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Modern History of Egypt

Modern History of Egypt

French Occupations

On the pretext of securing the authority of the Ottoman Sultan in Egypt, and incidentally protecting the interests of the European merchants, Napoleon invaded Egypt in July 1798. In reality, however, the French invasion was another campaign designed to control the land route and ultimately the sea route to India, thwarting the British advances in the Indian Ocean. The French weren’t able to hold the country for long, active local resistance and British intervention forced them to capitulate and leave for Europe by September 1801.


The Mohammed Ali Dynasty

As soon as the French evacuated Egypt the Albanian regiment, under their commander Mohammed Ali, revolted against the Ottomans, who were ruling Egypt at the time. The people of Cairo turned to Mohammed Ali to restore order and the Ottoman Sultan duly confirmed their choice naming him viceroy. He founded a dynasty that ruled until June 1952.

Mohammed Ali restored public order and engaged upon a reform of education and medical practice. His navy and army were second to none in Europe and managed to create a large Egyptian empire. He was so successful that an attempt to restore the authority of the Ottoman Sultan over Egypt failed. This led to the European intervention, for the British, Russian and Austrian empires hastened to support the "sick man" - meaning the Ottoman Empire - and imposed a new settlement which asserted Ottoman authority, reduced his forces and confiscated his possessions. The only consolation which Mohammed Ali got was that the office of viceroy would be hereditary in his line, developing upon the eldest male.

Mohammed Ali died in August of 1849 and was succeeded by the eldest of his line Abbas I, a grandson. After ruling only for five years, however, Abbas I was murdered in 1854. More popular was the third viceroy, Said Pasha. He granted the charter to build the Suez Canal in 1856 to de Lesseps the French, however, the British were not to be ignored and they were given the concessions for the formation of a telegraph company and the Bank of Egypt. Said incurred the National Debt by borrowing from the European bankers. He died in 1863 and was succeeded by Ismail, a son of Mohammed Ali’s brother.

During the reign of Ismail many great schemes for modernization of Egypt were undertaken, covering the administrative system, education, communications and transport. These plans however, involved further European interference and heavy taxation of the population. Citing Egypt’s foreign debts, France and Britain imposed a receivers commission, which forced Ismail to reduce his army and surrender both public and private property, including all of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal. In 1879 the controlling powers appealed to the sultan to depose of Ismail and name his eldest son Tawfik his successor.

British Occupation

Ismail’s son Tawfik wasn’t able to withstand either European pressure or the nationalist fervor that arose to resist it. Using an internal political crisis and the protection of foreign interests as their excuse, the British finally intervened outright. Although their presence in Egypt was supposed to be temporary, their occupation of the country lasted more than 70 years.

Tawfik Pasha reformed the Egyptian economy and relinquished financial control to the British who began to run the government of the country. Egyptian nationalists, horrified at Tawfik's submission to the British, forced him to appoint their leader Ahmed Orabi as Minister of War, but the European reaction was swift and violent. Alexandria was shelled and Ismailiyya occupied. Orabi's army was defeated at Tel El Kabir and the British reinstalled Tawfik as a puppet. Orabi was driven into exile and Mustafa Kamil became the leader of the nationalist movement.

British influence over Egypt continued to increase. The country became an economic colony, totally dependent upon the import of British manufactured goods and the export of its raw cotton.

Tawfik’s eldest son Abbas II came to the throne in 1892. A young idealist with little political experience, he wished to ease British control of the administration. British’s occupation with recovery of the Sudan from the Mahdiyyah, and their confrontation with the French as a result, left Egypt in relative calm. Abbas II’s 20 years reign is remembered as one of Cairo’s golden ages because of a new building program.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British declared Egypt a protectorate and deposed of Abbas Helmi, replacing him with his uncle Husayn Kamil, who was govern the title of Sultan. Egypt was thus informed that its 400-year- old role as an Ottoman province had come to an end. When Husayn Kamil died in 1917, the British chose Fuad, Ismail’s sixth son to succeed him.

Opposition to British rule crystallized among the elite during the war and was encouraged by Sultan Fuad. A delegation was formed to speak on behalf of the people, but the British refused to give permission to its leader Saad Zaghlul to go to discuss independence. As a result, a mass uprising occurred which is referred to as the 1919 revolution. In 1921, Egypt was declared an independent sovereign state, though the control of the defense, communication, the Sudan and protection of foreign residents remained under British control. In 1923, a constitution was promulgated.

King Fuad died in 1936, and was followed by his son Faruq. Soon after his accession a new treaty was negotiated that abolished British military presence except in time of war to the Suez Canal zone. With the outbreak of World War II, the British reoccupied the country, as the terms of 1936 treaty entitled.

