Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



The domination of foreigners, the financial enslavement of Egypt, and the establishment of Dual Control and the “European cabinet,” evoked considerable discontent among all classes of the Egyptian society. All of them, in one way or another, suffered from the tyranny imposed by the foreign money-lenders.

The first to suffer were the Egyptian fellaheen, who had to bear the excessive burden of the Egyptian debt. They paid four times more tax than before and in order to pay the tax collectors they had to sell their crops, even before they were harvested, to the money-lenders at a half or a third of their actual worth. During the tax-gathering operations, the fellaheen were humiliated, beaten and tortured. While they starved, scores of millions of francs, extorted with the help of the kurbash, poured into the coffers of the foreign banks. In 1879, Cairo was flooded with peasant petitioners, who came on foot to complain to the Khedive about the unbearable tyranny of the authorities.

The domination of foreign capital was also felt by the urban population of Egypt. The merchants and craftsmen were heavily taxed while trade came to a standstill and the market in handicraft wares dwindled.

Dissatisfaction penetrated into various strata of the ruling class. This applied especially to the Egyptian officers, who occupied middle commanding posts in the army. The various economy measures that had been introduced meant that the officers were not paid for months and their families went hungry while the representatives of the feudal nobility, the “Circassian” pashas and beys, retained their high salaries.

The government officials were also displeased because their salaries were held back. Signs of discontent could also be observed among the landlords, on whom the European money-lenders had decided to place part of the burden of the foreign debts. Khedive Ismail himself, the first landowner in Egypt, disapproved of the foreigners, especially of the “European cabinet,” which had deprived him of his estates and left him only illusory power.

The spirit of opposition spread throughout Egypt; study groups and secret societies were formed. The first secret society to be formed by Egyptian officers came into being in 1876, after the unsuccessful Ethiopian war. It was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Ahmed Arabi (1839-1911), a man of remarkable eloquence and profound devotion to the cause of the Egyptian people. Arabi’s followers called themselves wataneun (Nationalists). At first they opposed Khedive Is-mail and sought to achieve only national equality in the army; they campaigned only for their professional interests. Later their struggle acquired a national liberation character. They were the first to advance the slogan “Egypt for the Egyptians.” They declared the Egyptians a nation, which had the right to exist as an independent state entity. They relied for support on the soldiers and the peasants.

The wataneun leaders were close to the Egyptian people. In his proclamations Arabi referred to himself as a “fellah” (peasant). He really was the son of a fellah from the village of Khariya-Ruzna in Lower Egypt. Many bourgeois historians have described Arabi as an ignoramus. Actually, he joined the army after having studied at El-Azhar and later continued to read a great deal. A person of considerable intellectual curiosity with a lively and receptive mind and a fervent patriot, he showed a great interest in the experience of the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the Italian national liberation movement. During Said’s rule, Arabi quickly made a career for himself. He became Said’s aide-de-camp, but under Ismail he fell into disgrace and was promoted only twelve years later, in 1875, during the Ethiopian war.

Arabi enjoyed well-deserved prestige and influence among the officers and soldiers of the Egyptian army, as did his closest associates, the wataneun officers, Ali er-Rubi, Abd el-Al, All and Mahmud Fahmi and others.

Besides these military leaders of the wataneun movement there was also a group of its ideologists. Among them was the erudite Sheikh Mohammed Abdu, a theologian who dreamt of “reforming Islam” by adapting it to the bourgeois conditions of life. There was the Syrian writer and journalist, Adeb Iskhak, who had settled in Egypt in 1876 the talented speaker and journalist, Abdullah Nedim and many other intellectuals, mostly teachers and students o El-Azhar, who had studied under the well-known religious and political figure, Jamal ed-Din el-Afghani (1839-1897).

