Modern Egypt


Modern Egypt

The upheavals that Egypt will experience throughout the nineteenth century will open the Europe of the industrial revolution this country to economic and social structures still medieval, and will begin the long march towards the national sovereignty of a people colonized for nearly 2,000 years. Paradox of history, modern Egypt is born at the very moment when the French Jean-François Champollion, by deciphering the hieroglyphs, gives the floor again to the witnesses of his ancient glory.

Reign of Mehemet Ali

After the withdrawal of the French army in 1801, Mehemet-Ali (Muhammad 'Ali), Albanian captain engaged alongside the Turks in their fight against Bonaparte, has the Sublime Porte endorsed his nomination as Pasha of Egypt (1804) in exploiting the rivalry between the Turks and the Mamelukes, so it will not succeed until 1811 to annihilate definitively the old feudalism. If he considers Egypt as his personal fief (he attributes himself in particular an area of ​​400 000 hectares and the monopoly of the export of cotton and sugar cane), Mehemet Ali, relying on an administration completely redesigned and tightly controlled, is mainly concerned with the modernization of the country: it establishes schools, a health service, and develops the infrastructure (a new canal connects Alexandria to Cairo). It introduces new crops oriented towards the needs of the external market (cotton) and creates manufactures subject to state monopoly. In all these companies, he is initially supported by France, which provides technical assistance. But the hostility of the European powers, and especially of England, against its economic dirigisme forced him soon to lift the customs protections which had been so profitable to the internal trade, and to suppress the monopolies (London Convention en 1841).

His foreign policy is ambitious. Mehemet Ali dreams of reconstructing from Egypt a great Islamic empire. His reign is peppered with wars, in which his son and dauphin, Ibrahim Pasha, take a large part, and which will extend the Egyptian Empire from southern Sudan to the borders of Anatolia. After supporting the Sultan during the campaign of Greece (1823 to 1827), he threatened Constantinople and the entire Ottoman Empire by occupying Syria in 1831. The pressure of the European powers forced him to gradually abandon his conquests and to to fall back on Egypt and Sudan. In exchange, he will obtain the hereditary power over Egypt. He died in 1849.

Abbàs I and the inter-war period

Abbàs I, who succeeds him, destroys what was left of his grandfather's reforms (he returns the European technicians and closes the schools) and brings the country back to the path of Islamic tradition. He died in 1854. Sa'id (fourth son of Mehemet Ali) then came to power. It promotes the birth of a new class of big landowners by releasing land and embarks on a vast program of public works, foremost among which is the breakthrough of the Suez Canal. The works are entrusted to a universal company presided over by the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, to whom Egypt will at first furnish an abundant labor force composed of farmers who are fit for work. But the scale of the work puts Egypt at the mercy of its creditors. In 1874, during the reign of Ismail, she was forced to sell to England the shares she had subscribed in the Company, and the management of her finances would now be supervised by an organization controlled by the European powers. This trusteeship contributes to the awakening of nationalism (especially among intellectuals and the army), marked in 1878 by an uprising of the military led by Colonel Uribï. On the other hand, Egypt wrestles from its Turkish suzerain, during this period, a greater autonomy: Ismail received from the Sultan in 1867 the title of "khedive" (lord), which is equivalent to "sovereign", and is given in 1873 the entire administration of Egypt, which allows him to establish a parliamentary regime. But he must abdicate in 1879. The elections organized in 1881 will give victory to the nationalist party and 'Urabi will become Minister of War.

An armed revolt against foreign interference gave Great Britain in 1882 the opportunity to occupy the country militarily. Henceforth, Egypt, which is still part of the Ottoman Empire, becomes a de facto protectorate of the British Empire, a situation that will not be formalized until 1914. English "advisers" closely control the affairs of the country during the reign Khedive Tawfiq. Abbas II, who succeeded him in 1892, was deposed in 1914 for showing signs of independence, and was replaced by Hu-sayn Kamil. The construction of the Asyut and Aswan dams increases the cultivable area by half, and the English develop cotton cultivation for the needs of their textile industry. In 1884 the Mahdi revolt erupted in Sudan, which was only reduced in 1898 by Lord Kitchener. The latter, after a clash with France in Fachoda, establishes on this country an Anglo-Egyptian condominium.

