Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



Early in September 1881, the situation in Egypt flared up into a crisis. The wataneun (Nationalist) officers were preparing new moves against the Riaz Pasha government. The Khedive, in his turn, had decided to get rid of all the revolutionary-minded regiments of the Cairo garrison at one blow. On September 9, 1881, he issued a decree transferring these regiments to the provinces. They were to be accompanied by Arabi, All Fahmi and the wataneun leaders. Besides being a disguised form of exile, this was an attempt to disperse the armed forces of the ripening national revolution, which had concentrated in Cairo.

Without further delay, the wataneun leaders decided to attack. They mutinied on September 9, 1881, the very day the khedival decree was issued. Led by Arabi himself, 2,500,000 soldiers of the Cairo garrison lined up on the square outside the Abidin Palace and presented the following demands to the Khedive: (1) the immediate dismissal of the Riaz cabinet, (2) a constitution, (3) an increase in the army.

These were not narrow professional demands, but political ones.

Tewfik was taken aback by the news of the armed uprising. He sent for Auckland Colvin, the British official who had succeeded Baring as Controller-General in Egypt after the latter’s departure for India. Colvin suggested that the Khedive immediately bring what forces he could muster to the palace. Ignoring the frightened Khedive’s objections to the effect that Arabi had cavalry and artillery and that they could shoot, the British Controller placed him in a carriage and they set off together to make the rounds of the Cairo.

The journey accomplished nothing, except to convince them that not a single military unit supported the Khedive, that he had been deprived of all military support.

When he was fully aware of this fact, the Khedive returned to his palace. But Colvin took him over to the rebellious soldiers on the square and ordered him personally, without any military support, to arrest their leader Arabi.

“Act!” the Englishman said.

“We are between four fires,” the fear-stricken Khedive replied.

“Have courage,” the Englishman said.

“What can I do?” the Khedive asked. “We are between four fires. We shall be killed!”

While this exchange was going on Arabi came up and set forth the demands of the insurgents.

“The army has come here on the part of the Egyptian people to enforce their demands and will not retire until they have been conceded,” Arabi said.

Since the Khedive had by now lost all self-control, Colvin allowed him to return to the palace and took over the negotiations himself. Colvin offered Arabi a compromise. Sherif Pasha would be appointed the new Prime Minister and Riaz would be dismissed. Regarding Arabi’s other two claims, Colvin suggested that they should be left in abeyance until reference could be made to the Porte. Arabi agreed to these terms.

This again was only a partial victory. The reins of power had been handed to Sherif Pasha, an aristocrat who was extremely hostile to the popular movement. He objected to becoming Prime Minister “as the nominee of a mutinous army” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 157.] Under pressure from Britain and France he accepted the post, but only on the condition that the “rebellious” regiments be removed from Cairo. On September 13, hoping to restrain Sherif, Arabi convened the Chamber of Notables in Cairo. Still unaware of the class differences within the Egyptian national camp he hoped to find support among the Notables. He did not realise that Sherif merely shared the general fear of the popular movement common to all landowners.

The Chamber of Notables supported Sherif against Arabi. Arabi was forced to agree to the withdrawal of the mutinous regiments from Cairo. When Sherif came to power, he preserved dual control. Britain and France, in turn, declared that they would support the Sherif government.

Nevertheless, the unquestionable result of the September revolt was that it enhanced the prestige of the wataneun (Nationalists) in Egypt. Before, Arabi had been the leader of a military group; now he had become the leader of the entire Egyptian people. A British historian wrote that within a few weeks Arabi had acquired considerable authority. All those who suffered from injustice referred their complaints to him. He acquired the reputation of a defender of the fellaheen from the tyranny of the Turkish ruling class. He was a friend of the fellaheen who served in the army. Why not become a friend of the fellaheen in the country as a whole? Soon his popularity became widespread among the village sheikhs and then among the fellaheen themselves.

Throughout the ages the fellah had not dared to raise his voice against the tyrannical yoke of his lord. But now, Arabi, the son of a village sheikh, loudly voiced the complaints of the fellaheen soldiers, defended their rights before the country’s authorities and did so with success. The Egyptians began to realise that the situation in the army differed little from the country’s general predicament. Arabi became their idol. They appealed to this prophet, who was one of their own, who inspired them with hopes of freedom from eternal slavery, and who encouraged them to rise and resist, some-thing the fellaheen had hitherto never dared dream of.