The founder of the Pan-Islam movement, Jamal ed-Din el-Afghani, after wandering for a long time in the East had settled in Cairo in 1871. A teacher at El-Azhar and ax active participant in the social and political life of Egypt he spoke out in favour of the reform of Islam and the unification of the Moslem peoples in the struggle against Europe He called on Moslems to master the European science; and technology, to beat the Europeans with their own weapons. His teachings, although very contradictory in essence were warmly received in Egypt and greatly influenced the outlook of Egyptian intellectuals in the seventies of the 19th century. Arabi and his friends regarded themselves as the followers of Jamal ed-Din el-Afghani. In September 1879, Jamal ed-Din was banished from Egypt, but the wataneun leaders continued to feel his ideological influence.

At first the spirit of opposition was directed against Khedive Ismail, then against the “European cabinet.” In 1877, it came to the surface. Egypt acquired its first opposition press. Adeb Iskhak and Selim Nakkash began to publish the magazine Misr (Egypt) and then the newspaper At-Tigara (Trade), which carried articles by Jamal ed-Din el-Afghani and his associates against the Khedive and the foreign enslavement of Egypt.

In 1879, the spirit of opposition spread to the Chamber of Notables, which was composed primarily of landowners and members of the Moslem clergy. It was dominated by liberal landlords, who represented the moderate wing of the national liberation movement. They were under the influence of the kind of liberal and constitutional ideas advocated by Midhat Pasha and spoke out in favour of Egyptian independence, an Egyptian constitution, a parliament and a reliable government. When the regular session of the Chamber of Notables opened on January 2, 1879, the delegates turned it into a platform, from which they criticised the “European cabinet.” The Khedive, who had a personal account to settle with the “European cabinet,” secretly supported these actions.


In February 1879, the “European cabinet” decided, as an economy, to discharge 2,500 officers from the army, to halve the salaries of the others and not to pay the arrears due. This meant starvation for the discharged officers and they decided to revolt against the “European cabinet.” The soldiers of the Cairo garrison, most of whom were fellaheen in military uniform, supported their plans.

On February 18, 1879, a crowd of officers mobbed Nubar Pasha and Rivers Wilson on their way to their offices, dragged them out of their carriages and placed them under guard in the Ministry of Finance. Riaz Pasha was also taken there. The Khedive then arrived on the scene. At the demand of the British Consul, he commanded the officers to disperse and, on their refusal to do so, called in troops and ordered them to open fire. The troops, however, fired in the air and only by promising the officers that he would “satisfy their demands” was Ismail able to obtain the release of the “prisoners.”

These events forced the government to make concessions. It rescinded the order on army dismissals and lower salaries and also refunded the officers’ arrear of pay, another £400,000 being borrowed from Rothschild for this purpose. On March 9, 1879, Ismail dismissed Nubar Pasha and Ismail’s eldest son, Tewfik, became the head of government. The foreigners, Wilson and de Blignièrcs, retained their posts. At their demand, the authorities arrested the instigators of the demonstration, but soon released them. “Indeed, under the circumstances which then existed, it would have been difficult to have subjected them to any punishment without incurring serious risks,” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 78.] Cromer remarks.

The actions of the officers against the “European cabinet” encountered general support throughout Egypt. The Egyptians realised that a successful struggle could be waged against the European oppressors and with added persistence began to campaign for the ejection of the European ministers from the government.


In the meanwhile, the short-sighted British and French officials regarded the incident as closed. They would continue to rule Egypt as they had in the past. They stated to the Khedive that they were determined to act in concert in all that concerned Egypt and that they could not lend themselves to any modification in principle of the political and financial arrangements. It was to be clearly understood, they told the Khedive, that the resignation of Nubar Pasha had, in the eyes of both governments (British and French-V.L.), only importance so far as the question of persons was concerned, but that it could not imply a change of system. Having agreed to the resignation of Nubar Pasha, they demanded, nevertheless, that the Khedive should not on any account be allowed to attend cabinet meetings, and that Wilson and de Blignières be given the right of veto over any measure proposed by the government.

