Modern History of Egypt


Modern History of Egypt

In this article, we shall discuss the more modern history of Egypt. We will primarily focus on modern Egyptian history from the late 1800s until post World War II. In this article, we will discuss Egypt during World War I, mention the history of the Wafd party and democratization, the history of British colonialism in Egypt, The Wafd Party in post-war Egypt, to the period of Gamal Abdel Nasser. We recommend you read our other articles for more discussion of the history of Egypt during Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak.

In order to understand more recent domestic politics and international relations of Egypt, it is imperative to know the modern history of Egypt, particular the roles of British colonialism, democratization movements, the role of the military, as well as political ideological movements such as Pan-Arabism or Arab nationalism. 

Egyptian History 

British Colonialism in Egyptian History

Prior to World War I, Egypt was in an interesting political state. While technically under the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was controlled by the British Empire (for a history of Egypt in the 1800s, see the discussion about Egypt, Governor Muhammad Ali and the Ottoman Empire). After purchasing a large stake of the Suez Canal, Britain sent their officials to Egypt to not only ensure the smooth operations of the canal, but also to make sure that Egypt was paying its debt to Britain (which was acquired years earlier). From this time period onwards, Britain used Egypt, and manipulated the political space so that their domestic and international interests would be protected.

Egyptian History After World War I

Following World War I, British worked to ensure that their interests in Egypt would not be lost. So, they exiled top political figures such as Sa’d Zaghlul and others who looked to make Egypt free from British imperialism. In addition, while they gave Egypt “independence,” it was in name only. In fact, looking at the modern history of Egypt, it becomes evident to see that the British government set up the country in a way that would continue to offer them political control. 

This can be seen with the declaration of independence in 1922, and then the 1923 Egyptian constitution. Looking at these events, it is evident that Britain had no serious interest of letting go of Egypt. In fact, it becomes evident that were many reasons as to why democracy did not work in Egypt in this time period. Cleveland & Bunton (2013) argue that there were four particular conditions that made a true independent, democratic movement unlikely. They write: “The first was the nature of the constitution. It awarded extensive powers to the king, including the right to appoint the prime minister and dissolve parliament, and so created an institutionally weak legislature. King Fuad (1917-1936) was determined to protect his royal prerogatives and did not hesitate to dismiss governments whenever it suited his purpose” (182). Second, in addition to the weakness of the constitution during this historical time period in Egypt, Cleveland and Bunton (2013) also point out that this constitution, nor the power of the king in any way mitigated the influence of Britain. Given their continued meddling in the politics, it is clear that calling Egypt independent would be highly inaccurate during this time. Along with these factors. 

Third, Cleveland & Bunton (2013) argue that “neither the Wafd nor any other of the smaller parties adopted the principles of compromise and respect for the opposition that are essential for the proper conduct of parliamentary government” (182-183). Namely, the Wafd leaders such as Zaghlul not only were not willing to compromise, but they viewed the other actors with hostility. He went so far as to put unqualified party members in many bureaucratic positions (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), which did little to help improve politics and overall conditions in Egypt. Fourth and finally, they argue that disagreements between these actors on the question of Egyptian independence made it difficult for true democratic to flourish. While the Wafd were unwilling to accept anything else than independence (at least in the early years of their party), the King was willing to keep the British  presence, as it would mean preserving his rule (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). Sadly, Egyptian democracy suffered as a result of these conditions. 

There was some hope in 1936 that Egyptians would be granted complete independence. Britain was willing to work with Egyptian leaders with regards to reforming the constitution. They were willing to do so, in part, because of Italian attempts at occupying Ethiopia. This new 1936 treaty, while reconfirming Britain’s position on “independence” of Egypt, still allowed the British government to be on the Suez Canal. Furthermore, they also got Egyptian leaders to agree that in case of an attack on Egypt, Britain could come to their military defense (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

The points of this document were quite similar to the 1922 agreement. However, as scholars point out, the difference here was that the 1936 agreement was backed by the Wafd party. Following the agreement, little changed in Egypt. The King continued to rule, and after the death of King Fuad, came King Faruq (in 1936) (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). The king still looked to maintain the relationship with Britain, and the Wafd were not seen as accepting British presence in Egypt. 