In reply to the September revolt, the European Powers prepared for armed intervention. Anglo-French differences, however, considerably delayed these plans. France opposed Britain’s separatist activities and insisted on joint action. In September 1881, at the time of the revolt in Cairo, the French Foreign Minister, Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire, proposed to Lord Granville, the British Foreign Secretary, that they should establish “dual” Anglo-French military control over Egypt. Britain rejected this plan (as well as the Italian plan for the joint intervention of the six Powers). France, in turn, rejected the plan for Turkish intervention, which was backed by Germany and served the interests of the British. Britain was thus forced to join France in promising Egypt that they would exert influence on the Porte “with the aim of preventing the occupation of Egypt by the Ottoman army.” Even the despatch of two Porte representatives to Egypt aroused objections on the part of Britain and France, who in a note dated October 6, 1881, informed the Sultan that they had “learnt with surprise and regret of his decision to send envoys to Egypt” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 197.] This note was confirmed by the despatch to Alexandria of an Anglo-French force of two warships, which were recalled only after the departure from Egypt of the Turkish envoys (on October 20, 1881).

Taking advantage of the arrival of the Anglo-French force, Sherif Pasha decided to suppress the revolutionary regiments. A few days after the September revolt, Colvin had proposed (1) to disperse the revolutionary units among the provincial garrisons, (2) to use the moderate Iandowners, and Notables, against the revolutionary officers, (3) to support the demands of the Notables in as much as they would not oppose British financial control and financial plans.

This was, in fact, the programme that the Sherif Pasha government adopted. In October 1881, on Sherif Pasha’s orders, the regiments of Arabi and Abd el-Al were with-drawn from Cairo, one to Damietta and the other to TeI-El-Kebir. The withdrawal of the regiments, however, had the very opposite result from what had been expected. Arabi’s departure from Cairo sparked off a mighty popular demonstration against the government of Sherif Pasha. Scores of thousands of Cairo citizens came out to bid fare-well to Arabi and his soldiers, openly expressing their solidarity with them. The regiments were greeted with enthusiasm wherever they went. Arabi’s progress through the provinces was a march of triumph and British officials were forced to report with regret: “Arabi is the real ruler of the country.”

Under such circumstances Arabi had no intention of remaining in the provinces. Using his wife’s illness as a pretext, he returned to Cairo, where he continued the struggle against the government of Sherif Pasha. Nor did the powers succeed in “dispersing” the revolutionary units; even after the relief of the units, the soldiers and officers of the Cairo garrison continued to support Arabi.

Arabi openly opposed the tyranny of the khedival camarilla and the Turco-Circassian nobility. He declared that the khedival dynasty was as oppressive as the government of the Mamelukes had been. “There is no immunity of per-son or property,” he said. “The Egyptians are imprisoned, exiled, strangled, drowned in the Nile, starved and robbed. The most ignorant Turk is preferred to the best Egyptian!” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 209.]

Taking into account Arabi’s influence, Britain, who had failed to reach agreement with France on the kind of intervention required, decided to change her tactics. The British representatives in Egypt made an attempt to achieve a settlement with the wataneun. On November 1, 1881, Auckland Colvin, the British finance controller in Egypt, received a delegation of Egyptian Nationalists headed by Arabi. On November 15, a despatch, which Lord Granville had sent on November 4, 1881, to Malet, the British diplomatic agent in Cairo, was published in Egypt. In the despatch Lord Granville declared that Britain was not seeking a biased government in Egypt. Speaking against the formation of a government based on the support of a foreign Power or a foreign diplomatic agent in Egypt, he stressed that the aspiration of the Nationalists for liberation corresponded to British national traditions and that England would not undermine them. Nevertheless, Granville left a diplomatic loophole for intervention, when he added “the only circumstance which would force Her Majesty’s Government to depart from the course of conduct which he [Granville] had mentioned would be the occurrence in Egypt of a state of anarchy.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 203.

