The following essay is a review of D. McKenzie Wallace’s England and the Egyptian Question (1883). In transcribing this article, which gives a detailed defense of England’s occupation of Egypt in order to protect the Suez Canal and its route to India, I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable, if a bit rough, OCR text. I have indicated page breaks, integrated brief footnotes in the main text, create linked documents from longer notes, added additional paragraphing for easier reading on screen, and added maps and illustrations from contemporary periodicals. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow

IT is not worth while dissembling the fact that the tragic success of the false prophet has been the ugly means of preventing the English Government falling into a grave, an almost irreparable error. The order had been given for the return of three thousand of the British troops now in Egypt to this country. This order was the result of various causes. There are certain [366/367] European Powers that are jealous of our position in Egypt. There is a certain section of the Liberal party which believes that temporary occupation is apt to “evolve" into annexation, and who are particularly anxious to see the Government conforming its conduct to their ideas of policy. There are some, too, who think that the burden of supporting the army of occupation, which has been laid upon Egypt, is too heavy for the country. All these circumstances weighed with the Government, and the opinion of Sir Evelyn Wood, that the safety of the capital could be ensured with a smaller military establishment, no doubt bad influence in determining the Government to take a step, some part of the responsibility of which had been taken by our commanding officer in Egypt. The order, as every one knows, was given-— [116/117] foolishly given; for although we admit at once that possibly the three thousand men might have been a sufficient force to retain in Egypt, could that force at the same time have secured the safety of Cairo and of Alexandria, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that the contemplated withdrawal of the British flag from Cairo was a serious error. [Footnote: In this view we are at one with Mr. Mackenzie Wallace, who in a note Written after his work had gone to press, p. 506, states his views clearly and strongly. “So far as the moral effect on the population, on the ulemate, and on the native Government is concerned, the presence of a single battalion in the Cairo citadel is worth more than the presence of half a dozen regiments at Alexandria or Ramleh.”]

Left: Cairo. Lithograph by Hullmandel & Walton after a painting by Schrantz. From Romer’s Pilgrimmage to the Temples and Tombs of Egypt (1846). Right: The Environs of Cairo. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Governments are very often dependent for their power upon symbols. A look of power is often as efficacious as a blow. It may be true that while we held Alexandria we had our foot in the door-way, and prevented the door being shut against us; but our object ought to be not to secure a means of return to Egypt, in case of necessity, but to obviate the necessity of any return. “Stay a little that we may make an end the sooner,” is an apothegm of Bacon’s which is applicable to our duty in the Levant. The possession of the capital was to the native mind an indication of the power of Britain which was worth many displays of physical force. The withdrawal from the seat of government to the seaboard of the Mediterranean — or, a few months later, for that too seems to have been in contemplation, to Cyprus or Malta—would have been to the Egyptian mind a confession of weakness which, with Orientals, is almost an invitation to violence and aggression. It is for these reasons that we say that the events which have led the Government to countermand that order have been the means of extricating them from a difficulty into which their too scrupulous regards for the opinions and sensibilities of certain jealous Powers, and of a certain fanatical section of their supporters in the House of Commons, was about to precipitate them. The whole action of the Government in Egypt has, we think, been right, but it has been action which had the weakness of excuse in every fibre of it. “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument,” but the great argument goes too far if it unnerves the hand of action. The Government has, we think, always done right, but it has been at the point of the sword of circumstances. They have hung fire on most occasions, until it was almost too late. They have forgotten Napoleon’s maxim that “incidents ought to be governed by policy, not policy by incidents.” There is really some pith in the Tory criticisms of our hesitating action—a hesitation [117/118] 0which has gone far to mar the effect which it was the object of our policy to produce. However, the Government has, on the whole, prospered upon the policy of waiting on events. It was forced to take an active part in the settlement of the Egyptian question when important opportunities were being frittered away in conference, it has now been forced to continue its present hold upon the country by the events which have happened in the Soudan. We can now see with some certainty the good consequences of the first step which the Government took under the duress of incidents, and we can see how fatal further delay would have been to the whole fabric of our Eastern policy. We cannot but think that “luck” has again stood our statesmen’s friend and that time will show how foolish was the step which their feet were raised to take.

It may often be thought that it is a serious objection to Party Government that there is a danger that the necessary continuity of foreign policy may fail to be consistently preserved. Indeed, there is a temptation to a Ministry that has risen to power on the mistakes of its predecessors, and while the public mind is smarting with the stimulus of having administered deserved punishment, to reverse the policy of the Government which has fallen into popular disgrace in particulars quite unconnected with the party triumph; and it is probable that if this temptation were frequently acted upon by the party coming into power the institution of government by party would before very long fall into deserved contempt. The possibility that a Government could be seriously inconsistent to its own policy of the past in its actions of the present, when that past policy had not involved the Administration in failure, while the present was only slowly bearing the whole some fruit that was to be expected from such cultivation, is one which does not seem to have been seriously contemplated. If, however, we are to believe the current actions of the Government, if we are to credit the statements made on their behalf, that is the position that they seem anxious to occupy. A series of actions which have been forced upon them have made them masters of a situation the holding of which at the present time seems of paramount importance, and the Government propose to withdraw from the position. If they succeed in their endeavours they will, before many years have passed, cut one of the sorriest figures that ever a Ministry did in history. In the meantime, as we see, their action has been again happily frustrated; but as the events which have stayed their hand may soon leave them free to carry out their previous intention, it becomes a matter of great importance to inquire into the history of our policy in Egypt, that we may determine what our duties to the people of the country are, how our interests are affected by the condition of that [119/120] country, and what our policy in relation to the Egyptian question ought to be in the future.