When Ismail accepted these demands, Wilson decided that all resistance had been quelled, and advanced his financial plan, the guiding principle of which was that to “demand sacrifices” from the creditors was wrong and that this could be expected only of the debtors. He proposed (1) that the Khedive’s renunciation of his estates in favour of the Khedival Debt Commission be affirmed by law, (2) that the Khedive’s Civil List be reduced to £300,000, (3) that the land tax on the peasants’ lands (kharaj) and landowners’ (uslar) likewise be raised and (4) that the internal loans, ruznamela and mukabala, should be cancelled, thus robbing holders of the internal loans in the interests of foreign loan-holders; and finally, that the interest on the Consolidated Debt and the Daira Sanieh Debt be reduced to 5 per cent, leaving the payment of the preferential debt on the previous terms.

The internal loans were to be liquidated in the crudest possible way. According to Wilson’s scheme, the ruznamela was declared a tax, thus making the funds loaned to the Treasury by the Egyptians under this loan non-repayable. As for the mukabala, out of the £15,700,000 worth of bondswhich the Egyptians had contributed to the Treasury, Wilson acknowledged only £9,500,000 worth as genuine, and cancelled the rest. The Treasury undertook to reimburse the holders of the acknowledged bonds in annual payments of 1.5 per cent of the total mukabala over a period of 50 years, i.e., 75 per cent of the total debt would be discharged in that time. Wilson’s plan envisaged only partial reimbursement of the capital paid to the state by the mukabala holders and stretched out the payment of the money over a period of fifty years. At the same time, it deprived the mu-kabala bondholders of all their privileges, and the mukabala holders now had to pay the land tax in full. This meant that they had to pay an additional sum of £ 1,150,000 annually, while the state paid them an annual sum of only £150,000 as reimbursement of the mukabala. This measure meant serious losses to nearly all the landowners and to a considerable section of the Egyptian peasants. The mukabala had been paid in full on 240,000 feddans of kharaj land and on 480,000 feddans of ushriya land, i.e., on 15 per cent of all the land in Egypt. Moreover, the mukabala had been paid in part on 725,000 feddans of only ushriya land, apart from the numerous kharaj land.

On March 28, 1879, Wilson forced the Khedive to sign the law of the mukabala. This measure aroused general indignation in Egypt, especially among the Egyptian landowners.


Protest meetings against the European ministers and their financial policies swept Egypt. The Khedive received petitions from all over the country, demanding the dismissal of the “European cabinet,” the formation of a national government, the introduction of a constitutional system and the abolition of the law of the mukabala. Members of the Chamber of Notables, the Ulema and important functionaries and officers spoke out against the financial policy of the European ministers. The Chamber of Notables began to prepare its own financial plan to counterbalance Wilson’s.

On April 7, 1879, the Khedive convened members of the diplomatic corps and Egyptian notables at his palace at Abdin. In this grand setting he declared that the discontent in Egypt had reached its climax and that the nation was calling for the establishment of a purely Egyptian cabinet, which would be responsible to the Chamber of Notables. “As the head of the government and as an Egyptian,” he said, “I consider it my sacred duty to heed the opinion of my country, to give full satisfaction to its lawful expectations.” He then informed the assembly of the dismissal of the “European cabinet” and the formation of a new government of “genuine Egyptian elements,” and promised to introduce the parliamentary system in Egypt. The “electoral system and the rights of the Chamber,” Ismail declared, “will be regulated in accordance with national expectations.” At the same time he announced his readiness to adopt the financial plan of the Chamber of Notables.

The manifesto of Khedive Ismail may be regarded as a contribution to national liberation. It was the first official formulation of the view that the Egyptians were a distinct nation. The new Egyptian government was national as well as parliamentary in character. It was headed by the liberal landowner, Sherif Pasha, who not so long previously had been the Minister of Justice, and who had won popularity in Egypt by refusing to appear before the Wilson Commission of Inquiry. In that period, at the dawn of the Egyptian national movement, some of the landowners under the leadership of Ismail Pasha and Sherif Pasha were still participating in the national liberation struggle and had even headed the struggle. On the other hand, the activities of the people were still very weak.

