T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

Part I
Historical Background

<p. 24>

Chapter IV
From the Urabi Revolt (1881–82)
to the First World War

I. The Urabi Revolt and the British Occupation

If Marie Antoinette was called ‘Madame le déficit,’ the Egyptian royal house certainly also deserved this title. Just as the deficit of the Bourbon reign laid bare all the decay of the state, placing it in abysmal contrast with the broad masses of the people, a contrast which fomented an upsurge of the third estate and the masses of the people and even a small part of the nobility and clergy, so the bankruptcy of Ismail also begot an all-embracing national movement of opposition to the royal house, the Turkish pashas, and above all the foreign Powers in whose hands the royal house was a mere play-thing.

The social and national fermentation grew stronger, the deepest disturbances moving the masses of peasants. Hunger drove them into the most bitter opposition to the Turkish and Circassian pashas who collected the taxes with an iron hand, and to the Greek usurers. The landowners, especially the smaller ones, were also in opposition to the monarchy. They were Egyptians and as such were antagonistic to the Turkish aristocracy and the king, as the burden of taxes which the king imposed for the benefit of the foreigners affected their portion of the surplus value. This struggle between the Egyptian landowners on the one hand, and the monarchy and Turkish pashas on the other, took on a national character. From among the landowners yet another element oppositional to the existing state regime appeared – the government officials – whose influence was undermined by the strengthening of the position of the foreign Powers. A more popular stratum in opposition to the regime than that of the landowners and officials was the well-to-do peasantry and the village notables. They had a more independent position, more self-assurance and initiative than the masses of simple peasants and in every broad social movement against the pashas and moneylenders they took a central position.

The movement of Urabi was a combination of these different social factors. On the one hand the ‘Chamber of Notables’ which included landowners and officials supported it, and it also claimed the support of 11 out of 14 provincial governors, men who ‘in their hearts opposed the freedom of the fellah to the same extent as Riaz (the head of the government on behalf of the Khedive and the foreigners) himself.’ (W.S. Blunt, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt, London 1907, p. 110) Their antagonism to the fellaheen did not detract at all from their antagonism to the extravagant monarchy as long as the masses did not undertake a real independent struggle. On the other hand, both the poor peasants and the notables of the village also supported Urabi, because, according to Blunt, ‘with the mass of the fellahin so deeply in debt it was understood … as a war against their Greek creditors, and there is no doubt that this was the chief motive power that sent volunteers to the standard and that unloosened the purse strings of the Notables.’ (Ibid., p. 298)

Urabi’s movement was the embryonic form of the Egyptian national movement. But as capitalism had not yet developed to any great extent in Egypt, close economic bonds had not yet been created between the different parts of the land, a broad intelligentsia had not yet arisen, and a national language and culture had not yet developed to any appreciable extent, the movement, rather than revealing inner consolidation, stubbornness and persistence, revealed an all-embracing, but short-lived opposition to outside pressure, rent continually with inner class conflicts.

The popular force of Urabi’s movement was the fellaheen, but the leadership was composed of members of the upper classes who were bound to water down the demands of the movement, so that it should not go beyond the scope of a few reforms. It did not dare to struggle consistently against the rule of the foreign bankers. Urabi himself expressed himself thus in a letter to Blunt: ‘It has never been our intention or the intention of any in this country to touch the rights of the Controllers or trespass on any international treaty.’ (Blunt, ibid., p. 188)

<p. 25> Urabi proposed a few political reforms – the dismissal of all the ministers; the convocation of a parliament; the raising of the strength of the army to 18,000 men – and some economic reforms – the abolition of the foreigners’ privileges with regard to taxation, which was upheld under the foreign control of the financiers at the expense of the inhabitants of Egypt; a cessation of the superfluous multiplying of the same posts which had fat salaries attached to them, in the hands of the different foreign nationals; abolition of the supervision of foreigners over the railways and the domains which had passed into the hands of the Rothschilds’ representatives.

The fellaheen were much more radical in their demands. They wanted to tear up the bills of the Greek usurers and the merchants, to take back into their own hands the lands which had fallen into the hands of the Europeans, and in various places they even began to talk about division of the pashas’ domains. As Cromer remarked: ‘All the symptoms of revolution were prevalent in Egypt.’ What they lacked was a revolutionary leadership which could give the movement a democratic agrarian character, an army of sans culottes – workers and a radical petty bourgeoisie – in Cairo and Alexandria. The popular revolutionary demands therefore remained in embryonic form.

