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 components of statehood and juxtapose them with British action between 1882-1914. The final section will briefly examine what changes occurred with the official declaration of Egypt as a British protectorate from a legal and practical standpoint and touch upon the concluding years and decades of British occupation. Early British Involvement in Egypt
Before further examining the involvement of the British in the politics and society of pre-war, wartime, and post-war Egypt, it is first beneficial to understand the broad history of Britain’s unique colonial procession in the region. Substantial control in the region began in 1875 with the British take-over of the Suez Canal by then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. At the time, the Khedivate under Isma'il Pasha was in serious financial trouble and sought to ease economic woes by selling off shares of the Suez Canal Company. Financed by the Rothschild family, Great Britain purchased nearly 44 percent (approximately 176,602 shares) of the company’s holdings for a total of £4 million in contemporary funds. While this was not enough to give Great Britain majority control of the Canal (France maintained 51 percent), it did allow for Britain to exercise effective control of the waterway and by extension, in the region. Moreover, Britain continued to dominate the canal and the majority of ships that passed through the Sinai Peninsula were flagged with the Union Jack. In 1870, 60 percent of ships passing through the canal were British and by 1880, that percentage rose to approximately 80 percent. More critical than purely economic control of the Canal was the route’s importance to the rest of the British Empire; because the Suez Canal significantly reduced the time it took to reach Asia, and it was a critical piece of infrastructure and an extension of British interests in India. Proponents of expanded British influence in the region “argued that Egypt must be made secure under British rule… [and contended] that the only way Britain could safeguard the route to the East was to force French influence out of Egypt and establish British paramountcy.” The British came to exercise even greater economic control a year after their purchase of Suez Canal shares. Ismail and his government defaulted on loans which prompted European creditors, including Britain to “[form] a debt commission to take control of Egypt’s economy” which redirected income from previously state-owned railways, communications (telegraph infrastructure), and taxes and customs fees into European coffers. European powers also took complete control of Egypt’s cotton export/trade, banking sector, and postal and telegram communications networks further stripping Egypt of its own autonomy. While of course, Great Britain was not alone in this management (read: takeover) of Egypt, it was an influential power and this period served as a harbinger of what was to come under increased British occupation and subjugation.
While many in the British political elite expected the biggest threat to the canal and British interests in Egypt more broadly to come from another European power, namely France, in reality, the canal’s threat was more homegrown. In 1879, Egyptian officer Ahmed ‘Urabi Pasha and his fellow officers began to express severe grievances at the government of Khedive Tewfik Pasha, the son of Khedive Isma'il Pasha, ranging from reforms of the army, the creation of an Egyptian constitution, and changes in government. More critically, Tewfik’s government was viewed by the nationalists under Ahmed ‘Urabi to be nothing more than a puppet to the European powers, namely Great Britain and France, and sought to remove foreign influence from Egypt. Pressured by ‘Urabi and his movement, Tewfik appointed the nationalist to the position of Minister of War. In his position, which included powers over internal security matters, ‘Urabi began to become a powerful figure in Tewfik’s government and the ruler sought foreign help in quelling any threats to his power. By June 1882, following a series of deadly anti-Christian and anti-foreigner riots lead by ‘Urabi, the British began to wage war against the Egyptians and by September 1882, the British victory at the Battle of Tel-al-Kebir resulted in the capture of ‘Urabi, “the [British] occupation of Cairo, and the collapse of the rebellion,” and established that “Great Britain was in absolute and undisputed possession of Egypt.”
It is also critical to note the dissolution of the Dual Control following the British victory at Tel-al-Kebir. The Dual Control was a power-sharing agreement between the British, French, and Egyptian governments whereby the Egyptian government was allowed to exercise a degree of autonomy, while the European powers would be able to secure their own objectives relatively easily. This dissolution angered France and following the display of military superiority, the Egyptian government was subdued considerably; the result was effective British control of the nation. In part motivated by complex factors regarding Egypt’s legal status in the Ottoman Empire and the world more broadly, the British government, as early as October of 1882, maintained that its military presence in the region was temporary and that British troops stationed in Egypt would be withdrawn when it was safe to do so. However, Britain benefited greatly from the presence of her military which helped secure growing administrative power as it was widely understood that “the withdrawal of British troops would have been tantamount to the withdrawal of any effective British control.”