Growing Zionist claims in Palestine and the crisis in Lebanon initiated in 1944 an Arab conference in Alexandria, during which the foundations of the Arab league were laid. At the same time, popular resentment against the British increased. In February 1946, the students organized riots and fighting occurred with the British troops. In May the British declared their intention to withdraw troops from Egypt, and by July 1948 an interim measure of self-government was granted. Clashes continued, however, between the Egyptians and the British forces in the Canal Zone. The same year the Arab world suffered a shattering blow when a joint Arab invasion of the newly declared state of Israel was ignominiously defeated by the smaller Israeli army. Ashamed and appalled by the decadence and gross incompetence of their leaders, a group of idealistic young Egyptian officers were to emerge as leaders of a revolution which would alter the course of modern Arab history.

The Egyptian Republic

When parliamentary elections were held in 1952 the Wafd Party won the majority of seats and Nahas Pasha as prime minister repealed the 1936 treaty which gave Britain the right to control the Suez Canal. King Farouk dismissed the prime minister, igniting anti-British riots which were put down by the army.

This event compelled, a secret group of army officers which became known as the Free Officers, to seize power and force Egypt’s ruler to abdicate in favor of his son, Ahmed Fuad. Eleven month later the young king was likewise dispossessed. Egypt was declared a republic and was ruled by General Mohammed Naguib. In July 1954 negotiations with the British resulted in an agreement to withdraw all foreign troops within 20 months, although the bases in the Canal Zone were to be kept operational. On 22 June Nasser was elected president and one of the immediate actions was the redistribution of land among the farmers. Land reform was put into effect, breaking up the large feudal estates into smaller parcels of land and redistributing land to the fellaheen who for millennia had been an underclass of serfs. Prior to the revolution, Egypt had been an elitist society with few if any state-sponsored benefits to the large majority of the population. The new government established extensive free educational programs for both boys and girls and developed the country's medical infrastructure.

In 1956, to compensate for the abrogation of promises from the British and the Americans to help build the new High Dam at Aswan, the Suez Canal company was nationalized. The Canal was a symbol of European power to Europeans as well as to Egyptians. The French and British therefore responded three months later by supporting Israel, which had already conducted raids within Egyptian territory several times. This tripartite aggression gave them control of Sinai and the Canal Zone. The UN ordered an immediate cease-fire and under pressure from the USA the aggressors agreed to withdraw.

In 1957 all commercial agencies, banks and companies were fully Egyptainsed in management and capital. On June 5th 1967, another Israeli attack resulted in the loss of Sinai Peninsula. Israel continued its aerial attacks until 1970 when a truce was agreed upon.

Nasser expressed vehement opposition to Israel and outspoken criticism of the West. His relations with the West, however, were complex. He knew that he could never develop Egypt without large infusions of foreign aid and he knew that the West was the most reliable source of this aid. Yet he came to discover that the more anti-Western his stance appeared to be, the more foreign aid he was offered by western countries to buy his moderation. When at one point in his regime he became more conciliatory to the west, his foreign aid dropped dramatically. As a founding-leader of the Non-aligned movement Nasser could have it both ways. Along with India's Nehru and Indonesia's Sukarno, Gamal Abdel Nasser became a major international power-broker in the politics of the developing world.

His death in 1970 of a heart attack sent shock waves throughout the Arab world. In a stunning display of emotion, millions of Egyptians followed his funeral procession through the streets of Cairo.

Anwar al-Sadat, one of the group of officers and Nasser’s vice-president ruled the country after Nasser’s death. After much planning Israeli-occupied Sinai was invaded by the Egyptian army on 6 October 1973. The Egyptian attack against the Israeli forces was unprecedented success and revolutionized the tactics of warfare. Shortly after restrictions on foreign investment and exchange control were lifted and an Open Door Policy was launched.

Following victory in Sinai Sadat took the courageous step of negotiating peace talks on the withdrawal of Israel from the rest of the occupied Sinai and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Sadat was succeeded by the President Hosni Mubarak. He started quickly to rebuilt both his country’s infrastructure and its relations with the rest of the world. Mubarak accelerated the process of privatization and developed Egypt’s tourist infrastructure which enhanced its lucrative tourist industry. More impressively, he managed to resume diplomatic and trade relations with moderate Arab countries while maintaining the treaty with Israel. By the end of the 1980s Egypt was once again playing a leading role in Arab politics. Egypt’s vital role in support of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the Gulf War combined with death of socialist-communist influence in the Arab world returned the country to the center of Middle Eastern politics.

Last Updated on Sunday 16th January 2011

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