How Britain Dealt with Political Crisis in Egypt

The present day political turmoil in Egypt is eerily reminiscent of events 130 years ago.

British Royal Navy battleships HMS Barham and HMS Malaya and the aircraft carrier HMS Argus at sea during exercises near the Balearic Islands in the 1920s
British Royal Navy battleships HMS Barham and HMS Malaya and the aircraft carrier HMS Argus at sea during exercises near the Balearic Islands in the 1920s (US Naval Historical Center)

The present day turmoil in Egypt — the toppling of a pro-Western strongman in a populist uprising and Tuesday’s storming of the American embassy in Cairo — is eerily reminiscent of events 130 years ago when the political instability in the country led to a British naval bombardment of the city of Alexandria and ultimately, the British occupation of Egypt.

Britain and France in the late nineteenth century had strategic interests in Egypt, particularly in the security of the Suez Canal which the French had financed in the 1860s. The British acquired a controlling share in the canal in 1875. Its construction and other ambitious but expensive projects had drained the Egyptian treasury to the point where the two European powers, in order to protect their creditors, established a condominium in Egypt for financial control which angered nationalists.

The khedive, Tewfik Pasha, relied on the British and the French financially and military. When a nationalist uprising was followed by an army revolt in 1881, the two powers were compelled to intervene.

The similarities with the situation as it has developed in Egypt during the last one and half year are striking. As then, a pro-Western strongman — Tewfik at the time, Hosni Mubarak last year — faced popular outrage over his regime’s ties with foreign powers — Ahmed Urabi’s nationalists at the time, the Muslim Brotherhood in the present day — and the military turned against him. New media — newspapers at the time, Facebook and Twitter last year — played a key role in fomenting dissent and allowed the opposition movement to grow to an extent that it endangered the survival of the regime.

The difference, of course, is that that in 1882, Britain intervened to crush the Urabi Revolt. When rioters in Alexandria in June of that year attacked foreign businessmen and killed some fifty Europeans (luckily, the violence in Cairo on Tuesday didn’t reach that point), the British fleet in the city bombarded coastal batteries to pave the way for an invasion. French navy ships, though present, refused to participate.

British forces drove the nationalists out of the city but unrest spread across Egypt. Fearing that Urabi would default on Egypt’s gargantuan debt and might seek to acquire control of the Suez Canal, which was owned by the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company, the House of Commons sanctioned a larger intervention.

In September, a British army under Garnet Wolseley landed at the Canal Zone and pushed the nationalist forces back. Urabi was exiled to Sri Lanka and Tewfik was reinstated although his new government was a façade. Egypt became a British protectorate under the stewardship of Evelyn Baring, later Earl of Cromer, who stayed on until 1907. British occupation ended nominally when Egypt was declared independent and a kingdom in 1922 but a military presence remained until 1936 and was reestablished during World War II.

Discontent over British influence and the monarchy’s corrupt and ineffective rule led in 1952 to a military coup that propelled Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. He nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Britain, this time with French support, again launched a naval intervention, including a bombardment of Cairo, to regain the waterway but American and Soviet pressure forced the allies to withdraw.

Fast forward another half century and demonstrators are burning Americans flags on the walls of the United States embassy compound in Cairo. America’s envoy to Libya is killed and dragged through the streets of Benghazi. A pillar of American strategy and stability in the Middle East has fallen with Mubarak. His Islamist successor, Mohamed Morsi, may not reverse Egyptian foreign policy entirely to align with American enemies in the region but is far less cooperative. The country is kept afloat by loans from the United States and their Arab Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia.

The crisis may seem to call for an imitation of the British action in Alexandria 130 years ago, if only as a show of force to demonstrate that aggression toward Americans overseas will not go unpunished, but those favoring it should remember that the bombardment did not, in itself, put down the nationalist revolt. It required “boots the ground,” which President Barack Obama was so keen to avoid in Libya last year, to restore order. And for Britain to secure its interests in Egypt for another seventy years, it had to maintain a permanent military presence in the country and effectively rule it through a puppet regime. That would be unthinkable today.