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n view of the recent incidents which have occurred in connection with the consultative body, styled the Legislative Council, established in Egypt by Lord Dufferin in 1883, and having regard to the assumption made by certain Continental journals that there is something irregular or invalid in the British government of Egypt, it is desirable to consider the origin of that government and its international justification. It is not true, as certain Continental publicists maintain, that the British right to intervene in Egypt springs from a concession by the Sultan or the Khedive, or that it can be limited or abrogated by casual expressions of an intention to leave Egypt made by an administration. The British Government, in common with all civilized Powers, is bound, not by unilateral expressions of intention or hope, but by its duly concluded treaties. To act on any other theory would be to render constitutional government an impossibility and diplomacy a waste of time.
Five years before the British occupation of 1882, Lord Derby's despatch to the Russian ambassador, dated May 6th, 1877, categorically defined the rights claimed in Egypt by the British Government. The preservation of the Empire of India is one of the highest duties to the British nation and to humanity at large which a British Ministry can fulfil. The protection of the route to India through the Suez Canal is therefore incumbent on every British Government. Furthermore, the extent of British commercial interests in Egypt is such that the order and security of that territory are of great concern to the British people.
The particular occasion for Lord Derby's interference was that there was danger of the operation of the war between Russia and Turkey being extended to the Suez Canal and Egypt. The British Government therefore announced its intention of interfering by force of arms to defend Egyptian territory. The fact that its intervention was effective (a fact attested by the despatch of Prince Gortschakoff of May 30th, 1877, promising not to attack Egypt) establishes on an unimpeachable basis the independent character of the British right of intervention. Without the mandate of Sultan or Khedive, during a war against the Sultan in which the British Empire was neutral, the British Government asserted not the Sultan's but its own rights over Egyptian territory; and that assertion, acquiesced in by both belligerents, averted, if not a Russian annexation, certainly a devastating Russian invasion of Egypt.
The same British rights which justified British intervention in 1877 to secure Egypt from foreign invasion, justified British intervention in 1882 to protect Egypt from the equal or greater ills which arise from internal disorder or maladministration. On August 10th, 1882, the British representative at the Conference of Constantinople announced to the representatives of the Great Powers the British occupation of Suez. The mere fact that the occupation had necessarily as its immediate object the restoration of the authority of the Khedive has no bearing whatever on the nature of the right of British intervention. It was obviously essential to the restoration of order to re-establish so far as possible the status quo ante bellum. It is no time [464/465] to organise new governmental institutions during the suppression of a rebellion; in President Lincoln's phrase, it is no time to swap horses when crossing a stream. But the British Government never declared, nor did the Sultan or the Khedive or a single European Power ever dream, that the sole object of the intervention was to re-establish the authority of the Khedive. The immediate object was necessarily com prised in that restoration; the ultimate object was obviously the main tenance of British rights in Egypt, compromised by internal disorder.
Throughout the negotiations which preceded and followed the occupation, the British Government showed itself scrupulously desirous of acting in concert with the other Great Powers, although the interests in Egypt of none of them can for a moment compare with those of the possessors of the Empire of India. But at no time did the British Government profess to base its right on the will of the Turkish or of the Egyptian rulers.
It is particularly worth noting that the same is to be said of the French Government. At the Conference of 1882 a joint declaration was made by the British and French ambassadors that their Governments were ready, if necessity should arise, “to employ themselves in the protection of the Suez Canal, either alone, or with the addition of any Power who is willing to assist.” The British ambassador declared that acceptance of the Italian proposal at the Conference was not to prevent England or other Powers landing troops in Egypt. The French ambassador made a similar declaration, and reserved “entire liberty of action” for the French Government.
So far did the British Government press its desire to act in concert with other Powers, that it invited the French Ministry to effect a joint occupation. But, for reasons which it is the task of French publicists to defend, the French Government declined the invitation. The British right to intervene can be in no respect affected by that refusal.
At the Conference of London, held in June 1884 to consider the financial position of Egypt, a French proposal was made to neutralise Egypt; but this was excluded, as beyond the scope of the invitation to the Conference. As was proved later on, the Sultan was strongly opposed to any neutralisation. By the Declaration of London, March 18th, 1885, the Great Powers assert the freedom of the Suez Canal. At the Conference of Paris of the Suez Canal International Commission, held from April to June 1885, regu lations for the navigation of the canal were considered.