As we have said, we understand that the motive for this purposed aberration on the part of her Majesty’s Ministers is that a section of the Liberal party disapprove of the action of the Government in the past, but is willing to let bygones be bygones if they will act upon its scruples in the present and withdraw the troops from Egypt. That section of the party is by no means the largest or most powerful; but it is a section that is gaining ground, and whose influence is more and more felt in the government of this country. It is asection, therefore, which it is well, if possible, to conciliate. The other strong reason for the Government “turning its back on itself,” as Sir Boyle Roach said, is, that it must have regard to the susceptibilities of Continental Powers, and especially to those of France. It is somewhat strange to have those occult influences—the morbid scruples of some extreme politicians, and the susceptibilities of our Continental neighbours—to consider in determining the probable action of our Government. These elements are worthy of consideration, but if they are to have such commanding weight now, they ought to have been called in to assist in the shaping of our policy sooner. We have, by our acts, pledged ourselves not to be influenced by the trivial fears of a wing of a Party, or the jealousies of a rival Power which finds out too late that it made an egregious mistake some eighteen months ago, and desires to recover the advantage out of the foolishness of a friend which it lost through its own vacillation and timidity. We are by our acts embarked on a policy, and these scruples and regards for the feelings of France come too late. If they were to be regarded they ought to have shut the mouths of the guns at Alexandria. They ought to have kept alive—what we are convinced was a serious evil—the Dual Control. We disregarded the voice of Sir Wilfrid Lawson when we went to war, we disregarded the susceptibilities of France when we put an end to that instrument of joint control and divided interest, and it is too late now to have our policy determined by any such trivial considerations.

We propose to show that the continued occupation of Egypt by an efficient force is at the present time absolutely necessary, and we are strengthened in the conviction which we desire to express by the belief that the opinion of the best authorities coincides with our own; and that the valid reasons which can be shown to exist for our being in Egypt at all are valid against a precipitate withdrawal from that country. So far as we have been able to ascertain, public opinion is against the Government, if their project is to withdraw the troops from Egypt at an early day. We are aware that it is an exceedingly difficult thing to [119/120] determine the drift of public opinion, and many men are in the habit of thinking that their own thoughts must be current, they are so reasonable to them. We do not desire to fall into such an error, and to correct it is, as we say exceedingly difficult. To trust to the Press is not altogether wise, for there is a section of journalism which thinks to make public opinion by its blatancy of assertion instead of by its weight of reason; and that section, knowing that Very often to say public opinion is in a certain direction is to lead public opinion in the direction indicated, does not hesitate to use that rhetorical figure. Still, as it is necessary to attempt to discover in what way the majority of our fellow countrymen view this question, we have done our best to arrive at a conclusion, and are prepared to take the responsibility if we are in error. Our opinion is that the majority reason somewhat in this way——

We spent a great deal of money in sending out ships and men to Egypt. We sacrificed a great number of lives, and we were prepared at one time—for no one but a very confident and fortunate General thought that Arabi’s power would crumble at a touch—to sacrifice more. We have even, after our victory, assumed duties in the country. We have been re-organizing its Courts, its Army, its Police. Why? merely to trundle out again because France is susceptible, and Sir Wilfrid Lawson and a few more like him, suspect that occupation is a word which, when a little blurred by time will read, ‘annexation’? No, that would be foolish, unless we can have a guarantee that the circumstances which took us to Egypt will not recur; that the interests for which we fought will be respected; and that with a view to both these ends the country will be well and wisely governed.

But apart from the opinion which is in the mouths of men, there seems to be very weighty arguments in favour of a patient policy in relation to Egypt. With the view of ascertaining what we are bound to do in the future, it may be worth while to look at one or two matters of recent history. How do we come to be in Egypt at all? There is always a difficulty in writing of events very soon after they have happened. We cannot judge real proportions if we are very near to the object of vision, or the circumstances of history. One holds a friend at arm’s length to judge how time has handled his features; and we must hold. events at arm’s length to be able to judge fairly of them. The history of the rebellion in Egypt cannot yet be written. Many of the circumstances of it are detailed with minute accuracy by Mr. Mackenzie Wallace in his work on Egypt, but there are some obscure questions which we must wait on time to clear up for us. One error has been very persistently committed in certain important quarters and that was, the misconception of the nature [120/121] of the revolt.

It is a mistake to regard Arabi as a mere military adventurer without any real popular support. It seems certain that he was the leader of a very strong public opinion—an opinion which would have hustled Tewfik from his throne if he had not been propped there by the arms of England. This view, and the reasons which make it a sound conviction, are clearly stated in the work before us, and we do not propose to reproduce any part of the proof in this place. Whether that popular movement was fostered by encouragement from without, what amount of extraneous recognition was given to Arabi, and by whom, are questions which it is impossible at the present time to answer. Light upon that matter would be exceedingly valuable at the present juncture; but it is not to be had. The revolt, then, whatever its true significance may have been, and what ever encouragement may have been given to its leaders, assumed such proportions as to threaten the lives of Europeans in the country, and all the European Powers, with the exception of Turkey, came to the conclusion that it must be put an end to by force of arms. The Sultan was invited to intervene, but did nothing. The National Party was daily becoming stronger. The demands of the English and French Governments that the Cabinet—which was the creature of the revolt, and which, while it had Sherif Pasha at its head, had Mahmoud Sami as its War Minister—should resign; and that Arabi and his two colleagues in revolution should be removed from Cairo—had been refused. Still, neither of these Governments followed up their ultimatum with war. The National Party, however, followed up its successes with the Alexandria massacre of June 11.

