Egypt in 1800 was a semi-independent province of the Ottoman empire. In the early 1800s, it made great strides toward reform. Its success was due to Muhammad Ali, an Albanian Muslim soldier who was appointed governor of Egypt in 1805. Ali had helped to oust the French from Egypt. They were remnants of Napoleon's forces that had occupied the land for several years. The French occupation had disrupted Egypt's traditional government, which gave Muhammad Ali an opportunity to remake Egypt.
Muhammad Ali is sometimes called the “founder of modern Egypt.” He introduced a number of political and economic reforms. First, he ended the power of the old ruling oligarchy and seized huge farms from the old landowning class. He reduced the power of religious leaders and crushed any protest against his rule. He then set out to rebuild Egypt along modern lines. He improved tax collection and backed large irrigation projects to increase farm output.
Muhammad Ali ordered Egyptian farmers to plant a new kind of cotton, to be sold as a cash crop. By expanding cotton production and encouraging the development of many local industries, Ali brought Egypt into the growing network of world trade.
The British used their military strength to protect their interest in the Suez Canal. These troops were sent to Egypt during the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War.
Why would the British want to protect their control of the Suez Canal?
Muhammad Ali also brought Western military experts to Egypt to help him build a well-trained, modern army. He promoted education and the study of medicine. Before he died in 1849, he had set Egypt on the road to becoming a major Middle Eastern power.
Muhammad Ali's successors lacked his skills, and Egypt came increasingly under foreign control. In 1858, a French entrepreneur, Ferdinand de Lesseps (LAY seps), organized a company to build the Suez Canal, a waterway connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas. Europe hailed its opening in 1869 because it greatly reduced the travel time between Europe and Asia. To Britain, especially, the canal was a “lifeline” to India, where its influence was increasing.
In 1875, the ruler of Egypt was unable to repay loans he had contracted for the canal and other modernization projects. To pay his debts, he sold his shares in the canal. The British prime minister Disraeli quickly bought them, giving Britain a controlling interest in the canal.
Britain soon expanded its influence in Egypt. When a nationalist revolt erupted in 1882, Britain made Egypt a protectorate. In theory, the governor of Egypt was still an official of the Ottoman government. In fact, he followed policies dictated by Britain.
Under British influence, Egypt continued to modernize. At the same time, nationalist discontent simmered and flared into protests and riots well into the next century.
How did Egypt fall under British control?
Like the Ottoman empire, Persia faced major challenges in the 1800s. At first, the Qajar (kah JAHR) shahs, who ruled Persia from 1794 to 1925, exercised absolute power like the Safavids before them. Still, they did take steps to introduce reforms. The government improved finances and sponsored the building of railroads and telegraph lines. By the early 1900s, it was even experimenting with liberal reforms.
Reform, however, did not save Persia from Western imperialism. Both Russia and Britain battled for influence in the area.