The matter, however, did not progress further than preliminary contacts. In December 1881, the British Government received a secret memorandum from Auckland Colvin warning them that the Egyptian Nationalists were threatening not only the Khedive, but also the positions of France and Britain. Colvin maintained that there were two dangers to be guarded against in the situation in Egypt: (1) Egypt’s refusal to meet her financial obligations, (2) Egypt’s refusal to let the Europeans interfere in her administration.

In light of this, Britain decided not to remove the question of intervention from the agenda and diplomatic preparations for intervention continued. Moreover, in the face of the growing Egyptian national liberation movement, Britain agreed to a deal with France.

On December 14, 1881, Gambetta, the French Prime Minister, requested Britain to work out a common course of action in Egypt. “Both governments,” he said, “must be closely united; their union must be completely manifest.” Granville accepted Gambetta’s proposal and agreed to send a joint Anglo-French note.

In the meanwhile, Sherif Pasha decided to convene the Chamber of Notables in order to deprive the army of the character which it had arrogated to itself at the last moment. He said the Chamber of Notables would become a representative body, on which the Khedive and his government would be able to lean for popular support against “military dictation.”

Wishing to make the Chamber as reactionary as possible, Sherif refused to introduce the very constitution which he himself had drawn up two years before. While Arabi and the wataneun insisted that Sherif’s constitution be put into effect, Sherif himself preserved the Electoral Law of 1866, by which the members of the Chamber were elected at provincial meetings of the nobility.

The Chamber was convened on December 26, 1881, and there were indications that it would justify Sherif’s hopes. It was composed of moderate landowners. Its president, Mohammed Sultan Pasha, was a close friend of Sherif Pasha. The session of the Chamber began by expressing its loyalty to the Khedive. According to Malet, the British Consul-General in Cairo, “the Khedive spoke with much satisfaction of the apparently moderate tendencies of the delegates.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 224.]

No sooner had the Chamber turned to the question of its functions, however, than the idyllic picture was spoiled. The Chamber declared its right to vote on the Egyptian Budget or, at least, that part of it which was allocated for the maintenance of the Egyptian Government. This “encroachment” on the rights of the Financial Control immediately evoked protests from the Powers.

On January 8, 1882, Britain and France communicated a joint note to Egypt. It read as follows: “... The English and French Governments consider the maintenance of His Highness on the throne on the terms laid down by the Sultan’s Firmans, and officially recognised by the two Governments as alone being able to guarantee, for the present and future, the good order and development of general prosperity in Egypt, in which France and Great Britain are equally interested. The two Governments being closely associated in the resolve to guard by their united efforts against all cause of complication, internal or external, which might menace the order of things established in Egypt, do not doubt that the assurance publicly given of their formal intentions in this respect will tend to avert the dangers to which the government of the Khedive might be exposed, and which would certainly find England and France united to oppose them.” [[Cromer, op. cit., p. 223.]

This note evoked general indignation in Egypt and even temporarily brought the Notables and the wataneun together.

On February 1, 1882, the British and French consuls informed Sherif Pasha “that the Chamber could not vote on the Budget without infringing the Decree establishing the Dual Control, and that an innovation of the nature proposed by the Chamber could not be introduced without the assent of the English and French governments.” [Cromer, op. cit., p. 223.]

Sherif accepted the Powers’ note. He proposed in the Chamber that negotiations should be started with Britain and France, but the Chamber indignantly retorted that its right to vote the Budget was not for discussion with foreign Powers. At the Chamber’s demand, the Sherif Pasha’s cabinet tendered its resignation. On February 5, 1882, a new cabinet was formed, which was dominated by the wataneun. Mahmud Sami el-Barudi, who had been War Minister in the government of Sherif Pasha became Prime Minister. Arabi Bey, the leader of the wataneun, was appointed War Minister in his place.


On February 7, 1882, immediately upon coming to power, the new government promulgated the Organic Law, which had been compiled by the Chamber of Notables and guaranteed its rights, thereby actually putting an end to Dual Control. De Bligniere, the French Controller, demonstratively left Egypt as a sign of protest. The government of Mahmud Sami-Arabi went even further and set about compiling a new and more democratic Electoral Law; it also prepared a number of progressive draft laws, especially laws abolishing the corvée, setting up an agricultural bank and reforming the Mixed Courts. The government prohibited the use of the kurbash and began an energetic struggle against official abuse of privilege, especially against the foreign advisers and experts who practised bribery and embezzlement on an extensive scale.

