The House of Muh.ammad 'Alî in Egypt, 1805-1953 AD
Egypt was abruptly pulled into modern history with the
invasion of Napoleon in 1798. Although Egypt had been conquered by the Turks in
1517, the strange slave dynasty of the Mamlûks had continued and by Napoleon's
time had reestablished de facto authority in the declining Empire. After the
French were driven from Egypt in 1801, Muh.ammad 'Alî arrived, supposedly to
reëstablish Turkish authority.
Brilliant, ruthless, farsighted, and probably the most important Albanian in
world history, Muh.ammad 'Alî very quickly established his own authority
instead. The final Mamlûks were massacred in 1811, and Muh.ammad
'Alî moved to create a modern state, and especially a modern army, for Egypt. In this he was as successful as any non-European power at the time. By the time the Greeks revolted against Turkey in 1821, it was Muh.ammad
'Alî who turned out to have the best resources to put down the revolution and was called on by the Sult.ân in 1824 to do so. He very nearly did, until Britain intervened and sank the Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827. Frustrated in that direction, Muh.ammad
'Alî was successful in his conquest of the Sudan (1820-1822), probably advancing further up the Nile than any power since Ancient Egypt, though at a terrible cost to the Sudanese in massacre, mutilations, and slaving (of which the American boxer Cassius Clay was probably unaware when he adoped the name "Muhammad Ali" upon his conversion to Islâm). Egyptian interventions in Arabia in 1818-1822 and 1838-1843 very nearly exterminated the House of Sa'ûd and its fundamentalist Wahhâbî movement, which much later would create a united and independent Sa'ûdî Arabia.
When Muh.ammad 'Alî moved into Syria in 1831, however, this was a threat to the authority and perhaps even the existence of the Ottoman Empire. When war broke out in 1839, Britain intervened to support the Empire and to throw Muh.ammad
'Alî out in 1841.
|The House of
|'Abbâs H.ilmî I
|Suez Canal Started, 1859
Suez Canal Opened, 1869
Britain buys Khedive's
share in Canal, 1875
British Occupation, 1882
|'Abbâs H.ilmî II
|Ah.mad Fu'âd I
|Ah.mad Fu'âd II
Republic of Egypt, 1953-
|Gamal Abdel Nasser
The most formative subsequent event for
Egyptian history was certainly the construction of the Suez Canal. Although
Britain had nothing to do with the project, and it was the French Emperor
Napoleon III who attended the lavish opening ceremonies, the collapse of
Egyptian financies led to the purchase by Britain of all Egypt's shares in the
Canal Company. This did not solve Egypt's financial problems, which got worse.
The Khedive Ismâ'îl also wasted resources on disastrous campaigns against
Ethiopia in 1875-1876. With its interests now in danger, Britain occupied Egypt,
without French support, in 1882. Ironically, the Occupation was undertaken under
Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was opposed to British Imperialism. He was
not, however, going to endanger British finances just because the Khedive didn't
know how to handle his.
This made Egypt a de facto part of the British Empire, indeed one of the most
important parts, with the Suez Canal an essential strategic link between Britain
and India. Some of the most colorful episodes in British Imperial history
occured because of this. In 1881 a revolt had started in the Sudan, led by a man
claiming to be the Apocalyptic Mahdî of Islâmic tradition. Gladstone was not
going to spend British money, or Egyptian, in trying to suppress the rebellion.
Consequently, Charles Gordon, known as "Chinese Gordon" for his part in putting
down the Taiping Rebellion in China (1860-1864), and who had already been
governor-general of the Sudan from 1877-1880, was sent back in order to evacuate
the Egyptian garrison. Once there, he decided to stay and resist the Mahdî. By
1885 this insubordination stirred up public opinion back home and forced
Gladstone to send a relief expedition; but it missed rescuing Gordon by two
days, as the Mahdî's forces overran Khartoum and killed Gordon. This made Gordon
one of the great heroes of the day, humiliated Britain, and resulted in the fall
of Gladstone's government. However, the Sudan was, for the time being,
abandoned. When the British returned in 1898, in the heyday of imperial
jingoism, Lord Kitchener, with a young Winston Churchill along, calmly massacred
the mediaeval army of the Mahdî's successor at the Battle of Omdurman, avenged
Gordon, and made himself one of the immortal heroes of the British Empire too.
Although formally in Egyptian service, Kitchener reconquered the Sudan as an
Anglo-Egyptian "condominium." The theory of British and Egyptian joint rule in
the Sudan continued until Sudanese independence in 1956, though between 1924 and
1936 the British didn't even allow Egyptian forces or authorities into the
All this took place with Egypt still legally part of the Ottoman Empire. Right down until 1914 the Turkish flag was dutifully flown and Turkish passports issued. When Turkey repaid a century of British support by throwing its lot with Germany in World War I, however, the fiction came to an end, and Egypt de jure came under British rule as a Protectorate, with the Sultânate, abolished by the Turks in 1517, reëstablished. This was not popular in Egypt, and after the war Egypt did become a formally independent Kingdom. However, the British did retain Treaty rights to garrison and protect the Suez Canal; so, in many ways, the British Occupation of 1882 simply continued. There was little doubt of that once World War II started. Egypt, a legally Neutral country, was first invaded by Italy and then by Germany, with British forces meeting, fighting, and ultimately expelling them. Egypt at the time seemed no less a part of the British Empire than it had ever been. Egypt did eventually declare war on Germany, but not until February 24, 1945.
The end of Muh.ammad 'Alî's dynasty resulted from the humiliation of continuing British occupation, the mortification of Egyptian failure in the war against Israeli independence in 1948, and from the failure of King Fârûq, who was rather more successful as a playboy than as a leader, to deal with any of it. The army, soon led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, swept away the monarchy, got British forces to leave Egypt, and then won a great political victory when Britain and France (74 years late) reoccupied the Canal, Israel invaded the Sinai, and both the United States and the Soviet Union told them all to leave in no uncertain terms, in the Suez Crisis of 1956 (just as Soviet tanks were rolling into Hungary!). Thus, Egypt became a player in the Cold War, and the heritage of Muh.ammad
'Alî, the Ottoman Empire, and British imperialism faded rapidly.