The Wafd party became even more viewed as a willing partner to Britain when, during the Second World War, was concerned about the level of commitment King Farouk had to their fight against Germany. In particular Britain distrusted Ali Mahir, who was the head of the Egyptian cabinet at that time. Having resigned from his post in 1942, there was a hope by the king that Mahir would be the premier. The issue with Mahir–to Britain–was that  Mahir was not only very close to the king, but that he was also a sympathizer with Germany and other Axis countries (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 188). Britain, worried about what their relationship might look like with Mahir holding the premiership, decided to install the Wafd into government with the king. They did so by having “British tanks and troops to surround the royal residence at Abdin Palace[,] [and then had the ambassador to Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson] prese[nt] King Faruq with an ultimatum: The king could invite the Wafd to form a government, or he could abdicate. Faruq chose to appoint a Wafdist cabinet” (188-189). While the Wafd finally got their way to govern, it was at the expense of their reputation in Egypt. 

Culture in the Modern History of Egypt

Not only was the political system a mess, but Egyptian citizens were becoming increasingly upset with the direction of the country, and how their political leaders were directing Egypt. The reason? Not only were the politics of the system guided towards British and elite interests, but “[t]he political leaders were further distanced from the population by their whole-hearted acceptance of European values and their attempts to impose them on Egyptian society” (183-184). Many of the political elites were advocating these values while ignoring internal Egyptian, Arab, and Islamic elements of culture and society. For example:

“For some of the interwar intellectuals and politicians, Egypt’s new path toward modernity required a reshaping of its cultural identity. In their eagerness to portray Egypt’s cultural legacy as deriving from the liberal tradition of Europe, writers like Taha Husayn (1889-1973), who held an advanced degree from the Sorbonne, downplayed the country’s Arab and Islamic heritage in favor of symbols culled from its Greek and pharaonic past. Thus the doctrine of pharaonism glorified the Nile River, the major symbol of Egyptian territorial nationalism, and the rich pre-Islamic civilization to which it had given birth” (184). However, this was far from the only case of minimizing Islamic culture, and instead emphasizing pre-Islamic Egyptian societies. Yet, following these continued challenges, many Egyptians were looking for someone, or some group, that was willing to speak up for the current cultural elements of Islam.

Understanding this, one can then better understand the rise of individual Islamic voices, as well as Islamic-based political organizations in Egypt.  One of the most important Islamic-based movements that arose out of the late 1920s conditions in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood not only spoke out against corruption and political abuses of power, but their messages were clearly built on ideas of Islam and Egyptian culture; they embraced these values, not turned from them. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was an individual by the name of Hassan Al-Bannah. Al-Bahhah believed that Islam would be the backbone of a health Egyptian society. And thus, instead of reducing Islam, he called for the application of Islamic law (Shariah), although it is important to note that he was not advocating a Salafi view of Islam that centered on emulating the exact conditions of life during the Prophet Muhammad (such movements did exist in parts of the Middle East and North Africa). Rather, Hassan Al-Bannah “argued…that the shari’ah was originally formulated to meet a specific historical circumstances and was thus a product of informed human reasoning. In al-Bannah’s view the restored shari’ah would be subject to interpretation and would hence be fully compatible with the needs of a modern society” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 185).

In fact, this importance of continuing to apply Islamic principles to societal problems continued to be a central comment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s position. In fact, their slogan was (and remains to be) “Islam is the Solution,” a stark contrast to early secular based movement in the history of modern Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to make it clear that to them, there was not only nothing wrong with the faith, but that it would be the faith as their foundational block that would improve the ills of Egyptian society in the late 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, onwards. 

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