Module Twenty One, Activity Three

The Emergence of Egyptian Modern History

As you have previously learned in the past lesson, Egypt has a long, rich history. This lesson will now cover the emergence of Egyptian Modern History. As you begin to read about the different rulers in Egyptian modern history, think about who did the most beneficial things for Egypt, and who did the least. How did Egypt play a role in world history?

The Beginning of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt
In 1517 the Ottoman forces arrived in Egypt. Ottomans came from Central Asia and were members of Turkish tribes. The Ottoman forces were powerful and Mamluks could not maintain control over Egypt.

The Ottomans had a strong military technological advantage; firearms. Egypt was a long distance away from Istanbul (the center of the Ottoman rule). So, Mamluks would govern Egypt while the Turks would rule from the distance. Egypt was in ruins from the Mamluk’s rule and there was a great decline in population. In 1798, during the Ottoman rule, Napoleon would invade Egypt and had no trouble winning over the Mamluks.

Napoleon in Egypt
Take a few minutes and write about what you know about Napoleon. What do you think his role might be in Egypt? Why might he be interested in Egypt?

The Ottoman Empire controlled Egypt at the end of the Archaic Islamic Period. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt on his way to India (see Module 7B African History). He did this in hopes of establishing French dominance and to protect trade interests by gaining a shorter route to the East through Egypt. At this time, the British and the French were at war over the expansion of their borders for foreign trade. Upon landing he fought against the Mamluks in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798. Napoleon was outnumbered but strategically won the battle. 6,000 Egyptians died in battle and only 300 French. Napoleon may have thought at this time that he would control Egypt and parts of the Middle East. But, what he did not know is that British fleets (in hopes of helping the Ottoman Empire) would launch an attack on the French fleets that were supporting the ground expedition through Egypt. This war between the French and the British would be known as the Battle of the Nile. It ended up being a crucial win for the British Navy. Napoleon continued his ground expedition into Cairo. But his expedition was weakened by the fact that all of his ships and supplies were burned, taken over, or had fled for France.

Battle of the Pyramids
Battle of the Pyramids by Wojciech Kossak

More trouble awaited Napoleon on his conquest of Egypt. He traveled around North Africa and the Middle East in hopes of conquering land and protecting foreign trade. Disease and dwindling supplies weakened his army as they went to battle in different regions. Napoleon decided to retreat to Egypt. It is on the retreat that Napoleon decided to kill prisoners and men stricken with the plague in order to retreat faster. When back in Egypt, Napoleon closely watched the events happening back in Europe. The situation in Egypt seemed to be stagnating. In August of 1799, Napoleon left for France, abandoning his men. He left the army under another French general.

Muhammad Ali and the emerging Modern Egypt
Muhammad Ali

In 1801, Muhammad Ali was sent to evacuate the French from Egypt for the Ottoman Empire. Upon doing this, Ali also planned to industrialize Egypt, especially through the military. To do this, Ali organized the farms in Egypt and began to export food grains along with cotton and sugar. At harvest time he would purchase the entire crop and sell it himself, creating his very own monopoly of the cotton crop in Egypt. He held great economic power because of this. He wanted European traders to only deal directly through him at Alexandria, and banned Europeans from trading within Egypt. (Activity: Writing – write quickly about how you think the people of Egypt felt about this monopoly. What could they do to change this? Did they have any power?)

This trade and the resulting profits were vital to Ali’s plans to industrialize Egypt and to modernize its military. The strength Ali built through the military allowed Egypt to conquer parts of what are now Sudan and the Arabian Peninsula. Along with this military strength, came needed projects such as, roads, canals, and hospitals. Peasantries (one who resides in the countryside and often rent/owns a small plot of land) were often drafted into labor or military positions. Many peasants objected these conditions and would often run away from their villages.

European merchants (especially those in Britain and France) were very unhappy with the monopoly that Ali had acquired. They went to Istanbul – capital of the Ottoman Empire-- in attempt to persuade the Sultan to put an end to Ali’s trade monopoly. Not wanting to alienate the British and French, whose international power and influence was growing in the early 19th century, the Sultan put pressure on Ali to allow European merchants greater access to Egypt.  Muhammad Ali and his descendants continued to rule Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman and Turkish regimes until 1952.


Many feel that Ali was very beneficial for Egypt, but others thought differently. After learning about him and his reign in Egypt, take a side and defend your position!