The formation of a new government brought about a political awakening among the Egyptian people. The mudirs (governors), who had been appointed by the former cabinets, lost all authority in the province. In Lower Egypt, especially in the region of Zagazig, an agrarian-peasant movement was beginning to gain momentum. Peasant detachments attacked and looted the landowners’ estates. Appealing to the people at Zagazig, the wataneun agitators told them that the acres held by their landlords belonged to the fellaheen by right. Everywhere the peasants demanded the abolition of usurious debts and the return of the mortgaged land. Moreover, they demanded the liquidation of the Public Debt, the curtailment of taxes and the renewal of the law of mukabala.

The growth of the agrarian movement drove to the Right many liberal landowners who, along with the wataneun, had participated in the national cabinet.

Already in May 1882, Sultan Pasha, the leader of the National Party, told the British Consul that “in overthrowing Sherif Pasha, the Chamber had acted under pressure from Arabi, and that the very deputies who had then insisted on the course taken, finding that they had been deceived, were now anxious to overthrow the Ministry.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 265.]


The development of the agrarian-peasant movement activised those sections of the feudal class which from the very outset had adopted a hostile attitude towards the government of Sarni-Arabi. These sections rallied round the Khedive and the court camarilla. The “Circassian” officers were employed as shock detachments of feudal reaction and a terrorist conspiracy against Arabi’s life and that of his associates ripened in their midst. When the plot was exposed on April 11, 1882, some 50 terrorists from among the “Circassian” officers, including the former Minister of War, Othman Rifki, were tried by a court-martial. The sentence, however, was extremely mild, the conspirators being degraded and exiled to the Sudan. The main plotters, Khedive Tewfik and Sherif Pasha, were not even summoned to court. The verdict merely contained a reference to the instigatory role played by the former Khedive Ismail. Nevertheless, at the suggestion of the British and French consuls, on May 9, 1882, the Khedive commuted the sentence to exile from Cairo to the provinces. This was a challenge to the wataneun and the government likewise and the wataneun interpreted it as a signal for open struggle.

The wataneun decided to get rid of the Khedive. With this in view, they summoned the Chamber of Notables on May 13. Arabi demanded Tewfik’s deposal and an end to the dynasty of Mohammed Ali. The Chamber, however, vacillated. The delegates sympathised with the Khedive, but Arabi was the real ruler of Egypt and the Notables, fearing the soldiers, did not venture to support the Khedive openly. They therefore took an intermediary stand and attempted to reconcile the Khedive with the wataneun.

The Khedive declared the convention of the Chamber illegal and demanded that it be dissolved immediately. Mahmud Sami resigned in protest. It might have seemed this was exactly what the Khedive and Britain, who was backing him, had been working for. But quite unexpectedly they found themselves in difficulties. None of the Khedive’s agents dared to form a government while the army was still in the hands of the wataneun. The wataneun declared they would not resign until the Chamber of Notables demanded it, and the Chamber hesitated to make such a demand. On May 16, the Khedive was forced to accede and keep Mahmud Sarni in office.

On May 20, 1882, an Anglo-French squadron arrived in Alexandria and on the day before, May 19, the British Consul Malet had received instructions “to advise the Khedive to take advantage of a favourable moment, such, as, for instance, the arrival of the fleets, to dismiss the present ministry and to form a new cabinet under Sherif Pasha or any other person inspiring the same confidence.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 271.]

On May 25, 1882, Britain and France officially demanded from the Khedive: (1) the temporary retirement from Egypt of Arabi Pasha; (2) the retirement into the interior of Egypt of Ali Pasha Fahmi and Abd el-Al; (3) the resignation of the ministry of Mahmud Sarni el-Barudi. The Khedive accepted this ultimatum and announced the dismissal of the cabinet.

On learning of the dismissal, the officers of the Alexandria garrison sent a telegram to the Khedive on May 27, saying “they would not accept the resignation of Arabi Pasha and that they allowed twelve hours to His Highness to consider, after which delay they would no longer be responsible for public tranquility.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 276.] This was a threat to rise.

