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For two millennia Egypt had been a prize rather than a nation-a conquest, a strategic necessity for foreigners.
They came and ruled and exploited the people. This Egypt was a matter of administration and taxes, foreign titles and oppression. The West knew Egypt primarily from engravings of the temples Kom Omba or Karnak; the Sphinx, partly covered in sand; and the Pyramids, one of the wonders of the world. A few tales and ancient historical texts circulated, but through the centuries Egypt remained a mystery, an exotic oriental backwater.
For those in Arabia and the Middle East, the Nile was of more consequence. The Arabs first arrived in 639 with the army of Amr Ibn el-As, a force out of the desert, alien and ambitious. An Islamic conquest in 642 transformed the residue of ancient Egypt ruled by Levantine foreigners. The military city of Fustat-now old Cairo-had been built and control established over the local authorities, the docile peasants-the fellahín-and the Coptic Christians. The Islamic dynasties that followed, at times operating independently and at times nominally in control of other Islamic rulers, were always imposed.
Cairo became a great city, the country prosperous and sophisticated, though often riven by internal war, and always a prize. Saladin ruled in splendor for a while. Then in 1250 came the Mamelukes: proud, avaricious and cruel Turkish mercenaries, revitalized by new slave levies. They flourished, ruling even after the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Selim I had annexed Egypt. Sovereignty might be elsewhere, with the caliph, but Egypt was Mameluke.
Over the centuries Mameluke feudal lords became more greedy and brutal but also less efficient. Without much Turkish interference, they indulged in their quarrels and their increasingly haphazard exploitation of the weak. The poor simply endured as always, in wretched exhaustion and pious docility. By the end of the eighteenth century, Mameluke Egypt was neglected and isolated, inhabited by the urban destitute, the Islamic imams and sheikhs of al-Azhar, and the fellahín. Egypt was a squalid oriental despotism erected on ancient ruins, an arena for the deadly quarrels of an elite of Mameluke beys and pashas fighting over scarce spoils.
Change came to Egypt in 1798 with the unexpected arrival of Napoleon. At the Battle of the Pyramids, in June 1798, the Mamelukes discovered the modern world. The battle, an afternoon's slaughter, was a bloody farce. The last medieval cavalry charge transformed all of the Mameluke splendor-the glittering armor and whirling swords, the cries of arrogance and defiance-into heaps of bloody bodies piled helter-skelter amid maimed horses and abandoned weapons.
Occupying Cairo, the French found only shoddy ruins and slums. The streets were filthy, the buildings dilapidated, the crowds in rags. Outside the city, the great ancient temples were covered in sand. The countryside was unproductive. And for those among the masses who noticed them at all, the French were merely bizarre, strangely dressed infidels come to rule. Nothing else would change.
The French scientists and other experts were eager to investigate the past, change the present, assure progress toward a modern future. They found that the Nile Delta had increasingly become fallow as the canals filled with silt. The people lived in squalid tenements or with their animals in mud huts in mean villages. Alexandria, ancient glory long gone, proved to be no more than a shabby town of fifteen thousand. Cairo was filthy, raucous and vile, its unlighted and unpaved streets filled with sewage, slop dribbling down walls, garbage dumped from windows, dead rats in the gutters. No one seemed interested in razing the fetid slums, widening the dark streets or repairing the canals.
Napoleon wanted to reach out to Islam; he had come as a liberator, after all. Cairo was tidied up, the filth removed, new streets opened, order encouraged, reformed regulations imposed. Licenses and permits were required. There were new taxes. Change was embodied by pink-faced men in military uniform and scientists at work measuring temples and water levels and naming plants. But the French did not stay. In 1799, Napoleon returned to France and other wars and adventures. On June 14, 1800, his successor, General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, was murdered in Cairo.
Napoleon's adventure had revealed to only a few Egyptians what the modern world looked like: how wars were won, how nature was harnessed, how cities were governed. Revealed as well were the power of reason, the glory of science and the cost of Egyptian feudalism-mean, sterile and squalid. Most Egyptians took no notice of this interlude of European enlightenment. The Koran supplied all necessary answers, while penury eroded all curiosity.
