Early Egypt

The Egypt into which Gamal Abdul Nasser was born was at its base an old and stable society. The recorded history of the country goes back 5000 years to the first known pharaohs; and though for 2000 years there had been waves of invaders bringing one foreign ruler after another, for most of the peasants (the fellahin) life continued much as it had for centuries, regulated as much by the Nile and the miracle of its annual flood, as by successive new masters.

The origins of Pharaonic Egypt are of course older than that and derive from the fact that Egypt is "the gift of the Nile". From Wadi Haifa in the south to the Mediterranean in the north, local communities developed settled agriculture along the Nile and in its fertile delta. Hemmed in by the vast Libyan and Arabian deserts to west and east, there was little room to expand, and densely populated stable communities developed in a fertile environment that encouraged political organisation and the emergence of a new level of civilisation. It culminated in 3000 BCE in the unification by Menes of upper and lower Egypt and the flowering of one of the world's greatest and longest-lived civilisations.

Though Egypt was later to be ruled for centuries by a variety of outsiders, the sense of an Egyptian identity and the grandeur of the past were never entirely forgotten. Much of the archaeological treasure house decayed, but its sheer scale, coupled with the preserving qualities of the warm dry climate, ensured that a consciousness survived, however much overlain by later political and cultural changes.


It was the many and varied invaders who did much to overlay that consciousness in complex and competing ways. In the later pharaonic centuries Egypt found itself sacked several times by Libyans, Ethiopians, Persians and Assyrians, before being conquered by the Greeks under Alexander in 332 BCE. During his rule the great Mediterranean city of Alexandria was established. The Greeks were followed in 30 BCE by the arrival of Roman and later Byzantine rulers who were to survive until 638 CE. In Western minds the period is associated with the saga of Antony and Cleopatra, but for ordinary Egyptians at the time, one of the greatest legacies was the introduction of Christianity which came to replace the worship of the river and a panoply of associated gods that had characterized the religious life of the pharaonic age. However, the indigenous church that developed in Egypt was that of the Copts, with their own monophysite doctrine which was deemed heretical by the Byzantine rulers.

Byzantine rule became increasingly unpopular with the people, both because of the division on Christianity, and the high levels of taxation exacted. In the seventh century in the Arabian deserts to the east a new message, that of Islam, arose and went out northwards before turning to the west into north Africa. It was only a relatively small Arab army that arrived in Egypt in AD 639, but it was welcomed by many Egyptians anxious to see the overthrow of the unpopular Byzantine rulers. The arrival of Islam and the Arabic language was to mark another of the great turning points in the history of Egypt, and their absorption by Egyptian society went on over a long period, being generally a peaceful and incremental process. Though Arabs did emigrate to Egypt, the large majority of the population was unchanged, and indeed a significant minority of some 10 per cent remained committed Copts.

Arab Rule

Arab rule, like that of the preceding conquerors, meant involvement in the wider fortunes of empires and dynasties around the Mediterranean. The Ummayads, a dynasty based in Damascus, seized Egypt in 658, but held it only until 750. During that period the great schism within Islam between Sunni and Shi'ite occurred, in which Egypt became associated with the former, as it has remained ever since.

The Ummayads were followed by the Abbassids who sent a series of governors of Turkish origin from their capital in Baghdad. In practice the governors of Egypt were to become effectively autonomous, and Ibn Tulun in particular sought this freedom, bequeathing a new capital al-Qahira (Cairo) at the centre of which was a vast mosque capable of housing his army. After Ibn Tulun's death there was a period of confusion and decay before a new conquest by the Fatimids from north-west Africa in 969. During the brilliant period of the Fatimids the university mosque of Al-Azhar, the oldest surviving university in the world, was built. It was to become the major centre of learning in the Islamic world, and to provide a source of authority for successive rulers of Egypt.

