The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

28
The British Occupation of Egypt from 1882

AFAF LUTFI AL-SAYYID-MARSOT

Many contemporaries doubted neither the necessity nor the ultimate success of Britain's intervention in Egypt, designed to overcome the economic and political crisis of 1875-82. According to Sir Alfred Milner:

Here was a country . . . which during the last half-century had been becoming evermore and more an appanage of Europe, in which thousands of European lives and millions of European capital were at stake, and in which of all European nations Great Britain was, by virtue of its enormous direct trade and still more enormous transit trade, the most deeply interested. And this country, which the common efforts and sacrifices of all the Powers had just dragged from the verge of bankruptcy, was now threatened, not with bankruptcy merely, but with a reign of blank barbarism . . . And when at last we had overcome our conscientious, if ill-timed hesitancy, our action was beyond all anticipation prompt and effective. Let it always be remembered that Great Britain did save Egypt from anarchy, and all European nations interested in Egypt from incalculable losses in blood and treasure, to say nothing of the deep dishonour which those losses . . . would have brought on civilized mankind.1

Milner's account, published in 1892 immediately after his three years at the Egyptian Finance Ministry, was constantly reprinted to reiterate contemporary wisdom. Its thirteenth edition appeared in 1920, timed to remind politicians of Britain's achievement as they contemplated a new, post-war settlement of Anglo-Egyptian relations. It was, nevertheless, a study revealing more of the official class to which Milner belonged and the audience for which he wrote, than of Britain's interest in and impact upon the country which it virtually ruled.

That there was some truth in Milner's description of Egypt's position on the eve of Britain's invasion is clear from the broad outlines of Britain's nineteenth-century involvement with Egypt. Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in July 1798, his conquest of Alexandria and Cairo, and his advance into Syria, may now seem ill-calculated,

____________________
1
Viscount Milner, England in Egypt, 11th edn. ( London, 1904), pp. 13-14.

-651-

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