The End of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt
Said and Ismail, Muhammad Ali’s son and grandson, expanded the industrialization of Egypt during their years of their reign.  Physical infrastructure projects included railroads, irrigation systems, ports, communication facilities, and transportation facilities. In 1869 the Suez Canal (see below) was built and became a significant transportation hub for trade between Asia and Europe.  Egypt had to borrow heavily to finance these projects, resulting in huge debt burden that was impossible for the country to service.  Most of the debt was to the European nations—particularly France and Britain. All of this modernization not only increased the debt of Egyptians but also created a religious resistance on the part of the more conservative sectors of the predominately Islamic population to European secular attitudes and domination. In 1876 a tax collection was overseen by a joint agency of the French and British. Private property came into being at this time by this agency in order to ensure payment of future taxes and debt Egyptians already owed. In 1882 the British began to occupy and control Egypt.

Suez Canal
In 1858, the Suez Canal construction began. The Suez Canal was built using forced Egyptian labor, often under terrible conditions. It was built so passage from Europe into the Indian Ocean would be shorter than the route around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Originally the French and Egyptians had a contract to construct the canal. The project was completed on November 17, 1869. In 1875 Egypt’s shares of the canal were bought out by Britain, due to the great financial strains facing Egypt at that time. Even though the canal was built with Egyptian funds and on Egyptian territory, they lost control of the canal and any financial benefits that would come from it. Britain also gained military control of the canal.  The completion of the Suez canal greatly increased the strategic importance of Egypt to Britain and other European powers since the vast majority of trade between European and South and South East Asia went through the canal.  The use of the canal cut by European ships cut in half the distance between Western Europe and Asia.

Suez Canal MapSuez Canal

Up until the beginning of World War I the Ottoman Empire continued its rule over Egypt through their Khedive, but under British control. This joint venture in governance ended when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in the war. The British immediately declared an end to Ottoman rule in Egypt.  In 1914 Britain declared martial law (a law that would be imposed when civil authority has been broken down, or during a military occupation) in Egypt. After the war was over in 1918, the newly formed League of Nations through the Versailles Treaty granted the British a “mandated” rule with intent that this would “prepare” Egyptians for self-rule but in actuality it helped to perpetuate colonial rule over Egypt as it did over the former German colonies in Africa (Burundi, Rwanda, Togo, Tanganyika, Cameroon).

British Colonial Control of Egypt (1882-1954)
The British occupation in Egypt became gradually stronger as time passed. (See Module 7B: European Colonialism for more discussion on this topic) In the beginning years of occupation, the British allowed Egypt to be ruled by a Khedive (Turkish viceroy that would rule over Egypt). This meant that the Ottoman Empire still had control of most of the governmental offices in Egypt although they would be overseen by  British advisers. In 1892 the British hampered efforts of the Khedive and Egyptian nationalist intellectuals to resist the rule of the British. The British, as was the case in its South Asian and other African colonies, did little to promote the social, economic and political interests of the Egyptian people.

Nationalism in Egypt
The League of Nations mandate did not go over well with Egyptian nationalists. Over the next years there was increased unrest and protest and numerous Egyptian nationalists were arrested and deported for traveling to the League of Nations to declare their rights of self-determination. In 1922, the British declared independence in Egypt (it was very limited because the British still had control over their military, Suez Canal, and many other aspects of Egypt). There would continue to be protests until a coup (an overthrow of a government that is unconstitutional but often done by part of the state, getting rid of high ranking officials) would remove the British colonial rule in Egypt by Arab nationalists in 1952. The nationalists would promise economic progress, political independence and social equality in Egypt. Egyptians were finally in power.

Egypt under Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser led the nationalists into the coup of 1952. Two years after this, he came into power as prime minister of Egypt. During his reign, Nasser proposed the building of the Aswan Dam. He looked to the United States for funding but after completing an arms deal with the U.S.S.R. (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics), the US would no longer fund the project. So, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in hopes of making revenue off of the canal to pay for the Aswan Dam project (see Activity Four: Current Issues Afflicting Egypt for more on the Aswan Dam). This sparked international controversy over who controlled the canal; it was called the Suez Crisis. In 1956 Israeli forces (with the strong support of Great Britain and France) invaded Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula and moved into the area of the Suez Canal. An air strike occurred when the Egyptian forces would not leave the Suez Canal, and in return Nasser sunk 40 ships to block the canal. At this point the U.S. and the U.S.S.R stepped in and demanded that the British, French and Israeli forces withdraw from the canal zone.  In 1957 the canal reopened under Egyptian control. A UN force also established neutrality of the canal. The Aswan Dam was funded by the U.S.S.R, and Nasser developed a special relationship with the U.S.S.R. In the 1960’s Egypt began to build its’ own socialist economy as modeled from the Soviet Union. This seemed beneficial to the lower and middle classes of Egypt. Nasser became popular among Arab countries. In an attempt to achieve Arab unity, Nasser lead the creation of the United Arab Republic, a union between Syria and Egypt in 1958. This attempt failed when Syria withdrew from the UAR in 1961. Nasser was an important leader in the Arab unity movement that is referred to as Pan-Arabism. Nasser resigned after Israel launched attacks on Egypt and Jordan, in what was called the Six-Day War (1967). Due to encouragement by the Egyptian people, Nasser reclaimed his position as leader. In 1970, Nasser passed away.

