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An Ottoman province:1517-1798

Although Egypt has the status only of an Ottoman province after its conquest by Selim I in 1517, it remains a region in which the Mamelukes continue to exercise great power. Indeed the first governor appointed by Selim is a Mameluke, and others are left in charge of regional districts. During the next two centuries they become like feudal barons, keeping their own armies (in their case consisting of slaves) and using them supposedly in the interest of their lord, the Ottoman sultan.

During the 16th century, with strong sultans in Istanbul, the system works well. Cairo keeps effective control of the fertile Nile region as far as Aswan, and of the Red Sea and the pilgrimage places of Arabia.

Under the feebler sultans of the 17th century, lack of firm rule from the centre allows the Mameluke beys (the term for officials in the Ottoman empire) to become increasingly unruly. By the 18th century the Ottoman governor in Cairo is permanently at loggerheads with beys controlling their own regions of the province.

Into this state of anarchy there arrives, in 1798, a European who specializes in introducing administrative discipline. He declares that he has come as a friend of the Ottoman Turks, to recover their province from Mameluke tyranny. He is Napoleon.

The Ottoman empire and Napoleon: 1798-1799

During the 18th century Turkish involvement in European affairs is limited mainly to the immediate neighbours. There is a succession of wars with Russia and constant adjustment to the frontier with Austria in the Balkans. But in 1798 the Ottoman empire finds itself unavoidably caught up in Europe's great war of the time, when Napoleon decides to invade Egypt as an indirect method of harming British imperial interests.

The Ottoman governor of Egypt and his unruly Mameluke forces are ill-prepared to cope with such an invasion, though the condition of Napoleon's army does much to level the odds - after being shipped from France and marching south through the desert, from Alexandria to Cairo, in the midsummer heat.

It is a profoundly demoralized invading force which finally confronts the Mameluke army at Giza on July 21. But the French are arranged by Napoleon on the open terrain in solid six-deep divisional squares, and their fire-power slices with devastating effect through the wild charges of the Egyptian cavalry. Victory in the Battle of the Pyramids delivers Cairo to Napoleon.

While emphasizing his respect for Islam, Napoleon sets about organizing Egypt as a French territory with himself as its ruler, assisted by a senate of distinguished Egyptians. All is going according to his plan. His team of scientists can now begin to look about them (in the following year, 1799, a French officer finds the Rosetta stone).

But there is already a major snag. Some ten days after Napoleon's victory, Nelson finally comes across the warships of the French fleet - at anchor in Aboukir Bay, near the western mouth of the Nile. On August 1, in the Battle of the Nile, he destroys them as a fighting force (only two French ships of the line survive).

Napoleon, master of Egypt, is stranded in his new colony. He has no safe way of conveying his army back to France. Moreover he has provoked a new enemy. Turkey, of whose empire Egypt is officially a part, declares war on France in September 1798. In February news comes that a Turkish army is preparing to march south through Syria and Palestine to attack Egypt. Napoleon moves first.

When Napoleon gets back to Cairo in June, after four wasted months in Syria, he characteristically claims to be returning from a triumph. But he has now lost interest in this part of the world. He departs to seize his destiny in Paris, leaving behind a French army which is finally expelled from Egypt in 1801 by a combined Turkish and British force.

With the end of this three-year period of high foreign drama, Egypt returns to its traditional ways. The Mameluke beys confidently resume their local tyrannies. But this time, finally, the sultan and his officials find the resolve to confront their unruly subordinates.

Massacres and Mamelukes: 1802-1811

On three separate occasions there are cold-blooded attempts by the authorities in Egypt to solve the problem of the Mamelukes. In 1802 a Turkish admiral is instructed to invite Mameluke leaders to a social gathering at Aboukir, for them to be assassinated during the entertainment.

In 1805 a newly appointed governor of Egypt contrives a further but still insufficient massacre. The same governor later completes the task, in 1811, by inviting some 300 Mameluke beys to an event in the Cairo citadel. It is surprising that they accept. Once they are inside, the gates are shut and troops open fire. Only one of the guests survives. Six centuries of Mameluke power in Egypt come to a sudden end.

Mohammed Ali and Ibrahim Pasha: 1805-1840

The governor who asserts his control with such ruthless efficiency is Mohammed Ali. His long rule changes the course of Egyptian history and permanently removes a large and prosperous region from Ottoman control.

