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Egypt: History - British Occupation Period


British Occupation Period

The British occupation had no physical changes on Cairo since the British had been ruling Egypt indirectly for years. Tawfik remained the khedive, the consular courts dealt justice, the administration was foreign and the British occupied the Citadel. They did need foreigners to help rule Cairo simply because they did not want the commerce in Cairo to be controlled by the Egyptians. However, it was very important that the city be organized by dependable people that were not Egyptian.


Lord Cromer was the man responsible for the consolidation of the absolute rule in Cairo. He became the British Agent in Egypt in 1883 and ruled Egypt for 24 years. Before this, he had been in control of the Public Debt in Cairo as British Commissioner. He was responsible for the manipulation that helped the British occupation of Egypt. He was also responsible for keeping the French, Belgians and Italians away from the Nile. Under Cromer, Cairo was a very political and social city.

Cromer left Cairo in 1907 and left control of the city to Sir Eldon Gorst. Cairo began to change its appearance after the English arrived. By the year 1900 there were four tramways in Cairo and a fifth was being built to run from Giza to the pyramids. Trains had been built that ran from Helwan and Tura. English department stores and shopping districts had been set up.

After Gorst, Lord Kitchener became resident minister of Egypt and set up a legislative assembly in Cairo. This was the beginning of the parliamentary life of Egypt, which was an imitation of England. The British resident minister was similar to the prime minister in England. Each minister was always afraid that somehow the Egyptian people might discover that there might be another way to rule itself other than the English parliament way. During World War I the people did finally recognize this from the political events that resulted from the war.

The war brought many Australian, British, New Zealand and colonial troops to Cairo. In Arabia, the Arabs revolted against the Turks in a fight for national liberation. This soon became a policy that all Egyptians could agree on. European Cairo was a madhouse because of the British and their self-indulgences. However, Egyptian Cairo became a place of politics, preparation and whispers. The prices began to rise steeply in Cairo while the British soldiers were enjoying things that they had never had before. The people in the countryside began to suffer greatly from poverty and malnutrition. It was so bad that during the year 1918 more people died than were born.

In the city itself, some things were more prosperous. The Australians that came in 1914 spent a great deal of money each day in Cairo. Eventually the soldiers began to have too much fun and were thinking more of fun than of the job they had been sent to do. The citizens of Cairo watched the soldiers and began to want more and more an independent country.

In 1916 martial law was introduced in Cairo. Military courts judged civilians and had them punished. England began to treat Egypt more like a country that was the enemy instead of a friend. In 1917, the British began to encourage the kidnapping of peasants to serve in their labor groups in Palestine. Thousands of fellahin were sent to Syria, Mesopotamia and to France.

After the war, U.S. President Wilson's Fourteen Points gave Egypt a hope of independence. Saad Zaghlul went to the British Residency and demanded the Egypt be given the right to self-determination. He was allowed to speak and leave, but was arrested a month later and sent to Malta. Egypt revolted on the news of this. Overnight Cairo became a revolutionary city as every town and city was seized by Egyptians. Everything stopped. Trains and trams stopped, no one went to work and strikes began. Eight British soldiers were killed on March 18, 1919 while on their way to Cairo. Trenches were dug and the city was barricaded. Many people were killed either in the fighting or executed for killing British officers.

The resident minister was replaced by General Allenby and he immediately had Zaghlul released from Malta. Allenby was criticized for years for this as being too compromising, but this probably saved Egypt for Britain more than anything else. He declared martial law and stopped the strikes one by one. Zaghlul had been released from Malta, but was not allowed to come to Egypt yet. He went to Paris where he tried to get someone to help him get Egypt's independence. On April 20, 1919 the United States recognized the British protection of Egypt. This all but ended the hope the Egyptians had of being free.

After the war, cotton returned to the world market. Food crops were replaced by cotton and fortunes were made. However, no food was grown and people were starving. The politics between the British and the Egyptians were getting worse. In 1922 Egypt was allowed sovereignty and Fuad became king. In the next 18 months, seventeen British officials were killed and twenty more were attacked in broad daylight. In 1936 the Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed which gave Egypt a little bit of independence although superficially. In 1937, the Tribunaux Mixtes, which were the foreign courts, were done away with. The Egyptians still were not satisfied. The British were still in occupation, controlled most of the economic life and still controlled the canal. The reason that the British would not give up its hold completely was the cotton, the land and the link to India.

The British did very little to improve the way of life for the Egyptian people. They never drilled an artesian well that could pump pure water to a village or set up medical services for Egyptians. They didn't even try to educate or improve the conditions of the majority of the population. They weren't brutal occupiers, but they failed miserably at making the conditions livable to the citizens of Egypt. The Europeans that were born in Cairo were not directly to blame for the situation, but they did contribute to it. They lived, ate and slept well and they thought this was all that was expected of them.

When the second World War broke out, there were many soldiers from many different nations in Cairo. The Italians were there, but there were really no serious attempts to help Mussolini by them. The only real enemies in Cairo were the Germans. The British secret police watched them very carefully. There was a political raid in which the British caught German spies that had come to Cairo with money, a radio transmitter and a house boat on the Nile.

Because the English were unable to ship all of their supplies in from Britain, they trained and employed thousands of Egyptians in various trades. Some were mechanics, electricians, drivers, engineers and even lens grinders. They repaired military equipment and even built trains and machinery. Egypt started to weave their own cloth out of silk and wool. Advances were made in mining, cement, petroleum refining and chemical industries. In Egypt, the British spent over ten million pounds every year.

In July of 1942, the British were pushed back almost to Alexandria. Rommel stopped at Alamein because his troops were exhausted and almost out of supplies. The British rushed to Cairo. Soldiers were sent to various places to train while other got ready to retreat from the city. The British officers went to the banks to try to get their money while at the British headquarters, vital papers were burned. This scare changed Cairo to a point where it would never be the same again.

Montgomery took over the Eighth Army in the desert and moved them to Alamein. He won this battle in October or November of 1942. After this battle, Egypt lost most of the fantasy and glamour that had been year during the years of occupation. Now the city settled down to the first order of business, national liberation.


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Last Updated: August 21st, 2011

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