British Involvement in Egypt: The Suez Story

The Suez Canal is an artificial waterway that cuts through Egypt to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. It is crucial to global shipping. If it were not for the canal, vessels on the busy trade routes between Europe and Asia would have to travel thousands of miles to pass around the southern tip of Africa.

suez map

Although there were previous attempts to connect the two seas, the first modern project was led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer who had been stationed in Egypt as a diplomat. He exploited existing relationships with high-level Egyptian officials to win a land commission, and ground was broken in 1859. Since construction began, the canal has been a major source of contention and conflict, both domestically and internationally.

The canal plays a central role in the story of British involvement in Egypt. Without it, British rule may never have reached Egypt, and the status of the canal can be seen as a barometer of the extent of British control over the country, from the initial financial pretext for the takeover, to the Suez Crisis, which was a watershed event in Britain’s power in Egypt.

The Suez Canal Company relied on forced Egyptian labor to dig the early stages of the canal. Tens of thousands of workers were conscripted, and worked by hand in grueling conditions for very low wages. Ongoing disputes resulted in a sharp reduction of forced laborers available for work on the canal, and combined with disease and a British-instigated revolt, eventually brought about a change in policy. Modern machines operated by European workers accelerated progress, and after ten years the canal was complete.

suez construction

The canal was financed by the sale of stock in the Suez Canal Company, but fundraising efforts were hampered by initial skepticism. Initially, Britain opposed the canal due to concerns about its potential effects on their sea power, and refused to invest. The money was eventually raised by French private investment and a large purchase by the Egyptian government. However, Isma’il Pasha’s aggressive modernization efforts had placed the country under a huge financial burden, and compounded by predatory interest rates set by European bankers, sent the country into a financial crisis. Having recognized the importance of the canal, the British government bought the Egyptian stake in the Suez Canal Company. This bought a degree of British control over the running of the passage, which was soon bolstered by the complete takeover of Egyptian finances and removal of Isma’il Pasha.

In 1881 Egyptian nationalists revolted against foreign influence in Egypt, which resulted in the long-term occupation of the country by British forces – a major objective of the forces was securing the canal, and this is where the campaign began. In 1888, the Treaty of Constantinople was signed by the contemporary European great powers and the Ottoman Empire. It guaranteed the right of passage through the canal for all international vessels, and was largely adhered to until the outbreak of World War I. As Britain’s administration over the canal began, it’s grip on Egypt tightened.

In 1914, Britain declared Egypt a protectorate and closed the canal to the Central Powers. After the war, British domination of Egypt continued, angering many Egyptians. There was widespread dissent, much of it organized by the Wafd party and their revolutionary leader, Saad Zagloul. When the British government exiled many protest movement leaders, anger spilled over into widespread revolution. Throughout the negotiations, in which Egypt was recognized as an independent constitutional monarchy, British claims to control of the canal region remained paramount. This is reflective of the continued British dominance of Egyptian affairs. Egypt’s new status as a protectorate was a sign of its increasing strategic importance as tensions rose in Europe and Africa, and much of the reason it was so highly valued was the link it provided to the colonial empire that was the source of British power.

In 1936 British and Egyptian rulers signed the Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which was an attempt to prevent an attack on Egypt by disassociating it with the British. At this point all British troops were removed from wider Egypt, but tellingly, the Canal Zone remained protected by British troops and defense agreements. These forces were soon tested by the outbreak of WWII, throughout which control over the canal was successfully maintained.

After World War II, a decline in British imperial power and the success of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalist coup resulted in a reduction in the numbers of British forces in the Canal Zone. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Nasser nationalized the canal in 1956, leading to an invasion of the region by British, French and Israeli forces. Despite successfully retaking control of the canal, pressure from the United States and USSR forced a complete withdrawal from the area, and the establishment of a UN force to ensure free passage to all nations. The ownership and operation of the canal was transferred from the shareholders in the Suez Canal Company to the Suez Canal Authority, which is controlled by the government of Egypt. This marked the end of both direct British involvement in the Suez Canal, and the final chapter of British involvement in Egypt – a relationship central to Egyptian nationalist and British imperial history.

suez shipping


The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire, H. W. Crocker, III