04 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 1 – the British Protectorate

The current pro-democracy protests in Egypt have put the country at the top of world news reports. For the benefit of readers who know next to nothing about this populous country, I present this brief history.

British commercial penetration of Egypt was followed by British political dominance and military occupation in the late 19th century. Egypt was never formally incorporated into the British Empire, retaining its own hereditary ruler (a Khedive, later a King) and government, but ultimate power lay with the British High Commissioner. Britain's main interest in Egypt stemmed from a desire to protect the Suez Canal, a vital link to India.

British indirect rule situation persisted well into the 20th century, despite a rise in Egyptian nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, Britain withdrew its military forces from most of Egypt, remaining only in vicinity of the Canal. The assumption was that the country would remain a firm British ally.

The British period saw the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's longest lasting and most influential Islamist movement. The Muslim Brothers staged a sometimes violent campaign against the monarchy and the British occupation, both of which responded in kind.

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