The Right Hon. the Earl of Dufferin, G.C.B., Viceroy of India from the 1881 Illustrated London News

Meanwhile, the Conference was sitting, and nothing was being done. Admiral Seymour, however, was threatened by the forts at Alexandria, and opened fire, and then Lord Dufferin announced to the Conference- the intention of the British Government to take a more active part in the work of restoring order in Egypt, and Lord Granville invited the French Government to cooperate. Then, strange to say, France hesitated. M. de Freycinet had not been successful in Tunis. There was—there always is now in France—a curious apprehension that Germany is looking for a suitable opportunity while France is unprepared or otherwise occupied to anticipate and prevent the retaliation which will one day requite the insults of the campaign of 1870. There were, too, in Paris, miscalculations as to the proportions of the enterprise, and M. de Freycinet made a pretence of co-operation while really folding the hands of France in her velvet lap. The endeavours made by Russia and by Italy to frustrate the operations of England had no effect. So it was with the sanction of Europe that we undertook the work of restoring order in [121/122] Egypt. It seems to have been argued that when we entered upon the enterprise Europe made some conditions with us, and that faithfulness to the letter or spirit of these makes it incumbent upon us to withdraw our troops at the earliest possible moment. We confess that we do not find that the sanction of Europe was conditioned in any way whatever. It is true that M. de Nelidoff, on behalf of Russia, tried to make terms for the Anglo-Turkish military convention, but Lord Dufferin was firm, and M. de Nelidoff’s suggestions were still-born. It is true, too, that Italy desired to make the permission conditional, but owing to the stubborn sense of Prince Bismarck, that trammeling suggestion also died a natural and early death. So it came about that England alone was prepared to do what all Europe recognized as necessary to be done, and that consequently it was with the unconditioned sanction and approval of all the European Powers that we went to Egypt.

But it is evident that the good wishes of Europe, although withdrawing diplomatic obstacles to the project, was not the cause of the enterprise. Order is a very precious thing, but the nation is a Quixote which tries to rule political waves straight in any part of the world in which they happen to stagger a little off the perpendicular. The desire for the peace and prosperity of the people of Egypt might possibly be a pleasant after dinner topic for a philanthropic statesman, but it would not have justified the interference of a Power which could not possibly be affected by the disorder which it deprecated. It is evident that the rebels who threatened the Khedive in some indirect way threatened England, and that England cannot afford to be callous to popular fevers in Egypt, and consequently we not only had the approval of Europe for our action, but we had the strongest motives to do what we actually did. Our interest in Egypt has long been tacitly recognised. The fact that we joined with France in so many of the untoward incidents in the past political and financial history of that unhappy country was an assertion of the fact that our interests were deeply involved in the country which lay between our Indian possessions and our home dominions. The fact is that between India and England there is only sandy Egypt, and some seas which are insignificant to a sailing nation. Even before there was a Suez Canal—which made these seas, as it were, continuous, and brought us into a Sort of physical contact with our Indian Empire—it was felt that Egypt was an important element in the Eastern Question. Since the Canal was constructed, and since we, as the great commercial Power trading between the East and the West, have become de pendent upon it for our commerce, and we, as a great military Power, have become dependent upon it for the ready access of [122/123] our troops to India, and the ready access of our Indian troops to Europe, the importance of dominating the Power which dominates that water-way has become infinitely greater. Here there is no question of party politics. A fanatic may desire to see the British Empire lopped of its great Eastern and Western arms, and nothing but the island trunk remaining. But such vapoury policies have not been broached by any practical statesman, and all practical men are of one mind as to the-expediency of continuing our association with our great Indian dependency. Lord Beaconsfield’s purchase of the Khedive’s shares in the Suez Canal was a proper monetary recognition of our interest in that ribbon of sea through the desert, and it was because of our paramount political and commercial interests in the Suez Canal that we were justified in interfering in the recent troubles in Egypt. This, then, is the permanent interest which we have in Egypt— an interest which we are bound to have regard to, which we have undertaken a war on behalf of, and which it is necessary, it seems to us, to recognise in our future action with regard to that country.

M. Ferdinand de Lessops, Chief Promoter of the Suez Canal from the 1869 Illustrated London News

Mr. Mackenzie Wallace tells a story of Lord Palmerston which shows that in statesmen of all complexions the necessity of a careful supervision of Egyptian affairs has been recognized as a paramount political duty. He says that Lord Palmerston’s objection to the construction of a practicable water way between the Gulf of Pelusium and the Red Sea was founded on the belief that, if such a canal were constructed, England would be compelled, sooner or later, to annex Egypt. He was averse to such annexation, and hence his opposition to the scheme of M. de Lesseps. Now, we also reject at present the idea of the annexation of Egypt, but we are persuaded of the necessity of our retaining a very strong hold over the Canal. If we retain the position we at present enjoy in Egypt, if we remain there long enough to make Egypt a firm and sure ally, if we carry out the work of reform which we have begun, which will, in the end, have the effect of preventing the interference of other States with the internal affairs of Egypt—interference which is always a menace to our interests in that great highway --then we believe that no such necessity as that which was contemplated by Lord Palmerston will ever arise. But if, on the other hand, we throw away our present golden opportunities, if we leave the country to be again a prey to anarchy, and a prey to the vulture nations which gloat where anarchy is, we see the probability of war to regain an aseendency which we seem willing to throw away, and of an ultimate annexation of the country to prevent further relapse from that order which: we are willing to'leave only half established. It is our duty now to take such steps as will prevent, either directly or indirectly, [123/124] the annexation of Egyptian territory by any rival Power. It is our interest to train Egypt in such a way that she may by her future conduct give no pretext for any foreign intervention; it is our clear policy to secure that the influence of no nation shall predominate over our own at Cairo, and the only feasible way that we see to attain all these objects is by retaining our military hold upon Egypt at the present time. We cannot but think that here our vieWs, candidly expressed, are at one with the more valuable and instructed opinions which are only covertly hinted at in Lord Dufferin’s General Report:*—