At first, ably assisted by his eldest son Ibrahim Pasha, Mohammed Ali serves the sultan well. An expedition by Ibrahim in 1816-18 restores Ottoman authority over Arabia, where the Wahhabi sect has recently held sway (in 1821 another of Mohammed Ali's sons subdues the Sudan). In 1824 Ibrahim is sent with a fleet to Greece, to help the sultan suppress the movement for Greek independence. But a disagreement between Mohammed Ali and the sultan gives Ibrahim a more subversive role. In 1832 he marches north from Egypt to invade the Ottoman province of Syria.

Ibrahim Pasha has a whirlwind series of successes against Ottoman armies during 1832. He captures Acre and wins a battle at Homs during May. By July he is through the Taurus mountains and in December he wins another victory at Konya. By the spring of 1833 he appears to be in a position to march on Istanbul. In an agreement signed at Kutahya in May, the sultan secures the retreat of the Egyptian army by ceding to Mohammed Ali the hereditary governorships of Adana (in southeast Anatolia) and Syria.

Ibrahim Pasha becomes governor general of the two provinces. His father now rules a vast swathe of land from the Sudan to the Euphrates.

In 1839 the Turkish sultan attempts to recover Syria by military means, in what proves a disastrous failure. Ibrahim Pasha wins another victory at Nizip, this time so convincingly that the Ottoman fleet changes sides and joins the Egyptians. At this point the western powers intervene, fearful as ever of the collapse of the Ottoman empire. At a treaty in London in 1840 it is agreed that Mohammed Ali will restore Syria and Adana to the sultan. In return he is granted the hereditary rule of Egypt, though the province remains within the sultan's empire.

With this concession the separate history of modern Egypt begins. And the sultan in Istanbul is free to turn his attention to the perennial problems on his western flank, in the Balkans.

Egypt modernized: 1805-1848

The long reign of Mohammed Ali brings transformation to Egypt. He reforms the structure of the army and establishes a navy, for which he needs a deep-water harbour. The only candidate is Alexandria, which now recovers an international existence after its many centuries of somnolence. The ancient city becomes once again the first port of call for any visitor to Egypt. Trade develops, prosperity returns.

By 1820 more than thirty foreign enterprises are based in the city. In the same year the Mahmudiya canal is opened, linking Alexandria with the Nile.

By means of this canal goods from the coast can easily reach Cairo, and from Cairo it is not too long a haul to carry them overland to the Red Sea at Suez. In the late 1830s the British East India Company begins a regular steamship service between Suez and Bombay. Egypt becomes established as Europe's most direct link with the east.

The increase in trade and prosperity is accompanied by administrative improvements in the Egyptian government. Until now the language of government has been exclusively that of the ruling minority, Turkish. From 1828 Mohammed Ali publishes a bilingual official gazette, printed in Turkish and Arabic (a government printing press is in itself an innovation during his reign).

There is one area in which Mohammed Ali fails to recognize Egypt's best interests. In 1833 a group of French engineers put before him a proposal for a canal joining the Mediterranean to the Red Sea at Suez. Mohammed Ali is not interested, though the idea later greatly attracts his son Said.

Mohammed Ali's immediate successor in 1848 is a grandson, Abbas I, who is murdered in 1854 and is succeeded by Said. Murder is nothing new among Egyptian rulers. What is new, as a result of the stability introduced by Mohammed Ali, is that a single family retains the throne. It is occupied by Mohammed Ali's descendants until the abdication of Farouk in 1952.

The Suez Canal: 1859-1869

A glance at the map suggests the possibility of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. On the direct route south to Suez half the work is already done by nature, in the form of Lake Timsah and the two Bitter Lakes.

With the increasing importance of India to the European powers in the late 18th century (as the main scene of rivalry between France and Britain) there is a strong military and economic motive to undertake the great task. During the French occupation of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon himself spends several days surveying the region with a party of officers and scientists.

During the early part of the 19th century several plans for a canal are drawn up without success. The breakthrough comes with the accession to the Egyptian throne of Said in 1854. He is a friend of a French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who has long had the ambition of achieving a Suez canal. By November 1854 Lesseps has been granted a concession to undertake the project. Eighteen months later he is ready to float the Suez Canal Company.

Half the money is subscribed in France, where Napoleon III has been very supportive of the scheme. None comes from Britain. Indeed the British government does all it can to prevent a development which looks alarmingly like providing the French with a back door to India.

