Once Napoleon's foray into Egypt had been fatally undermined by Nelson's destruction of his fleet in 1798, the country began to sink back into its old ways of political squabbling and corruption following a brief flurry of progressive reforms. But from now on the European powers, particularly Britain, would be seeking to increase their influence in this sphere.
After the French had left, the Albanian Guard imposed its leader Muhammad Ali as Pasha of Egypt. His chief achievement was to root out the corroding influence of the Mamluks once and for all. A number of unmemorable successors followed until Pasha Said gained power. He began to rouse Egypt from its torpor with a series of important public works, but is chiefly remembered today as the man who authorised the Suez Canal. The canal was to prove pivotal for the country not only in economic terms, but also politically because it provided the occasion for the final incorporation of Egypt into the British Empire.
The idea of connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea was not new. The last independent Pharaoh of Egypt, Necho, had begun a canal which would have joined one of the arms of the Nile delta to the lakes leading to the Red Sea. Despite expending more than 100,000 lives on the project, he had to abandon it - partly, no doubt, because of the Assyrian depredations which were increasingly troubling Egypt. And it was left to one of the heirs of the eventual Persian conquerors, Darius, to complete Necho's work.
The canal was open for centuries thereafter, though its usefulness was subject to the level of the Nile: Cleopatra had tried to flee from the Romans with her fleet, but was unable to do so because of the low level of the river at the time. Had she done so, Egyptian and possibly world history might have been very different. Eventually one of the Islamic invaders filled in the canal to prevent supplies of Egyptian corn reaching rival Arabs. It would be more than a thousand years before a new canal was opened. In between, many of the leading powers - the Venetians, Louis XIV, the Ottomans, Napoleon - contemplated its construction as a means of extending their empires.
But it was left to an Egyptian to realise all these vague plans. During 1855 Pasha Said permitted the formation of the Suez Canal Company, in which he held 44 percent of the shares, and would receive 15 percent of the annual profits. Work began in 1859. Said was succeeded by Ismail who quickened the pace to take advantage of the market for Egyptian cotton which had opened up with the disruption caused by the Civil War to the American cotton industry.
The canal was finished in 1869, not without many thousands of deaths. A four-day extravaganza was held to celebrate this great engineering feat which radically changed international communications. That extravagance was matched by the overall cost of the project, which proved an enormous drain on the country's resources. As a result, Ismail's government was soon deeply in debt, and he had no alternative but to sell his share in the Suez Canal. This was snapped up by the British at Disraeli's insistence, for £4 million. Initially the British had been sceptical about the Canal, but they now recognised its vital strategic importance for their empire in providing a quick route to India.
Increasingly Egypt found itself dependent on the British. In 1883 the first Consul General was appointed to the country. It then became a staging post for the extension of the Empire south in to Sudan. After the fiasco of Khartoum, at which General Gordon and his garrison were murdered, Kitchener finally asserted British control over the area, and the Sudan was administered jointly by the British and the Egyptians.
After the First World War, during which the nominal suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt was formally and finally annulled, Egypt was declared an independent state by Britain - who nonetheless retained control of its defence and communications. Much of the work towards independence was carried out by Pasha Zaghloul, although little concrete was achieved in his lifetime.
In 1936 a 20 year withdrawal of the British from Egypt was negotiated. Before the conclusion of this period, a dramatic new player emerged: General Nasser. He had been a member of a group of officers who had forced the abdication of King Farouk of Egypt in 1953. Nasser became premier in 1954, when the British agreed to leave within 20 months, and President in 1956. Among his radical plans to revitalise Egypt was the construction of a mighty dam at Aswan. Nasser approached Britain and the United States for economic aid. This was refused, largely because the Americans were piqued that Nasser had also spoken to the Russians about financial help.
In retaliation, Nasser announced on 26 July 1956 the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Thereafter, the Suez Canal became a focus for a number of countries who had ulterior motives for their actions. The main players were Britain, France and Israel. Israel was keen to deliver a blow to a country which had already invaded it once. Britain and France wished to re-assert their imperial power in the region. Between the three, they concocted a scheme for humbling Nasser, and removing the Canal from Egyptian control. Nasser, too, had reasons beyond simply nationalising the Canal. He wished to humiliate the old imperial powers, and establish himself as the effective leader of the entire Arab nation.
On 29 October, 1956, Israel invaded Egypt, nominally to wipe out Egyptian commandos who had been raiding their country. The next day, as arranged, Britain and France sent ultimatums to both sides to observe a ceasefire and withdraw from the Canal zone. Israel naturally agreed; Egypt, equally naturally, did not. So on 2 November, the British and French launched a Blitzkrieg against Egypt, destroying almost the entire airforce of that country.
But the British had gravely misread the world's likely reaction. The United States was incensed - partly because the timing of the action had been chosen to coincide with Presidential elections, when the Americans were expected to be preoccupied with internal matters. Furthermore, five days after the Suez Crisis began, the Russians seized the opportunity to invade Hungary to crush the uprising there, banking on the world being more interested in Middle-Eastern matters. To deny the Soviets any such advantage, the United States applied great pressure to Britain to withdraw, offering as an incentive a huge loan to prop up the pound which had collapsed overnight. Reluctantly the British complied, and persuaded the French to pull out too. By the end of 1956 all foreign troops had been withdrawn, and the Suez crisis was over.
To observers at the time, Suez looked like an embarrassing episode that had gone slightly awry due to the perfidy of the Americans, and the opportunism of the Russians. But it was far more than that. Indeed, that the expedition had ended so humiliatingly for Britain, and that the country had embarked on such a scheme in the first place was the clearest indication possible that something fundamental had happened: the British Empire was broken. No longer would Britannia dictate to distant countries; no longer would her opinions matter. Britain was now just another country in an increasingly complex world.
The other consequence was that some two and a half thousand years after it had lost its independence, and five thousand years after its foundation, the Egyptian nation - the oldest with a continuous history on earth - was free again.
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