Theo Rothstein January 1908

The British in Egypt
(Translated from the German in the “ Neue Zeit.”)

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XII No. 1 January 15, 1908, pp. 22-31;
Translated: from Die Neue Zeit by Theo Rothstein;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

“It is the unanimous opinion of all authorities, whether non-Socialists or Socialists, that Austria, England, and France have performed a real work of civilisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Egypt, and in Tunis respectively, which has been of great advantage to the well-being of the populations of those countries. Especially as regards Egypt, the fellah who was formerly so much oppressed has now been freed from corvée labour, his land-tax has been reduced, and an orderly administration, free from Oriental arbitrariness and corruption, has, without exhausting the finances of the country, endowed it with such beneficial works as the Assuan Dam, which transformed pest and fever-ridden swamps into fruitful soil. Can anyone imagine that the rule of the Pashas would have achieved this?”

Thus writes comrade Bernstein, in the “Vorwaerts” of October 4, by way of justification of his theory of the right of the civilised nations to act as guardians to the uncivilised. I am not acquainted with the work of the Austrians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor with that of the French in Tunis. Accidentally, however, I have had occasion to study the work of the British in Egypt, and am, therefore, in a position to adduce, as against the assertions of Bernstein, some facts which are, perhaps, not quite in agreement with the “opinion of all authorities” on which Bernstein relies. As at the same time the work of the British in Egypt is regarded not only by Bernstein, who is evidently only repeating the words of others, but in the bourgeois world and in England, in particular, as a model of what a civilised nation could perform in the domain of pacific colonial policy, my arguments will also serve the purpose of destroying the myth about the blessings of such a policy.

And first of all we must clearly define the limits of what the British have really achieved. This is the more necessary as the most exaggerated opinions exist on that head, as can be seen from Bernstein’s assertions. Thus, for instance, Bernstein speaks of the emancipation of the fellaheen from corvée labour. The reader will undoubtedly be surprised to hear that this is a perfect fiction. Year in, year out, as can be seen from Lord Cromer’s reports, thousands upon thousands of fellaheen are forced to give their corvée labour on the Nile – 11,244 in 1903, 16,439 in 1900, 7,388 in 1899, 19,405 in 1898, etc. – always reckoned per 100 days. No doubt, under the Pashas the quantity of forced labour, given by the fellaheen, was much greater. The responsibility for that, however, lay more with the economic conditions of the time than with the Pashas, since Egypt at that time was still, to a considerable extent, living amidst conditions of “natural” economy which carried with them taxation and services in kind. It is worthy of note, however, that already at that period numerous Pashas were doing their best to mitigate the evil,[1] while the civilised Europeans defended, nay, made use of it. One need only read the report of the British Consuls of that time to see how readily the necessity of corvée labour was recognised.[2] On the other hand, it is sufficient to recall the fact that immediately after his accession to the throne the much-calumniated Ismail Pasha denounced the clause in the agreement with the Suez Company, in virtue of which the Egyptian Government had to supply 20,000 corvée labourers per month for the construction of the canal, for which act Ismail Pasha had, in virtue of the most Christian reward given by that most Christian Emperor Napoleon III., to pay the company more than £1,500,000 in damages. This sum is very considerable even in comparison with the £400,000 per annum which Lord Cromer assures us he had to sacrifice in order to reduce the amount of the corvée rendered by the fellaheen. So far, therefore, from having abolished the system of corvée, the British, to an extent, were anticipated in this respect by the Pashas, to which must be added that the great development since then of capitalism and all that it implies, together with the completion of most of the chief public works, have offered the British the opportunity to abolish corvée labour altogether, which opportunity, however, they have failed to make use of.

Almost the same can be said of the reduction of the land-tax mentioned by Bernstein. It is quite true that between 1883 and 1902 the amount of taxation has been reduced by more than one million pounds yearly; nevertheless it would be a mistake to assume that this money has been saved by the fellaheen. The greater portion of this sum was not paid by the fellaheen even under the Pashas, and it merely figured on paper as “arrears."[3] The whole art of squeezing, in which the tax-gatherers of the Pashas excelled, never sufficed to get in the whole amount of taxation, and it was a none too expensive reform on the part of Lord Cromer to have reduced it by so much per cent. and to make the fellaheen a present of the whole of their enormous arrears. It was quite a handsome paper-reform, but somehow the pockets of the fellaheen never felt its effect.