On April 22, 1879, the National Government published its financial plan. It confirmed all the coupons on the internal loans and temporarily reduced the interest on the Consolidated Debt to 5 per cent a year. As for the rest, the government pledged itself to honour the terms of the Goschen-Joubert settlement, which were expressed in the Decree of November 18, 1876. The National Government dismissed a number of European officials who had been in charge of various sections of the state administration, decided to bring up the strength of the army to 60,000 men and set to work to draw up the first Egyptian Constitution. By May 17, 1879, Sherif Pasha had submitted drafts of the Organic and Electoral laws to the Chamber of Notables. On June 8, they were ratified by the Chamber and sent to the Khedive for consideration. Before Ismail could sanction them, however, he was overthrown by the united efforts of the Powers.


While Khedive Ismail helped the foreign capitalists enslave Egypt by contracting one loan after another, they extolled him as an enlightened and progressive ruler. But no sooner did he openly oppose the tyranny of the European bankers than he became an “Oriental despot” to be got rid of at all costs.

Immediately after the dismissal of the European ministers and the publication of the new financial plan, the Powers began threatening to depose Ismail. On April 25, 1879, the British Foreign Secretary, Salisbury, wrote to the British Consul in Cairo: “But if he [the Khedive-V. L.] continues to ignore the obligations imposed upon him by his past acts and assurances and persists in declining the assistance of the European ministers whom the two Powers may place at his disposal, we must conclude that the disregard of engagements, which has marked his recent action, was the result of a settled plan and that he deliberately denounces all pretension to their friendship. In such a case, it will only remain for the two cabinets to reserve to themselves an entire liberty of appreciation and action in defending their interests in Egypt and seeking the arrangements best calculated to secure the good government and prosperity of the country.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 133.]

The British Consul communicated this threat to Ismail. Ismail, however, displayed some firmness and refused to reinstate the European ministers. Diplomatic pressure was then used. England used Bismarck, who in his efforts to arouse Anglo-French differences and isolate France, willingly supported the solicitations of the British in Egypt. In May 1879, the German and Austrian governments unexpectedly protested against the actions of Ismail. The German creditors declared the April 22nd plan of financial regulation to be illegal and submitted the case to the Mixed Court. Early in June, the British and French governments entered a similar protest. In “private” communications, agents from various consulates urgently “advised” Ismail to abdicate and leave Egypt.

On June 19, 1879, England and France presented Ismail an ultimatum demanding his abdication. If Ismail abdicated voluntarily, the Powers promised to pay him a pension and transfer the throne to his son Tewfik. If the Khedive showed signs of resistance, the case would be referred to the Turkish Sultan and Ismail would be deposed by force. The threat was backed by other Powers. The consuls of Germany, Austria, Russia and Italy gave similar “advice.”

Ismail himself, not waiting for the Powers to transfer his case to Istanbul, submitted it to the consideration of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. This was a false step. Fearing conflict with the Powers, Abdul Hamid II hastened to execute their will and on June 26, 1879, sent a telegram to Ismail informing him of his deposal and the appointment of Tewfik as his successor.

“A crowd had collected in the streets of Cairo, but the whole transaction had been so expeditiously concluded that the mass of the population were unaware of the deposition of Ismail Pasha until they heard the guns of the citadel thundering in honour of his successor.” [L. Cromer, op. cit . p. 141.]

At first Ismail intended to resist, but he lacked the necessary self-control and persistence and on June 30 left Egypt for Italy. Not a single European diplomat attended his departure, but a popular demonstration was organised in his support. The Egyptian people did not like Ismail, rightly regarding him as one of those chiefly to blame for their misfortunes. At this moment, however, Ismail was a victim of the struggle against the foreign oppressors; he had attempted to head the national liberation struggle, and the people, forgetting his recent past, spontaneously expressed their approval of his attempt to establish national government, to conduct a policy independent of the European bankers.

