Egypt, History Since the Arab Conquest (History of Egypt)


In the early 7th century, events were occurring in the Arabian peninsula that were to have a proîound effect on the history of Egypt and the entire world.

There a young man, Mohammed, was proclaiming the message that he was the prophet of God (Allah), the final and full revelation, and that God was transmitting his words through him in the Koran. Mohammed organized the peoples of the Arabian peninsula into a new religious and political system that was not diminished by his death in 632. Spurred on by desires for booty and conquest and the fervor born of their new religion, Arab peoples spilled out of the Arabian peninsula and into the Middle East heartland, at that time under the domination of declining Persian and Byzantine empires.


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Egypt was an important component of the Byzantine Empire. But internally it was rent by factions, and when the Arab armies invaded, under the generalship of Amr Ibn al-As, the local armies were no match. Although the conquest (639-642) may have begun as a booty-gathering expedition, a shrewd leader like Amr Ibn al-As fully appreciated the enormous economic and strategic importance of Egypt. He quickly garrisoned the country and founded the city of al-Fustat, or Old Cairo, in 643. The city symbolized the Arab conquest of Egypt, for it was a military camp—a garrison city—occupied almost exclusively by the conquerors. The non-Arab, or Coptic population, which was Christian, lived outside the main city but close enough so that their administrative and clerical talents could be used by the Arabs.

The Arabs had come from politically less sophisticated societies and had overrun some of the most developed polities of the world at that time. Their leaders realized the need to take över administrative systems already perfected by the Byzantines and Persians rather than trying to create anew. Thus they borrowed bureaucratic techniques and personnel from the indigenous population while controlling these people from strategic encampments. The first 50 years of Arab rule were marked by separation between Arab and non-Arab populations and unequal access to wealth and political power.

Umayyad and Abbasid Rule.

Under İts first four rulers, or caliphs, the Arab empire was governed from the Arabian peninsula, but the first caliph of the Umayyad line, al-Muawiya (reigned 661-680), moved the capital to Damascus, in Syria. Egypt was a province of the vast Umayyad empire, which stretched from Morocco to Iran. At the beginning of the 8th century the chasm between Arabs and non-Arabs began to close. Under Caliphs Abd al-Malik and his son al-Walid, Arabic spread rapidly among the Egyptian population^ replacing Greek as the language of the administration. islam also gained many adherents. But the Arab conquerors tried to maintain their privileged position, an attempt that produced antagonism among those they ruled.


In 750 a new dynasty, the Abbasid, took the place of the Umayyad dynasty. This change represented a triumph of the oppressed classes and a victory for the universality of islam regardless of race. Under the Abbasids, with their capital at Baghdad, the empire became multiracial, based on the unity of religion and, to a lesser extent, the Arabic language.

The Tulunids.

For a short time the Abbasid caliphs were able to dominate their farflung empire, but soon the outlying regions began to detach themselves from Abbasid control. Egypt broke away under the leadership of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, a Turk who had been educated at the Abbasid court and sent to Egypt as vice-governor. An ambitious man, he made himself master ‘of the province and then established its autonomy. He also occupied Syria, which from the late 9th to early 16th century was usually ruled from Egypt.

The short-lived Tulunid dynasty (868-905) was a harbinger of the future. Imperial unity had been shattered, and henceforth Egypt would have a series of rulers who were largely autonomous but often foreigners.

The Fatimids.

After reverting briefly to Abbasid control, Egypt was ruled by another short-lived dynasty of Turkish origin, the Ikhshidid (935—969). The Ikhshidids were succeeded by the Fatimid dynasty (969-1171), one of the most infiuential to govern Egypt.

The Fatimids, who had arisen in Tunisia, were Shiites, a group that held religious and political beliefs different from those of the Sunni, or majority and orthodox community. There were various Shiite groups. AH believed that the Umayyads had wrongfully usurped authority from the fourth Muslim caliph, Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and they traced their dynasties from the rulers they thought should have succeeded Ali. At the apex of their system was the supreme religious figure—the imam— who was considered the direct descendant of Mohammed and Ali and who was supposed to interpret religious truth to the Muslim world.

Shiism was fragmented as divisions occurred över succession to the imamate. In the lOth century one of the most vigorous groups was the Ismaili Shiites, who had broken with other Shiites över the question of succession to the 6th imam. The Ismailis had founded the Fatimid state in North Africa as a rival to Abbasid power in Asia. Their great general, Jawhar, conquered Egypt in 969, founded Caho—al-Qahira, “the Victorious,” at first an extension of al-Fustat— and made the new city the capital of the Fatimid state. The Fatimids left their mark on Egyptian history through their commercial and intellectual achievements. Al-Azhar was founded and recognized as a great center of Muslim learning. Yet the dynasty did not have as powerful an impact on the rank and file. Shiite ideas did not penetrate the masses but remained a preserve of a small elite of scholars and administrators.