A great part of what we are about to inaugurate will be of necessity tentative and experimental. This is especially true as regards the indigenous Courts of Justice and the new political institutions, which will have to be worked by persons the majority of whom will be without experience or instruction. Had I been commissioned to place affairs in Egypt on the footing of an Indian subject State, the outlook would have been different. The masterful hand of a Resident would have quickly bent everything to his will, and in the space of five years we should have greatly added to the material wealth and well-being of the country by the extension of the cultivated area and the consequent expansion of the revenue; by the partial, if not total, abolition of the corvée and slavery; the establishment of justice, and other beneficial reforms ..... Her Majesty’s Government and the public opinion of England have pronounced against such an alternative . . . . but though it be our fixed determination that the new regime shall not surcharge us with the responsibility of permanently administering the country, whether directly or indirectly, it is absolutely necessary to prevent the fabric we have raised from tumbling to the ground the moment our sustaining hand is withdrawn. Such a catastrophe would be the signal for the return of confusion to this country (Egypt), and renewed discord in Europe.” [General Report, dated February 6, 1883]

Under all the circumstances we see that we were right in going to Egypt; we had a right and a public mission to reduce the ragged elements of rebellion to order, we had deep interests in undertaking the duty Europe intrusted to us, and we shall only secure those interests by continuing to discharge patiently the arduous duties which devolve upon us as a nation.

Nubar Pasha, one of the ablest Egyptian statesmen, if not the only Egyptian who deserves the name, said that the Egyptian question is a question of irrigation; and any one who makes himself acquainted with the present condition of the country will come to the conclusion that the epigram was justified by the facts. Egypt is an agricultural, not an industrial, country, and its great wealth depends upon the great productiveness of its soil. For hundreds of centuries the Nile has been carrying [124/125] the rich fields of Central Africa into the Mediterranean, and burying them beneath its blue waters. But in doing so it has created the Delta, and its floods have spread much of the fertile mud upon the surface of the Desert. The real wealth of Egypt is in that mud. But the causes which created the Desert, over which the mud is, as we said, in some places spread, are still extant, and would very soon turn the garden into a desert again, were not something done to prevent such atavism.

The Subsiding of the Nile, Egypt. 1873. by Frederick Goodall. Reproduced by kind permission of the Guildhall Gallery, London, and the City of London Corporation.

To secure crops from the latent fertility of the Nile mud it is necessary that the land should be watered, and as rain does not fall in Egypt it is necessary to inundate or irrigate the land [Footnote: There are occasional showers in the northern part of the Delta, but these seem to have occurred only in recent years, and are by some said to be due to the construction of the Suez Canal]. In this matter, the Nile again comes to the help of the Egyptian, and by over flowing its banks supplies the moisture at the same time that it deposits the fertile mud. But that moisture would not be supplied, that deposit would not be made, unless the people of the country exerted themselves to secure these blessings. Torrents for the most part take what torrents bring, and in order to secure that the Nile may not take away with one wave what it has given by the other, it is embanked, and long ditches are constructed from the embankments to the slopes of the hills which form the Nile valley. These dams or embankments form great basins (the largest covers about 80,000 acres) which are filled when the Nile rises in July, and are emptied when the Nile begins to fall either by sluices where such things exist, or by cutting the embankments where there is no such engineering appliance. It is upon the land so prepared, that the crops are sown which are to be harvested in the following March. This primitive system of Egyptian agriculture is still practised in Upper Egypt.

Looking up the Blue Nile, at Khartoum. The February 1885 Illustrated London News. “From Sketches by Lieutenant Colonel J. A. Grant.”

But below Assiout a more civilized system, known as that of perennial irrigation, as distinguished from that which we have described, which is spoken of as annual inundation, is practised. There the agriculturist protects his fields from inundation during high Nile by means of embankments, and waters his land during low Nile by means of various con trivances. By means of this process, the lands are made far more continuously productive than those of Upper Egypt, which are condemned to flooding for a great part of the year and to sun-baked sterility for another. Under the system of perennial irrigation the lands become suited for the growth of more remunerative products, such as maize, cotton, and sugar-cane, than those which can be secured by the more primitive method. The nice questions which have to be practically answered in connection with this “higher” farming we need not enter upon here. Of course, seeing that the Nile water not only supplies moisture but fertilizing mud,any system which allows of a deposit of the mud from the water before the water is applied to the land which is to be cultivated would be a faulty one. And, again, seeing that the water of the Nile is useful not only for giving moisture and fertility, but for cleansing the sub-stratum from the saline flood which annually percolates through the land of Egypt, the nice adjustment of the supply to these various re quirements becomes a matter of very considerable difiiculty.

Sakyah for Raising Water. From Description de l’Egypte. Click on images to enlarge them.