Still more interesting is the case of those public works, like the Assuan Dam, about which Bernstein asks if “anyone could imagine that the rule of the Pashas would have achieved anything of the kind.” We assure comrade Bernstein that in order to imagine anything of that sort one has no need of a strong imagination, but merely of a little knowledge of Egyptian history. Between 1813 and 1880 the cultivated area of Egypt increased from 2,904,970 to 4,769,006 acres[4] – does he suppose that this progress has been achieved without labour and public works? True, since then 2,000,000 more acres have been “transformed from pest and fever-stricken swamps into fruitful soil”; but only total ignorance of the circumstances can ascribe this relatively greater progress to the superiority of the British rule. The Pashas did the pioneer work, and the English have built on ready foundations. The whole now existing system of canals as well as the tracts planted with millions of trees go back to the times of Mehemet Ali and Said Pasha, and the great harbour works at Alexandria, the railway and telegraph systems, the Suez Canal, and the great Ibrabimieh Canal were constructed by Said and Ismail Pashas. Even the gigantic Barrage on the Nile was originally constructed by Said Pasha, only it did not work satisfactorily owing to the faulty technical knowledge of the then French engineers[5] One may say that the Assuan Dam is the only new great work created by the British in this field – a great work, no doubt, but still not so great as to justify the question “whether the Pashas could have done anything similar.” The Pashas had done several things greater, and without them Egypt would never have become what it is now.

One can see from this that not everything which Bernstein ascribes to the British has really been accomplished by them. Some things were done also by the Pashas, and many things have not been accomplished even by the British. With all that it would, of course, be absurd to deny that Egypt has made on the whole great material progress under the British rule. The population has nearly doubled, foreign trade has increased from 20.6 million pounds in 1884 to 36.2 million pounds in 1903, the general amount of taxation has dropped from 2 is. in 1882 to 6s. per head in 1902, the revenue has within the same period increased from 9 to 11 million pounds, while ever since 1889 there have been surpluses, growing from year to year and amounting already in 1895 to over one million pounds, which have not only enabled a portion of the State debt to be paid off, but also considerable sums to be devoted to public purposes. In a word, Egypt is now a tolerably well-to-do country, which gives occasion for comrade Bernstein and the British Imperialists to praise British Colonial policy and extol it as a great factor of civilisation.

The favourable impression which one gets from the rule of the British in Egypt is still further enhanced by the fact that the state of Egypt at the time when the British took over its affairs was outwardly a very melancholy one. The Egyptian finances were utterly dilapidated, and the State was on the verge of bankruptcy. Egypt was at that time blessed by a ruler, the well-known Ismail Pasha, who had the misfortune of having been educated in Paris, and was seized there with the crazy ambition of “Europeanising” his country and his court (as that was understood under Napoleon III.). Millions upon millions were spent by him on public and private works, as much again on festivities, journeys abroad, erection of theatres, on women, and such like princely pleasures, and at last the object was achieved. Ismail Pasha was acknowledged by the entire world as one of the most brilliant rulers, and his genius, his court, his cook, his wines, his people, and his country were extolled in all languages. There was only one awkward thing about it. All this cost heaps of money, and since money does not drop like manna from the sky Ismail Pasha soon found himself in the clutches of financiers who had well understood how to assist him with loans at usurious interest. The long and the short of it was that the State debt, which at the time of Ismail’s accession to the throne only amounted to some 3f million pounds, increased within the short period of eleven years from 1864 to 1875 to the enormous sum of nearly 70 millions, and the entire finances of the country became terribly involved. In vain were the fellaheen squeezed to the very marrow of their bones for taxes; in vain was a financial adviser summoned from England; even the interest could no longer be paid, and finally a commission of control had to be set up by the creditors.

It is this complete disintegration of State affairs under Ismail which enhances the brilliancy of the achievements of the English in Egypt. “It would be difficult,” writes Lord Cromer on one occasion,[6] “to exaggerate the ruin which would have overtaken not only the population of Egypt, but all those who are interested in Egyptian affairs, if the regime of the pre-reforming days had been allowed to continue in existence but a few years longer ... I have no hesitation in saying that but for these changes (i.e., ‘the substitution of a civilised, in the place of an oppressive and semi-barbarous, administrative policy’) the Egyptian Treasury would before now have been hopelessly insolvent, and that the condition of the people would have been in all respects deplorable.” How can one, in the face of this, deny that the English rule in Egypt “has been of great advantage to the well-being of the population"?