At its height in the late lOth century, Fatimid power extended from Morocco to Syria and Arabia, but in the 1 lth and 12th centuries it began to decline. Shiism had lost some of its vitality, and the spread of its doctrine slowed. At the same time a new power, the Seljuk (Saljuq) Turks, had entered the Islamic world and rose as champions of Sunni islam to challenge Shiism. Seljuk military leaders brought much of the Islamic heartland under their control. As vigorous exponents of orthodox islam, they tried to combat Shiism by armed conquest and intellectual endeavor. They founded many schools (madrasas) from which were graduated a veritable army of Sunni Muslim scholars.


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The Ayyubids.

The successors of the Fatimids in Egypt were the Ayyubids (1171-1250), who modeled their administration on Seljuk practice. They introduced madrasas into Egypt and made instruction at al-Azhar orthodox Sunni. The founder of the dynasty was Saladin (Salah al-Din), a man of Kurdish origin, who made his mark on Muslim and Western history because of his successful campaigns against the European Crusaders in the Middle East. He drove the Crusader armies from interior territory and confined their influence to coastal enclaves.

The Mamluks (Mamelukes).

The Ayyubids yielded power to the Mamluk dynasty (1250-1517), which had its origin in the soldiery recruited by the Ayyubids from foreign slaves. The Mamluk (“slave ‘) rulers imported Turkish, Circassian, Kurdish, and Greek slave boys, who were given intensive political and administrative training. After the completion of their education, they went iiıto the service of a Mamluk commander. Those who had talent and good connections could rise to the highest positions in the army and government. Thus the Mamluks were always an alien oligarchy, and they governed Egypt with a tight fist. Controlling the higher echelons of administration and the military, they exacted heavy taxes from the peasantry.

The real founder of Mamluk authority in Egypt, was Baybars I (reigned 1260-1277). He formalized the system of importing boys from the Balkans and Asia into Egypt to be trained as the new Mamluk ruling group. More important, he defended Egypt from attack and preserved its integrity. He completed the task, begun by Saladin, of driving the Crusaders out of the country. A greater threat was posed by Mongol armies, which were driving through the Middle East and were at the gateway to Egypt. Baybars mounted the defense of Egypt, defeated the Mongols at Ayn Jalut, Palestine (1260), and made Egypt the barrier against the westward thrust of Mongol military power. Egypt became the centcr of that part of the Muslim world that remained independent of Mongol authority.

Under the Fatimids and Mamluks, Egypt was one of the leading commercial powers. The country occupied a strategic position between East and West, and its merchants knew how to take advantage of their favorable location. The most powerful, organized into guilds, were known as the Karimi merchants. They were middlemen traders who helped move goods between China, at one extreme, and western Europe, at the other. From the east, Arab traders brought pepper, spices, textiles, silk, and many other products.

These goods were traded in the Arab countries or reexported to western Europe along with products manufactured in Arab countries. Mercantile activity contributed enormously to the wealth of Egypt. But toward the end of the Mamluk reign, Egyptian conımerce began to decline. Although state intervention had blunted merchant initiative, the crucial factor was that the Portuguese usurped the Indian Ocean carrying trade after 1500. By the 16th century the Mamluks were clearly in economic and political decline. Their control of Egypt was ended by Ottoman Turkish military conquest in 1517.

Ottoman Rule.

Egypt was to remain loosely attached to the Ottoman Empire until the outbreak of World War I. For a while, Egypt was governed firmly by an Ottoman viceroy, although his Mamluk subordinates continued to recruit and train slaves as their successors. By the end of the 17th century the viceroy’s authority was being challenged by the Mamluks, and in the following century he was virtually a Mamluk captive. Thus Egypt was largely independent.

By the end of the 18th century the Egyptian population had been ruled for centuries by an alien, expIoiting military elite. The Ottoman-Mamluk rulers shared the same religion as the population but often spoke a different language, Turkish. Their ties to the masses were minimal. They did not intermarry or intermingle. They looked upon the peasantry as a resource to be exploited. The central administration imposed three majör demands on the peasantry: political quiescence, payment of taxes, and maintenance of the irrigation system. As long as the peasants carried out these obligations, the rulers left them alone and cared little for their welfare. This was the condition of Egypt on the eve of an event that thrust it suddenly into the modern world.


Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt on July 1, 1798, is a true watershed in Egyptian history, the divide between the pre-modern and modern periods. Bonaparte hoped to disrupt the British Empire and even prepare the way for a French thrust against British India. The French occupied Egypt for three years although their fleet was destroyed by the British at Abukir in August 1798 and Napoleon himself left Egypt in 1799 to assume power in France. French troops sustained heavy losses against Turkish-British forces, but even more so as a result of disease. In 1801^ the French were permitted to evacuate.

The invasion established the crucial strategic importance of Egypt and inaugurated British-French rivalry for predominant influence in the country. Egypt had entered the mainstream of European power politics, much to its dismay. Napoleon had brought a host of scholars and intellectuals with him, including Egyptologists, historians, economists, irrigation engineers, and botanists. They roamed the country observing the irrigation system, Egyptian agricultural practices, and the customs of the people. Their fîndings, published in a series of volumes, provide the most comprehensive portrait of any Arab country before the full onset of modernization pressures.

Most decisive was the French army’s defeat of the Mamluks. Beneath the pyramids at Giza the most prestigious Mamluk battalions were routed by the militarily and technologically superior French army. The Mamluks had prided themselves on their military prowess, and their defeat made programs aimed at transforming Egyptian society inevitable.

Egypt Flag

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Muhammad Ali’s Reforms.

The first program of modernization was the work of one of the most dynamic and farsighted statesmen in Middle Eastern history, Muhammad Ali (Mohammed Ali; Turkish, Mehmet, or Mehmed, Ali). Sent to Egypt by the Ottomans to help counter the French invasion, he had remained there after the French withdrawal. Muhammad Ali entered the struggle for political domination between the Mamluks and the officially designated representative of the Ottoman government. Through a combination of skillful organization and ruthless execution of plans, he was appointed the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt in 1805 and by 1811 had destroyed his last significant Mamluk opposition.


Holding virtually independent and uncontested authority in Egypt until 1848, Muhammad Ali was able to carry out far-reaching and radical programs. His goal was to build a powerful modern Egyptian state and to expand his domains throughout the Middle East.

Muhammad Ali sought to change Egypt so that it would catch up militarily with the West and be able to defend itself against a recurrence of the French invasion. Primary attention was placed on military reform. The viceroy brought in French military advisers, who reorganized the Egyptian army along French lines. The army was expanded to 100,000 men and took recruits from the Egyptian peasants for the first time. Military schools were opened to train officcrs. Muhammad Ali also built a modern fleet. However, it was destroyed by the British, French, and Russians at Navarino in 1827, when Egypt was supporting the Turks during the Greek War of Independence.

Egypt’s ruler realized that if the country was to be made militarily strong, more than military reform was required. To develop education, schools of medicine, veterinary science, and engineering were opened in the 1820’s, and European teachers were invited to lecture. Egyptian students were sent to Europe for higher education. Upon returning to Egypt they were required to translate their European textbooks into Arabic and were employed as teachers in the new schools.

Muhammad Ali’s changes required capital, and the shrewd Egyptian ruler saw the need to modernize his agricultural economy. It was during his reign that deep summer irrigation canals were dug in Lower Egypt and cotton became an export crop. He replaced the Mamluk administrators and tax collectors and had the peasants pay their taxes directly to the state.

But he conferred large estates on friends and relations, allowing much land to accumulate in the hands of a few owners. In order to maximize state revenues a system of state monopolies was established. Certain key products such as cotton, sugar, and grains could be purchased only by the state, which bought cheaply from the cultivator and sold dearly to European export merchants, Egyptian city dwellers, and even Egyptian peasants. This arrangement ensured adequate financing of modernization schemes but was onerous to the peasants, many of whom fled their lands to escape their heavy obligations.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the Viceroy’s projects was his effort to promote industrialization. Recognizing that industry was the key to economic growth and self-sufficiency, he brought European technicians to Egypt, set up textile and iıon plants, and protected infant domestic industries by setting up tariff barriers. But industrialization was a heavy expense. Imported machines were costly, fuel power was lacking, and machinery was often run by animal power. When machines broke down, they lay idle for want of spare parts and teclınicians. Despite these defects, Egyptian industry made notable progress in the 1830’s. Some 30,000 to 40,000 persons went to work in factories, which made a fourth of Egypt’s cotton into cloth.

Wars with the Ottoman Empire.

