Under British imperialism, which began in Egypt in 1882, the nation experienced extreme hardship and a suffocation of liberties. The British military took control of existing political structures and economies while Egypt's Ottoman rulers, the khedives, provided a facade of native autonomy. It was not until 1952 that the British military left the country and ended its imperialist aims.
Origins of British Imperialism
With cotton as its most important cash crop, Egypt took advantage of the global cotton market during the American Civil War and the Depression of 1873 by selling cotton to meet a growing demand. However, during this period, the Egyptian government also borrowed heavily from European countries for internal improvements; when the price of cotton fell, Egypt had already borrowed money to the point of bankruptcy in 1876. As a consequence, a group of European states established a debt repayment agency called the "Caisse de la Dette," with British and French controllers monitoring Egypt's revenue and expenditures.
The Urabi Revolt and Consequences
This foreign interference threatened Egypt's social and political structures, especially the military. In 1881, Colonel Ahmad 'Urabi of the Egyptian military led a mutiny against European encroachment. To protect its financial and geopolitical interests in the region, the British sent a flotilla to establish British occupation over the country. This maneuver reduced the size of the Egyptian military and placed British officers in command, appointed British ministers to control all parts of the Egyptian government, and imposed new laws on the Egyptian people. The British also restricted Egypt's economic development and educational systems. This allowed the British to control all aspects of Egyptian life, politics and economy.
The British established a protectorate over Egypt at the start of World War I in 1914. The increasing presence and power of the British in Egypt fueled a spirit of nationalism among Egyptians social classes, leading to the creation of anti-British, nationalist independence parties. The desire for independence from the British sparked the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's words advocating for the "self-determination of all peoples" gave hope to many Egyptian nationalists seeking independence. A delegation of Egyptian politicians, led by Sa'ad Zaghlul, a prominent member of the Egyptian elite and former education minister, petitioned Cairo's British high commissioner for permission to go to the next Paris Peace Conference to make Egypt's case. Instead of giving permission, the British arrested and exiled Zaghlul and his compatriots.
Seeing their nationalist leaders exiled lit the flame of revolution for Egyptians. For two months in the spring of 1919, students, peasants, the urban poor, civil servants and others protested across Egypt, disrupting railroad lines and creating upheaval. In response to this disorder, the British gave Egypt conditional independence in 1922, which allowed for the formation of a constitutional monarchy. Under this new treaty, however, the British still controlled Egypt's defense and foreign policy. In 1923, a new constitution was created, and by 1924 Zaghlul became the Egyptian prime minister.
End of the British Presence in Egypt
The Egyptian government went through many political fluxes as political parties such as the Wafd and Muslim Brotherhood vied for power during the years after World War I and through World War II. It was not until the 1952 coup over the Egyptian monarchy, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, that Egyptians had a leading figure to dispel British influence in the country once and for all. With Nasser as Egypt's Prime Minister in 1954, the British formally withdrew the last of their troops from the Suez Canal by signing the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement.
Dianne Laguerta is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor's degree in history and Middle Eastern studies. She studied and conducted research in Cairo, Egypt during the 2012 Egyptian elections, and has traveled throughout the Middle East.