The fear-stricken Khedive appealed for Sultan Pasha’s mediation. At a meeting in Cairo on May 27, Sultan Pasha called the wataneun to obedience. The wataneun, in turn, demanded the deposal of the Khedive, a traitor, who had openly collaborated with the foreign Powers as their agent. “The only thing left for the Khedive to do was to pack his suitcase and move into Shepherd Hotel like any other foreigner,” said Mustafa Fahmi, the Foreign Minister. A wave of meetings and demonstrations swept Egypt. The demonstrators demanded the Khedive’s deposal and the reinstatement of Arabi and other wataneun ministers.

Once again convinced of his helplessness, the Khedive gave in, but agreed to reinstate only Arabi as minister. This manoeuvre, however, failed. Arabi became the sole absolute minister in Egypt. The Powers and the Khedive were again defeated. They had reached a deadlock. On May 30, France proposed the convention of an international conference to discuss the Egyptian question. Britain fell back on the plan of Turkish intervention and without France’s knowledge advised the Khedive to appeal to the Sultan for help.


At the Khedive’s request, the Turkish Sultan despatched his envoys, Dervish Pasha and Sheikh es-Said, to Cairo to settle the conflict between the Khedive and Arabi in a spirit of reconciliation. Both envoys, who arrived in Egypt on June 7, 1882, were immediately bribed. The Khedive gave them a sum of several thousand pounds and the British purchased Dervish’s small estate at a fabulous price. Thereupon Dervish suggested to Arabi that he should go to Istanbul, promising him a. high post in the central government of the Ottoman Empire. Arabi, however, replied: “I cannot strive for power. The authority which I enjoy now was not usurped by me. The people invested me with it and I ought to be with the people and lend their complaints an attentive ear.”

The Dervish mission was a failure.


Several days after the May events, the British Consul, Malet, warned that a collision might at any moment occur between the Moslems and the Christians; in this case foreign intervention might become a necessity. The hint was immediately taken by Khedive Tewfik, who decided to provoke disorder in Alexandria to hasten armed intervention.

There was no difficulty in stirring up disorder. The Egyptians hated the foreign money-lenders, profiteers and compradores, who comprised the “pick” of the European population of Alexandria. The arrival of foreign warships in Alexandria had only deepened this hate. The atmosphere was so tense that the slightest brawl would be enough to spark off clashes in the city.

On June 11, 1882, a Maltese, who worked as a lackey for the British Consul, hired an Arab cabman and set off for a pub; when they reached it, the cabman demanded the fare. Instead of paying, the Maltese treated him to abuse. A fight broke out and the Maltese killed the Arab. Some suspiciously looking Europeans surrounded the Maltese and opened fire on the excited crowd of Arabs who had gathered. The next to arrive were Bedouins from the neighbouring desert, who had been specially hired by the Khedive to participate in the disorders. Their despatch to Alexandria was well timed. Soon the entire city was involved in the slaughter in which some 50 Europeans and 140 Egyptians were killed.

Arabi, however, managed to stop the rioting which had broken out and expose the provocation, depriving the instigators of an excuse for intervention.

After the trouble in Alexandria, the division of forces inside Egypt became more clearly delineated. On June 13, Khedive Tewfik fled from revolutionary Cairo to Alexandria under the protection of the British fleet. Together with him fled the most reactionary top statesmen of Egypt-Nubar, Riaz, Sherif and Sultan. The British Consul, Malet, the Turkish envoy Dervish Pasha and many representatives of the Egyptian feudal-bureaucratic nobility also came to Alexandria, where, on June 20, 1882, a government directly responsible to the Khedive was formed under Ragheb Pasha. Alexandria became the centre of the Anglo-Khedival alignment. In Cairo power was in the hands of the wataneun and Arabi, who was still listed as the Khedive’s Minister of War.

Thousands of foreigners fled from Egypt in fear of the people’s wrath. They were followed by the local landowners and money-lenders. At the end of June, the British agent in Cairo reported the mass flight of Europeans, Turks and “honourable Arabs.” Arabi’s only reaction to this was to order the confiscation of the property of Egyptian emigres who had left the country of their own accord.