The English occupation crystallized in Egypt the national movement, led by Mustafà Kāmil Pasha, founder of the Egyptian National Party. At the end of the First World War, which saw the Turks ally with the Germans, the Egyptians form a delegation (Wafd in Arabic), led by Sa'd Zarhlûl to negotiate independence with the High Commissioner British. But it was not until 1922 that England renounced the protectorate and recognized as sovereign state an Egypt definitively freed from Ottoman trusteeship. Fouad (Fu'ad I), who succeeded Husayn in 1917, declared himself "king of Egypt" and promulgated a Constitution granting legislative power to the Parliament. The British, however, maintained their military occupation under the pretext of protecting their nationals and to defend Egypt against foreign aggression.

The inter-war period will favor the emergence of a bourgeoisie made up of traders, landowners and representatives of the liberal professions, a large part of which supports the great nationalist party which has taken the name of wafd and holds the majority in the House. The WAFD fights for the total independence of the country and against the king who seeks to govern alone and, for this purpose, dissolves the House several times and suspends the Constitution from 1930 to 1935. By the Treaty of 26 August 1936 England grants Egypt total independence. King Farouk succeeds his father. Under the terms of the Montreux agreements, which abolish the preferential system of Capitulations enjoyed by foreigners, Egypt regains its financial independence. She joins the League of Nations. But the war of 1939-1945 allows the English to strengthen their presence in Egypt, until then limited to the Suez Canal area. Egypt will be the center of a famous episode of the conflict, the battle of EI-Alamein, which led in 1942 to the defeat of the German army of Rommel.

From 1936, popular discontent provoked by the economic slump encouraged the radicalization of national currents. Egypt is at the origin of the creation, on March 22, 1945, of the League of Arab States, whose motto is the Arab unity for a better fight against foreign interference and which sits in Cairo. In 1946, Egypt obtains the evacuation of British troops from its capital. But a war broke out in May 1948 between Egypt and the young State of Israel. The conflict ends with the defeat of the Arab armies. The internal situation then accumulates disorders and demonstrations, which culminate on January 26, 1952 with the burning of Cairo. King Farouk, the last representative of the Mehemet-Ali dynasty, was arrested on 23 July 1952 by General Neguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser on the charge of "free officers". The republic is proclaimed on June 18, 1953.


After a failed attempt a few months earlier, Nasser, Vice-President of the Council, removed Néguib from all his powers on 14 November 1954. A new Constitution was promulgated in January 1956. In June, Nasser became President of the Republic. The affirmation of Egypt passes by the definitive reconquest of the zone of the channel of Suez. After the evacuation of their military base by the British from August 1955, Nasser takes the pretext of the American refusal to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam to nationalize the canal on July 26, 1956. This is the beginning of the Suez crisis. After the advance of the Israeli troops in Sinai, France and Great Britain reoccupy Port Said and Is-maïlia despite the disavowal of the UN. He had to wait until December 22 for the two European powers to yield to pressure from the UN, which is setting up its forces on a line that goes from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The repercussions of the crisis are fatal for France and Great Britain, whose property in the Nile Valley is confiscated. The channel is rendered unusable for several months. Negotiations are open to compensate the Compagnie de Suez.

Nasser's foreign policy is moving towards a neutralist position. Handling a clever game of balance between the great powers, he seeks to increase his influence in the countries of the third world. In April 1955 he participated in the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference. Cairo is turning to Moscow for the construction of the Aswan Dam, which will be inaugurated in May 1964 in the presence of Khrushchev.

Egypt passes in a few years from liberalism to state control. In addition to recovering the property of foreigners and Egyptian capitalists, the new regime, organized around a single party (the Arab Socialist Union) will lead a policy of agrarian reform, schooling, industrialization and nationalization that promotes rise of a class of civil servants and military.

As a prelude to the many projects of bilateral union between Arab countries, Syria and Egypt created, on 1 February 1958, the United Arab Republic, chaired by Nasser. Although fragile, the new state inspires other federations between Iran and Jordan (13 February 1958), while Yemen forms with the R.A.U. the United Arab States. The major economic reforms and nationalization desired by Nasser must contribute to strengthening the political cohesion of the new state. The R.A.U. will soon experience dissension and economic difficulties. The power is very centralized for the benefit of Egypt, and Syria is reduced to the state of province. The R.A.U. finally collapsing following the Syrian secession on September 28, 1961. Faced with the Palestinian problem, the Arab states need to unite, but never achieve it altogether. On April 16, 1963, an Egyptian-Syrian-Iraqi federation project was signed which will remain a dead letter. Nasser also causes the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization during the Alexandria Summit (5-11 September 1964). The policy of Arab unity is however weakened by the clash between progressive countries and conservative countries.