These matters, although interesting and important, are beside our present purpose. What we desire to point out is, that the introduction of the perennial irrigation system has enormously increased the productiveness of the soil of Egypt. The experts in 1862 were estimated to be of a value of 4½ millions, and in the year 1874 they amounted to £14,000,000. Under these circumstances, the importance of irrigation to the future of Egypt can be readily understood. Many of the evils of the past have been connected with the forced labour upon the public works, which were necessary to the continued prosperity of the country. But now that Egyptian rulers have burdened their country with debt, now that a grave economic crisis is threatening the country [Wallace, p. 465] it becomes all-important to consider the irrigation question; and the truth that the Egyptian question is in one sense the question of irrigation dawns upon one. If we remember that but for a greatly improved irrigation system the soil will not continue to produce with an abundance suflicient to enable the rural population to pay the taxes; that the failure to do so will increase the immense burden of private debt under which the fella heen are labouring; that debt will prevent prosperity, and that distress and adversity will lead to that discontent which is the cause of national disorder, which in its turn is the pretext for, or the invitation to, international interference,—we will see that it is no longer a time to rely upon mechanical contrivances like shadoufs and sakkiehs, it is no longer expedient to allow the canal system, upon which, of course, the prosperity of the country mainly depends, to be in a state of lamentable deficiency.

Punch cartoons, 1880-1885, commenting upon the loans and cost of managing Egypt in order to protect the Suez Canal. Left: The New Knight. Middle: Lord de Rothschild’s Egyptian Soothing-Syrup. Feeding-Time; a Little Treat All Round. . Right: A Mutual Understanding.

There are three methods by which water can be supplied to the land of Egypt: by a canal leading the Nile water by an easy gradient to the lands in question; by filling canals while the Nile is high, and allowing them to retain the water, as reservoirs, until it is wanted when the Nile is low; by raising the Nile water into the canals by means of pumps, or by raising the water in the river by means of a barrage or weir. Each of these systems has its advocates, for each [126/127] of these has its merits and defects. But, as we understand, the present very able Inspector-General of Irrigation is inclined, and wisely inclined, to use any means which may be at hand to secure his object, and with this view the Government have, we hear, upon his advice, purchased of an English company an important pumping station, where the pumps are capable of supplying water for some 200,000 feddans. But one of the great difficulties that Colonel Scott-Moncrieff will have to contend with is the condition of the arterial canals. Many of these have been allowed to silt up.

Although forced labour has been rigorously exacted of the fellaheen, the labour seems to have been injudiciously expended; and when we remember that the whole system of administration was corrupt and cruel, that circumstance cannot excite surprise. But the evil that men do lives after them, and the terrible results of the corruption of bakshcesh have to be met and overcome to-day. The kurbash is no longer to be used, even the soldiery are to be paid two-and-a-half piastres a day, and the corveée can no longer be relied upon for the work which will be necessary to make the arterial system of canals once more efficient, and ready to answer to the throbbing of English engines which will send the precious blood of Nile water through every arid fibre of the country. That this is necessary to the future well-being of the people of Egypt none can doubt. That it is essential to the peace, independence, and good government of that country, no one will deny; and yet that these great works can be effected without the aid of capital which is to find its way into the country it is ridiculous to suppose.

There is no capital in Egypt which can be applied to these purposes. That capital will find its way into Egypt if such use ful work is to be done, is very evident. But it will find its way there only on condition that it is guaranteed either actually by some solvent guarantor, or indirectly by the presence of England in Egypt. While we remain there we are responsible for the peace of the country, and it is that peace which is the highway to prosperity. The very uncertainty as to the intentions of our Government in that regard has put an end to, or delayed enter prise which would have carried out a system of perennial irriga tion on a larger scale than has hitherto been tried with British money, and must necessarily prevent capitalists from dabbling in affairs in which they have so often had their fingers burned. Again we say, then, that the irrigation question—if not the Egyptian Question—is intimately associated with it, and that the continuance of the British troops in Egypt is, even when looked at in this aspect, necessary to the prosperity of the country. If we desire to avert a grave economical crisis with a view not only to the happiness and welfare of the fellaheen, but with a view [127/128] to that quiet and contentment which is essential to the preservation of the interests we have in Egypt—interests which took us there with war in our hands—interests which keep us there at present with constitutions and reorganizations in our months— we must endeavour to encourage the flow of capital into the country, without which the necessary irrigation works cannot be efficiently carried out, and without which the great resources of the country cannot be adequately developed.

We have only mentioned incidentally the many economic questions which, if Egypt is to be the home of quiet, and not the hotbed of annoyance, must be solved. The indebtedness of the fellaheen is a very serious evil. One of the best bids Arabi made for popularity was the wiping out of this burdensome debt which oppresses a heavily-taxed people. And the effect of our interference has been to re-impose these burdens from which the people imagined that they were relieved. This circumstance has had the effect of rendering our rule irksome and unpopular; and it will take some time before we secure that confidence and good-will which are so essential to the maintenance of our paramount influence in Egypt. The fact that the debt is heavy, and that if the peasants are allowed to settle their differences with the Greek money-lenders, the result will be in all probability the expropriation of a very large number of the fellaheen—are not matters which we can afford to overlook or ignored [Footnote: A commission is at the present time sitting to take evidence as to the condition of the tax-paying fellaheen, with a view to determine how their heavy debts are to be paid.]. Peasant proprietorship is a prescription which we are never tired of formulating for home evils, and we cannot therefore be callous to the dissociation of the peasantry of Egypt from the land of that country.

Left: Fellahs employed in agriculture, Egypt. Right: Fellah Dressed in the Hábá, and Female Wearing Face-Veil, Egypt. Both from Prisse’s Oriental Album.

