This morning I was struck by another one of the reasons that the British Empire still has such a positive reputation (in some circles). When we focus on the British interaction with a group of people, we tend to focus on the end. It’s the struggle for independence that matters for the national stories of all the formerly subjugated countries. Of course, these stories are still in living memory for many, which also contributes to their popularity. But beyond that, nobody wants to look like a victim. Newly independent countries understandably want to focus on their victorious heroes rather than their defeated and brutalized ancestors from centuries past.
The British certainly committed many atrocities as their empire fell apart. Jallianwalla Bagh and the suppression of the Mau Mau are just two instances that leap to mind. But the more popular image is one of haplessness. The humiliation of Suez, the pretentious pointlessness of Mountbatten. The things that Britain is most blamed for at the end, like the Israel Palestine situation, and horrors of Indian partition, are stories about British neglect and poverty, not British greed and destruction. You can almost (not quite) find yourself pitying the British as their carefully crafted systems of control fall apart.
If you look at the other end of the Imperial story, there is nothing British to sympathize with. In country after country we see the people who live there struggle and fail, against differing degrees of brutality, as universally hypocritical Englishmen proclaim their civilizing values and cash their checks. Today’s video attempts to surface just one of those hundreds (thousands?) of stories, by telling the neglected tale of the British subjugation of Egypt.
Video Transcript after the jump…
“Freedom was an Englishman’s right. And wherever he went, he took that right with him.”
Hey there. A couple weeks back, in my review of PragerU’s video on the British Empire, I pointed out that while the empire certainly talked about Freedom a lot, what they were interested in was freedom for the British, not anybody else. Today we will illustrate this point in detail, by covering a desperate fight for Egyptian Freedom, that took place almost 140 years ago.
In today’s video we are covering 30 years of rapid development, and a complex Egypt-wide revolution, and we are going to try to do it in around ten minutes, which is ridiculous. To prepare, I read a 300 page book on this, and I feel like it could easily have been three times as long. So I encourage you to do further research on the topic. You may find that your interpretation of the facts, and your story of the Egyptian Revolution is completely different from the one I want to tell here. But let’s get to it….
How English Freedoms Crushed Egypt
In our last video we talked about Muhammad Ali, a figure I have mixed feelings about. He was an extraordinarily competent reformer, who almost managed to build an independent unified Middle East a full century before the more fractured independent countries of today emerged. But he was also an imperialist and a conqueror. The guy was Muslim, but he was an Albanian from Greece, not someone from Egypt. I couldn’t find an academic source I completely trusted on this, but the rumor is that in over 40 years of ruling Egypt, Muhammad Ali never bothered to learn to speak Arabic fluently.
In 1840, When Britain forced Muhammad Ali to give up the Middle East super state he had created, and submit to the Sultan, the consolation prize was that his dynasty would be able to continue to rule Egypt as the Ottoman viceroy. This was a bad deal for Egypt. Ibrahim pasha, Ali’s most impressive son, pre-deceased him. The 4 mostly independent Egyptian leaders after Muhammad Ali had all of his greed, but none of his genius.
Renewed submission to the Sultan meant that Ottoman treaties with Britain now applied to Egypt too. This meant that Muhammad Ali’s experiment with protected industry was over. 1838’s very unequal treaty of Balta Liman required that all Ottoman monopolies be disbanded, and that British merchants be given complete economic freedom in all Ottoman domains. Egypt’s infant manufacturing industry quickly evaporated in the face of foreign competition.
In the 19th century the United States, Japan, and Germany all became economic super powers by mixing relative openness on some trade goods with heavy protection for favored domestic manufacturing industries. The treaty of Balta Liman shut down this avenue to prosperity for the Egyptians.
Instead the Egyptians got to try radical openness, and full integration with the world market under British ideas of free trade. If this was going to work for any non-white country in the 19th century, it was going to work for Egypt, a country that got two incredibly valuable economic windfalls in the mid 19th century, the Suez Canal and the US Civil War. Let’s see how complete reliance on foreign banks and foreign manufacturers worked out for them!
The Suez Canal was initially a French and Egyptian project, opposed by the British. Which is ironic, when you consider how things ended up working out. The canal dramatically shortened the amount of time it took to ship goods from Asia to Europe. In the 19th century it controlled Britain’s access to India, and in the 20th it controlled everybody’s access to Middle Eastern Oil. Muhammad Ali’s successors could see the power and wealth that the canal would generate, but first they had to build it.
Said and Ismail, the rulers who oversaw this process managed to find a way to do this building that both imposed maximum costs on their people, and made sure that their people got none of the benefits. Egypt took on 68 million dollars worth of high interest rate debt between 1862 and 1872, for the canal and other purposes but only received 46 million dollars. The rest went to fees for Bankers in Europe.