In the summer of 1882, the threat of British intervention loomed large on the Egyptian horizon. The French Chamber of Deputies had denounced the colonial policy of Jules Ferry and in January 1882, the new French Government, under de Freycinet, rejected plans for joint Anglo-French intervention. This was just what British diplomacy had been waiting for. Confronted by the Triple Alliance, France could not afford to aggravate her relations with Britain because of Egypt. At the same time, the last thing she wanted was for Britain to take over Egypt single-handed.

De Freycinet felt the only way out was to summon an international conference on the Egyptian Question. Under the existing circumstances, he reasoned, the best thing would be to preserve Egypt’s independence and keep her from falling into Britain’s hands. He was even ready to support Arabi. As de Freycinet saw it, the conference was to settle pressing problems and hamper British intervention.

The Powers backed France’s initiative. The conference on the Egyptian Question opened at Constantinople on June 23, 1882. It was attended by Russia, Austria, Germany, Britain, France and Italy. Turkey refused to participate in the conference, regarding it as a violation of her sovereign rights.

At France’s proposal, the Powers taking part in the conference undertook “not to seek any territorial acquisitions in Egypt, nor concessions with exceptional privileges or commercial advantages for their subjects.” Another resolution was passed to the effect that while the conference was in session, the Powers were to refrain from any unilateral activity in Egypt. But Lord Dufferin, the British representative, suggested the reservation, “If there is no force majeure,” which was added to the resolution. This provision brought to naught the decisions of the conference.

All Britain had to do was to create a force majeure and then confront the Powers with the accomplished fact.


The conflict over the Alexandria coastal fortifications was used as a force majeure. The fortifications, which had been built during the reign of Mohammed Ali, were completely out of date and of little use for defence, especially against a squadron of British battleships. They were, moreover, in a bad state of repair. After the arrival of foreign fleets in Alexandria the Egyptians, on Arabi’s orders, set about repairing the coastal forts. In response to a demand from Britain, the Porte ordered the cessation of all repair work on the fortifications. In July, however, the repair work was resumed and England immediately used this as an excuse for intervention.

On July 6, 1882, Admiral Seymour, who commanded the British squadron in Egypt, presented an ultimatum to the head of the Alexandria garrison and demanded that he stop the fortification works. The Egyptians replied that in face of the external threat they had the right to defend their borders and to set up any erections they liked on their own territory. The reply, however, stressed that the Egyptians were merely carrying out repair work; they would not erect any new fortifications, they would not install any new batteries, and so on. On July 10, 1882, Admiral Seymour submitted a second ultimatum calling for the surrender of Egypt’s coastal fortifications within twenty-four hours. Having received a resolute refusal, he launched military operations. On July 11, 1882, British ships bombarded Alexandria and reduced the city to a heap of ruins.

Richards, a British Member of Parliament, characterised Admiral Seymour’s actions in the following way: “I find,” he said, “a man prowling about my house with obvious felonious purposes. I hasten to get locks and bars, and to barricade my windows. He says that this is an insult and threat to him and he batters down my doors, and declares he does so only as an act of strict self-defence.” [Theodore Rothstein, Egypt’s Ruin, London, 1910, pp. 214-15.]

On July 12, 1882, Arabi ordered his troops to withdraw from the burning city. Thousands of Alexandria inhabit-ants left with them. Four days later, the British landing party occupied the deserted city.


The bombardment of Alexandria marked the beginning of the Anglo-Egyptian war of 1882. On July 27, the House of Commons voted credits for a British expedition to Egypt. The command of the British expeditionary corps was entrusted to Sir Garnet Wolseley.

The Khedive and his functionaries, who had defected to the British, remained in Alexandria and sat out the bombardments in their country villas and palaces, having received timely warning from Seymour.

As soon as Arabi quitted Alexandria, the Khedive ordered him to cease the military actions against the British at once. Arabi refused and in an appeal to the Egyptian people announced that “an irreconcilable war existed between the Egyptians and the English and all those who proved traitors to their country would ... be subjected to the severest punishment in accordance with martial law....” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 300.]

On July 22, the Khedive declared Arabi an outlaw and formally dismissed him from the post of Minister of War. In reply Arabi charged the Khedive with treachery.