How to meet the difficulty, is however, an exceedingly [128/129] difficult question to answer. We do not believe that the cause of the evil is the incorrigible improvidence of the Fellaheen, as some would persuade us; and we rather see the explanation of this painful social condition in the bad government, and the inordinate taxation of the past. If the latter suggestion is the true one, then it is evident that we ought to ensure the better government of the country in the future, and endeavour to see that our puppet government does not fall—as it is only too apt to do—into the oppressive and rapacious ways of its predecessors. While this indebtedness lasts—and it will last and increase while the system of taxation and corruption is unreformed—while expropriation is on a large scale possible; while the economic crisis which we have hinted at threatens, our best efforts for the peace of the country are thrown away, for we have here in the midst of the people the whole of the elements of a dangerous social explosive.

Mr. Mackenzie Wallace, in his first chapter, likens Egypt proper to a long walking-stick or fishing-rod, surmounted by a small fan—the fan representing the Delta; and his work deals principally,as was to be expected, with the very important questions which have to do with that portion of the country which is represented by the fan, and the top-joint of the fishing-rod. Apparently his pen travels where his feet have gone, and we do not gather that he has visited the Soudan. Wherever he has been he has carried very careful eyes, a very judicious mind, and where he leads we are well satisfied to follow. But it does strike one as a little strange that he should have been able to write such a large book—perhaps a little too large for the matter it contains without mentioning the slave-trade, or alluding to the very many important problems in the life of Egypt proper which are intimately associated with the future of the equatorial provinces. Recent events have, however, shown that no careful historian of Egypt can, with any hope of writing accurately of the future, afford to neglect many important considerations which lie outside of the horizon of Mr. Mackenzie Wallace’s work. Until Nov. 19 most of the critics of the policy of our Government in Egypt had apparently confined their attention to what was happening in Egypt proper.

The proposal of the Government to withdraw the British troops from Cairo, showed that no danger was anticipated in that quarter, and the assurance of Sir Evelyn Wood that he would answer for the preservation of order in Egypt if a certain number of the troops were withdrawn from the country, seems to have been made without any reference to possible reverses in the Soudan and on the shores of the Red Sea. The defeat of the Egyptians at Toka, and their precipitate flight— the annihilation of the force under the command of Hicks Pasha [129/130] —the subsequent defeat of some seven hundred men who were sent out of Souakim to reconnoitre, these circumstances have made many persons aware that the Egyptian question has wider issues than they had hitherto imagined, and that the work which England had to do in Egypt might be much more onerous than many persons in England would have us believe. It is quite true that the objects with which we went to Egypt, the purposes for which we remain there, have never been explicitly stated by the Government. Vague statements of intentions are, no doubt, prudent when the shifty future is far from certain. It is always more convenient to say what your intentions were after events have happened, than before you, by your actions, contribute to results. We do not say that that has been the morally pusillanimous attitude of the Government in relation to the Egyptian question. But we do say that all their explanations have been vague, and our actions and policy in Egypt seem to have crept through the holes of accident instead of walking boldly towards some well-defined and clearly perceived end and object. There have been assurances that we had duties to perform in Egypt, and that we would not remain there after these had been performed. There have been statements that we went to Egypt with a view to attain definite ends, and that when these haVe been attained and secured, our mission will have been completed. The country would be better able to judge of the performances of the Government if they had more explicit promises to measure them by. But, no doubt, from the point of view of those who have to make the promises, the more general these are, the greater latitude is given to conduct, and possibly the greater credit may be gained if the chapter of accidents turns out to be readable in any way in favour of this country.

Still certain very definite conclusions may, we think, be drawn, if not from the words of the Government, from the acts which they have been compelled to do. We opened fire upon the forts of Alexandria because the defences of that port were being strengthened against us. We landed troops and fought Tel-el-Kebir with a view of putting an end to the revolt against the Khedive. We interfered in the question of the disposal of the prisoners which we had taken, who had not offended against us but against the ruler of Egypt. We appointed inspectors-general of irrigation, surveyors-general of the land, and we assisted in the re-organization of the army, the police and the judicature. Now, from these circpmstances, some valid inferences can be drawn as to our mission in Egypt, as to the duty we have gone there to perform. It is evident that, in the opinion of the Government, a state of disorder in Egypt is in some sense a danger to this country. It is evident, that any [130/131] circumstance which would prevent British influence being felt ' at all in Egypt, would be regarded as a serious evil, and that it was not merely because Arabi was at the head of a very threat ening revolt against the Khedive that we went with arms to Egypt, but that any revolt against the ruler of that country might in the end prove inimical to the interests of Britain. If these principles were not at the roots of our policy, we do not understand the policy at all. We cannot see why we, why Europe, should have thought armed intervention necessary in Egypt unless there were other interests involved than those of a weak ruler and an insurgent national party.

Indeed, apart from our own interests, our whole sympathy ought to have been with the wordy programme of Arabi and his accomplices; and we think it would be wrong to shut our eyes to the fact that, had we not interfered, had we not overthrown the power of Arabi which had come to such a sudden height, the result to the people of Egypt might have been as happy as it will be under the British tinkered rule of Tewfik, and much happier than it would be if we quitted the country and allowed the old order of things to take the place which it used to occupy. It is true that foreigners would have been excluded from the country; it is true that Turko-Circassians would have been excluded from the offices which they had for years monopolized; it is true that there might have been a massacre of the Copts; but that ultimately the condition of the Fellaheen would have been improved, seems to us more than probable. The reason of our interference, the right we had to interfere, was that we had vital interests in Egypt, and that these interests were safer in the hands of Tewfik, strengthened and supported by our countenance and guidance, than in any other hands. The reason of our meddling in the organization of public depart ments, of law courts, of police, of army, is that the order and well-being of the mass of the inhabitants of the country is a condition of orderly and quiet government, and that our interests are bound up with the internal peace and the rule of law in Egypt.

