Uninvited Protector: An Assessment of Egyptian Autonomy During British Occupation
[A post-colonial investigation, also published on the "Places in the Sun" book and website.]
When attempting to quantify the vast territorial holdings of the British Empire, particularly throughout much of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, it has often been noted that from the Western Canadian shores to Australia and Oceania, the sun never set on the Empire. Put another way, if a map of territories invaded by or brought under the political control of the British Crown were overlaid with a map of United Nations member states, 171 of the organization’s present 193 states would have been historically impacted by British colonialism in some way. Much of these British holdings were concentrated in locations other than the Middle East given the vastness of the local Ottoman Empire, but at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the Sultan’s grip on the region was drastically weakening.
The era of the First World War was a period of extreme change in the Arab world — the conflict in Europe truly had a global effect. The three decades which preceded the Great War brought new actors into the Arab lands and by the War’s end, the region’s stabilizing force was lost with the capitulation and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. In its wake, European empires grew and extended their control into the Middle East. Indeed, the post-War superpowers — the United Kingdom and France — were no strangers to the region or its people. Prior to World War I, the French established a number of colonial outposts in Algeria and North Africa (and smaller ones in the Levant) in the 19th Century, with regional involvement dating back to the early days of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. On the other hand, Britain’s expansion into the Levant was only the second time the island empire forayed into the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement which carved up the former Ottoman Empire granted British control of the Levant nations of what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and much of southern Iraq.
However, before this secret agreement, the British presence in the region was confined only to greater Egypt. In 1882, the British gained victory in the Anglo-Egyptian War and began to exercise control of the region which would last until the mid-1950s. Officially, Egypt, which at the time was still an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, was retained as a de facto protectorate of the British; however, due to a lack of legal status for British occupation and Egypt’s position in the Ottoman Empire, the ‘veiled protectorate’ was never formally a part of the British Empire.
This paper seeks to examine the state of affairs in Egypt during this period and assess the degree to which the Egyptian state had the autonomy to conduct affairs as any other state not colonized or under a protectorate would be able to do. The paper will begin by highlighting the role of the British in Egypt and then the author will undertake an analytical assessment of the various c