The period of growth under the Fatimids, outside as well as inside Egypt, was checked with the coming of the Crusaders from Europe. In response the Syrian-based Seljuk dynasty fought back, especially through the exploits of the Kurd Salah al-Din (Saladin as he became known in the West) who himself took Egypt establishing his own Ayyubid dynasty in 1171. Securing himself in the newly built citadel on a hill overlooking the Faunlid city, Salah al-Din also launched his army once more against the Crusaders driving them from Jerusalem in 1178. Under the Ayyubids there was also to be another major development, the raising of a mercenary army of Turkish slave soldiers to protect the rulers. Known as mamluks (an Arabic term meaning "owned") this army raised in the slave markets of the Caucasus and beyond, took over power in 1250 CE at a time of Mongol threat from the east. The mamluks were Turkish-speaking and from their number arose successive sultans to rule Egypt. To protect themselves mamluks returned to their slave markets of origin to purchase boys who were then reared in existing mamluk households creating an isolated military caste to rule Egypt. Land was parcelled out to major mamluks to enrich themselves and this unusual form of alien rule perpetuated itself for several centuries. While militarily strong and able to protect themselves from threat both from without and within Egypt, the mamluks were inefficient rulers, and, though they left some magnificent architecture, by the later thirteenth century there was a series of revolts, plagues and famines.

Ottoman Empire

This weakness left Egypt an easy prey for the rising Ottoman empire that seized the country in 1517, making it then a province of Istanbul and that loosely structured empire that was to dominate the Middle East until 1918. But in practice the new Ottoman rulers worked well with the Circassian mamluks with whom they shared a common linguistic and cultural background. In fact, once taxes had been paid to Istanbul, Egypt was largely left to itself to be governed - and increasingly misgoverned - by an Ottoman/mamluk military oligarchy. Cut off from the mass of the people by race and language, the rulers also became increasingly acquisitive in terms of land. Some peasants effectively found themselves forced to become landless agricultural labourers on the estates the Ottomans and mamluks carved out for themselves, or even forced into the cities. Under this alien system the conditions of the Arab Muslim masses became ever harsher. And with the hardship and suffering went a slow but real decline in Egypt. At the time of the Arab invasion in 639 CE the population has been estimated at between 20 and 30 million, but when Napoleon invaded the decaying Ottoman Egypt in 1798 CE it had been reduced to some two and a half million.

European Influences

The arrival of the French was to usher in a new era. Egypt was to become shaped and then dominated by European developments of both a political and economic character. Both themes were present in Napoleon's invasion for he hoped to strike a blow against Britain's control of India by cutting the short overland route across the Isthmus from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and also to develop new trading opportunities for France in the eastern Mediterranean. The mamluks came out to meet him in battle, but their colourful medieval cavalry was no match for the modern firepower and discipline of the army of France which won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon then climbed a pyramid to tell his triumphant forces that "From these monuments forty centuries look down upon you". Napoleon, however, was given little time to enjoy his victory. A British fleet under Nelson sailed up to defeat his own ships at the Battle of the Nile; and with bad news from Paris as well. Napoleon slipped away in 1799. Two years later the remaining French troops were confronted by a Turkish-British land force and agreed to be shipped home, to be followed voluntarily by the British.

Perhaps the outstanding legacy of Napoleon's invasion lay with the bevy of experts he had brought with him who created the "Institute d'Egypte" producing numerous volumes that were to launch Egyptology in the Western academic world and, in time, to remind educated Egyptians of former glories.

Mohamed Ali

The departure of French and British forces left something of a vacuum, which was swiftly filled by another Circassian alien, Mohamed Ali, a wily ambitious Albanian soldier of fortune who had landed with the Ottoman force. Backed by Albanian regiments he manoeuvred skilfully in the struggles between Turks and mamluks and after imprisoning the Turkish governor in 1805, persuaded Istanbul to recognise him as Egypt's sultan. Then, in 1811, he cruelly disposed of the remaining senior mamluks, massacring them after entertaining them to a feast in the citadel.

Mohamed Ali was a ruthless figure who realised that to exploit his effective autonomy as ruler of Egypt, in the face of the growing power of Europe in particular, he would have to modernize his country. Firstly, he needed to reform the army, and to this end he imported first Italian and later French experts. Europeans and Turks were also engaged as officers, though later a new military college produced some Egyptian officers from better-off families. The peasants were only to serve as conscripts, an unpopular exercise that was to prove a continuing weakness of Mohamed Ali's army. Secondly, educational reforms along Western lines produced not only military officers, but also professionals such as doctors, engineers, and translators. Thirdly, he encouraged health improvements in an effort to raise the standards of hygiene and sought to contain the sweeping epidemics that intermittently tore through the population. Fourthly, Mohamed Ali set out to modernize the Egyptian economy. The state improved irrigation, and organized the growing and exporting of crops (such as cotton, indigo and sugar) for the European market. Land was parcelled out to Mohamed Ali's family and associates and a new, largely Turkish-oriented, class of landowners developed in time, profiting from the growing ties with Europe. Factories were also started, primarily to meet military requirements; but while export crops, especially cotton, were to expand unchecked, competition from European manufacturers, permitted under the Ottoman capitulations, was to undermine this nascent attempt at industrialisation.