Not only this. If in the French revolution three years passed between the convocation of the Estates General and the proclamation of the Republic and complete abolition of feudal property, in Egypt the Urabi movement was not allowed the time necessary for maturation and the casting off of outworn and corrupt leaders and ideas. The British army and navy put an end to this development. With the greatest ease they managed to annihilate the opposition of the Egyptian army and conquer the country, being helped in this by the Khedive who stirred up communal strife between the Moslems and the Christians by employing agents provocateurs who organised massacres of Christians and the burning of Alexandria.

Although France was not overenthusiastic about Britain’s conquest of Egypt, she did not dare to interfere, because, after her defeat at the hands of Prussia, she was too weak to tackle Britain in battle, and actually she needed her friendship. Furthermore, as Grevy, the president of the French Republic, remarked: ‘It is of the highest importance that there should be no doubt even for a moment, that Musulman or Arab troops could not resist Europeans in the field,’ or in the words of Duclerc, the French Premier. ‘the sober good sense of France felt that the success of England against Urabi was also a solid gain to the rulers of Algeria.’(i.e. France).

The popular Egyptian movement could not on its own drive back the British, and real help no one outside Egypt was ready to offer, except a small body of Italian volunteers which Menotti Garibaldi raised.

And so the curtain opened on the British occupation of Egypt. It did so despite the oft-repeated declaration by British politicians: ‘We do not want colonies!’ Goldwyn Smith called the British Empire a danger for the present and an illusion for the future. Cobden saw in British rule over India only an adventure accompanied by crimes and disappointments, and he was upset by the conquest of Gibraltar. Disraeli called the colonies a millstone round Britain’s neck. Palmerston described Britain’s relation to Egypt in the following terms: ‘When I travel from London to York, I like to find on the road a comfortable inn, but I don’t want to own the house.’ Gladstone reached the height of ‘anti-imperialist’ piety when he declared that British businessmen who ventured to Egypt should not expect any but moral support, as they would not be assisted by any military intervention of their own country in Egypt. With these fine utterances yet ringing in their ears the British carried out sanguinary expeditions of conquest in Egypt. Palmerston did not refrain from smashing the armies of Mohamed Ali and destroying entirely the economic structure that he had set up. Disraeli did not hesitate to buy the Suez shares, and his Liberal opponent, Gladstone, was not hindered by his piety from bombarding Alexandria and conquering Egypt.

Even after the actual conquest of Egypt, British politicians continued to proclaim that Britain did not want colonies. Lord Milner writes in his Report: ‘It appears to be frequently assumed in current thought and writing that Egypt is a part of the British empire. This is not and never has been the case.’ (1920) And with pious self-righteousness he says:

<p. 26> ‘British diplomacy, which may at times have been mistaken, but which was certainly honest, did its best to throw off the Egyptian burden. But circumstances were too strong to be arrested by diplomatic action.’

But if the unfortunate Britain was forced to conquer Egypt, she certainly intended to stay for only a short while. On July 23rd 1884, Gladstone still declared that they bound themselves not to continue the occupation later than January 1st 1888. Since then more than a hundred grand declarations have been made by central English personalities, that at the first opportunity England would leave Egypt. And with the echo of all these assurances still resounding, Britain has held her army of occupation firmly established on Egyptian soil for more than sixty years.

II. Public Finances

The spoliation of Egypt after the British occupation continued at a rapid pace. It now took on a more orderly and a more ‘legal’ form than during the reign of Ismail. The major portion of the tax payments continued to stream into the pockets of the foreign bankers. This is clearly shown in the following table of the government expenditure from 1883 to 1910. If we exclude the expenditure of the railway, post and telegraph departments, whose incomes cover their expenditure, we see that Egypt’s total expenditure during those years was £252,206,719. Of this total the following sums were expended on:–



% of total

1) Coupons, payments to Caisse de la Dette etc.



2) Indemnity for the burning of Alexandria



3) Occupation army



4) Sudan



5) Ottoman tribute*



6) Civil list



7) Egyptian army



8) Police & Prisons



9) Pensions






* payments to the Porte to keep it quiet about the actual rule of England over Egypt

Actually even more was spent on the above items. For instance £E24,786,208 spent on the Sudan is included under other items, £E 14,241,724 of it under the ‘Egyptian army’ and £E 11,545,484 under items not included in the table at all (public works, irrigation etc.) Obviously it was not the Egyptian masses who gained any benefit from the Sudan but the British plantation companies.