Since the driving force behind the modernizing programs was military, its fate was determined on the battle-field. At first Muhammad Ali’s troops were successful. They conquered much of the Sudan, and in league with the Ottoman Sultan fought against Wahhabi religious insurgents in Arabia. But the Viceroy overstepped himself. Twice in the 1830’s Egypt went to war with the Ottoman Empire. Both times the Egyptian armies, led by Muhammad Ali’s son, ibrahim Pasha, defeated their Ottoman adversaries, only to have European powers intervene and snatch complete victory from Egyptian hands.

Britain, Austria, and Russia sought to prevent Muhammad Ali from either destroying the Ottoman Empire or strengthening it under his own control. British statesmen strove to ensure that he did not command both of the short routes to India—one through Egypt and the other through the Levant. Egypt’s one European ally was France, which had played an important role in fostering Egyptian change and regarded Muhammad Ali as a friend. But the French could not oppose the combined strength of three great powers, and they withdrew their support.

The second Egyptian-Ottoman conflict brought to an end Muhammad Ali’s military exploits. In 1841, Europe forced a treaty on Egypt that, while recognizing his hereditary rule of Egypt, limited the size of the Egyptian army to 18,000 men, removed Egypt’s protective tariffs, and forced the Egyptian ruler to end his commercial and agricultural monopolies. These changes cooled the aging Viceroy’s enthusiasm for modernization. He allowed reform programs to languish, he no longer sent hordes of Egyptian students to Europe, and he closed many schools. The removal of the protective tariffs brought an end to Egyptian industrialization, for the country was flooded with cheap European products. The abolition of the monopolies swelled the power of the European merchants in Egypt, who went unhindered into the countryside to trade and became an important political force.

Although seeming to end in failure, Muhammad Ali’s efforts were a remarkable instance of modernization. They involved. key aspects of Egyptian society—agriculture, education, and politics. One of the most unusual features was the Viceroy’s emphasis on financial self-sufficiency. Prefiguring 20th century modernizers, he set out to change his society without relying on European capital. The European powers and merchants undermined his experiment, however, and his successors pursued the more limited goals of an export-oriented economy relying on a large influx of foreign capital.

Successors of Muhammad Ali.

Under the succeeding viceroys, Abbas I (ruled 1848-1854) and Said Pasha (ruled 1854-1863), the reform movement of Muhammad Ali withered. One notable development was that Said granted a concession for a Suez canal to a Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who created a private company to construct and run it. Although work was begun while Said held power, the canal was completed in 1869 under his successor, ismail.


Ismail Pasha (ruled 1863-1879), who was granted the title of khedive by the Ottoman sultan, restored some of Egypt’s modernizing energies. He reopened schools, sent large educational missions to Europe, modernized Cairo and Alexandria, developed irrigation, and extended cotton farming. In ways, his program was more imaginative and well rounded than Muhammad Ali’s. Intellectually and politically, ismail was much less autocratic. His reform manifested his desire to emulate European civilization. In 1866 he created the Assembly of Notables, Egypt’s first quasiparliamentary body. He encouraged the founding of private and independent newspapers through which the Egyptian intelligentsia was able to express its views—even opinions that were critical of the government.

In another respect, Ismail’s reforms were fundamentally and drastically different from those of Muhammad Ali, but less effective. By the 1860’s the European merchants in Egypt had become a large and politically aggressive community. They held an inordinately privileged position, including exemption from Egyptian taxes and the right to be tried in their own consular courts rather than before Egyptian tribunals. ismail did not resist their mounting influence. Instead, he cooperated with the Euıopeans and borrowed money from them at increasingly onerous rates of interest. By 1879, with national revenues of less than $40 million, Egypt owed its creditors nearly $500 million.

To obtain loans from abroad ismail pledged a large number of Egyptian assets to foreign creditors. Customs duties, railroad receipts, and land taxes from key provinces were ali earmarked for overseas delivery. In 1875, ismail in desperation sold Egypt’s substantial shareholding in the Suez Canal Company to the British government for the paltry sum of $20 million. This shameless transaction gave him only a year’s freedom. In 1876, rather than declare bankruptcy, he allowed the foreign powers to create the Caisse de la Dette (Commission of Public Debt), to receive debt payments. ismail was also forced to appoint British and French advisers to the key ministries of finance and public works. Thus even before the British occupied the country, Egypt had lost much of its autonomy.

ismail later tried to reverse this trend, and in 1879 he dismissed his British and French advisers. But the European powers took quick revenge through the Ottoman Empire. A laconic telegram from the Ottoman sultan to the “ex-khedive” announced Ismail’s dismissal and his replacement by his son, Tewfik (Tawfiq) Pasha.