Still, Egypt was never the same after Napoleon; modernity had been set loose in the land. Following the French came the British, intervening for narrow strategic purposes without romantic notions about the Pyramids and without reaching out to Islam. They simply wanted no one else to use Egypt-not even the sovereign Turks. They didn't want to rule or administer, but they couldn't find capable Egyptians to rule for them. They muddled through for a time, wrangling with the sultan, coping with the surviving Mameluke beys, arguing with each other and with their own experts.
In March 1803, the British left Egypt to the surviving Mamelukes. Egypt was again in the hands of the rapacious and incompetent. The sultan could not impose authority, nor could the Mamelukes run the country. An ambitious and ruthless Albanian adventurer, Mohammed Ali, saw opportunity. Egypt could matter; it could garner respect and power. So Mohammed Ali betrayed his allies, murdered his rivals, played off one Mameluke bey against another, roused the mob in Cairo and put his trust in cruelty and guile in order to seize absolute power. It was the Egyptian way.
Mohammed Ali had himself elected pasha of Cairo almost at the same time as Napoleon became emperor of France. He was the only viable alternative to anarchy and exploitation. Only a few opposed him, while many admired his cunning and brutality. In 1811 he lured the last forty Mameluke survivors to the Citadel overlooking Cairo and had them all slaughtered. Then he ruled Egypt without rival, becoming the khedive and modernizing the country.
Taking Western advice, Mohammed Ali introduced cotton as a major crop, transforming the Delta and therefore Egypt. A vast network of new canals was constructed. Soon there was an export crop: cotton drove out all else but assured huge sums from foreign sales. The state now had money to spend. Wealth flowed into the growing Egyptian middle class and into the accounts of a growing number of immigrants and investors. For the fellahín the patterns of work in the field and the daily round changed; even if the work required longer hours, there was more to eat and more children survived. The newly rich and comfortable needed their houses swept, messages delivered, laundry done. By the time of Mohammed Ali's death in 1848, cotton had made Egypt, if not all Egyptians, far wealthier; had tied the country to European markets; and had funded a centralized government that maintained an effective military force.
Mohammed Ali's heir, Ibrahim Pasha, was determined to press forward the transformation of Egypt as quickly as possible. He invested in a new army and proved a skilled military leader; all of Egypt's neighbors feared him. He also took foreign advice, expanded the canals, and encouraged the production of still more cotton. Between 1853 and 1870, the income of the fellahín increased threefold. The cities grew. The population rose from three million in 1830 to seven million in 1890. A continuing stream of émigrés, investors, tradesmen and adventurers arrived. Land was bought, railways built, banks opened, stores staffed and gardens laid out. Opportunity drew the skilled and ambitious, among them Cypriots, Syrians, Maltese, Lebanese, Orthodox, Jews and Aryans.
Visitors still were stunned by the poverty, the flies and open sewers, the primitive villages, the crippled beggars and medieval customs; but they had never seen the utter misery of Mameluke times and didn't realize how awful things had once been. The next khedive, Ismail, ruling from 1863 to 1879, oversaw another great thrust toward modernity. Egypt suddenly had gaslights and the telegraph. The railway was extended. The great squares and boulevards of Alexandria were completed. When the cotton money ran short, the British and others lent funds to the khedive. In Cairo the opera house was finished and Verdi was commissioned to write Aïda to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Khedive Ismail felt that all had been changed: Now, we are no longer part of Africa but part of Europe.
Impatient to join the modern world, Ismail ran up debts that Egypt could not immediately pay. He opened the door to bankruptcy and so to foreign intervention, especially by the British and the French, who wanted to protect their shares and control in the Suez Canal. In 1882, to keep others out and to see debts paid, the British reluctantly returned and initiated a veiled occupation, shutting out all others including the French. There would be a British resident, imported bureaucrats and specialists and an administration largely directed by those seconded to Egyptian service.
Some found the arrangement insulting. Nationalism had come to Egypt along with gaslights and international debts. It seemed to the new patriot class that the country had been occupied by stealth and without consent. In 1882 the new Egyptian army under Colonel Arabi Pasha revolted and was promptly defeated by the British at Tel el-Kewbir. The British representative, Major Evelyn Baring, became consul-general, one of the great imperial overlords, absolutely confident in his policies, honored and admired and eventually titled: Lord Cromer. Isolated in the Residency, dedicated and hard-working, Lord Cromer introduced fair and efficient administration, along with a host of new initiatives to transform the lives of the natives.