While Marlowe argues that the British were burdened by the control of Egypt and sought to “divest herself of her Egyptian responsibilities as soon as she decently could,” there is no denying the geopolitical value of Egypt. Firstly, as aforementioned, British interests in Asia (such as the East Indies and India) were critical to the strength of the Empire, militarily and economically. Because of the Suez Canal’s importance in shortening routes to the Pacific, the Royal Navy and the British merchant fleet were better able to ensure linkage between Asia and Europe. Second, effective control of the Nile River delta and much of the river itself was a particular military benefit for the British, who had established colonies upstream, including Sudan, Uganda, British Somaliland, the East Africa Protectorate and Kenya. Like many other waterways on the continent, Europeans viewed the Nile River as a pathway into the heart of Africa and so control of the river valley and its downstream entrance would be beneficial. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, control of the Nile River was critical for British industry; intense British involvement in Egypt came around the time the domestic textile industry was emerging from the Second Industrial Revolution. Policymakers and businessmen alike recognized the importance of Egyptian cotton in providing the raw material for these mills, which in turn would rival American cotton production and help ensure Britain’s status on the world stage. Motivated by this, the British “….understood from the very beginning that the economic stability, economic development and political stability of Egypt depended on [British control of the Nile].” Additionally, the Empire also "understood that in the long run, it might be very useful for London to have control over the Nile upstream of Egypt. So, if [the] need would arise, then they would have a potential power against Egyptian nationalism.”
While some in the British government may have agreed with Marlowe’s comments on wanting to divest from Egyptian affairs as quickly as possible following the Anglo-Egyptian War, it more likely stands to reason that the benefits of greater involvement in Egypt far outweighed any costs. Evaluating Egypt’s Autonomy as a State Under British Occupation
Especially in the post-Westphalian era, modern theory and international law have established that the basic building blocks of a nation-state are: (1) A people; (2) A government; (3) A territory; and (4) Recognition enough by the international community to conduct foreign affairs. Some scholars debate the narrowness of these definitions and that greater attention ought to be paid to sub-state factors such as civil society, business, and the military when looking to define statehood. While this conversation on the minimum components for statehood is beyond the scope of this paper, it is beneficial to explore which factors the Egyptian territory met during the intervention of European (and namely, British) colonial influence. The establishment of a protectorate was generally a direct process whereby the protecting state exercised a right they believed to have, safeguarded by economic, political, and/or military power. In the context of the British Empire, they were cautious to establish a formal protectorate given the relationship between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, however, given their status as the most powerful nation (at that time) in the world, there would likely have been very little resistance. Because of a lack of an official declaration, historians refer to this period of British imperialism in Egypt as the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ Era, yet despite official declarations; the American Journal of International Law notes that “Egypt was from that date [1882/1883] in fact, though not in law, a dependency of Great Britain.” This section will attempt to apply these definitions of statehood to determine if the American Journal of International Law’s characterization of Egypt as a British dependency is accurate.
An important caveat worth noting is that in the Nineteenth Century, Egypt was never a sovereign state, even before the debt crisis and the Anglo-Egyptian War. Stepping back in 1517, the Ottoman Empire invaded Egypt following the overthrow and massacre of the ruling Mamluks and appear to have directly ruled the region as part of the broader Empire until the French invasion under Napoleon Bonaparte (which took place in the late 18th Century). Over time the Ottoman seat of power began to gradually lose the control over outer provinces it used to exercise. In Egypt in particular, under the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805-1848), Egypt began to adopt government, land, economic, and military reforms modelled after the French; given the strength of the Egyptian provide, “the Ottomans both relied on and were wary of their vassal [Muhammad Ali]…” and the state he had built. By the time of the British invasion, Egypt was technically still a part of the Ottoman Empire in name only, but in reality fully autonomous with a sovereign governing structure, economy, and relatively abled military. By the late Nineteenth Century, these features which made Egypt autonomous and relatively unique in the region were no longer existent as strongly as they were before the 1880s. Lastly, for the purposes of this comparison, we will assume Egypt to have been, in practice, a sovereign state prior to the European arrival, even if the legal definition does not match.
