C. Tariq

Britain and Egypt

(November 1951)

From Socialist Review, Vol.1 No.6, November-December 1951, pp.11-15.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is seventy years since the occupation of Egypt by British troops, and all we hear of the attitude of the Egyptian people to it after this long tutelage is mass demonstrations demanding the evacuation of the country by Britain. The stubborn persistence of the Egyptian masses in their demand is given a clear explanation when we see the balance sheet of the seventy years of Britain’s direct and indirect rule over the country.

Imperialist Capital Dominates Egypt

During the years 1883-1910, British bankers gave a loan of £65 million to Egypt. The interest alone paid during this period amounted to £105,600,000. Nevertheless the debt did not decrease but even increased, in 1910 being £95 million. During the same 28 years the Egyptian fallaheen paid a sum of £30 million for the maintenance of the British occupation army in the Sudan which protects the interests of the British plantation companies. At the same time English, French, Italian, Belgian, German and other contractors were wringing millions of pounds out of the Egyptian people by the construction of works at very exaggerated prices. Thus, for instance, the Assuan dam, which according to the estimate of Sir Willian Wilcocks, the British irrigation expert, should have cost £2,500,000, actually cost £7,000,000, excluding the £1,200,000 for repairs. During these years, in which foreign capitalism drew out of Egypt a sum of about £200, millions, the Egyptian Education Department received the almost infinitesimal sum of £3,600,00 (less than £130,000 a year) and the Ministry of Health £3,400,000. Is there any better proof of the civilisatory role of imperialism!

In the last few decades there has been a change in the direction of imperialist investment. The place of state loans has been taken by investment in railways, trams, light and power, water, banks and industry, etc. today all the key positions in the economy of the country are in the hands of foreign companies.

According to an estimate made by French circles (L’Egypte Independente, par le Groupe d’Etudes de l’Islam, Paris, pp.144-5) foreign capital in 1937 amounted to £450, million, the entire wealth of the country being estimated at £963 million, which means that foreigners owned 47 per cent of it.

According to another estimate, capital investment, besides land, in the same year amounted to £550 million (A. Bonne, The Economic Development of the Middle East, Jerusalem 1943, p.73). Seeing that the price of land is estimated at £500-600 million (and according to another estimate £670 million) the total property of Egypt amounts to £1,000-£1,100 million. According to another estimate of 1937 based on English calculations, foreign capital invested in Egypt amounted to £500 million. Thus the property of foreigners constitutes 40-50 per cent of Egypt’s total property, which sum does not differ from that arrived at by the French experts.

As far as land is concerned, foreign capitalists have direct proprietorship over 8 per cent of the cultivated land of Egypt, i.e., land worth £50,000,000. If we deduct this sum from the total of foreign capital invested in Egypt, we get, according to one estimate, £400,000,000, and according to the other, £450,000,000.

Taking Bonne’s estimate of capital investment, besides land, we see that foreign capital accounts for 73-81 per cent.

Thus foreign capitalists own nearly half the total property in Egypt and about three-quarters of all property besides land.

Workers’ Conditions

The conditions of the urban workers in Egypt are terrible. For instance, in the textile industry, the prevailing wage of a skilled worker is 2/6 a day. Workers in the large sugar factories, owned in the main by French capital, get no more that £2 a month. The municipal workers of Alexandria get 2/- a day. When the workers in the British army camps in 1944 complained to the Health department that they did not get a cost of living allowance in spite of the rapid rise in prices during the war, after long negotiations the military authorities agreed to pay every worker who earned less than 2/- a day an additional 2½d.

On those low earnings a very large family must live. On the average a worker has to support a wife and three or four children. It is not to be wondered at that they rarely taste any meat, that the children never get eggs of milk. Connected with the low standard of living is a very high incidence of disease. An investigation revealed that of 6,000 printing workers in Egypt, 63 per cent suffered from diseases of the digestive system, 85 per cent from anaemia, and 45 per cent from lead poisoning (Al Ahram, June 14, 1943). Of the school children of Cairo investigated, 93 per cent showed signs of malnutrition, and 96 per cent suffered from chronic diseases. The number of tuberculotics in the country, the majority of whom are urban workers, was 300,000 or about 2 per cent of the total population, which is a very high percentage indeed.

On the other hand, capital is doing exceptionally well. It was calculated that on every £1 paid as wages in industry the capitalist gets £3 of £4 in profit, i.e., the rate of exploitation is 300-400 per cent. In the United States the rate of exploitation in 1929, as calculated by the Marxian economist, Lewis Corey, was 155 per cent (The Decline of American Capitalism, 1934, p.83). Egypt therefore gives a rate of exploitation double that of the United States. The rate of profit in Egyptian industry is about 14-15 per cent, while in America, in 1929, the peak year of prosperity, it was 7½ per cent.

Imperialism Strives to Keep Egypt Backward

Seeing that imperialist capital desires to monopolise the Egyptian market for its manufactured goods, and the raw materials produced for its factories, it strives to hinder industrial development there and especially the rise of machine industry which would make for economic independence. Seeing that the profits of imperialist capital are dependent on the low wages paid to the Egyptian workers and the low prices paid for the products bought from the peasant, imperialism is interested in keeping the countryside in the most backward conditions, so that it will be an inexhaustible reserve of labour power and cheap raw materials. Imperialism is further interested in this for socio-political reasons; firstly because only backward, illiterate, sick masses dispersed in tiny villages far away from one another can be ruled easily, and secondly because the imperialist fifth column in the colonial countries, its most faithful agents, are the feudal landlords. Thus imperialism is intricately involved in the agrarian question.

