18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

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