Returning now to the definitions the author will use to determine Egyptian statehood. The basic components of statehood used in this section include a defined territory, with a defined people, who are governed by an independent, local body, the ability to conduct foreign relations, economic autonomy, military control, and decision-making in the civil service and education. Egypt, while under home or British rule, had a defined territory extending from the Sinai in the east into the Libyan Desert in the west. The annexation of Sudan by Muhammad Ali extended Egypt from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north to down to the modern-day nation of South Sudan. The fairly static nature of these borders helps satisfy the first condition of statehood. The second condition for statehood is also met relatively easily; census data from 1881, the year before British occupation shows an Egyptian population of nearly 7.5 million. Furthermore, data from between 1846-1881 shows an increasing population so it is reasonable to extrapolate a steady population that existed after 1881.
Beyond territory and population, determining the true extent of Egyptian during the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ period becomes complicated. The next basic aspect of sovereignty is government. Following the Battle of Tel-al-Kebit, the British “recognized the immediate necessity for the continuance of the personal rule of the Khedive, exercised through his Ministers…” however, British advisors (as they were called) ensured that the reestablished government would have the opportunity for “… a gradual progress towards the constitutional government.” The resulting government blended familiar Khedivate rule with the ideals of European enlightenment and representative democracy. The first legislative body was the thirty member Legislative Council, which had 14 members appointed by the Khedive and the remaining 16 elected by indirect suffrage; the second body, the General Assembly, was the meeting of the Legislative Council, the Council of Ministers, and 46 Notables; and the final body was an indirectly elected Provincial Council which drew representatives from each of subdivision and were tasked with advising matters of general administration. This system helped to promote the former system of authoritarian rule and mechanisms such as indirect suffrage, helped to further the power of the elite which were most impacted by the British pseudo-colonial presence. Similarly, “membership in [these elected bodies were] confined to the established, wealthy classes, who, while not likely supporters of the occupation, were not likely to espouse radical economic or political doctrines.”
While indigenous power is observable in this new government, it is important to understand what the role of the British was in all of this. Unequivocally, the British commanded a strong presence within the Egyptian government. The head British official in Cairo held the rank of Consul-General and critically, represented the British Foreign Office and not the Colonial Office. His “…powers, ostensibly, were no greater than those of the counsels of other powers,” but “of course, in practice, the British Consul-General had considerably greater powers than other foreign delegates.” Because the British could not directly make policies that gave them the keys to power, early British doctrine was to “maintain the framework of the old authoritarian system, within which a team of British advisors and inspectors would have the power to limit folly, even if they would not have the power to implement wisdom.” Frustratingly for the British, Egypt’s feeble government under the first few ministers following the establishment of the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ commanded a relatively strong presence in policymaking and were not only able to pursue their own governance but even “compelled [the British] to accept a large measure of independent Egyptian authority in the government.” However, with the succession of Mustafa Fahmi as Prime Minister of the Egyptian state, “the British had a puppet minister through whom they were able to govern almost as they wished.” Full control of Egypt, by Egyptians, would not be achieved until the mid-1950s.
Turning now to the assessment of foreign affairs and the control Egypt had over such activity in this era. It is well documented that foreign nations (namely France and to a lesser extent, the Ottoman Empire) maintained diplomatic personnel in Cairo, however, there is not much scholarship on the matter of foreign affairs on the whole. It would likely follow that as long as the Egyptians were able to maintain pockets of independence in their government, they could conduct relations with other nations and once the state became a British puppet, this control, like many other facets of administration, became tainted with British influence.
In light of this lack of material on the political conduct between nations, consider the interaction between actors at a different level — namely through immigration. Both preceding the British occupation, as well as during it, Egypt accepted two main categories of foreigners: political refugees and labourers. Through projects such as the Suez Canal, urbanization under and British endorsed modernization endeavours, and irrigation expansion in the Nile River Valley, “the demand for skilled foreign labour had remained high since the time of Muhammad ‘Ali…” and remained steady following the British takeover.” Finally, as aforementioned, Egypt lies at a geopolitical crossroads and has been of great interest to a number of external actors going back to before the construction of the Suez Canal. As such, it enjoyed attention from and relations with various groups hailing from sub-Sahara, the Levent, Europe, and the Gulf most directly.
A final point to explore in the effort of determining the true extent of Egyptian statehood and autonomy is the administration of its internal affairs/civil society of the state. This differs from the above section on government and the author has chosen to explore these two aspects — policymaking (government) and administration of the civil society — independently. Critically, it is important to understand what is meant by civil society for this paper, as the topic is broad and can include many aspects; in the interest of brevity and this paper’s focus, two aspects of civil society will be explored — the administrative bureaucracy and education. Turning first to the bureaucratic apparatus of the Egyptian state.
