British Interest and Control in Egypt

How and Why The British Gained Control of Egypt 

            The British, from 1882 until 1956, occupied Egypt. A series of revolutions and wars took place during that time period, but I really wanted to examine the WHY and the HOW the country of England came to occupy and control Egypt.


Relations between Egypt and England have existed for hundreds of years. Relations between the geographic regions we now call Europe and modern Northern Africa have existed for thousands of years. Egypt was a key part in the old spice trade routes between Europe and Asia. The British have traded various types of cargo within the Ottoman Empire’s waters (including Egypt’s coast) for generations.  When it became obvious in the 18th century that India would fall under British control, the fast direct route to maintain communications between India and Britain that Egypt provided could not be ignored. British imperial interests in Egypt stemmed from stabilizing the region to ensure safety to their merchants, goods, and communications from India.

Napoleon also had identified how important Egypt could be for France as well as how it could harm British imperial interests as well.  In 1798 he landed an army there that quickly defeated the domestic forces under control of the Mamelukes (Egyptian rulers under Ottoman suzerainity) at the Battle of The Pyramids.  Napoleon then claimed Egypt as a French territory and declared himself the leader.  The British quickly realized how vulnerable their interests in India could be. They sent their navy and with the help of a Turkish force and quickly defeated the French forces still in Egypt in 1801. One could have expected after the exhaustion of the French threat that British interests would remain protected and they would retain control over the region. This was not the case.

Muhammed Ali was a commander in the Ottoman empire he took control of the old Mameluke  forces and began a ruthless reign in 1805. He expelled British interests in the region and transformed Egypt. In the late 1830’s the British East India Company established steam ship service between Suez and Bombay. This shows how important a link Egypt was between Europe and the East. This was close to the time of the American Civil War. During the Civil war, British mills could not produce the amount of cotton necessary and they had to find alternatives. As it turns out, Egyptian cotton was of very high quality. Combine that with the public work programs that were in place in Egypt, British businessman flocked to begin operations.  In 1869 the heavily French funded Suez Canal opened and dramatically cut travel times between London and Bombay.  The French had significant control over the canal. They owned a 45% interest and the Egyptian government controlled the remaining 55%.  The leader of the Egyptian government at the time was Ismali and he had gotten Egypt into serious financial trouble. He took a carefree attitude. He was educated in France and was infatuated with the West. The huge amount of money spent on Western weapons, buildings, railways ect, combined with his “Laissez-faire” financial management attitude positioned the Egyptian government to not be able to make the interest payments on their foreign debt.  In order to pay his creditors he had to sell the counties shares in the Suez Canal. The English Prime Minister Disraeli stepped up very quickly and bought the shares. Instantly the British went from only very minority shareholder to controlling he operations of the entire canal. The money that Egypt raised from the sale of the shares only kept them afloat for a few years. With the existing government bankrupt the British and French stepped in to become stewards of the finances. This was the beginning of the coalition colonization of Egypt.

Throughout this class we have studied revolutions in Egypt that have been a result of exploitation of various types of citizens. My post shows the biases of all of these revolutions, and I think it is a very interesting story.  Imperial interests drove both the French and British to Egypt. It was a critical connection to their operations in the East. When the opportunity presented itself the British jumped on the option to lock up control of the most important waterway in the region. They solidified their position in Egypt and their connection to India.