From Muhammad Ali to Nasser

March 1 2008

Egypt was a khediviate from 1805. Was it the only khediviate there has ever been? Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman general who had helped to drive out Napoleon, set himself up as an independent monarch, and used this Persian word khedive. Abdulaziz I, the Ottoman emperor, recognised it during the reign of Muhammad Ali’s grandson, Ismail Pasha, in 1867, while remaining the nominal suzerain. He also accepted Ismail’s decision that the line of succession should go from father to son, rather than brother to brother, which was the tradition in the Arab world and the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleon had dreamed of a Suez Canal. In the 1850s Egypt granted a concession to the French. The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez constructed it between 1859 and 1869, using Egyptian forced labour. The Canal was on Egyptian sovereign territory. The concession was for 99 years from the opening: the Company’s rights were to revert to Egypt in 1968.

France was the majority shareholder, but Egypt held a large stake. Britain, the United States, Austria and Russia held a smaller number of shares. In 1875 a financial crisis forced Ismail Pasha to sell his shares to the British government. The Columbia Encyclopedia says that the sale made Britain the largest shareholder. Other online sources say that France retained majority ownership. In either case, the Company remained under French and British control until Nasser nationalised it. Why did the French interest in the Company not make them more politically aggressive in Egypt?

The Canal had an immediate effect on world trade. It gave Britain a direct route to India and made the colonisation of East Africa easier. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, moving in to protect the Canal from a nationalist-dominated government. Sir Evelyn Baring (from 1892, Baron Cromer; from 1899, Viscount Cromer; from 1901, the Earl of Cromer) was Consul-General from 1883 to 1907 and did much to seal the unpopularity of the British. He was followed by Sir Eldon Gorst from 1907 to 1911 and by Lord Kitchener from 1911 to 1914.

In 1914, the British deposed the Khedive Abbas II, because he had sided with Turkey, and Egypt became a British protectorate, Abbas’s son Husayn taking the title of Sultan. The legal fiction of Ottoman sovereignty was thereby ended. Egyptian nationalists believed the protectorate to be a temporary arrangement that would be changed after the war. There were serious nationalist uprisings in 1919.

The protectorate was ended in 1922, following the recommendation of a commission headed by Lord Milner, who had been Undersecretary of Finance under Cromer. Husayn’s brother Fuad was promoted to King and Egypt, though it had never formally been a colony, was recognised as independent. But British troops remained there. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928.

Fuad’s son Farouk succeeded in 1936 and the military occupation in turn ended in most of the country – but a large number of troops remained to protect and control the Suez Canal.

Egypt had controlled the Sudan since the 1820s. The Sudanese Mahdists – Islamists – rebelled in 1881. They defeated Anglo-Egyptian punitive expeditions, and Britain and Egypt decided to abandon Sudan. Gordon, sent to evacuate the troops, was killed at Khartoum in 1885. But in the 1890s the British decided to return. In a series of campaigns between 1896 and 1898 an Anglo-Egyptian force under Herbert (later Lord) Kitchener destroyed the power of the Mahdists. Agreements in 1899 (reaffirmed by the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936) established the condominium government of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which lasted until 1956. Under the condominium, Sudan was administered by a British governor-general. The Sudanese continued to oppose colonial rule and the Egyptians resented their subordinate role to the British. After the 1952 revolution, Britain and Egypt agreed to prepare Sudan for independence, which happened in 1956.

Nasser deposed Farouk in 1952 and installed a military regime which has lasted until now. (Farouk seems such a figure of the past, and was so portly when deposed, that it is odd to think that he would now only be in his eighties. He was born in 1920 and died in exile in Rome in 1965.) Farouk’s son, Fuad II, briefly succeeded him. The Republic of Egypt was established in 1953.

Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, Britain had withdrawn its troops from the rest of Egypt, but retained a vast military complex at Suez. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty. In 1954, the UK agreed to pull its troops out. No sooner had the withdrawal been completed than Nasser, surely predictably, nationalised the Suez Canal Company.

The Suez Canal, thought to be vital to the British Empire, was suddenly in the hands of a hostile foreign power. Worse, the withdrawal from the Suez base had made a swift reprisal impossible. Eden thought that if he had American support Nasser would be forced to back down, but the Americans refused to cooperate. Direct military intervention with the French ran the risk of angering Washington and damaging Anglo-Arab relations still further. Yet to do nothing would mean the collapse of British prestige in the region. Eden, under domestic pressure from Conservative MPs who drew direct comparisons between the events of 1956 and those of Munich in the 1930s, was driven into a secret military pact with France and Israel that aimed at regaining control of the Canal. The invasion was the last significant attempt Britain made to impose its military will abroad without US approval. It was followed by an ignominious retreat.

In 1958 Egypt joined Syria to form the United Arab Republic. The union ended in 1961, but Egypt kept the name. Israel defeated Egypt in 1967 and Egyptian public morale collapsed. Nasser died in 1970. In 1971 the country was renamed the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Egypt controlled Gaza (which had been part of the British Mandate of Palestine) between 1948 and 1967. It barred Israeli shipping from the Canal in 1949. (Israel used it for a brief period in 1951-2.) Israel occupied both Gaza and Sinai, up to the east bank of the Canal, in 1967. The Canal remained closed by an Egyptian blockade until 1975. Israel gained access under its peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. The Treaty led also, in 1982, to Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai.

See this post for some remarks by Toynbee on Anglo-Egyptian relations.

9 Responses to “From Muhammad Ali to Nasser”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    From 1886, illuminated buoys allowed ships to pass through the Suez Canal at night.


  2. […] From Muhammad Ali to Nasser […]

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Israel developed the port of Sharm el-Sheikh during its occupation of Sinai.


  4. […] French culture in Egypt March 5, 2009 From Muhammad Ali to Nasser […]


  5. […] option. In the Sudan the British destroyed the Mahdist regime root and branch; in the name of an Anglo-Egyptian condominium they established what was, in effect, direct British rule; and they immediately founded Gordon […]


  6. […] served under Kitchener in 1898 with the 21st Lancers, a cavalry regiment, in an Anglo-Egyptian war against the successor of the Mahdi who had killed Gordon in 1885. He took part in the last full […]


  7. […] The British-occupied Khediviate had ended in 1914 and Egypt had become a British-protected Sultanate. In 1922, after these agitations, Egypt became an “independent” kingdom. Even then, some British troops remained until 1936, and in the Canal Zone until 1954. It is hard, from these facts, to see how 1919 can have felt like a revolution, but it did to the Egyptians. I sketched the story of Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Nasser here. […]

  8. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee, Vol VII:

    “In response to the challenge of the French occupation, British troops had already set foot on Egyptian soil from the 8th March, 1801, to March 1803; but on this first occasion they had come by invitation of the lawful sovereign of Egypt, the Ottoman Pādishāh, and in the company of a Turkish expeditionary force.”


  9. […] Sir Lee Oliver Fitzmaurice Stack (1868-1924) was a British army officer and Governor-General of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. On 19 November 1924, he was assassinated while driving through […]


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