First Nationalist Movement.

As Egypt sank into political and economic chaos, a new spirit of nationalism began to appear. The nationalists were mainly those Egyptians who had been educated in Europe or in Europeanized Egyptian schools. A powerful energizing thrust was provided by the writer and teacher Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who viewed the growing Western influence as a threat to the autonomy of the Middle East. He traveled throughout the Muslim world exhorting its leaders to political unity. He was an exponent of nationalism and of pan-Islamism (union of all Islamic peoples), believing that both would help meet the Western challenge.

It was the army, however, that became the focus of discontent, the cutting edge being antagonism between native-born Egyptian officers and those with Turkish-Circassian backgrounds. The latter group monopolized leadership positions and tended to look down upon the Egyptian element. The highest-ranking Egyptian officers were only colonels, and they resented the discrimination. Tension came to a peak in 1881, when junior Egyptian officers, led by Ahmed Arabi Pasha, organized a protest and ousted the unpopular minister of war. They then joined forces with other nationalists, obliging Khedive Tewfîk in 1882 to appoint a nationalist government and to agree to enact programs less subservient to foreign interests. As Tewfik temporized, splits occurred among the nationalists.

Meanwhile, Britain felt that its vital interests were threatened. In September 1882, British troops landed along the Suez Canal and then overwhelmed the Egyptian army at Teli el-Kebir. The British occupation of Egypt had begun.

British Occupation.

Despite numerous promises of withdrawal and the granting of token independence in 1922, the British remained in control of Egypt from 1882 until the early 1950’s. The last British troops were not withdrawn until 1956.

The person most responsible for establishing Brıtain’s colonial presence in Egypt was Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring), British consul general from 1883 to 1907. His prime goal in Egypt was to avert national bankruptcy and restore the country to solvency. In this area his work was so successful that even his harshest critics praised his achievement.

Cromer saw the answer to financial stability in agricultural development and irrigation. If cotton exports could be increased by enlarging the area under perennial irrigation, state revenues would mount and the crushing burden of state debts would be reduced. Relying on their hydraulic engineers, the British ushered in a new state of irrigation development: control of the Nile through dams and barrages. The huge water-storage dam at Aswan was completed in 1902. Cotton production increased by more than 40% in the period 1895-1910, and the proportion of state revenues allocated for servicing the debt was dramatically reduced.

Although the Cromer administration made significant advances in irrigation, agriculture, and finances, it neglected industrialization, land redistribution, education, and the development of parliamentary institutions. The view of late Victorian imperialists like Cromer was that over-seas areas were destined to supply raw materials to the factories of Europe and to purchase European manufactures.


The trend toward accumulating large landed estates in the hands of a few continued under Cromer and his successors. Also, with the rising population the number of peasants with either small holdings or no land at ali was on the increase. A growing number of fellahin were working as itinerant or tenant farmers.

The British allowed education to lag. At first financial strictures made it impossible to appropıiate a large amount of money for schools. Some schools were closed. But even when more money became available, the British neglected education. The government also introduced school fees for the modern schools, thus making education a monopoly of the well-to-do.

Although the British did not abolish the Egyptian National Assembly, they limited its influence. Parliament represented the wealthy classes, who, though occasionally critical of British rule, tended to find many interests in common with their colonial rulers.

The Protectorate.

World War I proved to be another watershed in Egyptian history. Egypt was stili under the nominal suzerainty of Turkey when Britain declared war on Turkey in November 1914. The next month, Egypt was declared a British protectorate and Khedive Abbas II was deposed in favor of Hussein Kamil, who was proclaimed sultan.

Although military operations in Egypt were confined largely to Sinai, the war was a burden on the populace. The British campaigns against the Turks in Palestine, which made famous the name of T. E. Lawrence, needed supporting men t and material. Fellahin were called up for military service and sent to Palestine, where many died under harsh conditions. Livestock was also requisitioned from the peasants. Recruiting was carried out through local Egyptian officials who took the opportunity to pay off old scores. The war produced inflation, which hurt the city dwellers because of the steep rise in food prices. By the end of the war the fower classes in rural and urban Egypt were seething with discontent.

With the suppression of the Arabi revolt in 1882, Egyptian nationalism had become quiescent, but in the decade before World War I nationalism had emerged under Mustafa Kamil, who hoped to force the British out of Egypt mainly by enlisting French support. The nationalist movement at this stage was not widespread. Confined to an intellectual and urban efite, it constituted a minimal threat to Britain’s position.