Mohamed Ali's aims were not just to protect Egypt but to make her an expansionist power in the Eastern Mediterranean. He successfully invaded Sudan to the south in 1820, making it effectively a colony, and in some eyes even a part of Egypt. In 1831 and 1833 he went so far as to attack the Turks, until Britain and Russia intervened to protect the Ottoman empire from disintegration. After that, age got the better of him, and both he and his efforts to modernize Egypt languished.

Mohamed Ali had both established the last of the numerous alien dynasties to rule Egypt and begun to lay the groundwork for a modern state on European lines. But his immediate successors, following his death in 1849, made less impression, though the growing French influence in the country did lead to the granting of the concession in 1856 to Ferdinand de Lesseps to build the Suez Canal. It was not until Ismail became Sultan in 1863 (soon changed to Khedive) that there was another major drive towards modernization, including an attempt to make Cairo the Paris of the East. But the effort proved exhausting for Egypt and by 1875 the country was heading for bankruptcy. This provided the opportunity for Britain's prime minister, Disraeli, to make a swift purchase of Egypt's shares in the canal. A year later the Egyptian economy was effectively in hock, and French and British “advisers” were running the Caisse de la Dette Publique to sort it all out. In 1879, following attempted trickery by Ismail, Britain intervened with Istanbul to have him thrown out in favour of his son, Tewfik.

Britain's Control

The circumstances that led to Britain's growing intervention were also provoking a response among Egyptians. The nineteenth-century impact of Europe on the Middle East was giving rise to critics in the Islamic world. Jamal al-Afghani had travelled widely encouraging religious reform and ideas of liberal constitutionalism, which even had a brief effect on Khedive Tewfik. At the same time Egyptian intellectuals, many of whom were products of the educational links with Europe, were developing ideas of secular nationalism. Meanwhile the financial problems of the country were leading to shortages and arrears of pay in the public services, including the army, peasants were being heavily taxed and harvests were poor. It all culminated in a rebellion during 1881-82, led by a nationalistic army officer, Colonel Ahmed Arabi. While France hesitated, Britain acted decisively by sending an army to crush Arabi's men at Tel-el-Kebir in 1882, and imposing what was to be in all but name the British occupation of Egypt.

British domination of Egypt was set up by Sir Evelyn Baring (soon to be Lord Cromer and known to his subordinates as “the Lord”). Though the Khedive was to remain, and would name a Cabinet of Egyptian ministers, all had to obey the directives of Cromer and the other British advisers appointed to reform Egypt. The first concern was the stabilisation of the country's finances. Irrigation was improved, including the building in 1902 of the first dam at Aswan, while the economy was pushed ever more towards the “monocrop” culture of cotton, primarily for export to British textile mills in Lancashire. There was also reform in many areas of the state, including the rebuilding of the Egyptian army. While there were improvements in standard in a number of areas, Britain's control emphasised the distance between rulers and ruled. Formally the rulers were the Khedive and his ministers, mainly Turco- Circassian in origin, but behind them lay the real power of even more alien masters, the British under what had become known as the “veiled protectorate”. In time this led to resentment, especially among the growing educated group, who felt the arrogance of the British most directly. To make matters worse the British government repeatedly announced that it would be pulling out of Egypt once the country was on a “sound” footing. Yet in practice the British seemed to dig in ever deeper. As a result, by the early 1900s, a nationalist undercurrent was developing led by a charismatic young man, Mustafa Kamil, and though there were strikes and demonstrations (which were to become a regular feature of Egyptian political life), Britain remained as unmoved, aloof and arrogant as ever.