Let us look, however, a little more closely. And first, is it really true that the condition of Egypt under Ismail was so hopeless as it is painted by Lord Cromer, and by Bernstein after him? We “have no hesitation in saying” that this is an absurd fairy tale. As against the figures quoted above we may point out that the population, which amounted in 1846 to four and a-half millions, increased to five and a-half millions in 1877[6]; that the yield of the cereal crop, which amounted in 1834 to three and a-half million increased by 1875 to 261/2 million ardebs (one ardeb equals 51/2 bushels)[7]; that the foreign trade increased from 3.6 million pounds in 1849-50 to 18.3 million pounds in 1875; that specially the export of cotton had within the same period increased from 300,000 to 21/2 million quintals; that the State revenue increased from 3.3 million pounds in 183o to more than 9 million pounds in 1876, and so forth.[8] One sees that Egypt was at the time in the midst of a rapid economic development, and was by no means that raw, barbarous country, like Morocco or Corea, which one usually represents it to have been. No doubt, the maladministration by Ismail Pasha introduced a disturbing factor into that development. But already the British financial authority mentioned above, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Stephen Cave, remarked in his report that there was nothing extraordinary in that. Egypt, he says, suffers from “the hasty and inconsiderate endeavours to adopt the civilisation of the West,” which last “is the fault which Egypt shares with other new countries.” And he quotes the “serious embarrassments” of the United States and Canada, and adds, “probably nothing in Egypt has ever approached the profligate expenditure which characterised the commencement of the railway system in England."[9] Which is to say, that the maladministration of Ismail Pasha was by no means an “Oriental,” but a generally capitalist one, and that, properly speaking, everything depended on whether the country possessed sufficient power of resistance to outlast the temporary difficulties. As to this, however, Sir Stephen had no doubt whatsoever. In conclusion of his detailed report on the state of the finances in Egypt, he says: “It would appear from these calculations that the resources of Egypt are sufficient, if properly managed, to meet her liabilities ... The annual charges upon the people of Egypt is heavy, and has increased; but the power of meeting it, that is, the wealth of the country as indicated by its exports, has increased in a far greater degree ... Egypt is well able to bear the charge of the whole of her present indebtedness at a reasonable rate of interest; but she cannot go on renewing floating debts at 25 per cent. and raising loans at 12 or 13 per cent. interest."[10]

This was the state of affairs as represented by a high English financial authority at a time when it was not yet in the interest of England to pervert the truth. Only later, when it became necessary to justify the forcible suppression of Egypt’s independence, was the fairly tale of her hopeless condition created and diligently propagated by the advocates of colonial policy.

It will, however, be said, that the removal of the difficulties was itself an act of civilisation of which the Egyptian nation itself was incapable. Lord Cromer justly remarked that had Ismail’s regime continued for a few years longer Egypt would have been overtaken by an appalling catastrophe. But how could one expect from such a wretched administration as existed under Ismail that it should improve by its own efforts? This sounds plausible enough, but is nevertheless utterly contradicted by the facts. Not only did Egypt possess the material means to overcome the crisis, but she also was morally ripe to extirpate the evil by the root. Before even Ismail Pasha was removed by the Powers, there had arisen among the educated classes of Egypt a constitutional and reform movement which had for its object the deposition of Ismail and the introduction of a constitutional form of government, and which within a brief period became so strong that Ismail himself was obliged through fear to promise the convocation of an assembly of notables. And when shortly afterwards Ismail was deposed and his son put in his place, the constitutionalists continued their agitation with redoubled vigour till they succeeded, through the military action under Arabi, in wringing from the Khedive and his European wirepullers a constitution. “The three months which followed this notable event,” writes an eye-witness,[11] “were the happiest time, politically, that Egypt has ever known. I am glad that I had the privilege of witnessing it with my own eyes, so that I know it not merely by hearsay, or I should doubt its reality, so little was it like anything that I had hitherto seen, or am likely, I fear, ever to see again ... Throughout Egypt a cry of jubilation arose such as for hundreds of years had not been heard upon the Nile, and it is literally true that in the streets of Cairo men stopped each other, though strangers, to embrace and rejoice together, at the astonishing new reign of liberty which had suddenly begun for them, like the dawn of the day after a long night of fear.” This reads like a picture of the glorious October days in Russia – and yet people ask whether the Egyptian nation could have done without the English! It is an historical fact that the English, fearing lest the representatives of the nation should repudiate the debts imposed by usurers and thrown by an irresponsible ruler upon the shoulders of the people, suppressed the Constitution, and seized the first opportunity, largely engineered by themselves, in order to substitute for the national their own rule.[12] And this is called colonial work of civilisation!

