For centuries of its history, Egypt was plagued by imperialist powers competing to secure advantage. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded in 1798, hoping to strategically gain control over British India. After the British defeated the French, Egypt remained an autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled it since the 6th century. Under the Albanian Ottoman governor Muhammad Ali (1805 to 1848) Egypt was modernised along western lines, with a French-style military and the French language attaining an esteemed status.
From the 1850s on, western interest in ancient Egypt boomed, with ambitious excavation projects competing to unearth antiquities to show off back home. Meanwhile, the British also increased their presence in the country to maintain an overland trade route to India. They built the Cairo-Alexandria railway and developed irrigation projects to boost cotton production and exportation. French investors financed the construction of the Suez Canal (1869), which connected the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
Egypt benefitted minimally from all this. Under British pressure, it had adopted free trade, dismantling state-owned businesses and relying on external debt. A financial crisis in 1875 forced Egypt to sell its shares in the Suez Canal Company to Britain. Resentment led to an Egyptian nationalist revolt and the Anglo-Egyptian war, which Britain won. In 1882, a protectorate was established that meant Egypt was essentially occupied by Britain.
In 1919, another anti-colonial uprising appeared to force the British to concede, and on 28 February 1922 an independent kingdom of Egypt was declared under King Fuad. However, nothing actually changed. By 1936, when a teenage King Farouk took over, British influence dominated in political and administrative life; they retained control of the Suez Canal Zone, the Egyptian police forces, the army, the railways and communications.
A NATIONAL HERO
Britain did not withdraw all its troops until the 1950s! In 1952, a revolution ousted King Farouk and established the Republic of Egypt. Then, in 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, frustrated by the lingering presence of colonial powers in the country, nationalised the Suez Canal Company, which was still a British-French enterprise. Shocked, Britain and France teamed up with Israel to retaliate. It took political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations to convince all three not to attack. The resolution of the Suez Crisis was marked as a great victory for Egypt, with Nasser hailed as a hero. Finally, the imperial powers that had humiliated Egypt for centuries had got a taste of their own medicine.
More than a third of the Egyptian antiquities in the British museum arrived between 1882 and 1956. Possibly the most eye-catching artefact in London, however, was too big to fit there. Cleopatra’s Needle is a 21-metre-high, 180-tonne obelisk carved from a single block of granite. Dating to 1450 BC, it was initially located in Heliopolis (Cairo) and moved to Alexandria in 12 BC. In the 19th century it was towed to Britain in an enormous iron cylinder named ‘Cleopatra’. Nearly lost in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, it landed in England on 21 January 1878, where it still stands in the City of Westminster near Embankment tube station. You can spot another in New York City’s Central Park. Called ‘the Obelix’, this ancient monument arrived by container ship in 1880 and was a gift in exchange for the US remaining neutral, as France and Britain competed to secure political control of the Egyptian government.