“Where Is Egypt Leading Them?”

July 8, 1882

Thomas Nast

“Where Is Egypt Leading Them?”

Colonialism/Imperialism; Symbols, John Bull;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Africa; Egypt; France; Great Britain;

"Go slow, young man, please."

For centuries Egypt was dominated by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, but beginning in the late-eighteenth century and lasting much of the nineteenth century, the French and British vied for control of the once mighty nation of Ramses II and Cleopatra.  Cartoonist Thomas Nast recognizes that recent riots by Egyptian nationalists against British and French intervention threatened to escalate into all-out war.

In 1798, Napoleon attempted to conquer Egypt as a staging area for interrupting Britain's trade and expansion in India, as well as a bargaining chip in possible negotiations.  However, the British navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson sank the French fleet in late July, the Ottomans declared war on France in early September, and an Egyptian revolt in Cairo was suppressed in late October.  In February 1799, Napoleon's invasion of Ottoman Syria failed, prompting him to return to France in August, defeated but claiming victory.  Negotiations between the French and Ottomans over Egypt broke down and fighting resumed, with the Ottomans and British attaching the French in Egypt in 1801 and forcing them to surrender.  

The French occupation, though, had opened Egypt to European intervention after five centuries of isolation in the Ottoman Empire.  A significant byproduct of  the French scientific expedition was the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which proved to be the key to understanding the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The British withdrew from Egypt in 1803, and the Ottomans reasserted their influence by installing a viceroy and an army of occupation.  However, the Albanian contingent of the Ottoman army in Egypt revolted and appointed its own viceroy, who was soon assassinated.  His lieutenant, Muhammad Ali, assumed authority in Egypt in 1805.  Two years later, the British occupied Alexandria during the renewed war with France, but were soon driven out by Ali's army.  

In 1811-1813, at the request of the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, the forces of Muhammad Ali expelled rival Muslims from Hejaz (Arabia), and within a few years secured central Arabia under Egyptian control.  In 1820-1821, the Egyptians conquered northern Sudan, and the next year suppressed a revolt against Ottoman rule on the Mediterranean island of Crete.  The growing authority of Sultan Mahmud, though, prodded Muhammad Ali to invade Syria in 1831, resulting in the cession of Syrian provinces to Egyptian control in 1833.

Beginning in 1839, a series of military defeats, ill health, political struggles, and other factors eroded the authority of Muhammad Ali and his successors.  The Egyptian viceroys continued to proclaim loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, but resented attempts by the sultan to encroach upon their autonomy.  In the 1850s, Viceroy Abbas allowed the British to build a railroad from Alexandria to Cairo to Suez, while his successor, Sa'id, approved a French plan to construct a canal at Suez (opened in 1869), provoking opposition from the British and Ottomans.

The new Egyptian viceroy, Isma'il (1863-1879), officially took the title of khedive, and received the sultan's approval for succession to pass to his eldest son (rather than the eldest male, as was the Ottoman custom).  Isma'il expanded his authority southward and westward into Africa, encouraged by Europeans, especially the British, for reasons of humanitarianism (help end slavery) and economics (expand the lucrative ivory trade).   

After years of suffering from a poor economy, Egypt's massive debt problem became the focus of international concern.  In 1876, a commission of European powers placed Egypt's finances under the dual control of Britain and France.  Isma'il's resistance to the plan led Sultan Abdulhamid II to replace him in 1879 with Tawfiq, the khedive's eldest son.

Angered by the European intervention, a group of political and military Egyptian nationalists formed the National Party in 1881, fomenting an internal political struggle in Egypt and anxiety among the European powers.  In January 1882, Britain and France released a joint communiqué supporting the khedive against his Egyptian opponents.  On June 11, a few weeks before this cartoon appeared, rioting erupted when British and French fleets anchored in Alexandria.  The British bombarded the city, but the French refused to participate and soon withdrew.  An international conference broke down when the Ottomans refused to attend.  The British broke the stalemate by sending their army to the Suez Canal, defeating the Egyptian nationalists and occupying Cairo in mid-September 1882.  

For the next forty years, Egypt existed as part of the British Empire, with British troops occupying the land.  Egypt was granted independence in 1922 and became a kingdom, although authority over its foreign policy was reserved to the British government until General Gamel Nassar overthrew the king and established a nationalist government in the 1950s.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Where Is Egypt Leading Them?”
July 14, 2024

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