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The Egyptian Crisis and Arabi Pasha, Episode 63 - 10/05/06


Blessing the Suez Canal at the opening ceremony, 11th December 1869 (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Blessing the Suez Canal at the opening ceremony, 11th December 1869
(Getty Images)
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In the 1870s and 1880s Egypt and Sudan were strategically important in British and French concepts of continental and even global control. The benefits of the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal were apparent: shorter distances and therefore savings between Britain's Asian and Australasian possessions especially with the advent of steam ships.

Equally, this determination to protect their interests meant that the nationalist Egyptian and Sudanese Islamic revolution against foreign intrusion had a focus. In London, this produced the so-called Egyptian Crisis. Prime Minister Gladstone's administration was threatened. Part of Britain's colonial plan was to have control of Egypt and Sudan if the wider empire were to be protected. By 1876, Britain and France had so much influence in Egypt that they now controlled their finances.

In 1881, Arabi Pasha who inspired the Egyptian middle classes, led the nationalist rebellion. Gladstone's Liberals had long been against what they believed to be the many wrongs of colonialism. They really wanted nothing to do with expansionism in the Middle East. But Gladstone did not rule the Empire. The money market ruled and the banks wanted immediate action to protect their investments. In 1882, the army under Sir Garnet Wolseley defeated Arabi Pasha's national Islamic uprising at Tel-el-Kebir. This would not immediately put down the deep-rooted animosity towards the Europeans. This was the period of The Mardi who, even beyond his death, would become a symbol of Islamic revolution.

Three years later, General "Chinese" Gordon was beheaded by Islamic rebels at Khartoum . The administrative and financial reforms introduced by the British under Evelyn Baring revitalised the economy but the constant idea of rebellion would not be dulled until Kitchener's ferocious victory at Omdurman in 1898, ironically, the year of Gladstone's death.

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Historical Figure

Ahmed Arabi [a.k.a Arabi (Urabi) Pasha] (1839-1911)

Arabi was an Egyptian who joined the army and was commissioned to fight in his late 30s in the war against Ethiopia (1875-1879). At the end of that war, he was one of the officers who overthrew the Ottoman khedive Ismail Pasha and then lead the 1881 coup against the next khedive, Tewfik Pasha. In the nationalist government that was then established, Ahmed Arabi became Minister for War. The British soon believed their interests in the Suez Canal were jeopardized. Ahmed Arabi led the army against them. In 1882 he was defeated and captured at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. He was sentenced to be shot, but instead exiled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and eventually reprieved in 1901.

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Did You Know...

In 1883, afer the 1882 revolt, Evelyn Baring, later (1801) the First Earl of Cromer (1841-1917) became the agent and consul general in Egypt. He took upon himself enormous powers and was the virtual ruler of Egypt until 1907. Considered an uncompromising figure, Baring however introduced financial reforms that resulted in hitherto unknown prosperity for modern Egypt.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in Europe & M. East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

The Opening of the Suez Canal
Sir Frederick Arrow of Trinity House attended the opening of the canal in 1869.


It will very much alter the course of trade. A considerable amount of traffic which has its final destination in southern Europe and in Russia will be diverted from this country, as well as from Havre, Antwerp, and the Hanse towns. I believe that traffic will pass thought the canal and by means of the Adriatic and the Black Seas will be distributed over their coasts, and by the Danube will reach the principalities and southern Austria. Beyond this, I believe that gradually this will include the principal part of the trade of India with the west. The completion of her railway system, now far advanced, will bring the produce of her cotton fields and other industries directly to the point where the communication with her markets is the most rapid


The Suez Canal will be the means of reducing freights, and, taking time into consideration and its money value, will, I believe, enable the Canal traffic to compete successfully with that round the Cape. As respects the eastern side of India, and as to China and Japan and our Australian colonies, the Canal will not present the same advantages; and, except for the most valuable commodities from thence, will not probably affect the present course of trade so that our sailing ship owners need hardly fear much loss of business in that direction. But what counties are to profit by these changes? Primarily, I think, in the greater degree Italy and Austria; they will get their goods cheaper and give encouragement to the manufacturers which they are now seeking to develop. Russia too will strengthen her trade and commercial marine and serve her political interests by obtaining a direct communication with India.


A French View of British Expansion
Simon Hennebert, a French political scientist, from his treatise entitled The English in Egypt: England and the Mahdi Arabi & the Suez Canal, 1884.

"England, with her immense colonies, is incessantly stretching her hands towards new shores. It is therefore not surprising that she should have cast her eyes on the African continent which some day ought to form part of the civilized world."

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