The departure of Ismail Pasha sealed the fate of his associate, Sherif Pasha. Tewfik, a weak-willed and worthless individual and a mere puppet in the hands of the British, refused to sign the draft Constitution submitted by Sherif; on September 4, he restored Dual Financial Control and on September 21, 1879, dissolved the National Government. Riaz Pasha, a British protege, became the new Prime Minister of Egypt. This marked the beginning of the period of reaction. According to the Egyptian historian, Sabri, “a regime of despotism, terror and espionage prevailed in Egypt.”


The ministry of Riaz Pasha was merely a screen to bar from view the arbitrary rule of the Khedival Debt Commission and especially that of the British representative, Major Baring. Later, when he became Lord Cromer, Baring himself admitted that Riaz’s “trust” in him was so great that he signed important state acts and documents approved by Baring without even reading them. Under pressure from the Powers, the Porte restricted the rights of the Egyptian Government. As early as August 7, 1879, it abolished the firman of 1873. Egypt was once again deprived of the right to conclude foreign loans without the Porte’s approval. The strength of the Egyptian army was again restricted to 18,000 men.

The foreign controllers and the members of the Khedival Debt Commission became Egypt’s real government. But they themselves were unable to guarantee the receipt of money needed to meet the payments on the next coupons. In spite of the violent acts of the punitive detachments which were sent to the countryside to collect the taxes, plundered poverty-stricken Egypt simply could not meet their demands. By the end of 1879, only two-thirds of the next coupon payments on the Consolidated Debt had been liquidated. No tribute at all was given to the Porte. “If there is no money for the payment of the tribute, all the worse for the Porte,” the controllers declared.

Wilson’s financial plan was put into operation in January 1880. The law of mukabala was repealed. An extra tax was levied on the ushriya lands. All the remaining taxes in kind were replaced by money taxes. New dates were fixed for the payment of the taxes. A salt monopoly that caused great hardship to the people was introduced. The revenues for 1880 were fixed at £8,500,000, out of which only half was allocated to meet the expenses of the Egyptian Government. The other half went to the foreign creditors. Even these measures, however, could not secure the sums demanded by the foreign money-lenders and the payment of the coupons on the Consolidated Debt was reduced to 4 per cent per annum.

In April 1880, a Liquidation Commission headed by Rivers Wilson was set up to solve the problem of the Egyptian debt. The commission comprised all the former members of the Commission of Inquiry of 1878 (except for de Lesseps), representing England, France, Italy and Austria, plus a delegate from Germany. On July 17, 1880, at the proposal of the commission, a Law of Liquidation was promulgated, fixing the sum of the Egyptian debts at £98,000,000 and laying down a deadline for their payment, consolidating for this purpose a certain part of the state revenues of Egypt. The floating debt was divided into three parts: one part was paid to the creditors in full, the other, half in cash and half in bonds of the Preference Stock; the third part was paid on the basis of special agreements with individual creditors. “Its main defect,” Lord Cromer, one of the compilers of the law, wrote later, “was that too large a proportion of revenue (66 per cent) was mortgaged to the loan holders, whilst the balance left at the disposal of the government was insufficient.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 173.]

Once more the kurbash lashed the backs of the fellaheen and once more the Egyptian officers went without their salaries. Favouritism in the army flourished more than ever with “Circassians” being promoted to the commanding posts in preference to the Egyptians proper. The national liberation wave once again began to mount.


In 1880, new forces appeared in the vanguard of the national movement. In addition to liberal landowners like Sherif Pasha, radical and democratic officers like Ahmed Arabi came to the leader-ship. True, between 1880 and 1881, there was no clear distinction between the two groups inside the national movement. Both Sherif and Arabi called themselves wataneun. In 1881, Sherif’s followers, liberal landowners and merchants who resented the dominance of foreign capital, formed the National Party (Hizb El-Watan) with Mohammed Sultan Pasha as its president. Arabi’s followers, radical officers and intellectuals who became associated with them, formed their own National Party in the same year. At first the two parties were not opposed to each other, but basic differences soon arose between them. Sherif and Mohammed Sultan favoured an agreement with the European capitalists, whereas Arabi and his followers called for a resolute struggle against them. Sherif and Mohammed Sultan stood for the establishment in Egypt of a moderate constitutional monarchy, which would ensure the domination of semi-feudal landowners, while Arabi and his followers stood for the liquidation of the Khedivate and the dominance of the Turco-Circassian feudal nobility, and the establishment of democratic forms of government. Sherif and Mohammed Sultan struggled against the agrarian claims of the Egyptian peasantry; Arabi and his followers supported these protests. With the further development of the popular movement Sherif and Mohammed Sultan moved into the reactionary camp and helped the British to conquer Egypt; Arabi and his followers landed up at the head of the popular movement and upheld Egypt’s independence in the battles against the British.