It is, therefore, clear that the Egyptian people could have very well done without the “guardianship” of the British – the more so as Lord Cromer used for the restoration of the prosperity of the country no such magic means which could not have been used by any other Government in his place. As a matter of fact, he owes the success of his administration chiefly to the circumstance that the cotton industry, established by the former Khedives and encouraged by them in all possible ways – by irrigation works, by the introduction of machinery, by model farms, etc. – arrived at its full bloom in the second half of the ‘eighties. It must altogether be noted that the decennium 1875 – 1885 was a period of economic depression which intensified the difficulties created by Ismail, and made them look still worse than they were in reality. The prices of cotton, wheat, sugar, that is, of all the main articles of Egyptian export, were declining from year to year in such a manner that even without Ismail Egypt would have found herself in sorry straits.[13] Accordingly, even Lord Cromer, when he came in 1883 to Egypt, was at first unable to do anything, and saw himself obliged to adduce this very crisis by way of explanation of the enormous deficits with which he closed the budgets of every year.[14]. It was only in the latter half of the ‘eighties that prosperity came back to Egypt, and from that time Lord Cromer was enabled to gather in, with a full hand, what others had sown. The well-being of the fellah grew every year (in so far as one can speak of well-being in connection with this wretched peasant class), he paid his debts to the village usurer and the taxes to the Government, his consumption of food and other articles increased – in a word, there arose such conditions which every other Government, besides that of Lord Cromer, who had to consider specially the interests of the creditors, would have also known how to make use of. The only thing which Lord Cromer did on his own initiative was that he fostered artificially the cotton industry to a still greater degree, so that he ultimately had to acknowledge himself that Egypt depended too much upon one article.[15] In the year 1880 the export of cotton amounted to but 21/4 million cantars (one cantar=about 991/2 lbs.), in 1905, however, to more than 6 million cantars. As against this the import of foodstuffs, especially of flour, increased from an average of five million kilogs. in the years 1881-1892 to 21.4 millions in 1894 and to 70 millions in 1896.[16] In 1905 the import of cereals and of flour aggregated nearly 200,000 tons – which denotes a state of things favourable, perhaps, to the finances for the time being, but by no means to the economic development of the country, which through a bad cotton crop or a slump in the cotton market may be hurled into a disaster.

It would take us too far were we to examine the alleged great achievements of the British in all possible directions. The above may suffice to show that they owe their success more to their luck than to their skill – namely, the good fortune of having taken over the management of the country on the eve of an economic advance which had been prepared by the former Khedives. Of course, the very ability to grasp the opportunities of the moment which the British exhibited betokens intelligence on their part, and so much may be granted, without reservation. But what is universally regarded as their title to fame is not that they, as representatives of the international bondholders, have rightly understood that the financial solvency of Egypt depended on her general prosperity, but that this prosperity has been created by them. We see, however, that this is not so. Their chief achievement is that they have put an end to the arbitrary regime of Ismail Pasha and substituted in its place a “well-ordered” administration, thereby removing the trammels of the economic development of the country. But the Egyptian nation was about to do the same thing itself, and had already made the first steps in that direction. Where are, then, the great colonial achievements of the English, which are so much praised? A word, a breath, and praeterea nihil.

Here we could well bring our remarks to a close had not comrade Bernstein recalled not only the material, but also the moral advantages of the British occupation. He speaks of “an orderly administration free from Oriental arbitrariness and corruption,” which the English have given to the Egyptian people. Is comrade Bernstein sure of his statements? As regards arbitrariness, it is sufficient to recall the horrible drama of Denshawai, which was enacted the year before last. A party of English officers went one fine morning to the village of Denshawai to amuse themselves. They saw a number of pigeons, and commenced shooting at them. The inhabitants protested, the village elder pointed out that their proceedings were illegal, and they were ordered to withdraw. But the officers laughed and continued their sport. A quarrel ensued, in the course of which the gun of one of the officers went off, striking a village woman. The peasants grew wild. They attacked the officers, the latter took to flight, and one of them, overcome by the heat, fell and soon died. The “rebels” were seized, dragged before a special tribunal, and though the facts were found to be such as we have just stated, four peasants were sentenced to death, six others to flogging, and a number to various terms of imprisonment. The executions took place in the middle of the day, and in the presence of hundreds of men and women who had been driven together specially for the purpose. One of the condemned was hanged, and while his body was still hanging, two others were flogged. Then another was hanged, and two others were flogged. “And the women,” says the Reuter’s telegram, “wailed dismally as the lash was applied and the prisoners were hanged."[17] What is this sort of “ justice “ to be called – Oriental arbitrariness, or what?