But these extraordinarily bad deals didn’t look important at the time, thanks to Abraham Lincoln. During the US civil war he blockaded the southern ports starving the world’s textile factories. Egypt experienced an extraordinary cotton boom. Some of Ismail’s descendants want him to be described as the magnificent, and it’s during this period that he would have earned that title. I think Ismail the Absurd, or the extravagant, or Ismael the disastrous would be more on point. Instead of using this windfall to finish the canal, or maybe buy out some of the foreign interest in It, Ismail used it for the dramatic expansion of everything, the army, infrastructure, education, imperial adventures in Sudan and Ethiopia, his own extravagant lifestyle, and most importantly foreign debt to pay for it all.
Before we get to the disaster you can all see coming, it’s worth focusing on some of the good that was done. Ismail desperately wanted to look like a modern enlightened ruler, and the infrastructure and the large government bureaucracy he built, led to an explosion in culture and literature. Newspapers proliferated in Turkish and European languages, but also in Arabic. In many ways his reign saw the birth of modern Egyptian public opinion. Which became a real problem for him.
In a lot of ways Muhammad Ali was a foreign interloper, but few in the still largely pre-literate society he oversaw had the tools to challenge that, and he was pretty good at crushing those who did. Muhammad Ali could also point to his real skill at fighting back European influence to build legitimacy with the Muslim majority. His grandson Ismail was both in charge of a foreign dynasty, and working closely with foreign infidels. This gave him a serious public opinion problem.
In 1866, in an attempt to build legitimacy and look more like a constitutional monarch, Ismael created a toothless chamber of Deputies to advise him. Unfortunately 1866 was also the year that US cotton came rampaging back on to the market, tanking prices world wide. Predictably Ismael decided to keep the party going with debt. After all the canal was almost finished, surely it would all work out!
It didn’t. Between 1866 and 1876 the walls slowly began to close in, as the money ran out. Ismail’s extravagance continued, but the beneficiaries became a smaller and smaller ottoman Turkish and Circassian circle around him. Indigenous Egyptian bureaucrats and military officers found themselves shut out of the party, while the village nobility and peasants they were descended from were required to pay for the party through brutal taxes. More and more of the government budget went to pay for interest on foreign loans. The canal, which opened in 1869, didn’t make enough of a difference.
By 1875, Ismail was desperate. His greatest asset was Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal, the engineering marvel that thousands of his countrymen had died to produce. He sold the shares to the British government at a knock down price, cementing a British interest in his country that would not be chased out for three quarters of a century.
As is often the case with these things, a stupid war was the last straw. Egypt’s failed attempt to take Eritrea from Ethiopia led to a declaration of bankruptcy. Egypt needed foreign funding to continue to function, so Britain and France established a debt commission that took over much of the Egyptian economy. 1876 also saw the institution of mixed tribunals in Egypt, that not only allowed Europeans to be governed by their own law, but also forced foreign law on any Egyptians that did business with Europeans or owed them money.
The Ottomans might have been expected to object, but they were soon losing their own war with Russia. Though Egypt technically belonged to the Ottoman Empire until 1914, this was just a polite fiction. Meaningful control of Egypt, which the British had so ostentatiously given back to the Ottomans in 1840, was stripped away in 1876, never to return.
The situation in Egypt became intolerable. The foreign creditors required that services be slashed, and taxes be jacked up even further. For many Egyptians this meant losing their land to Europeans, in European courts on Egyptian soil. Ismail the absurd, far too late, attempted to rebel against the Europeans, who quickly replaced him with his son Tewfiq. The situation was intolerable, and the British Navy was a constant threat.
But all was not lost. A real alternative to the foreign dynasty and the foreign banks finally emerged. Ahmad Urabi, a native Egyptian Officer, led a revolt against Tewfiq. He demanded an end to foreign influence, and unjust taxation, and required that the Chamber of Deputies be given control of the budget.
In 1882 Urabi and the parliament gained control of much of the country, forcing Tewfiq to retreat to coastal Alexandria and the protection of the British Navy.
This, finally, was a real fight for Egyptian freedom. It was exactly the sort of battle between greedy absolutism and a more representative parliament that had been fought in the English Civil War and the French Revolution. So did the Freedom loving British Empire support this new birth of liberty? Hell no! They crushed it mercilessly, and reinstated the tyrant to make sure the Europeans got their money.
With the approval of their puppet ruler Tewfiq, the British bombarded Alexandria, in July of 1882, killing at least hundreds but possibly thousands of people. They invaded, crushed Urabi’s rebellion and sent him into exile. The British troops that came in the fall of 1882 did not leave until the 1950s.
This is what British freedom meant for the rest of the world. The English businessman was free to do as he wanted, while the Egyptians were free to suffer the consequences.
Thanks for watching please subscribe. So that’s about as far as I can go with Egyptian history without talking about Israel, and as long time viewers know, I am not ready to do that yet. So when we return to this British Empire series we will probably be turning South to talk about Sudan. For those who really want me to talk about Israel though, there’s some good news. By the end of this year, anybody chipping in 2 dollars or more a video to my crowd funding thing will have the opportunity to vote on what my next big British Empire size project will be. One of the options will be Israel Palestine. So if you really want me to talk about Israel, you can sign up at the Patreon link here to get the opportunity to vote for it. Thanks!