If we add to items 1) and 2) and 3) the expenditure on the Sudan we find that the open spoliation of Egypt by imperialism amounted to £E 143,624,629, or 57 per cent of the budget.

In 1883 Egypt’s public debt was £E 94,960,680. During 28 years Egypt paid as interest on this debt a sum greater than the debt itself – £E 105,632,570. At the same time the debt did not diminish at all, and in 1901 amounted to £E 95,241,000.

The budget for public works for the 28 years was £E 25,203,400 i.e. about 10 per cent of the total expenditure. But here too, a large amount was wasted in one form or another. Thus for instance the Aswan barrage which should, according to the British irrigation expert, Sir William Willcocks, have cost £2.5 millions, actually cost £7 millions, besides which a sum of £1.2 millions was demanded for its repair. Likewise the Roda Bridge cost £E 400,000 instead of £E 285,000, the Stifta Bridge £E 700,000 instead of £E 450,000 and the Khedive’s library £E 130,000 instead of £E 85,000. £E 400,000 was spent on the construction of barracks for the British army, £E 85,000 on buildings for high officials. £E 195,000 on support for a British motor-boat company, and £E 912,000 on railways serving the estates of the Khedive and a handful of big landlords.

As far as the items for education and health are concerned: during those <p. 27> same 28 years British imperialism revealed its civilizing role by dedicating £E 3,626,519, i.e. 1.4 per cent of the total expenditure, to the Ministry of Education and £E 3,421,124 i.e. about 1.4 per cent to health. Is there any greater condemnation of imperialism?

III. The Flow of Foreign Capital Continues

Until 1880 nearly all the foreign capital which came into Egypt came in the form of loans to the government. After that private investments began to flow in, foreign banks, insurance companies etc. being founded. In 1880 two large mortgage banks were founded in Egypt, one French and one English. In 1892 the different units of the sugar industry united into one company called Société Générale des Sucreries, under the control of French capital. Between 1895 and 1898 a number of concessions were given to foreign transport companies, the Cairo and Alexandria tramways and narrow-gauge railways in the Delta thus being established. In 1898 the National Bank of Egypt was established, an English bank which became the centre of the banking network of Egypt. A number of land companies arose which bought land, prepared it for cultivation, and sold it. Insofar as any industries were set up, they were mainly such as prepared the raw materials for export (e.g. the cotton ginning industry.) The great extent of the flow of foreign capital may be seen from the fact that while in 1892 the paid up capital of the companies working only in Egypt was £E 7,326,000, it rose in 1902 to £E 26,280,000 in 1907 to £E 87,176,000 and in 1914 to £E 100,152,000. (These figures do not include the Suez Company.) About three-quarters of this sum was the paid-up capital of mortgage or land companies. Of Egypt’s public debt, the sum of £E 5,680,000 was held abroad in 1914. The total amount of capital belonging to foreigners living outside Egypt beside the investments in the Suez amounted to £E 200 millions.

IV. The Capitulations

The investments of foreigners would not have brought them in such exorbitant profits had they not been exempted from paying taxes. Their commercial activity and their arbitrary and predatory undertakings would have been seriously handicapped had they been brought before the local law courts. During the latter years of the last century, therefore, they turned the capitulations – exemption from direct taxation, being outside the local law except for criminal acts etc. – into vital bases for their activity.

The origin of the capitulations was the rights which Sultan Suliman the Glorious had bestowed upon the subjects of the King of France in 1535 – the right to build churches, trade freely, and be tried before the French consul both in civil and criminal cases. Before long these rights were given to the subjects of the other European states too. Sultan Suliman bestowed them as a gesture of his tolerance and indulgence, and they applied to the whole Ottoman Empire of which Egypt was a part. During the nineteenth century the European Powers turned them into privileges. Their importance as regards Egypt progressively increased with the inflow of foreign capital and with the growth of the number of foreigners there. (In 1836 there were 14,500 foreigners, in 1871 – 79,696 and in 1907 – 286,328.)

The foreigners were exempted from all tax payments, unless all the foreign governments consented to their imposition on their subjects. It was enough that one state should refuse, and if it had a small group of its subjects in Egypt, their imposition on all foreigners in Egypt would be prevented. Sir Valentine Chirol relates the following really piquant episode.

‘A few years ago, when an improved system of drainage was introduced in Cairo and it was proposed to levy a small tax on all householders who benefited by it, the Portuguese Government, with barely a dozen Portuguese householders in Cairo, held up for six months an agreement arrived at for the purpose with all the other Powers, and only gave its consent in return for a promise from the British Government, to settle in favour of Portugal some quite irrelevant colonial question in South Africa.’ (Sir V. Chirol, The Egyptian Problem, London 1920, p. 59.)