Under these circumstances, our work is not done when we have overthrown one military rebellion; we must take steps to prevent another. It is not against the shock of Arabi’s arms that we must defend the Khedive, but against any shock which may threaten, until he is strong enough to repel force without our assistance. It is these considerations which make the over throw of Hicks Pasha, and the other events which have happened in connection with the rebellion in the Soudan, matters of grave import as affecting the question of our position and continuance in Egypt. We cannot leave Egypt while danger threatens. Our influence in Egypt must be maintained. That, we understand, to [131/132] be ground which we hold in common with those gentlemen who clamour for the withdrawal of our troops. Their contentions, as they can be gathered from their somewhat hysteric utterances, we take to be that we have to consider the British taxpayer rather than the Egyptian fellah; that we ought to out down rather than enlarge the foreign responsibilities of this country; that we promised Europe that we would withdraw from Egypt when our work was done, and that it would be dishonourable to remain now that our work is completed; and, finally, that our moral influence will be greater in Egypt if we withdraw the hand of violence and recall our troops. These arguments we have already dealt with in some detail; but as to the one point concerning our influence, we cannot but add a word in this place.

To us it seems certain, that if in the face of reverses in the Soudan we withdraw our troops from Cairo or the country, we shall strike a blow at our influence in Egypt which will be irreparable. If we were convinced, as some politicians seem to be, that our influence in the country is baneful, then, by all means, strike a blow at it. But in that case, we fail to see any meaning in all the carefully-planned events of the past eighteen months. If our influence is, as we believe, beneficent, then it is a kind of political suicide to do anything which will jeopardize its continuance. But it behoves us to remember that if we should annihilate our influence in Egypt, that is not the end of the matter. We might be content to retire from our dominant position in that country if no other European Power were to take our place. If we could simply leave our shoes without their being held to be an invitation to other feet. But one thing is very certain, and that is that France, which made one great mistake, is most anxious to retrieve it. Circumstances, as we have seen, were exceedingly favourable to us and exceedingly unfavourable to France. A policy of timidity upon the part of M. de Freycinet threw the game into our hands; but ever since Tel-el-Kebir the French have been conscious of the error of their timidity. Now, howeVer, the position is different. England has got the chestnut out of the fire, and France wants to benefit by the temerity which ran the risk of burning its fingers. There can be no question that France is jealous of our position in Egypt. That after Tel-el-Kebir she despaired of regaining the footing which she formerly held in that country, and that it is only since we have seemed so anxious to abandon all that we gained by our “walk-over,” that her hopes of being once more dominant in Egypt have revived. It is no secret, that recently, our neighbour has become more solicitous to ascertain the inten tions of our Government as to the withdrawal from Egypt, and has even endeavoured to strengthen the expressed intention to [133/134] throne of the Khedive eighteen months ago, was a sufficient reason for armed intervention on our part, it would necessarily be an equally good reason for a similar intervention at the present time. But would it be common prudence, if we believe that there may be another outbreak which may necessitate our return to the country with force and arms, to leave it at such a moment? No! The Government promise was that England would remain in Egypt as long as it was necessary to secure a stability of conditions which would render an immediate re-ap pearance of our troops on that troubled scene unnecessary. There can be no other meaning in the promise than this.

But it may be said, “The time you indicate has arrived. True, everything is not completed and developed but that can only be effected in a long course of years. And while it was the intention of England to see Egypt regenerated, it was not our intention to see Egypt grow up. All we desired was, that the condition of the country should be such as to guarantee peace and order; the slow development of national prosperity; the growth of the institutions which we have designed and inaugu rated must be left to the Egyptian people and time." Now of course the question as to whether the time for withdrawal has arrived is one of opinion, and it is one which can be best answered by those who are most familiar with the present condition of Egypt. After making ourselves as intimate with the past history, with the present social and political conditions of the country, and, looking as far forward into the future as a knowledge of the past and the present enables us to do, we unhesitatingly say that that time has not arrived, and that the withdrawal of the troops at the present juncture, or in the immediate future, would be a rash, impolitic, and inconsiderate act. We are, however, con firmed in this belief by many persons, far more competent to judge of these intricate matters than we are. Mr. Wallace is a very careful student of race problems, and he, after a very pains taking inquiry, has come to the same conclusion. In his opinion the presence of our troops in Egypt is necessary, because it ensures public tranquillity. Their presence is necessary to accelerate the introduction of the proposed reforms, to secure the services of foreign capital, and he gives weighty reasons for his belief (Wallace 380-83). But it is not so much from his arguments as from the inadvertent signs of a deep-rooted belief, that we are convinced of his conviction. We find, in speaking of Colonel Scott-Moncreiff’s work, that he points out that it is certain to fail, unless it is vigorously supported by the British Foreign Office (481) The more equitable distribution of the Land Tax is a matter which demands immediate [134/135] attention. But, of course, as the future incidents of the tax will, contrary to its manner in the past, fall upon those who are able to bear it, instead of those who are not, there will be great opposition to this, as to the other reforms; for it is just those who are able to bear it who are at the same time able to resist its imposition. The task of redistribution is in the able hands of Mr. Gibson, but, here again, Mr. Mackenzie Wallace informs us “that it will be necessary to give him the same kind of extraneous support as his colleague, Colonel Scott-Moncrieff, will so urgently require” (481-82). And, again, in speaking of the reforms in the judicial system, which were to be made under the learned supervision of Sir Benson Maxwell, he says “the proposed scheme was nearly finished before his arrival, so that he cannot entirely undo what the Commission, composed of Egyptian jurists, had done; but he may do much to mitigate the evil effects of the above-mentioned tendencies of his colleagues, provided he has the energetic support of the English Government. Whether he will receive the necessary support remains to be seen” (456-57).

