Egypt has always fascinated Europeans, but there were a few times when European empires took this fascination a bit too far. In this lesson, we’ll explore European/Egyptian relations from the 18th through 20th centuries and examine times when Egypt was under European control.

Egypt and Europe

Egypt has a lot of cool stuff. The country is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Egypt has been the center of massive trade networks for millennia. Heck, the nation is at the center of every crazy ancient astronaut theory. From pyramids and mummies to the Nile and its abundant resources, it’s no wonder that so many people across history have been fascinated by Egypt.

Of course, this hasn’t always been to Egypt’s advantage. Long before the tourism industry was a major part of the national economy, Egypt caught the attention of several other empires, each of which caught a little Nile fever. Sometimes, the invaders came from other parts of Africa and sometimes, they came from Europe.

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All told, from 1882-1956, Egypt was occupied in some way by the British Empire. Why? What did the British find in Egypt? Well, to quote Sir Howard Carter as he first opened King Tut’s tomb: ”Wonderful things.”

European Interests

Let it be said that Europe has always had an interest in Egypt. The Greeks traded with Egypt and even invaded it once or twice. Later, the Romans traded with Egypt and invaded it once or twice. Prior to the fall of Rome, the entire Mediterranean world was pretty well-connected the region was divided into Christian and Muslim factions. After that, European interest in Egypt dwindled until the late 1700s.

At the end of the 18th century, the French General Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt with the goal of interrupting British trade with India. Napoleon became fascinated with Egypt and once he declared himself the Emperor of France, he imported tons of Egyptian artifacts. Napoleon’s reign would not last, but the prominence of the artifacts did and European interest in Egypt was reawakened.

Napoleon in Egypt
Napoleon in Egypt

The Suez Canal

After Napoleon was defeated in 1815, Egypt fell back under the control of the Ottoman Empire, led by General Muhammad Ali Pasha. Ali quickly took firm control of Egypt and, despite the fact that he is still technically within the Ottoman Empire, he forced the sultan to recognize his authority over the region.

Muhammad Ali governed Egypt from 1805-1848 and during this time, dedicated himself to modernizing the Egyptian economy and military. This attracted many foreign investors and thanks to Ali’s opening of Egypt’s rivers to international trade, Egypt became host to a dominant trade route between Europe and Asia. This focus on trade was maintained by Ali’s successors who, in 1854, approved a French and British plan to create a man-made canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

The Suez Canal quickly became one of the most important shipping routes in the world. Think of it as the Panama Canal of the Middle East. Egypt flourished for a few years after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, but was soon bankrupt due to poorly-handled finances and the lavish spending of the Egyptian government. As a result, in 1875, Britain purchased all of the shares in the canal owned by Egypt, but the influx of cash is not enough; Egypt fell deeper into debt and was soon on the brink of a civil war. To protect their investments in the canal, Britain and France sent their navies to Egypt in 1882.

Muhammad Ali Pasha
Muhammad Ali Pasha

British Occupation (1822-1922)

It wasn’t long before British and Egyptian forces clashed with a decisive British victory and by September of 1882, Britain had captured Cairo and occupied Egypt. From 1882-1922, Britain formally occupied Egypt and controlled its government. At first, in what was called a veiled protectorate, Britain managed the Egyptian budget, took over the training of its military, and (although it had no legal authority to do so) basically ran Egypt through a series of commissions designed to protect British investments.

The veiled protectorate lasted from 1882-1914, after which Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire and named Egypt a formal protectorate, meaning it took complete control of the nation. However, the movement of British troops out of Cairo during World War I gave revolutionaries a chance to unite and anti-British rebellions popped up. In 1922, Britain resolved the problem by declaring Egypt independent.

Independence and Continued Occupation (1922-1956)

In 1922, the British protectorate of Egypt became the independent Kingdom of Egypt. Does that mean the British left? Of course not! For over a decade, Britain continued to control the Egyptian military, communications networks, and its ability to deal with other nations.

Eventually, Egypt and Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which returned lots of power to the Egyptians, although Britain continued to maintain a strong presence. This was especially true in relation to the Suez Canal. Britain was determined to maintain their control of the canal, which quickly became a problem after WWII.

In an effort to strengthen Egypt, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, ordering the Egyptian government to take control of the canal and declaring that no other private companies could own it, including the British companies that had controlled it for years. Britain was furious and, along with France and Israel, invaded Egypt in 1956 in an event known as the Suez Crisis. The result? The UN, the United States, and the USSR all put pressure on Britain to abandon its claims to the canal. Britain was forced to accept and by the end of 1956, Egypt would be completely independent from British control for the first time in more than 150 years.

The Suez Canal
Suez Canal

Lesson Summary

Egypt is full of great things and historically, this greatness has inspired other nations to invade it. Europe, in particular, traded with and invaded Egypt throughout ancient history, but modern interest in Egypt was sparked by Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief occupation of the nation beginning in the late 18th century.

Following Napoleon’s fall, Egypt modernized quickly under Muhammad Ali Pasha, a shift that resulted in greater foreign attention and brought investments into the area. In 1869, this modernization expanded to include the Suez Canal, an artificial waterway connecting the Red and Mediterranean Seas and one of the world’s most important shipping routes.

As major investors in the canal, Britain and France sent troops to protect it during social unrest in the 1880s, resulting in the British invasion and occupation of Cairo in 1882. From 1882-1914, Egypt was a veiled protectorate of Britain, meaning that the British controlled most of Egypt without any real legal authority. From 1914-1922, it was a formal protectorate, until Britain declared the nation to be independent.

Still, the British maintained a strong presence until the 1956 Suez Crisis. The crisis began with the nationalization of the canal by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain invaded to defend their rights to the canal, but was forced to finally abandon all control because of international pressure. By the end of 1956 and for the first time in more than 150 years, Egypt was truly independent.