The harsh policies adopted by the British in Egypt during World War I gave enormous thrust to nationalism. Moderates were alienated, and the masses, too, felt aggrieved. It was not surprising that at the end of the war a committee (wafd) of moderate nationalists, led by Saad Zaghlul, petitioned the British to allow it to plead the case for Egyptian independence at the Paris Peace Conference. The ideas of President Woodrow Wilson had made an impact in Egypt, where intellectuals were inspired by the cali for national self-determination, and they thought this principle should be applied in colonial areas as well as in Europe.

The British refusal of this request and their subsequent exile of Zaghlul led to widespread and unexpected violence beginning in 1919. For the next five years the British tried without success to reach an accommodation with the Wafd, which had become Egypt’s most powerful nationalist party. The Wafd could not accept British control of Egypt’s defense, the Suez Canal, Egyptian military forces, and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, whose condominium government was a facade for British dominance of a region the Egyptians regarded as theirs. Since no compromise could be reached on these British conditions for independence, Britain imposed them unilaterally when it declared Egypt independent on Feb. 28, 1922. The sultan, Ahmed Fuad, then took the title of king. The new constitution promulgated in 1923 provided for a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government.

The Monarchy.

The period from 1925 to 1952 was turbulent, confusing, and paradoxical, but it pointed the way toward revolution. Parliamentary government was undermined. King Fuad and the British manipulated the constitution to deny power to the Wafd, Egypt’s only popular party. Though it won a majority in every open election, the Wafd actually ruled infrequently. The King put into office splinter party leaders who represented conservative landed and commercial inter-ests and were willing to do the bidding of the British.

Disillusionment with parliamentary government led to the formation of extraparliamen-tary parties dedicated to overthrowing the system and establishing more authoritarian forms of government. The two most influential such parties were Young Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Young Egypt was a fascist party modeled on Italian principles. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was a Muslim re-vitalization movement, whose leader, Hasan al-Banna, believed in the sufficiency of a purified islam and denounced the growing secularismt and Westernization of Egypt. Both Young Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood were contemptuous of parliamentary government. They had para-military organizations, and the Muslim Brothers engaged in political assassination.

Economically, Egypt made significant strides in the period between World Wars I and II. The organizing genius was Talaat Harb, who at the conclusion of World War I had founded banking institutions fînanced and managed by Egyptians. With the capital available through these bodies he promoted domestic industries. Modern textile factories were started at Mahalla el-Kubra and Kafr el-Dauwar. These efforts helped to diversify the Egyptian economy and created a rudimentary Egyptian middle class.


Although Egypt attempted to remain neutral during World War II, its territory was invaded by Italian and German armies. The British vic-tory at El Alamein in 1942 removed this threat. In 1945, Egypt declared war on Germany and Japan and joined the United Nations. The post-war period brought renewed and intensified popular resentment över continued British control of the Suez Canal and Sudan. New frustration ac-crued when in 1948-1949 an Egyptian-led coalition of Arab states failed to prevent the estab-lishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Revolution of 1952.

In the early 1950’s, Egypt was governed by a small clique of landed aristocrats and finance capitalists. Failure to attain complete independence had sapped popular support for the Wafd and brought disrepute to parliamentary government in general. Military leaders blamed politicians for the inadequate training and supplying of the army in the war with Israel. The profligacy and corruption of the court had discredited the monarchy. Egypt’s lower classes, economically and politically ex-ploited, were anxious for change.

On the morning of July 23, 1952, radio an-nouncements informed the Egyptian people of a military coup d’etat. Within a year King Faruk was deposed and exiled, the monarchy abolished, Parliament dissolved, and ali parties suspended except the Muslim Brotherhood. The military leaders had no blueprint for action when they assumed power. They were divided into com-munist, liberal, and Muslim Brotherhood factions, united only in their determination to purge Egypt of its corrupt leadership, give the economy a modernizing thrust, and win genuine political independencc from Britain. King Faruk—dissolute, weak, and accommodating to the British, symbol-ized the old order. Egypt was declared a republic on June 18, 1953.

The 1952 coup was engineered by a dedicated group of offîcers who had organized themselves secretly as the Free Oificers group. Many of them were 1930’s graduates of the Egyptian Military College just after it had been opened to ali segments of society. The driving force in the movement was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had graduated from the military academy in the late 1930’s and developed a fierce sense of nationalism, quickened by indignation at Egypt’s subservience to the British during World War II and its military defeat by the Israelis in 1948-1949. He possessed the vision and energy to bind the young ofBcers together, and it was his leadership that projected the Free Offîcers into the center of Egyptian politics.