It would seem, then, that in every department the reforms which are so urgently needed can only be effectuated if England is in earnest in supporting those she has entrusted with the task of inaugurating these improvements. We are not playing with Egypt to mock it with paper constitutions and debating society reforms. We meant to do something which would have the practical results of peace, order and prosperity. That these will follow, if the schemes so carefully framed are wisely carried out, we believe; but that they are to be carried out only with the help of Britain, and that not the distant help of Britain at home, but the intimate assistance of Britain in Egypt, seems to us ab solutely certain. The influence of this country, to be effective, must be felt, and the presence of our troops in Egypt is the best, the only guarantee that our wishes will be respected. Arguments with the masters of legions are always more convincing if the legions are at hand. The expedient which some have suggested, that, while withdrawing from Egypt, we should prowl in the neighbourhood at Cyprus, would not affect the objects we have in view. Mr. Mackenzie Wallace shows this, we think, conclusively. We have not the time to follow him through his very careful argument, but we may say that we thoroughly concur with him in thinking that none of the ends we had in view when we went to Egypt, will be accomplished, unless we are prepared to have patience in the task we have under taken. National consciences are not created in a day, and without a conscience the best-framed institutions are but bodies [135/136] without souls, and in their corruption taint and poison the national atmosphere. If we are to effect anything in Egypt, if our armed visits to that country are not to be repeated from time to time, let us have patience to do the work well now. The people are like clay in strong hands, and very quickly take the shape the modeller desires to give them. But the very plasticity of the nature will make the impressions as transitory in their continuance as they have been easy to impose. To make the populations understand and work the institutions and reforms we have given them is a matter of time. In our own country public conscience is not strong enough to overcome the traditional corruption of election campaigns, and we have to use the force of law where the potence of reason and conscience fails. Can we expect that the people of Egypt, who have been steeped in corruption for centuries, whose conscience has been cut to shreds by the kurbash, whose institutions, such as they were, have been shattered by rebellion and conquest, can in a few months learn the lesson to be honest, upright citizens, working free institutions under the influence of Britain, who sits in fine separateness in her own island, some thousands of miles away, and who, even if when she retired had all the intentions of returning in case of another revolution, might find her strong hands tied by circum stances when the revolution came about? No, the presence of latent force is necessary to the reforms we desire, to the peace which we have established, and to the continued order which it is our interest to preserve. We cannot but think that Lord Dufferin holds the same view. We have given some of his words which seem to indicate what he would have advised, had not Her Majesty’s Government, and public opinion in England, pro nounced against his alternative. We may, however, quote a few more from his general report :—

At the present moment we are labouring in the interests of the world at large. The desideratum of every one is, an Egypt, peaceful, prosperous, and contented, able to pay its debts, capable of maintain ing order along the Canal, and offering no excuse, in the troubled con dition of its affairs, for interference from outside. . . But the administrative system . . . . must have time to consolidate in order to resist the disintegrating influences from within and without, and to acquire the use and knowledge of its own capacities ..... Unless they are convinced that we intend to shield and foster the system we have established, it will be in vain to expect the timid politicians of the East to identify themselves with its existence. . . . . Under these circumstances, I would venture to submit that we can hardly consider the work of re-organization complete, or the responsibilities imposed upon us by circumstances adequately discharged, until we have seen Egypt shake herself free from the initial embarassments which I have [136/137] enumerated. This point of departure once attained, we can bid her' God-speed with a clear conscience, and may fairly claim the approba tion of Europe for having completed a labour which every one desired to see accomplished, though no one was willing to undertake it but ourselves. Even then the stability of our handiwork will not be assured, unless it is clearly understood by all concerned that no sub versive influence will intervene between England and the Egypt which she has re-created.

Remember that the reforms which we are carrying out for the benefit of the population of Egypt, are very much against the grain of the governing classes. All had systems are for the benefit of some person or persons, and many persons have fattened on the cruelty, the corruption, and the extortion which have had such a vigorous growth upon that feeble mud of character which is known as the Oriental conscience. Their interests are entirely against those of England in this matter. They will have all the wish in the world to return to a system under which they flourished, and it would be no difficult thing to persuade the common people once again, as Arabi did, that it would be to their advantage to turn all foreigners out of the country. The immediate advantages which such an adventurer as Arabi could offer them, would far outweigh the distant gains which would result from free institutions and good government, and in politics, immediate gains weigh far more than large sinking funds. Here then there is a serious danger, which can be guarded against only by habituating the people to the new regime of justice. And that is only to be effected if we have patience to consolidate the work which has been so hastily built. Our last word is that which Sir Evelyn Wood used when he was speaking to the people of this country, and that is, “Patience.”

Related material


“England in Egypt.” Westminster Review. n.s. 65 (1884): 115-37. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Chicago Library. Web. 29 August 2020.

Robinson, Ronald, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism (1961). Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1968.

Wallace, D. McKenzie. England and the Egyptian Question. London: Macmillan, 1883.

Last modified 29 August 2020