Wednesday, September 13, 2006

September 13

24mdsxThe 72-year British occupation of Egypt commenced on this date in 1882 with the decisive battle at Tall al-Kabir, where nationalist rebels led by Colonel Ahmad Urabi were crushed, ending their brief challenge to foreign domination. The Urabists and other forces objected to European intervention in the government and economy of Egypt, which was -- like many regions of the corroding Ottoman Empire -- increasingly indebted to foreign investors. During the middle decades of the 19th century, Egypt enjoyed informal independence from Ottoman control and embarked on a rapid modernization campaign that expanded education, initiated irrigation and communications projects, extended its railroad network and opened construction on the massive Suez Canal in 1869. All of these efforts were financed by European capital, which delivered loans equaling nearly 70 million British pounds between 1862 and 1873. At the same time, Egypt continued to sink more of its agricultural resources into cotton production, which offered equally massive benefits to overseas investors -- especially the British, whose textile mills swelled and churned.

By 1877 nearly 60% of Egypt’s national revenue was squandered in the service of these debts. Unable to meet its loan obligations, Egypt reluctantly permitted a commission of British and French officials to assume control over its economy; while European administrators operated with virtual immunity from local interference, Egyptian sovereignty evaporated. The Urabists, capitalizing on the popular displeasure created by European control, managed to assume the reigns of the ministry of war and sought the removal of the khedive, the pliable viceroys appointed by the Ottoman Empire. By early 1882, the Urabists controlled Cairo and most of the provinces. Anti-British riots erupted in Alexandria, with perhaps hundreds killed.

In July 1882, under the laughable pretext of restoring Egyptian sovereignty, the British shelled and demolished Alexandria. In August, Sir Garnet Wolsey landed with 20,000 soldiers in the Suez Canal Zone and marched against Cairo, where the Urabists remained in control. After his smashing victory at Tall al-Kabir on September 13, Wolsey reaffirmed Britain’s support for the authority of the khedive. Britain's civilizing mission lingered, selflessly shielding the nation’s rulers from the perilous wishes of ordinary Egyptians, until 1954.