Note: Under the rule of Khedive Ismail, the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and it quickly became Britain’s economic lifeline to India and the Far East. To defend this waterway, Britain sought a greater role in Egyptian affairs so in 1873 the British government supported a program whereby an Anglo-French debt commission assumed responsibility for managing Egypt’s fiscal affairs. This commission eventually forced Khedive Ismail to abdicate in favor of his more politically acceptable son, Tawfiq (1877-1892).
Tawfiq Pasha reformed the Egyptian economy and relinquished financial control to the British who began to run the government and the country. Egyptian nationalists, horrified at Tawfiq’s submission to the British, were fed up with stepping to a pace set by foreigners and unbelievers which was leaving them broken by its rigour. Popular feeling , therefore backed a coup by a knot of nationalist officers led by Colonel Arabi which commandeered the government and promised an end to Egypt’s submission to rapacious interlopers.
Britain was outraged and called for an international conference in Istanbul to discuss the matter. The Turkish sultan boycotted the conference and no solution was agreed to. The French did not support the British desire for war so Britain acted alone, and in July 1882, the British began bombarding Alexandria.
Following the burning of Alexandria and its occupation by British marines, the British reinstalled the puppet Khedive, who, obligingly declared Arabi a rebel and deprived him of his political rights. Arabi in turn obtained a religous fatwa, signed by three Al Azhar shaykhs, deposing Tawfiq as a traitor who brought about the foreign occupation of his country and betrayed his religion. Arabi also ordered general conscription and declared war on Britain. Thus, as the British army was about to land in August, Egypt had two leaders: the Khedive, whose authority was confined to British-controlled Alexandria, and Arabi, who was in full control of Cairo and the provinces.
In August, Sir Garnet Wolsley and an army of 20,000 invaded the Suez Canal Zone. Wolsley was authorized to crush the Arabi forces and clear the country of rebels. The decisive battle was fought at Tel-el-Kebir on September 13, 1882. The Arabi forces were routed and the capital captured. The nominal authority of the Khedive was restored, and the British occupation of Egypt, which was to last for another 72 years, had begun.
Arabi was captured, and he and his associates were put on trial. An Egyptian court sentenced Arabi to death, but through British intervention the sentence was commuted to banishment to Ceylon. Britain’s military intervention in 1882 and it extended, if attenuated, occupation of the country left a legacy of bitterness among the Egyptians that would not be expunged until 1956 when British troops were finally removed from the country.