The foreign Powers of course acted shoulder to shoulder in opposition to the more substantial taxes. And not only the foreigners, but also the rich Egyptians were freed from them, the capitulations serving as a pretext for exempting the latter, as it was not pleasant to deprive the ‘children of the homeland’ of such rights. And so it was the masses of <p. 28> fellaheen, artisans, small shopkeepers and workers who doubly and trebly suffered deprivation.

The capitulations allowed the foreigners not only to escape direct taxation, but also to get round the law – by bringing in contraband. The capitulations forbade the Egyptian police to enter the house of a foreigner or board a foreigners boat, unless in the presence of his consul. The latter could purposely absent himself for a few days during which time the foreigner could disappear with his contraband, Lord Milner relates the following:

‘There have been innumerable cases in which a vessel, known to contain contraband has had to be watched day and night for many days together by the coastguards until a consular agent could be got hold of in whose presence they might board her. When the indispensable official has at last arrived, the ship has simply put to sea, only to return and play the same game over again in a more convenient spot until she has finally succeeded in landing her cargo.’ (Milner, op. cit., p. 40)

V. The Development of Agriculture

The process of progressive adaptation of the whole Egyptian economy to the needs of British industry continued uninterruptedly. This adaptation is seen both in the undeveloped state of Egyptian industry, and in the great extension of agricultural production, especially of cotton. This development of agriculture is clearly shown in the following table:-


Cotton Exports
(Lint and Seed)

Total Exports

Proportion of
Cotton Exports


Annual Averages

Annual Averages


























For the assurance of the needs of Lancashire tobacco production was prohibited and Egypt began to be dependent on overseas supplies. (Imports increased from £274,000 in 1885 to £E 1,082,000 in 1913.) The production of wheat too was so restricted that Egypt had to import flour and cereals on a large scale. (During 1885-89 the average import was £E 771,000 a year; in 1913 it was £E 4,242,000.)

The condition of the masses deteriorated drastically. This may be clearly seen from the increase in crimes. Curiously enough the British authorities see in this increase proof of the improvement in the economic situation. Lord Cromer explains this increase thus:

‘Large numbers of persons who but recently were very poor have now become moderately richer, and in their desire to attain their object they are far more frequently than heretofore brought onto collision with others who are seeking precisely the same object as themselves.’ (Quoted by Sir Auckland Colvin in The Making of Modern Egypt, London 1906, p. 298)

VI. Autocratic Imperialist Rule and the Beginnings of the Nationalist Movement

During the years 1882–1914 the British ambassador in theory had equal rights with the representatives of other European states. In theory the authority over Egypt was not in British hands but those of an Anglo-Egyptian administration. A greater weight, however, was given to the British share in the administration by the presence of the British army and navy. As Lord Cromer, who was British representative in Egypt from 1883 to 1906 astutely remarked: ‘The advice of an armed man in possession of your property is apt to be more than a mere recommendation; it is an order.’ (Milner, op. cit., p. 2). He very pithily described the Anglo-Egyptian administration as being ‘English heads in Egyptian hands.’

<p. 29> Imperialist autocracy had nothing in its way to curb its rule. A real national movement did not exist and foreign capital and imperialism had free rein to act according to its heart’s desire. The rebellion of Urabi Pasha was the last attempt at an all embracing popular revolt led by feudal and clerical strata. Imperialism put an end to the irregularity and disarrangement of tax collecting, and made order in it – order by which masses of people bore a heavy burden of taxation while the large landowners enjoyed only privileges. The development of Egyptian agriculture enlarged the latter’s income tremendously, and they thus became more and more eager supporters of imperialism. The time for popular uprisings under the leadership of feudal lords had passed: but a new leadership from the bourgeois class had not yet arisen.

