Britain’s war with Egypt in 1882 was short-lived but had an important impact on the country’s history. The war began with a naval bombardment of Alexandria in July and effectively ended after Egyptian troops fled from the advancing British at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, allowing the British to capture capital city Cairo in September. After the war, Britain maintained a permanent military presence in Egypt and, in 1914, made the country a British protectorate. Egypt would not gain full independence from Britain until 1952.
Control of the Suez Canal
Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal created a crucial transportation corridor linking the United Kingdom with its possessions further east. The canal halved the journey time between Britain and India, because ships no longer had to circumnavigate the entire African continent. However, the 100-mile length of the canal made it vulnerable to sabotage; one speaker at a British Parliament debate in 1882 noted that canal traffic could be stopped for up to a year by “barges, by one large torpedo, by dynamite, or powder.” Britain needed to maintain control of the canal to ensure it was kept open.
Protecting British Investments
Both the British and their European neighbors the French had made considerable investments in Egypt in the years prior to 1882. Chief among these was the canal itself; French investors maintained a majority shareholding but the British had purchased 45 percent of shares in the canal in 1875 from Egyptian leader Khedive Ismail Pasha. In addition to the canal, the British and French had invested in Egyptian railways, cotton plantations and irrigation.
The link with India via the Suez Canal was so important to the British Empire that the government had to consider it as part of its Imperial strategy. The European powers were rivals for territory in Africa and although Britain had no specific intention to conquer Egypt, it could not let its European rival France gain control of the area, argues historian A. G. Hopkins of the University of Texas.
Stopping Egyptian Nationalism
By 1879 Egypt was virtually bankrupt, leading its ruler, Khedive Pasha, to allow greater Anglo-French involvement in his country’s government in exchange for finance. Upset by what they saw as foreign interference, Egyptian nationalists found a leader in army officer Col. Urabi Pasha, who helped depose the Khedive. Pasha became Minister of War in 1882 and gained popularity with his slogan “Egypt for Egyptians.” Threatened by Pasha, the new Khedive Tawfiq asked the British and French to intervene in 1882, a request which brought war to Egypt.
- The National Archives: British Battles, Egypt 1882, The Egypt War of 1882
- The National Archives: British Battles, Egypt 1882, The Bombardment of Alexandria
- The National Archives: British Battles, Egypt 1882, The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir
- The National Archives: British Battles, Egypt 1882, Aftermath
- CIA World Factbook: Egypt
- Suez Canal Authority: Canal History
- BBC World Service: The Story of Africa, Egypt and Sudan
- UK Parliament: Hansard, House of Commons Debates June 26, 1882, Egypt – The Suez Canal
- “The Victorians and Africa”; Journal of African History; A. G. Hopkins Ph.D
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Urabi Pasha
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images