The Agrarian Question

Three quarters of the Arab population lives in the country, subjugated to a tiny handful of big landowners. 0.5 per cent of the landowners have 37.1 per cent of all the land, while 70.7 per cent have only 12.4 per cent of the land. Three hundred and thirty-one men have three times more land than ½ million poor peasants and there are more than a million and a half land cultivators who have no land of their own whatsoever. One plantation company alone owns such a large area of land as to employ 35,000 workers. The king’s estate covers a similar area, and maintains about 30,00 poor peasants. A calculation of Emile Minost, Director General of Credit Financier Egyptien, a bank connected by many ties with the existing economic and social order, and therefore not likely to exaggerate the extent of exploitation of the masses, gives the division of the net income from agriculture as follows:


Per cent

To Taxes


To large landowners


To merchants


To fellaheen




Thus a few thousand landowners receive twice the sum that three million fellaheen receive. On an average, a poor peasant before the war did not earn more than £7-8 a year. During the war his nominal income rose, but the cost of living rose more, and his real income therefore decreased. The income of the agricultural worker was even lower. The daily wage of a male agricultural worker before the war was 3 piasters (71/5d.); of a female 2; and of a child 1½, and they were sentenced to extended periods of unemployment every year as the season of work lasts 6-8 months. Even a foreman did not receive more than £2 a month, a clerk £3, and a cart driver £1 to £1 4s 0d. Although during the war wages about doubled, the cost of living rose by much more: and there are places where, even today, the wage of a male agricultural worker does not reach 1/- a day.

With such low incomes, the food position is obviously terrible. As a matter of fact it is comparable with that of the Indians. It has been calculated that the consumption of the average Egyptian, which is of course much higher than that of the poor peasant worker, is only 46 per cent of the optimum in wheat, 25 per cent in sugar, 23 per cent in meat and fish, and 8 per cent in milk products. Furthermore, the nutritional position is not improving, but steadily deteriorating.

The hard economic conditions of the masses impair their health very much and cause terrible mortality, as the following table shows (1938):

Mortality per 1,000











Mortality of infants below a year
to every 1,000 born alive











Only India reaches the death rate Egypt!

Besides “normal” deaths, famines and epidemics take their toll of life. Thus during 1944, malaria managed to wipe out tens of thousands of fellaheen in Upper Egypt, whose bodies, weakened by continued hunger, were susceptible to the disease in its severest form. According to one estimate which we may be sure is not exaggerated, 140,000 died in the epidemic that year (Al Ahram, April 14, 1944). Five hundred workers of the land company Kom Ombo alone died (Al Ahram, March 1, 1944).

Because of the poor conditions of health, the expectation of life is very low, males 31 years, and females 36. In the United Kingdom the expectation of life is 60 for a male and 64 for a female. Those who live to be adults are very weak among those conscripted from the villages in 1941, only 11 per cent were medically fit for army service. 90 per cent of Egypt’s population suffers from trachoma, 50 per cent from worm diseases, 73 per cent from bilharzia, 50 per cent from ankylostoma.

Poverty is inevitably accompanied by ignorance, which in Egypt reaches feaful dimensions. Some idea of its extent may be gained from the very succinct remark of El Mussawar, when it discussed the results of the 1937 census (August 28, 1942): “We have 30,000 holders of diplomas as against 14 millions who know neither how to read or to write.”

Ignorance is the product of the existing social system, and also one of its pillars, and the ruling class knows very well that the illiteracy of the masses is one of the greatest assets of the regime. Thus a certain Egyptian senator thanked God that his country took first place in ignorance. (Al Ahram, July 7, 1944).

Riches, pleasures and hilarity of some tens of thousands of Egyptian and foreigners on the one hand, and hunger, disease and ignorance of the millions on the other – this si the picture of agricultural Egypt.

The Present Conflict

The ruling class of Egypt today tries to use the genuine and justified hatred of all the Egyptians towards British imperialism in order to get full control over the wealth of Egypt and the Sudan, thus becoming the sole exploiters of the two peoples. The weakening of British imperialism all over the world tempts them to this at the present time. British imperialism relies on its bayonets and on the help of French and American imperialism. French imperialism has a direct interest in the quelling of any national revolt in Egypt, as its hold over the Arab countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco is very shaky. American imperialism, in the interests of its world rule, cannot afford the disintegration of the British and French empires.

It will not be to the advantage of the British working class if British imperialism emerges the victor in Egypt. Morrison’s policy can bring it no benefit, as it has nothing to do with socialism. A really Socialist British government would have carried out the following policy: It would have first have withdrawn all the occupation forces from Egypt and the Sudan; it would have renounced all property rights in both countries; it would have called upon the industrial workers employed by British companies to take the factories and run them; it would have called upon the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian and Sudanese agricultural workers employed in the large British plantations to take over this property and run it either as cooperative enterprises, or if the majority of them wished, to divide it among themselves. With the most important industrial enterprises under workers’ control, and a large-scale agrarian revolution, the demagogic King of the Casino, with his entourage of landlords and capitalists, would have found themselves an object of the people’s hatred and anger. The workers in the former British-owned enterprises would attract the rest of the Egyptian workers and peasants and would go forward to the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government. Such a government would be a true and loyal friend of Socialist Britain, a reliable antagonist of all imperialist oppressors, American, French or Russian. The signal would be given for socialist revolution in the Arab countries of the whole of North Africa, and its repercussions would have been widespread.

For seventy years British capital has exploited the Egyptian masses and supported its allies, the Egyptian landlords. The time is ripe, nay overripe, for the British workers to fight against this exploitation and to gain millions of allies in the struggle for socialism, against imperialism and its wars for the division of the world, and for a socialist peace.

Last updated on 20.10.2006