. But they were forced to stay back in Egypt as there was no Egyptian government left to maintain law and order in the country. Therefore, the British decided to station their forces in Egypt until there was sufficient ground for withdrawal ( 2011).

There was however criticism of the British invasion. Many saw the invasion as an operation to protect the interests of the investors who had financial interests in Egypt. There was argument that the British government acted on the insistence of these investors and used tax payer’s money to protect their financial interests in Egypt. Another criticism of the operation was that the British was trying to establish a form of financial imperialism that was well planned and used debts and loans that were of questionable value in order to gain financial and economic interest and influence in local affairs of the host country (E-International Relations, 2009). Then the British used the pretext of default for an armed invasion into the host country.


The invasion of Egypt by the British in 1882 was more due to economic reasons than security concerns. It has been argued that the government in Egypt at the time of the invasion was capable enough to maintain law and order in the country and there seemed to be no perceptible threat to the Suez Canal. Others argue that by the 1880, Egypt had run into huge debts and most of the debts were from European countries. The British government as well as British private individuals had made substantial investment in the various infrastructure projects in the country. According to the critics of the operation, the British feared that a nationalist government in the country would not be favorable to their financial interest and influence and hence the invasion (Jones 2014).

References,. 2011. ‘BBC – History – British History In Depth: The Suez Crisis’.

Brendon, Piers. 2008. The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire, 1781-1997. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cleary, Vern. 2015. ‘Thesuez Canal And The British Conquest Of Egypt’. Webs.Bcp.Org.

E-International Relations,. 2009. ‘The British Invasion Of Egypt, 1882’.

Jones, J. 2014. ‘Egypt And Europe In The 19Th Century’. Courses.Wcupa.Edu.

Landes, David S. 1958. Bankers And Pashas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McGregor, Andrew James. 2006. A Military History Of Modern Egypt. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International.

O’Rourke, Vernon A. 1936. ‘The British Position In Egypt’. Foreign Affairs 14 (4): 698. doi:10.2307/20030771.

Spiers, Edward M. 2004. The Victorian Soldier In Africa. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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