Even before the British occupation, the Egyptian army was one of the major bureaucratic powers and ‘Urabi was brought into the Ministry of the Interior. Following the Anglo-Egyptian War, the Army had been disbanded as a threat to the peace and British officers. However, it soon became clear that the” restoration of public order and security” was essential for the effective control of Egypt and the Army was reconstituted under strong British oversight. While command of the Egyptian Army was indigenous, “British officers seconded from the British Army” were embedded within the force as supervision. Additionally, on the matter of law enforcement, “a mobile gendarmerie under British guidance [was established] for the policing of rural districts” which not only demonstrates a British interjection into the internal affairs of the Egyptian state but also highlights an extension of British involvement and control beyond population centres. By 1894, the Egyptian Prime Minister, then Riyad Pasha, attempted to wrest control of the military away from the British and break the Egyptian’s obedience to Royal Officers, however, this move led to his political downfall. Prime Minister Riyad had been no stranger to the see-saw of power which existed between the British and the Egyptian centres of power; during his early years, the Prime Minister “conced[ed] Great Britain a free hand in the Ministries of Finance and War…” and ceded control of the Ministry of Public Works partially to the British for Egyptian control of the Ministries of Justice and the Interior. However, during his second term in the 1890s, Riyad acquiesced to the British, undoing the autonomy he had fought for six years prior, and allowed a British Advisor to the Ministry of the Interior. This appointment strengthened the “comprehensive system of British control over the whole administration.” In the decades between the Anglo-Egyptian War and World War I, both the legislative and executive departments of the Egyptian government and the civil service was retained, To retain the puppet government, “Egyptian officials held administrative positions, at least in name, although they were subject to varying degrees of control by the British,” whose control of Egypt grew expanded over time.
Undoubtedly, control of the levers of policymaking and administration is critical when occupying a foreign government. Equally important, however, is the education system as its curriculum can have important impacts on training the future generation. In the case of British occupied Egypt, the educational policies (or rather, lack thereof) were critical to undermining Egyptian statehood and furthering British control. Firstly, over the course of 30 years, only two percent of the Egyptian revenue was spent on education, which represents a low level of spending. It is then no surprise that this education was not only inadequate and lacked instruction in practical and technical skills, but also not widely accessible by the public at large. In Egypt, western-style reforms to education were welcomed by the people and their creation predated the English arrival. However, under the British, extensive reforms were made including, the requirement of tuition at government-run schools and the introduction of English as the language of instruction. The British also directly supervised schools (mainly elementary), working to improve cleanliness and the quality of instructors with limited success; in the waning years of the ‘Veiled Protectorate,’ the British supervised 4,432 schools (which accounted for 156,542 students) which was up from 301 schools during the first year of occupation. In regards to higher education (or even secondary education), the British were less concerned, but it is worth mentioning enrollment openings in these institutions was limited and extremely popular with young men, who saw education as a stepping stone to the civil service. However, even if a young man was lucky enough to get a spot, “he was in constant competition with the foreigner, or more generally, his education prepared him to hold subordinate government positions. Here again, he was in competition competed with the Englishman.”
This section explored the role of the British during the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ and attempted to assess its autonomy. Overall, British control over the important facets of the state was crippling enough to deny the Egyptians the right to function as an independent state. While there was some promise at the onset of occupation that British interference would be limited and short-lived, by the 1890s, the British had considerable influence over the education system, civil society, and government function, in addition to economic/debt control which predated the Anglo-Egyptian War (as discussed in Section I). By 1914, the legal grey area of the British occupation was fully resolved with the wartime proclamation of Egypt as an official British Protectorate. Change of Status: Official Protectorate
With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Europe was plunged into a war that the world could not escape. Nearly six months after this tinderbox incident, the British calmly declared: His Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs gives notice that, in view of the state of war arising out of the action of Turkey, Egypt is placed under the protection of His Majesty and will henceforth constitute a British Protectorate. The suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt is thus terminated, and His Majesty's Government will adopt all measures necessary for the defence of Egypt, and protection of its inhabitants and interests.
Soon after this announcement, the British disposed of the current government and appointed one that was more sympathetic to the British. This action had made formal a British takeover almost thirty years in the making. Despite assurances from the British that the establishment of the Protectorate was done to safeguard the Egyptian people, the expansion of the Empire to another cor