In 1880-81, when both parties were still fighting against the reactionary cabinet of Riaz Pasha and the financial plans of Wilson and Baring, this deep-rooted difference had not yet come to the surface. Arabi and his followers still regarded Sherif Pasha as one of their own men, their advocate in the struggle for the national independence of Egypt, although Sherif himself had a lordly contempt for the “rebellious soldiery” and feared them at the same time.


In May 1880, a group of wataneun officers (Nationalists) submitted a protest to Othman Rifki, the Minister of War, against the non-payment of salaries and against sending soldiers to do forced labour on the khedival estates. The protest remained unanswered. On the contrary, Othman Rifki ostentatiously promoted a number of officers of the Turco-Circassian nobility in preference to Egyptian officers.

On January 15, 1881, Arabi Bey, the commander of the 4th Infantry Regiment, along with two other Nationalist colonels, Abd el-Al and Ali Fahmi, approached the Prime Minister, Riaz Pasha, and presented a new petition accusing the Minister of War of passing over distinguished Egyptian officers and giving preference to members of his own clique. Arabi demanded an inquiry into the latest promotions and the dismissal of Othman Rifki. Riaz accepted the petition and then asked the foreign controllers for advice. They counselled him to arrest those who had presented the petition. On February 1, 1881, the three colonels were summoned to the War Ministry, where everything had been prepared for dealing with them. No sooner had Arabi and his comrades arrived at the Ministry than they were arrested and handed over to a waiting military tribunal. The care-fully prepared drama, however, was frustrated. Scenting treachery, the soldiers and officers of the Cairo garrison hastened to the rescue of their leaders. Two regiments surrounded the Ministry of War. They were joined by another regiment quartered in the outskirts of Cairo. The soldiers broke into the courtroom and stopped the mock trial. War Minister Othman Rifki fled through the window. The “accused” were carried shoulder-high out of the Ministry and marched at the head of the 2,000 soldiers to the Khedive’s palace to demand equality in the army and the immediate removal of Othman Rifki. The frightened Tewfik, seeing that resistance was out of the question, agreed to all their demands and the hated Minister of War was immediately dismissed. His place was taken by the well-known poet Mahmud Sami el-Barudi, a moderate Nationalist and constitutionalist, closely connected with Sherif Pasha. The soldiers and Nationalist officers warmly welcomed his appointment. La-ter Mahmud Sami was to justify their trust. As a loyal Nationalist, he soon broke away from Sherif Pasha’s group and sided completely with Arabi.

Tewfik was compelled to make a reluctant declaration to the effect that “for the future every class of officer, whether Turk, Circassian, or Egyptian, would be treated on the same footing.” [L. Cromer, op. cit., p. 181] A special commission, including Arabi, was set up to inquire into the promotions that had been made by Othman Rifki.

However, although the Nationalist officers thought they had gained complete victory, the battle was only half won. With the odds in their favour, they confined themselves to purely professional demands and did not advance a single political claim, leaving power in the hands of Riaz and his entire reactionary camarilla, who preserved the prerogatives of the foreign controllers and in no way restricted the tyranny of Khedive Tewfik.

Reaction was quick to avail itself of the Nationalists’ mistake. As soon as the excitement of the soldiers had died down, Khedive Tewfik dismissed Mahmud Sami el-Barudi and began preparing reprisals against the Nationalist leaders.