The next step in the negotiations relative to Egypt deserves careful at tention, as the misinterpretation of the effect of these negotiations has played the greatest part in obscuring the true position of the British in Egypt. Desirous, not to abandon its rights in Egypt, or to represent them as emanating from the will of the Sultan, but to avoid a breach of continuity in the relations of the Khedive with his suzerain, and in the relations of the Mahommedan population with its religious head in Constantinople, the British Government decided to conclude a treaty with the Sultan. This is the Treaty of Constantinople, October 24th, 1885, which now regulates, not British authority in Egypt, but British engagements towards the Sultan with reference to the exercise and the possible termination of that authority. The Treaty provides that a British and Turkish High Commissioner are to be appointed to proceed to Egypt. Then follows the article, the French version of which is declared to be binding, which determines British relations to the Sultan in regard to Egypt. “So soon as the two High Commissioners shall have ascertained that the safety of the frontiers and the good working and stability of the Egyptian Government are assured, [465/466] they shall present a report to their respective Governments, who shall take measures for the conclusion of a Convention to arrange for the retire ment of the British troops from Egypt after a reasonable interval.” It is therefore quite sufficient to say that the High Commissioners are not yet agreed as to the arrival of a period wherein the British troops may be safely withdrawn. Judging by appearances, and especially considering the agitation against British administration encouraged by foreign and native influences, it may even be conjectured that a very long time must elapse before such a period is reached.
As regards this treaty with the Sultan, the British Government some years ago gave evidence of its desire to abide by its voluntary self-denying ordinance, provided that the paramount rights of the empire can be safeguarded. Sir H. D. Wolff's mission to Constantinople in 1885 and 1886, the object of which was embodied in the note verbale of November 4th, 1886, testified to an almost excessive desire to consult the wishes of the Porte. The Convention of Constantinople of May 22nd, 1887, provided that British troops should be withdrawn in three years, on condition that the Mediterranean Powers assented to the treaty, and that the territorial security of Egypt should be respected. The British negotiation so far deferred to Turkish susceptibilities as to substitute the words “territorial inviolability (sûreté territoriale)” for “neutralisation,” as the Sultan objected to the latter word. The Convention provided most reasonably that the British right to intervene in Egypt to protect British interests should not be less after the ratification of the Convention than it was in 1877. In case any danger to the territorial security of Egypt should arise after the British evacuation, the right of intervention should again come into force. In an annexe of the same date the refusal of any of the great Mediterranean Powers to assent to the stipulations of the treaty is defined as a case of danger.
Lord Salisbury's despatch of June 8th, 1887, announced the British ratification of the Convention. The Sultan's ratification was withheld. The refusal of the Porte to ratify the Convention made it clear that the British Government would have no guarantee that the withdrawal of British troops would not be followed by a French, or even a Russian, or Italian occupation of Egypt. The situation in 1887, instead of being better, would be worse than in 1877.
The agreement therefore of the British Government in the treaty of 1885, voluntarily limiting in regard to Turkey the term of British occupation of Egypt, might well be held to have lapsed, since its execution was rendered impossible by the refusal of the Sultan to assent to the reasonable conditions annexed to the evacuation. A contract which one of the parties renders impossible of performance is no longer binding; and the British Government would be quite within its right to regard the treaty as at an end. If, however, it is taken as still in force, it is sufficient to say that the conditions of evacuation contemplated in that treaty have not come into existence. The British Government by no means questions the interest of the States of Europe in the freedom of the Suez Canal. The British assent to the Convention of Constantinople, October 29th, 1888, sufficiently attests its readiness to acknowledge that interest as real, though not para mount in Egypt.
In so far, however, as the question of the strict international right of the British Government is concerned, it will be plain from the foregoing record of British intervention that the right cannot be affected by the wish of the Khedive or the Sultan, or the inspired opinions of a largely nom inated body, such as the so-called [466/467] subject fellaheen of Egypt were opposed to the British occupation, it is manifest that the wishes of a few millions of a semi-barbarous population should not be permitted to weigh in the balance against the welfare of an empire extending over one fifth of the human race.
The exact reverse is, however, the truth as regards the subject population of Egypt. For the first time since the days of the Roman administration, order and prosperity reign in the valley of the Nile. The fact that the peasant has been able to pay his taxes, while holding back his agricultural produce until a higher price can be obtained for it, is conclusive proof of a state of things without parallel in the East under native rule. It is well known that nothing but the ever-present fear that the British may abandon Egypt prevents the peasant, who has not forgotten the rapacity of the native administration, from testifying in an unmistakable fashion to his satisfaction with the Pax Britannica.
Related Material about, Egypt, the Sudan, and the British Empire
- A Selection from Baker’s “Slavery and the Slave Trade” from Macmillan’s Magazine
- Egypt and the British Empire (homepage)
- The Sudan and Egypt (homepage)
- The Suez Canal
- Some Contemporary Discussions of England, Egypt, and the Sudan
Farrelly, M. J. “British Rights in Egypt.” Macmillan’s Magazine. 70 (1894): 464-67. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 13 September 2020.
Last modified 13 September 2020