And corruption. True, it has been the wholesome practice of Lord Cromer not to allow any speculations by financiers lest the old creditors of the State might suffer. At the same time what is going on in the daily routine administration of the country is the subject of common talk throughout Egypt. Just a few weeks ago a great bribery scandal was discovered in the Ports and Lights Administration of Alexandria, which is at present the subject of a Government inquiry. Should the affair not be suppressed, we may live to see a small Panama. The fact is, King Baksheesh is still reigning in Egypt, as everywhere, where there is no responsible Government. One can get there everything for cash – water and fire, public posts and Government favours.[18] Under the same head comes the corruption of the press, carried on by the Government itself, which subsidises there daily papers in order that they may combat the national aspirations of the Egyptians, and advocate the interests of the Occupation. Reuter’s Agency also gets a subsidy, which, of course, does not remain without due acknowledgment.

One thing, however, is true. It might have been much worse. In spite of all, Egypt still enjoys a free press, the right of meeting, etc. But it is not to British liberality that Egypt owes these advantages. Egypt is not a British colony, but a part of the Turkish Empire, which had only “temporarily” been occupied by the English. This is not merely of a theoretical, but also of a practical importance, inasmuch as in the capacity of a part of the Turkish Empire, Egypt is governed on the basis of so-called capitulations which secure to the European Powers ex-territorial rights. Hence the British cannot rule the country in an autocratic manner as they would wish, and this is to the advantage of the Egyptian people. One may safely assert that but for these capitulations the Egyptians would have fared as badly as the Indians. Even with the capitulations the British contrive to carry on a policy of anglicisation, which is hardly compatible with the privileges of other Powers. The Arabic language in the schools is being driven out more and more by the English, the teaching staffs are to an ever larger extent being filled up by Englishmen of a specifically Imperialist type, and the Government posts are given only to those who are complete masters of the English language. On their part, neither Lord Cromer nor the majority of the other “Advisers” have ever taken the trouble to learn a word of Arabic.

Such, then, are the great achievements of the English in Egypt. They may be characterised in one word – a fraudulent legend – and comrade Bernstein cites them as a good example of what is called by him the “guardianship” of civilised over non-civilised peoples! What a partiality for bourgeois shibboleths there lurks in this theory. Its value can be judged in the light of the above.


1. See, for instance, MacCoan, “Egypt As It Is.” 1877, p.177.

2. Thus the British Consul at Alexandria in 1871 “When it is considered that the maintenance of canals at their proper level is the great desideratum here, without which the country would become a desert, there does not seem to me that there is injustice in making all contribute their share to what is so essentially the welfare of the country.”



5. In his report for 1898, p.11

6. “Essai de Statistique,” Cairo, 1879 (official).

7. MacCoan, p.194.

8. Cave’s Report, 1876.

9. Cave’s Report, 1876, p.1

10. Ibid., concluding paragraphs. Compare MacCoan, p.90, 174; De Leon, Chapter XIX.

11. Mr. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “Secret History of the British Occupation of Egypt,” 1907, p.152. This remarkable book also gives full information on the constitutional movement.

12. Blunt, 1.c., p.309 and following; also Appendix II.

13. Report on the Financial Condition of Egypt (1884). McCoan, p.164.

14. See his report for 1903, p.3.

15. Lord Cromer’s Report for 1903, p.21.

16. Lord Cromer’s Report for 1896, p.7.

17. See the “Times,” June 29, 1906.

18. The “Daily Telegraph” of October 19, 1907, quotes from the semi-official “Egyptian Gazette.” “Lawlessness, we are told, by many of our provincial readers, almost reigns supreme, and officialdom, it is alleged, is becoming a hotbed of corruption and bribery.”