“The Khedive is close to the British,” Arabi said in an address to the people on July 25, 1882, “and whatever he says is in the interests of the British. The Khedive is sacrificing the interests of his country and the people.... As for us, we shall not abandon the people as long as we are alive.”

Without further delay, Arabi set about organising the defence. Thousands of peasants and urban dwellers volunteered for the army. The fellaheen donated their meagre savings with the utmost willingness, enabling Arabi to purchase enough arms to supply all the volunteers. By autumn Arabi expected to have at least 100,000 trained men under arms.

New organs of revolutionary power, the Emergency Council and the Military Council, were formed in Cairo in place of the government of Ragheb Pasha, which had remained at Alexandria and which the wataneun had declared a traitor government. The Military Council was composed of wataneun generals and officers. The Emergency Council was made up partly of wataneun and partly of the Ulema, sheikhs and notables who had remained in Cairo. The latter continued to vacillate between Arabi and the Khedive. Some of them later fled to Alexandria while others remained in Cairo, demoralising the rear of the national army. Arabi applied revolutionary terror to the traitors. Approximately 1,000 Cairo notables who were shown to have connections with the Khedive’s secret service were arrested.

The outbreak of hostilities in Egypt displeased the Powers. As a sign of protest, Russia recalled her delegates from the Constantinople Conference. Germany and Austria granted Britain freedom of action provided she acted at her own risk and not on instructions from Europe. There was a divergence of views in France. Gambetta, the advocate of French colonial expansion in Africa, insisted on joint intervention with Britain. Clemenceau, who considered preparations for revenge against Germany to be the primary aim of French foreign policy, was against participating in the Egyptian adventure. De Freycinet took an intermediary stand. His proposal was to despatch French troops to Egypt, but to limit their duty to the “protection” of the Suez Canal. The Chamber of Deputies, however, refused to vote credits for a campaign against Egypt and, on July 29, 1882, de Freycinet resigned. Duclerc, who succeeded de Freycinet as Prime Minister, shared Clemenceau’s objection to France’s interference in the Egyptian Question and virtually granted Britain freedom of action.

To hamper British intervention in Egypt, however, the Powers who had attended the Constantinople Conference decided to organise a Turkish intervention. As early as July 6, 1882, they had suggested to the Sultan that he des-patch troops to Egypt under certain conditions (preservation of the status quo, non-interference in Egypt’s internal affairs and restriction of the period of occupation to three months). On July 20, the Sultan consented to these conditions and despatched his representatives to the international conference. On July 26, Turkey announced her readiness to send troops to Egypt. Britain replied that while she accepted Turkey’s co-operation, she would continue the operations she had already begun. Actually, Britain did everything in her power to avoid “Turkey’s co-operation.” Lord Dufferin, British Ambassador to Constantinople, dragged out the talks on an Anglo-Turkish Military Convention for a month and a half, proposing one set of terms after another. Only on September 13, 1882, the day of the battle at Tel-El-Kebir, which ended in the victory of the British and their occupation of Cairo, did Granville (the British Foreign Secretary), allow Dufferin to sign the Anglo-Turkish Military Convention. Later, however, he telegraphed to Lord Dufferin that he “presumed that, the emergency having passed, His Majesty and Sultan would not now consider it necessary to send troops to Egypt.” [L. Cromer, op cit., p. 320.] The Anglo-Turkish talks were broken off and the Turkish intervention did not take place.

A month before this, the Powers, convinced that the Constantinople Conference was powerless to prevent British intervention in Egypt and therefore useless, decided to close it on August 14, 1882. British diplomacy thereby managed to ensure that the intervention was effected only by British troops and that they alone occupied Egypt.

What happened on the military side? The British could attack Egypt from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea in the north or from the direction of the Suez Canal in the east. The northern route was blocked by swamps and in the passages between the swamps Arabi had set up strong de-fences. A British attempt to break through at Kafr Ed-Dawar (near Alexandria) ended in failure.