The bourgeoisie in Egypt was young and very weak, and being mainly a commercial comprador bourgeoisie, was still connected by its umbilical cord to foreign capital, was faithful to imperialism and fawned upon it even more than the feudal class. Thus when the General Assembly in February 1907 raised the demand for the establishment of parliamentary rule, the preservation of posts for Egyptians, the cessation of the granting of concessions to foreign companies and the recognition of Arabic as an official language (until now only French and Turkish were recognised as such), not only the British Chamber of Commerce protested against this, but also the Alexandria General Produce Association and the Alexandria Import Association, which together represented the important commercial interests of Egypt. Other Chambers of Commerce followed their example, as well as a number of businessmen who declared that they did not want any change in the existing constitution. The commercial strata were the decisive factor in the Egyptian bourgeoisie and it is interesting to note that even Saad Zaghloul, who was destined to stand at the head of the bourgeois leadership of the Egyptian national movement, from 1918 to 1927, also supported the imperialist rule. He participated in the extreme pro-British government of Boutros Ghali Pasha and was warmly commended by Lord Cromer in his parting speech before leaving Egypt.

The broad masses of the people had not yet reached any national, anti-imperialist consciousness. The working class was not yet of any considerable weight. It had not nearly become a ‘class-in-itself’ and far less a class ‘for-itself’. And seeing that no other class recruited it to struggle, it remained apathetic to foreign rule even if here and there short-lived and sporadic local clashes took place with the rulers. The same thing is true to an even greater degree of the peasantry.

In this vacuum arose the ‘National Party’ – al-Hizb al-Watani, founded at the end of 1907 – at whose head stood Mustafa Kamil. It was an organisation of urban intelligentsia, mainly students.

The status of the intelligentsia as an intermediary class on the one hand, and on the other the fact the other social classes either supported imperialism or remained dormant, determined the insignificant weight of Mustafa Kamil’s movement. Hence the extreme zigzags that took place in it from an aggressive anti-imperialist pose, to a readiness to compromise with imperialism. Hence the laughable and wretched search to find allies – either France or Turkey or the Khedive, and when these unceremoniously shoved it aside, the readiness always to be ‘cross’ with its ‘allies’. In short the clownish acrobatics of an isolated petty bourgeoisie. And isolated indeed they were, remaining an insignificant group throughout their existence.

The major activity of the movement was the holding of party conferences and the utterance of proclamations which called forth no repercussions whatsoever. Only occasionally, when some real clashes which turned the attention of the masses to the nationalist propaganda, took place with the British conqueror, did they leave these narrow confines and arrange mass meetings and demonstrations. The most famous of these clashes is the Danshawi incident. Some British officers, who went dove-hunting in the village Danshawi, injured a woman and set a house on fire. This led to a clash with the fellaheen. On the same day one of the officers happened to die of sunstroke. The British connected this death to the clash, condemned some of the fellaheen to death and executed them publicly in Danshawi as an example. These days pushed the Egyptian ‘Nationalists’ into the limelight climaxing their activities, but they revealed all their weakness and vulnerability, as the ‘Nationalists’ were unable to stand up against the communal friction between the Moslems and the Copts which imperialism used the <p. 30> Danshawi incident as a pretext to incite.

The imperialist rulers appointed as the head of the government Boutros Pasha Ghali, the Coptic president of the court which sentenced the fellaheen to severe punishments in the Danshawi trials. Boutros Pasha was hated by the people not only because of the Danshawi judgement but also because of his support of the Sudan Convention, which gave Britain full authority over the Sudan, and his support of the extension of the Suez agreement for another 40 years. Communal antagonisms reached their boiling point when a fanatical Moslem murdered Boutros Pasha Ghali.

Against all this the petty bourgeois national movement was impotent. The very officials and students who made up its ranks were most susceptible to communal incitement because of the competition over posts. Their immersion in the religious ideology of the ruling classes also did not help to broaden their minds. The Pan-Islamism of Mustafa Kamil they accompanied by fanatical declarations against the Coptic community on the one hand, and at the same time by superficial national declarations i.e. declarations of Moslem-Coptic brotherhood, on the other.

All these political events – the war between the ‘Nationalists’ and the ‘Moderates’, the communal conflicts between Moslems and Copts – did not touch the masses to any great extent. They were, however, not entirely dormant. Partial clashes took place between them and their oppressors especially with the world economic crisis of 1907 which affected Egypt too.

In 1907 there were various strikes of carters and weavers, the unemployed demonstrated and even raised barricades. As a result of the reactionary press law and the closing of papers and printing presses, 4,000 workers demonstrated on March 31 1909, closed the Kasr al-Nil Bridge and shouted: ‘Freedom! Down with tyranny!’ Disquiet was felt also in the countryside: ‘The fellaheen lost their lively respect for authority’ (Lord Lloyd, Egypt Since Cromer, London 1934, vol. 1, p. 87)

These partial clashes were the first swallows of a new, popular national movement!

Last updated on 2.6.2011