The new leaders of Egypt were obscure men when they came to power. Few outside the inner cabal krtew of the dominant role of Col. Nasser. In order to give the new government greater re-spectability the leaders invited Gen. Mohammed Naguib to join them. Although he had not par-ticipated in the coup, he was known to be sym-pathetic to the Free Offîcers’ aims and was popular with the people.

Naguib quickly swelled his popularity and began to rival Nasser. In 1953 and 1954, the rivals were locked in a personal and ideological struggle. Naguib wanted to restore parliamentary government and end military rule. By 1954, Nasser had solidified his position suiBciently to move against Naguib, who was dis-missed from his positions and put under house arrest. This step, publicizing Nasser’s true power, was followed by a decree for the dissolu-tion of the Muslim Brotherhood. The power of the military has been unrivaled ever since. Although the Brotherhood has revived, it has been able only to influence the military, not supplant it.

Domestically, Egyptian goals continued to be the traditional ones that had been eluding the country through the 20th century: economic de-velopment and political integration. A pledge of these intentions was the land redistribution carried out iu the first half-year of military rule. Holdings were limited to 200 feddans (aeres) for each owner, and surplus land went to the state to be distributed to the fellahin. The goals of land reform were economic and political. The government hoped that smaller holdings worked by their owners would be more productive than the large estates of absentee landlords. Land redistribution was also meant to break the political and economic power of the wealthy. Both goals were moderately realized. Egyptian agri-culture did become slightly more productive, and rich landowners lost the agricultural base of their wealth.

Suez Crisis.

One of the aims of the new government was the attainment of unqualified political independence. In 1954, Britain agreed to evacuate its troops from the Suez Canal zone, and the withdrawal was completed in June 1956. Egypt compromised on the traditional nationalist demand for control of the Sudan, agreeing that the Sudanese should determine their own future at the ballot box. The Sudan decided on independence and was granted it on Jan. 1, 1956.

Central to Egyptian plans for economic growth were the construction of a high dam at Aswan and the receipt of revenues from the Suez Canal. The dam would increase agricultural productivity and provide Egypt with cheap electricity. Egypt, unable to finance it alone, turned to the West for aid. After long and diffi-cult negotiations, arrangements were made for a loan to be financed jointly by the United States, Britain, and the WorId Bank. Then abruptly in 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles an-nounced that the United States was withdrawing from the arrangement.

Britain and the World Bank quickly followed. The probable reason for Dulles’ action was that Egypt and Czechoslovakia had reached an agreement on the supplying of Czech arms to the Egyptians. This accord was a majör Communist breakthrough in the Middle East. Few expected Nasser’s response to the Western refusal of financial aid. Speaking to a crowd in Alexandria in July 1956, he turned a cool reception into wild exultation by announcing that Egypt would get the needed funds for the Aswan Dam by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Actually, it was the Soviet Union that finally provided most of the financing and technical aid for the dam.

No symbol of exploitative European imperial-ism was more emotion-charged than the canal. The original concessions had been made by a single ruler, Said, without consultation with the people. When most European financiers refused to buy shares in de Lesseps’ company, the Egyptian government became its primary financier as well as its chief supplier of labor. Yet Khedive ismail foolishly and desperately sold Egypt’s shares to the British in 1875 and from then until nationalization Egypt’s financial returns on its substantial financial and labor contributions were minimal.


Following Nasser’s announcement, relations with Britain and France deteriorated rapidly. Meanwhile, border friction between Egypt and Israel increased. To Britain the canal symbolized former imperial and commercial greatness. France had a score to settle with Nasser because of his assistance to Algerian rebels fighting against French rule. The Israelis were becoming appre-hensive över the build-up of Arab arms. These three states launched an invasion of Egypt in October 1956. Warnings from the United States and the Soviet Union brought the assault to a stop, and, after the United Nations arranged a cease-fire, British, French, and Israeli forces were withdrawn from Egyptian territory. A UN Emergency Force was then stationed on the Egyptian-Israeli border and at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba.

With the resolution of the crisis on terms so favorable to Egypt, Nasser’s reputation soared both inside and outside of Egypt. To the Egyptians and many other Arabs he became the symbol of Arab nationalism. To critics in the West he represented a tyrant and dictator. Anthony Eden, Britain’s prime minister during the Suez invasion, likened Nasser’s seizure of the canal to Hitler’s conquest of Czechoslovakia. Nasser had made his mark on history.

The Nasser Years After Suez.

