The Colonial Era (1798-1952)

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 when it was a semi-autonomous Ottoman province. He was motivated by Egypt’s economic potential as a colony and by the possibility of thwarting British regional aspirations, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the three year incursion was the first significant encounter between Egyptians and Europeans. French scientists accompanied the army, cataloguing ancient artifacts and describing Egypt to an enchanted European audience. Under the reformist leader Muhammad Ali (d. 1849), scores of Egyptian students were sent to French military and scientific academies as part of a campaign to modernize Egypt along European lines, laying the foundations for the modern state. Thus, prior to the coming of the British in 1882, many in the Egyptian elite already reproduced European intellectual tropes regarding the superiority of European “modernity” and the backwardness of Egyptian “tradition.”

Egypt went into massive debt with the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, and declared bankruptcy in 1876. Anglo-French financial advisers stepped in to oversee Egypt’s payments which deepened European involvement in the Egyptian administration under the Egyptian monarch. For the British, Egypt was a source of cotton to supply British manufacturing and offered the strategic advantage of swift passage to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal. In 1882, Egyptian military officers rose up in a nationalist revolt, to which the British responded with an invasion effectively turning Egypt into an indirectly governed British colony. Egypt was made an official Protectorate of the British Empire during World War I.

Egyptians—particularly the new landowning elite and intellectual community—resented the limitations that the British placed on education and economic development intended to maintain Egypt as an agricultural economy. Many opposed the Empire’s annexation of the Sudan in 1898, and the British military presence across Egypt was a daily reminder of Egyptians’ political impotence. Some Muslims also resented the cultural changes they saw and blamed Egypt’s predicament on Egyptians’ failure to maintain religious traditions. From this milieu developed two strains of early nationalist thought: Islamic modernism/reformism and secular nationalism.[1]

Islamic modernism was a revival movement led by the Iranian scholar Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the reformist Muhammad ‘Abduh that inspired political and social reform grounded in Islam.[2] They called for a reformation in Islamic thought in light of modernity, and argued in favor of a constitutional monarchy.[3] They also emphasized pan-Islamism, which saw Islam as the seed for a shared identity among Muslims. While Islamic modernism in part inspired secular nationalism, it also birthed Islamic reformist movements. Among them was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, which was among the first Islamist organizations to demand a modern state structured by Islamic law and leadership.

Early secular nationalists were drawn from the land-holding elite, but with rising literacy and access to print media nationalism appealed broadly to Egyptians who had never before been politically inclined. Both Muslims and Coptic Christians were drawn to nationalism, which offered a political ideology grounded in shared Egyptian identity instead of religious communalism.4 The popular nationalist Wafd Party rose to prominence following massive demonstrations against the British in 1922 which ended the Protectorate and led to a constitutional monarchy. In reality, the British remained in control and over time the Wafd Party was seen as corrupt and solely a platform for the wealthy. Thus, the stage was set for a military coup that would overthrow both the British and the Wafd. Competing visions for the Egyptian state among the revolutionaries laid the groundwork for the ideological split between nationalism and Islamic reformism which quickly manifested in violence between Arab socialist authoritarian regimes and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.


[1] Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 516.

[2] Emad el-Din Shahin, “Egypt,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, ed. Gerhard Bowering (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p.147.

[3] James Toth, Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] Anshuman A. Mondal, Nationalism and Post-Colonial Identity: Culture and Ideology in India and Egypt (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 144; Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 50.

Image Credits:

"Bonaparte et son Etat-Major en Egypte," 1863, Jean-Léon Gérôme (d. 1904), Wikimedia Commons.

Hassan al-Banna, Date Unknown, Wikimedia Commons.