The “veil” was lifted from British domination and a protectorate proclaimed with the coming of the First World War in 1914. Legally Egypt had been Ottoman, and since the Ottoman Empire was siding with Germany, Britain was at war with Turkey and hence required to annex Egypt formally. During the conflict Egypt became a vast transit camp as thousands of Allied troops poured through, moving between Asia, the Antipodes and Europe. It was also a base for the campaigns first in Gallipoli and later in Palestine. Such disruption and the effects it had on the life and economy of Egypt fuelled resentment against British domination. The principle of self-determination enunciated by America's President Woodrow Wilson as the basis for the peace conference in Paris in 1918, led to the request of senior Egyptians led by Sa'ad Zaghlul that a Wafd (delegation) be sent to represent Egypt. Zaghlul was of peasant background and was a charismatic figure with great appeal to the public, among whom he was popularly known as “al zaim”, the leader. As a result, when Britain refused the request for the Wafd to go to Paris a wave of nationalist demonstrations convulsed Egypt and lasted for much of 1919. Zaghlul and his colleagues had been deported to Malta, but Britain was forced to allow them to go to Paris, though not as negotiators. Britain, though, was still prepared to offer little, for she saw Egypt as a vital strategic position in the post-war world, and agitation broke out once more, with Zaghlul again exiled. In a desperate attempt to meet Egyptian demands and British interest, Britain's new High Commissioner, Lord Allenby, announced in 1922 the ending of the Protectorate and the “independence” of Egypt. Britain however would retain control of certain reserved subjects: Egypt's defence, including the retention of British bases; imperial communications, especially the Suez Canal; the protection of foreign interests in Egypt; and the Sudan, the route of the Nile waters.

"Controlled" Independence

Such “controlled” independence fitted the general pattern of the thinking of the victorious European powers about the post-war Middle East. Having propped up the Ottoman empire for the latter part of the nineteenth century, Britain and France now set about dismantling it. While Egypt might be sufficiently advanced for a liberal democratic experiment, other states in the region were certainly not. Instead, Britain presided over the shaping of new states and elevated local leaders, such as religious or tribal chiefs into monarchs. Having seen the possibility of Arab national unity advanced during the war dashed, the Hashemite family of Sherif Abdullah of Mecca was now encouraged by Britain to provide kings for new states in Jordan and Iraq. And while Britain accepted the rise of Ibn Saud in the new country of Saudi Arabia, it also kept faith with the tiny emirates along the western flank of Arabia from Kuwait to Oman, over which it had exercised protection for more than a hundred years. Meanwhile Palestine became a directly administered British mandate, while the French imposed themselves in Syria and Lebanon, and the Italians in Cyrenaica (Libya). Dreams of Arab nationalism raised by the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War, and then encouraged by Britain by T.E. Lawrence, had thus been turned instead into the reality of separate states, clearly supervised by the two major European victors.

European overlordship, however, was to prove incompatible with the notions of Arab nationalism that had been growing since the end of the nineteenth century; and it was no surprise that this would become apparent first in the most advanced country in the region, Egypt. Egypt's independence had been a unilateral declaration by Britain; and the reservations imposed were to become a running sore in the relations between the two countries. There were repeated attempts to negotiate a more satisfactory agreement, but these foundered in 1924, 1926 and 1929 on the inability to match the aspirations of Egypt for full independence with Britain's perception of the requirements needed to protect her interests. At the same time as Egyptians were frustrated by the reservations, so the internal political arrangements proved unsatisfactory as well. In theory Egypt was embarking on a constitutional liberal democracy, but practice proved something less. The king, Fuad, was an autocratic character determined to exercise power in his own right, and since he had been installed by the British it was felt by Egyptians that Britain effectively underwrote his position. There was an elected parliament in which the Wafd was now the country's leading party and which Zaghlul, who was opposed to Fuad, dominated until his death in 1927. But government needed the acceptance of the king, and in practice the support of the British Residency, making political life a triangular struggle that did little to make the ordinary Egyptian feel that he counted, let alone had a part to play. By the early 1930s scepticism with liberal democracy was widespread. With the popular Zaghlul dead it seemed as if the British, the king and the old landed ruling class retained power and were becoming more autocratic, negating the nationalist upsurge of 1919-22. Meanwhile, the economy and society, having been drawn ever more tightly into the world economy by the concentration on cotton, were vulnerable to its widening swings which in 1929 culminated in the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Depression. Such was the disturbed world in which the young impressionable Nasser was to take his first steps in politics in the 1930s. All of this history would be important in the changes that would define the "new" nation of Egypt.