Egypt under Sadat

Anwar Al Sadat became president after Nasser’s death in 1970. For seven years, Sadat continued the battles with Israel and had to face a deteriorating relationship with the Soviets. In 1972, Sadat ordered the Soviets to withdraw. In an attempt to show that Egyptians had regained their own military power and also to take back control of the Suez Canal, they along with Syria, attacked Israel in what was known as the, Yom Kippur War. Egyptians came out strong, but could not hold off the Israeli reserves. They were forced to retreat back into Egypt, and were strongly encouraged by the Soviets, the United States, the UN and OPEC to peacefully end this conflict to maintain a balanced control in the region. It was seen as a victory in the sense that now Egypt was seen as an Israeli rival. This incident also began the set of peace talks that would reopen the Suez Canal. Sadat was called “The Hero of The Crossing”. After this Sadat saw benefits of working with the United States over the Soviet Union (for further discussion on the Cold War see Module 10 African Politics). He felt it would improve the amount of aid that Egypt would receive along with enhancing the peacekeeping efforts of Egypt. In 1977 Sadat traveled to Jerusalem for a historic visit to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. This would help resolve the conflicts Egypt was facing in Israel at the time (due to the fact that Israel and the US were allies). He (Sadat was the only one to decide on the agreement due to their political system), along with Israel, signed the Camp David Accords. In 1978 he, (along with his Camp David partners, Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin) received the Nobel Peace Prize. These peacekeeping efforts alienated Egypt in much of the rest of the Arab world.

As Sadat’s popularity rose in the West, it fell in Egypt. Conflicts arose between Sadat and the Islamic political opposition. The opposition disagreed with the western ways that Sadat attempted to secularize, privatize, and deregulate the Egyptian economy and government. In hopes of improving relations with the Islamist opposition, Sadat released many political prisoners whom Nasser had captured. In September 1981, Sadat knew that the releasing of the Islamist leaders only made their program stronger, so he arrested opposition leaders. This only angered the radical Islamists whom assassinated Sadat on October 6, 1981, during a parade to commemorate the Arab-Israeli War.

Egypt under Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak, who is the current President of Egypt, came into power after Sadat’s Death in October 1981. Mubarak has served five successive terms in Egypt. His terms as President have been controversial. Mubarak promised to serve only two terms as president but encouraged the parliament to legally allow him to serve longer. Since parties had to be approved by the government itself to run for elections, Mubarak had a strong hold on the elections. In the last elections in 2005, it has been said that the election was flawed. Allegedly, employees were taken to vote, those that were not registered to vote were allowed, and some people were often bought for their vote. Mubarak was re-elected.

Mubarak, much like Sadat, continuously faces threats from Islamic opposition groups. An attempted assassination occurred in 1995, and it has been reported that he has faced up to 6 assassination attempts. In that same year, 1995, the opposition groups attacked tourist sites in order to weaken the economy (which relies on tourism for much of its income) and ruin the regime. In 1997, the Luxor faced the worst attack.

Egypt continues to face economic hardships. The standard of living has not been raised and subsidies are given to the people of Egypt that live in poverty, but these subsidies contribute to the debt of the country. The population of Egypt continues to rise, but land is limited. See the next lesson, Activity Four: Current Issues Afflicting Egypt, to learn more about Egypt’s water controversy.


After reading and learning about the past three leaders of Egypt, who do you feel did the most beneficial things for Egypt? Who did the least? Make a statement and give evidence to defend your position.

This lesson has given information on the modern history or Egypt up to the present day. The last of the three lessons, will discuss the issue of water in Egypt.

 Go on to Activity Four or choose from one of the other activities in this module