The situation was less favourable as far as the defence of Egypt’s eastern boundaries was concerned. True, the British forces would have had to disembark at the Suez Canal Zone, and this would have violated the principle of the canal’s neutrality adopted by the Powers and Turkey. More-over, the British would have had to cross the desert. But the Egyptians had amassed their best troops in the Delta. To protect the right flank of the Egyptian army, the chief of staff, engineer Mahmud Fahmi, proposed putting the Suez Canal out of operation and closing the fresh-water canal. These two measures would have secured Egypt’s eastern boundaries and would have made it possible for the Egyptians to hold out against the enemy for a long time. Ferdinand de Lesseps, however, the Suez Canal’s chief engineer, objected to Mahmud Fahmi’s plan. Anxious to maintain the Company’s high dividends, he insisted that the canal should function regularly. He gave his word of honour to Arabi not to permit the landing of British troops in the Canal Zone, and Arabi, trusting de Lesseps, rescinded the measures which Mahmud Fahmi had contemplated. By so doing, Arabi committed a grave military and political mistake.

Wolseley had, in fact, decided to attack from the east, thus outflanking the Mediterranean line of the Egyptian fortifications. On August 2, the British occupied Suez without firing a single shot. Early in August, they provoked an engagement near Alexandria to deceive Arabi as to the direction of the main attack. Despite de Lesseps’ assurances, on August 20, the British landed their troops at Port-Said and Ismailia. The Nile valley was thus exposed in the east, where the worst units of the Egyptian army stood guard. Most of these were poorly trained recruits and Bedouin irregulars. By the time the British offensive began, the Bedouin army had already been corrupted by Sultan Pasha, who, on the instructions of the British, had penetrated into the Bedouin regions and bribed a number of sheikhs.

For three weeks the British prepared for the decisive engagement. On September 13, 1882, after a night’s march, they unexpectedly attacked the Egyptian positions near Tel-El-Kebir. It was all over in a matter of twenty or thirty minutes. The Bedouins took to their heels without offering any serious resistance. Arabi rushed to the battlefield to rally the fleeing troops and appealed to the Bedouins to continue fighting. The Bedouin sheikhs, however, only flung stones at him.

Realising that further persuasion was useless, Arabi immediately left for Cairo, where, at a session of the Emergency Council, he insisted on continuing the struggle and fortifying Cairo without delay. He was backed by Abd el-Al, Abdullah Nedim and Mahmud Sarni, who suggested flooding the region around Cairo. The landowners in the Emergency Council, however, voted in favour of surrender and Arabi committed his second mistake by giving in to the Council’s decision. The Egyptian national army, whose best units were deployed in the north, was still intact. The enemy had occupied only Alexandria and the Suez Canal Zone; the remainder of Egypt’s territory was still in Egyptian hands. Resistance was possible, but none was offered. The Egyptian army was defeated not by British arms, but by the treachery of the Bedouin sheikhs and the Cairo Notables as well as by the vacillation of Arabi Pasha himself, who at a critical moment had not dared to assume dictatorial powers and had failed to dissolve the Emergency Council, which had defected to the enemy.


In the evening of September 14, the Anglo-Indian cavalry approached Cairo and Arabi surrendered to the British. The troops at Kafr Ed-Dawar, Aboukir and Damietta also lay down their arms. On September 24, 1882, Khedive Tewlik and his “ministers” arrived in the capital. The imprisoned counter-revolutionaries were released and the reactionaries celebrated their victory.

The conquerors disarmed and disbanded the Egyptian army. Punitive detachments were thrown against the units that continued to resist. An indemnity of £9,000,000 was imposed on the Egyptian people. A special commission under Lord Dufferin, the British Ambassador to Istanbul, arrived in Cairo to supervise the reprisals against those who had taken part in the struggle for independence. In December 1882, Arabi and his associates were sentenced to death but, realising that Arabi’s execution might entail a fresh uprising, Dufferin commuted the sentence to perpetual exile to Ceylon. Six leaders of the rebellion were exiled along with Arabi. Scores of wataneun fled from Egypt. Many of the rebels were treated as criminals by the British and tortured by British interrogators. Court-martials sentenced some of them to death and exiled others to remote oases.

In his report Lord Dufferin wrote that what the enslaved people needed was an iron hand, not a constitutional regime. In accordance with this principle Lord Dufferin established a regime of colonial despotism and arbitrary rule in Egypt. Major Baring (Lord Cromer), whom the British appointed absolute ruler of Egypt in 1883, was a worthy representative of this regime.