These external gropings only reinforce Nasser's determination at the national level. Combining planning and statism, Nasser pursues his project of "scientific socialism", while integrating the specificity of the Islamic religion. Its "social democracy" benefits both city workers and peasants, but the bureaucratic system generates serious handicaps: shortage, inflation, deficit. A new blow hit the country in June 1967 with the "Six Day War". Egypt has heavy losses in men and equipment and must abandon Sinai to Israel. The Suez Canal, a line of shock between the two states, is again closed to traffic. Egypt nevertheless accepts, through diplomatic means, UN Resolution 242 providing for peace for Israel against the return to the Arabs of territories occupied since 1967.

Humiliated by the 1967 defeat, the Egyptian regime faces violent demonstrations of workers and students. It also suffers from the inertia of a bloated bureaucracy. The margin of political liberalization remains narrow. Nasser, very anxious to ensure the independence of his country, finally accepts the Rogers plan of June 1970, without this one manages to restore the peace. Dying on September 28, 1970 at the age of 52 from a heart attack, Nasser left a country indebted and tired by twenty years of war.

Anouar el-Sadate

It is the vice-president Anwar el-Sadate who succeeds to the deceased raïs. He was elected on October 15, 1970 with 90% of the vote. An old comrade in arms of Nasser, Sadat first appears as the man of transition and openness. The country still faces serious problems: speculation, rampant bureaucratisation, inequalities, inflation, black market, debt. Breaking with Nasser's policy, Sadat will orient his economic policy towards more liberalism and decentralization. Still dependent on the USSR, it is getting closer to the United States and conservative Arab countries. In 1972, he expels the Soviet advisers. At the national level, it initiated a democratization of political life by authorizing, under certain conditions, the creation of political parties alongside the Arab Socialist Union, hitherto the only party.

He gives his people confidence and pride: on October 6, 1973, Egyptian soldiers cross the Suez Canal and occupy Sinai. This is the "October war". The use of the embargo by the Arab countries forces the industrialized countries to realize the extent of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States offers its good offices to both States. After ceaseless shuttles, negotiations lead to the successful completion, on June 5, 1975, of the reopening of the canal, which inaugurated a long march towards peace. The United States, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords in September 1978, and on March 26, 1979, the two belligerents concluded a peace treaty. These agreements provoke a violent opposition from other Arab countries. The Union of Arab Republics, formed on 17 April 1971 with Syria and Libya, expels Egypt. In 1979, the headquarters of the League of Arab States is transferred to Tunis.

The regime gradually hardened and repressed, independently of Nasserist and progressive political personalities, the Coptic leaders as well as the Muslim fundamentalists. Sadat is assassinated on 6 October 1981, during a military parade, by a commando of fundamentalists of Jihad. He will not see the total evacuation of Sinai by Israel (April 1982). The Camp David Accords marked a turning point in the history of the Middle East. The importance of hydrocarbon reserves and the Palestinian problem made the Arab zone a major center of destabilization from the 1970s.

Hosni Moubarak

On October 13, 1981, Vice President Hosni Mubarak was elected to the presidency by referendum. Coming from the petty bourgeoisie, he had a military career. Mubarak assumes the legacy of his predecessor (continuity in the fight against the economic crisis and corruption) while relaxing and liberalizing the regime. Egypt has serious infrastructure and food dependency problems (partly caused by the economic openness imposed by the United States on Egypt at the time of Camp David), a rapid population growth (one million inhabitants in addition every year). On the diplomatic front, the Mubarak regime is trying to break out of its isolation by moving closer to other Arab states, while at the same time pursuing the policy defined at Camp David and normalizing its relations with the Soviet Union. Egypt hopes to find in the area a place of the highest order.

Inside, Mubarak releases many progressive and militant Islamic prisoners, reintegrates journalists and academics. On 12 February 1983, the Ethics Tribunal, created in 1980 by Sadat himself, condemned for corruption his own brother and three of his sons whose property was confiscated. Like many other Arab countries, Egypt suffers from the consequences of the personalization of power. Despite the purges, Sadatists still dominate the government party (National Democratic Party). Re-elected June 1, 1985 President of the Republic for six years, Mubarak must make concessions to the rise of Islamism, causing concern of the Coptic community. The charfa (Islamic law) becomes the main source of the law.

Egypt, which wanted to be "the leaven of the Arab nation", today in search of identity, is perhaps experiencing a new turning point in its troubled history.

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