The quest for sustained economic development led Egypt’s leaders to adopt a policy of government planning and management of the economy, with heavy re-liance on Russian aid. At first the Nasser regime made economic conditions attractive for private investors, Egyptian and foreign, in the hope that private investment would be the engine of economic -chan ge. But as the economy failed to reach its targets, the state took a greater role. The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of 1956 was a convenient pretext for nationalizing many foreign concems, especially banks and insurance firms.

The Egyptian commercial class was given a little longer to produce results, but in 1960-1961 the Nasser regime dismantled the holdings of Egyptian industrial and finance capitalists. Egypt’s two great banks—the National and the Misr—were nationalized. Then in June and July 1961 most other banks and most insurance companies were nationalized. Eighty-three companies in light in-dustry turned över at least 50% of their capital to the state, while 145 other companies had to seli the state some of their stock, though less than a controlling proportion. The state became the leader of industrialization.

Although Nasser preferred to establish his reputation by developing the Egyptian economy and alleviating peasant suffering, his rule was punctuated by foreign-policy crises and will always be associated with these incidents. Egypt, as the most populous Arab country, can scarcely isolate itself from other Arab states. Nasser’s 1952 coup ushered in one of the first reformist Arab governments. Not surprisingly, young Arab intellectuals admired the Egyptian leader and hoped that he would unite the Arab world.

There was a cult of Nasserism, which came to stand for radical nationalism and social reform. Nasser himself believed in the goal of Arab unity. Between 1958 and 1961, Egypt was joined with Syria in the United Arab Republic, a name that Egypt retained after Syria withdrew from the union. Egypt also became militarily in-volved in a civil war in Yemen in the 1960’s. Nasser used his prestige to influence political developments throughout the Arab world, trying to supplant conservative leaders with radical nationalists like himself.

Unquestionably, Egyptian-Israeli relations have been fraught with the greatest dangers to the Middle East and the whole world. Arab states regard Israel as an illegal creation and a spearhead of Western imperialism in the Arab world. From the days when Jewish immigration to Palestine was first promoted, the Arabs unanimously opposed the creation of a separate Jewish state there. Although they failed to prevent the creatiou of Israel, the Arab states refused to recognize it, and Arab-Israeli relations have always been tense. Nasser’s diplomatic triumphs of 1956 were followed by 11 years of relative calm.

Then, in 1967, following rumors of military buildups in Syria and Israel, Egypt requested the withdrawal of UN forces stationed on the Egyptian-Israeli border and at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. When the United Nations complied, Egypt closed the gulf to Israeli shipping. On June 5, Israeli planes attacked and destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground. In the subsequent six-day war, lightning Israeli military strikes brought large Arab terri-tories under Israeli control. Egyptian forces were driven from Sinai, and Israeli troops halted only on the east bank of the Suez Canal.

The war was an Egyptian disaster. Territory was lost, the economy was crippled through loss of canal earnings and destruction of oil refineries at Suez, and the prestige of the army was shattered. Abdel Hakim Amer, commander of the armed forces, was dismissed in disgrace. President Nasser submitted his resignation but was kept in office by popular acclaim. His standing with the Egyptian people could not be dimmed even by a military disaster of the greatest magnitude.

Över the next three years Nasser strove to re-build the Egyptian army and economy and to maintain political stability in the Arab world. His death in 1970 at the age of 52 stunned the world.

Egypt in the 1970’s.

Nasser had wrenched Egypt out of its former political and economic subservience to foreigners. Most Egyptians would agree that he restored a sense of dignity that had been lost över centuries of foreign rule. But some of his more difficult goals were not attained. Arab unity was not achieved, and the West and the Soviet Union continued to view the Middle East as a power vacuum to be filled by them.


Nasser was succeeded by Vice President An-war el-Sadat, who had participated in the 1952 coup. Sadat pledged to continue Nasser’s pol-icies, and by 1971 he had Consolidated his posf-tion. Following the fourth Israeli-Arab war, how-ever, Sadat initiated changes in Egypt’s foreign policy. Although the war, launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, proved Israel’s continued military superiority, the Egyptian forces performed better than previously, and Egypt emeıged with definite political gains.

U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger played a leading role in arranging the Israeli-Egyptian disengagement along the Suez Canal. On March 1, 1974, after a seven-year breach, the United States and Egypt resumed formal diplomatic relations. In April, Sadat announced the end of Egypt’s long time, exclusive reliance on the USSR for arms. In June, President Nixon was well received in Egypt, to which he promised U. S. nu-clear technology for peaceful purposes.

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