History of Egypt - British Occupation (1882-1952)

History of Egypt - British Occupation (1882-1952) Last updated on Thursday 15th April 2010

Ismail's son Tewfiq Pasha reformed the Egyptian economy and relinquished financial control to the British who began to run the government of the country. Egyptian nationalists, horrified at Tewfiq's submission to the British, forced him to appoint their leader Ahmed Orabi as Minister of War, but the European reaction was swift and violent. Alexandria was shelled and Ismailiyya occupied. Orabi's army was defeated at Tel El Kabir and the British reinstalled Tewfiq as a puppet. Orabi was driven into exile and Mustafa Kamil became the leader of the nationalist movement.

British influence over Egypt continued to increase. The country became an economic colony, totally dependent upon the import of British manufactured goods and the export of its raw cotton.

The outbreak of the World War I brought Egypt formally into the British Empire as a Protectorate when the Ottoman Sultan declared his support for the Germans against the allies. During the war Fouad, the sixth son of Khedive Ismail, had become Khedive of Egypt but his authority was to be constantly challenged by Egyptian nationalists who fed on the popular resentment of foreign domination.

Sa'ad Zaghloul was the leader of the nationalist movement during and after the first war and in 1918 he formally presented the British High Commissioner with a demand for complete autonomy which was rejected out of hand. Zaghloul's eventual arrest and deportation to Malta resulted in widespread anti-British riots, forcing the British to back down.

In 1922 the British ended the protectorate and recognized Egypt's independence, while maintaining control over the essential government institutions and the Suez Canal. Fouad was proclaimed King of Egypt in March of the same year.

The years that followed were characterized by a triangular power struggle between the British, the King and the nationalist Wafd party which had the support of the population.

Farouk, the son of King Fouad, ascended the Egyptian throne in 1935. In the beginning, the reign of King Farouk was greeted with enthusiasm by both the Wafd party and by the rapidly growing Muslim Brotherhood. Farouk was, amazingly, the first Egyptian ruler of the descendants of Mohammed Ali Pasha to speak fluent Arabic. Turkish had been the court language of all his predecessors. Moreover, Farouk seemed to have nationalist sympathies. The young ruler was, unfortunately, too weak to defy the British. Within a year he had signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which gave British forces the right to remain in the Suez Canal Zone while ostensibly ending the British occupation of Egypt.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Wafd Party threw its support behind the allies on the understanding that Egypt would gain full independence once the war was over. But hatred towards the British rule was so intense by this time that clandestine support for the Germans existed in nationalist factions like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt became a major strategic asset and base of operations during World War II. Cairo and Alexandria were filled with soldiers, spies, political exiles and government leaders. The decisive battle in the North African campaign was the Battle of El-Alamain in the desert outside Alexandria. General Montgomery's Eighth Army drove back Rommel's Afrika Korps and the allies swept across North Africa to victory.

With the allied victory and the end of the war, the Wafd party called for the immediate evacuation of British troops from Egypt. The British were slow to respond and Egyptian resentment exploded in anti-British riots and strikes instigated by the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood under the leadership of Hassan Al-Banna which had grown in power and influence during the war years.

It had always been the Muslim Brotherhood position that the war between the allies and the axis had nothing to do with Egypt or Muslims. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood refrained from open opposition to Egyptian support for the allies during the war years but lashed out at the British presence after the war. Under joint pressure from the Brotherhood and the Wafd, British troops were evacuated from Alexandria and the Canal Zone in 1947.

The following year the Arab world suffered a shattering blow when a joint Arab invasion of the newly declared state of Israel was ignominiously defeated by the smaller Israeli army. Ashamed and appalled by the decadence and gross incompetence of their leaders, a group of idealistic young Egyptian officers were to emerge as leaders of a revolution which would alter the course of modern Arab history.

When parliamentary elections were held in 1952 the Wafd Party won the majority of seats and Nahas Pasha as prime minister repealed the 1936 treaty which gave Britain the right to control the Suez Canal. King Farouk dismissed the Prime Minister, igniting anti-British riots which were put down by the army.

This event compelled a secret group of army officers, which became known as the Free Officers, to stage a coup d'etat and seize control of the government. King Farouk was forced to abdicate and General Naguib -- as the most senior officer, the nominal leader of the group -- became prime minister and commander of the armed forces.

In reality a nine-man Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) led by Colonel Gamal Abd Al-Nasser ruled Egypt and ruled decisively. The monarchy was abolished, all political parties (including the Wafd Party) were banned and the Constitution was nullified.

In 1953 the Egyptian Arab Republic was declared. The rule of the Revolutionary Command Council seemed benign and heroic at the beginning; their coup had been bloodless and their reforms popular. But the RCC became increasingly radical and when the older Najeeb tried to exert some control over the younger officers, he was placed under house arrest and removed from power in 1954. Abd Al-Nasser became acting head of state and in 1956 officially assumed presidency of the republic.

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