British Imperialism in Egypt, 1923-1937

In 1923, it seemed that independence had finally arrived; yet it was not exactly what the Egyptians had hoped for. The British were not readily going to relinquish the power they had over a country they considered to be of such strategic importance.

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The Four Reserved Points

Accordingly, independence from British Imperialism in Egypt had been granted on certain conditions that came to be known as the "Four Reserved Points." These were Britain's rights 

  • to safeguard its imperial communications in Egypt;
  • to defend the country against foreign attack;
  • to defend minorities and foreign interests;
  • and to control Sudan.

Given the circumstances, it was an offer the Egyptians could hardly refuse.

Egypt Becomes a Parliamentary Monarchy

In 1923, a constitution was drafted by a National Assembly, and Egypt officially became a parliamentary monarchy. Fuad I, one of Ismail's sons who had become sultan after the death of Hussein in 1917, now took the title of king.

A bicameral parliamentary system was established that consisted of a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate. Members of the former were elected by the adult male population, while two-thirds of those in the latter were appointed by the king.

In January 1924, the end to British Imperialism in Egypt was celebrated with Egypt's first general election. The clear winner was Zaghlul's Wafd Party, which took its name from the delegation that he had led several years earlier. Zaghlul, who had been released the previous year and whose popularity was greater than ever, was now country's new prime minister, but attempting to govern the country would prove anything but straightforward.

The Three-way Tug of War

Politics in the country became a three-way tug of war between the King, the Wafd, and the British government. Fuad I took advantage of the considerable powers granted to him under the constitution, and engaged in a personal crusade to frustrate the parliamentary process in order to serve his own ends. Indeed, thanks to his interference, intrigues and talent for playing the British and Wafd against each other, no elected parliament ever lasted its full term. For their part, the British exerted a great deal of influence through the High Commisioner and other officials who occupied key security posts in the government.

One of Zaghlul's main priorities was to see a decisive end to British imperialism in Egypt, especially the occupation. This he believed would be possible by negotiating a treaty between the two countries. Furthermore, he was keen to fulfill the Wafdist dream of forcing the British to relinquish control of Sudan and then incorporating the territory into Egypt.

Zaghlul would never see his goals realized, and was soon overwhelmed by events beyond his control. On November 19, 1924, extremists with links to the Wafd Party assassinated Sir Lee Stack, the commander of the Egyptian army and Governor General of Sudan. The British government was furious. The High Commisioner, General Allenby, responded with a thinly veiled threat.

Allenby, a friend of Stack who was appropriately dubbed the "Bull," demanded that the government apologize and pay a fine of 500,000 Egyptian pounds. Furthermore, he insisted that Egypt withdraw its military personnel from Sudan, a gratuitous demand, typical of those in charge of British imperialism in Egypt, that clearly had nothing to do with the matter and merely demonstrated Allenby's bullying methods.

Insulted and outraged, Zaghlul rejected the ultimatum and promptly resigned. Allenby did not escape either. His handling of the affair had courted a great deal of displeasure at home and he was forced to resign. Despite continuing to lead the Wafd, Zaghlul's career was effectively over. He died a few years later in 1927, remaining as popular as ever until the end. His body was laid to rest in a huge granite tomb that still stands in Cairo.

Meanwhile, the three-way struggle continued. Little could be decided upon. King Fuad I worked hard at limiting the power and popularity of the Wafd and suspended the constitution, replacing Zaghlul's successor, Mustafa al-Nahhas, with Ismail Sidqi. Fuad I then forced through a new constitution that further strengthened his powers and allowed him to rule by decree. Between 1930 and 1933, Sidqi, backed by the king, imposed a hard-line rule over Egypt.

However, under continual pressure from the Wafd and the forces of British imperialism in Egypt, Fuad I found his position increasingly untenable. In April 1935, he was forced to restore the 1923 constitution. One year later he died and was succeeded by his son and successor.

King Faruq and Cleopatra...

With Faruq still too young to rule directly, the Wafd government seized the moment. Headed once again by Al-Nahhas, it quickly negotiated a deal with the British government. On August 26, 1936, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was signed. This agreement replaced the "Four Reserved Points" and offered Britain a 20-year guarantee to protect the canal and other strategic zones in the event of war. Although it formally ended British imperialism in Egypt, it was a far from perfect settlement since British troops would not in fact be required to abandon the region until Egypt had proven its ability to defend itself.

At the age of 16, Faruq ascended the throne, yet little changed. Like Cleopatra so many years before him, the new king was the first in his line to be able to address his subjects in their own language. Like Cleopatra too, he was to preside over the end of his dynasty. But there the similarity ended. While the flamboyant young king paid lip service to nationalist ideals, he would never show the strength of character required to lead the country and challenge the British imperialism in Egypt. He also found himself incapable of accommodating his government and, by December 1937, Al-Nahhas was out once more and new elections brought in a disastrous result for the Wafd.