Egypt: European colonialism

Updated January 2012

By the late 18th century Ottoman power was on the wane and French and British competed for influence over a land nominally a Turkish province. The French in 1798, led by Napoleon, invaded Egypt, but were forced out of Egypt by Mohamed Ali, an Albanian lieutenant in the Ottoman army. Muhammad Ali successfully played each off against the other and both off against the Turks. His successors pursued ambitious modernisation projects that, culminating in the heavy costs of the building of the Suez Canal and a war with Ethiopia, effectively brought Egypt into debt servitude, the sale of the canal to Britain in 1875 and to joint French-British financial and political control in 1878. Four years later these European powers occupied the country to crush a nationalist revolt and in 1914 Egypt was declared a British protectorate, but a subsequent revolt in 1919 led to revocation of the Protectorate in 1922. Nevertheless, the British military remained in occupation of the "independent" Kingdom of Egypt and King Fuad I, and his successor King Farouk in turn, remained de facto vassals.

The progressive subordination of Egypt to European colonial powers in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially to Britain, bred the dissatisfaction that led to the revolts in 1882 and 1919 which in turn generated and nurtured the growth of nationalism in Egypt. The 1919 unrest followed from a British clamp down on nationalists when they demanded independence from Britain in that year and the final decision to abandon its protectorate over Egypt followed on further unrest in late 1921, martial law and yet another clamp down on nationalist leaders. The continued subordination of Egypt to Britain politically and economically, made highly visible by Britain's direct control of the Suez Canal, continued to rankle and fan the coals of nationalism, especially after the Second World War as nationalist sentiments swept the colonies of the European powers throughout the world. In July 1952, following on Egypt's humiliation in the 1948 war with Israel and civil revolts and unrest, junior military officers led by men like Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Nasser overthrew the monarchy with the aims of securing Egypt's independence and building its military, political and economic strength and established a republic in 1953.