As resident, Cromer pursued growth, prudence and the payment of old debts. The palace still offered pomp and ceremony, but the resident made the real decisions, imposing policy by influence, logic and the reality of British power. For the few middle-class Egyptians, politics was limited to palace intrigue and resentment, with no prospects of power, no parties, no institutions of governance and no opportunities for dissent. From 1885 to 1910, modernization included an improved army, a fairer tax structure, reformed courts, a modernized police force, new construction and increased cotton exports (in 1885 the value was £9 million and in 1910 it was £29 million). Sudan was brought under an Anglo-Egyptian condominium and French influence once again was frustrated.
Immigration stepped up, meaning more Greeks and Italians, more new ventures and enterprises where no Arabic was spoken, more banks, large department stores and paved roads. Those eager for advantage and profit-speculators from Malta, agents from Salonika or Naples, Balkan merchants with funds to invest-all wanted to be in Egypt. They didn't want to be Egyptian, but rather to benefit from the privileges and exceptions offered to foreigners. So they came and prospered. Modern luxury hotels were built with Swiss managers and German waiters. The Egyptians were found in the scullery, carrying messages, sweeping out.
The foreigners shaped their own Egyptian world in Cairo and Alexandria, imported their cravats and novels and manners, kept their own language and religion, gambled away fortunes at San Stefano Casino. The immigrants with more menial jobs and no capital to invest also lived apart from ordinary Egyptians, spoke no Arabic, and saved to go home again to a comfortable old age.
The Egyptians, few having an education or money to invest, only gradually moved away from the old economy, the street stalls, the date palms and the miserable slums. While appealing, the modern world was for most still alien and would continue to be so. Few Egyptians studied abroad, accumulated capital or bought land, practiced law or medicine, or published a newspaper.
The khedive, the Egyptian Legislative Assembly and what there was of Egyptian opinion also accepted the benefits of British administration. Modern politics had come to Egypt but the palace had no power, the lawyers could not enact laws, the politicians had no parties, and the men with new university degrees had limited prospects. The sheikhs and imams offered no opposition to the British. The new army was co-opted. The palace was content with stipends and titles. These new Egyptians accepted the British position papers and development programs, smoked cigarettes and read the newspapers, sent out for coffee, collected their salaries. Yet they resented English condescension as much as the students and the radicals in the tiny middle class.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the aspiration for a powerful, independent Egypt faced severe obstacles: a population only superficially Western, an economic system that relied on one crop, limited technical and political talent, and a society ignorant of Western norms of efficiency and responsibility. Much had been accomplished. Cotton had proved enormously profitable. The army looked like an army. The centers of Cairo and Alexandria were not unlike Palermo or Nice. Canals and railways and gaslights were visible. But the fellahín had too few primary schools and so remained illiterate, superstitious, volatile-the stuff of mobs. And there were too many secondary school graduates who were underemployed, underpaid and resentful. Prosperity was unevenly distributed; the reduction of the Egyptian debt had meant little for those on the edge of penury.
The British associated with their own. They saw all Egyptians as simply natives: the clerks, the peasants, the palace officials and the lawyers. They knew only their faithful watchman, the habits of the khedive, and their bureaucratic contact-a small man in a badly cut suit, often with a fez and an odd accent, who had to be monitored for sloth. They had seldom met an Egyptian socially. Those in charge chose to ignore the international community of bankers and merchants-Levantine, louche, mere immigrants. They regarded most of the locals as incompetent, superstitious, often corrupt; the palace as exotic and irrelevant; and the international caste as necessary but unsavory. And this was quite often accurate.
With each new year of the new century, it was reasonable to expect that tomorrow would be like today. There was stability and routine; schools were built, documents were initialed, orders were given as suggestions.
Excerpted from Murders on the Nile by J. BOWYER BELL Copyright © 2003 by J. Bowyer Bell. Excerpted by permission.
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