Said Pasha himself rescues the scheme by subscribing 60 million francs. On 25 April 1859 Lesseps swings the first pickaxe at the northern end of the route, the site of a new harbour to be named Port Said. He is the first in a labour force soon numbering tens of thousands, who between them excavate over the next ten years 97 million cubic yards (more than two cubic miles) of earth and rock.

For the opening ceremony, in November 1869, thousands of distinguished guests assemble from all over Europe and the Middle East. The procession of ships through the canal is led by the French imperial yacht with the empress Eugénie on board. The journey time to and from India is slashed. East and west are linked as never before.

Expansion and bankruptcy: 1863-1879

It is a myth that Verdi's Aida is commissioned for the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 but misses its deadline (not being produced until 1871 in Cairo). It is commissioned for the new Cairo opera house, which has opened in 1869 with a production of Rigoletto.

This profusion of Italian opera vividly suggests the speed with which Egypt is being Europeanized. Ismail, who succeeds his uncle Said on the throne in 1863, has been educated in France. He now begins to employ, with carefree enthusiasm, a stream of European and American experts to provide his country with western weapons, buildings, railways and amenities (such as piped water and gas) in addition to opera.

This level of expenditure, combined with mismanagement of government finances, leads by the mid-1870s to bankruptcy. Government revenue is not even sufficient to pay the interest on foreign loans. In 1875 Ismail tries to stave off disaster by selling his shares in the Suez canal to the British government (from having no part in the scheme, Britain becomes at a stroke the largest shareholder).

Even this proves insufficient. From 1876 Egyptian finances are placed under joint French and British control. When Ismail subsequently refuses to cooperate, in 1879, the two nations appeal to the sultan in Istanbul. Using the authority as sovereign which still remains to him, he dismisses Ismail - replacing him as khedive with his son, Mohammed Tewfik.

Pan-Islam and nationalism: 1872-1882

During the 1870s there are two strands of resistance to the existing state of affairs in Egypt. One is the impulse of nationalism which has swept through Europe during the 19th century. The other, first surfacing at this period and of great significance again in the late 20th century, is the pan-Islamic movement - based on the premise that Muslim states must reject the corrupting influence of the Christian west and rediscover the strength and purity of early Islam.

The natural head of any such Islamic movement is the caliph, a role seen since the 16th century as being held by the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. Abdul-Hamid II, sultan from 1876, actively encourages pan-Islamic sentiments.

The intellectual leader of the movement at this time is Jamal al-Din, an Afghan philosopher who moves to Cairo in 1871. He builds up a large following through lectures in which he urges resistance to western influence, if necessary by the use of assassination.

After Egyptian finances are placed under foreign control in 1876, with the resulting influx of European administrators, these threats become more serious. An alarmed Egyptian government expels Jamal al-Din in 1879, sending him into exile in India. But in this same year a different threat, more nationalist in kind, becomes evident.

A secret society has recently been formed by Arab officers within the Egyptian army, with the intention of removing their Turkish-speaking superiors who occupy all the senior ranks. They organize a mutiny in 1879. In the short term it achieves nothing. But one of the society's members, Arabi Pasha, continues to rise in the army and acquires increasing popularity as the champion of Egyptian nationalism.

By 1882 there is enough support for a nationalist ministry to be forced on the khedive. A new chamber of deputies is put in place, with Arabic now the official language of government. Arabi Pasha is minister of war.

These developments greatly alarm the western powers, particularly since the Egyptian government is proving incapable of suppressing the Mahdist movement in the Sudan, which also aims at removing all foreign control.

In May 1882 British and French fleets are sent as a precautionary measure to Alexandria. Their presence inflames an already tense situation. Riots in Alexandria in June result in the deaths of many of the European residents. The British fail to persuade the French to join them in an invasion of Egypt to restore order, so a British army undertakes the task alone.

An Egyptian army under Arabi Pasha confronts the British at Tel-el-Kebir on September 13 and is defeated. Two days later the British enter Cairo. Arabi Pasha is tried for sedition and is exiled to Sri Lanka.

Egypt is now an occupied country, though in terms of international law it remains a strange hybrid. The British, settling down to the business of administering the realm, are doing so ostensibly on behalf of the Egyptian khedive who himself is technically subject to a distant sovereign, the sultan in Istanbul. It is a more complex version of the fiction by which the British rule their empire in India.

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