HISTORY / Bob Feldman : A People’s History of Egypt, Part 4, 1849-1879

Building the Suez Canal. Image from Modern School.

A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt

Part 4: 1849-1879 period — From free trade and the Suez Canal to bankruptcy and austerity

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | July 29, 2013

[With all the dramatic activity in Egypt, Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog “people’s history” series, “The Movement to Democratize Egypt,” could not be more timely. Also see Feldman’s series on The Rag Blog.]

In 1841 the sultan of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire had “bestowed the hereditary rule of Egypt on Muhammad Ali and his family,” according to Jason Thompson’s History of Egypt. A grandson of Muhammad Ali, Pasha Abbas Hilmy I, succeeded Muhammad Ali as Egypt’s ruler between 1848 and July 1854 — at which time Abbas Hilmy I was murdered by two of his slaves.

But during his six years as pasha, Abbas Hilmy I “closed the country’s factories and secular schools and opened Egypt to free trade, thus retarding industrialization” of the Egyptian economy, according to The Rough Guide to Egypt.

Following the murder of Abbas Hilmy I, a son of Muhammad Ali — Pasha Muhammad Said — ruled Egypt between 1854 and 1863. After coming to power, Muhammad Said gave a concession to build the Suez Canal that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea to a childhood friend: a French consul and engineer named Ferdinand de Lesseps.

In exchange for granting the concession to Lesseps and agreeing to provide the Egyptian workers whose labor was required to dig the Suez Canal, Muhammad Said was awarded “personal ownership of 15 percent of the shares of the Suez Canal Company, with another 15 percent going to Egypt” and “through purchase of additional shares, Said’s stake in the company eventually rose to 44 percent,” according to A History of Egypt.

But many of the Egyptian peasants who were conscripted to dig the Suez Canal between 1859 and its completion in 1869 lost their lives while the canal was being built. As the same book recalled:

Some 20,000 peasants were conscripted every month, herded to the canal zone, and put to work. That meant that every month, 20,000 conscript laborers were on their way to the canal zone, 20,000 were actually at work there, and another 20,000 were returning to their homes, so that during the course of a year, more than 500,000 laborers were involved with the canal in one way or another, and this process continued for 10 years.

Working conditions were often horrific; sometimes men had to dig with their bare hands, paid only a pitiful allowance, with barely enough food to sustain them. Dredging machines (paid for by Egypt) were not used extensively until the final phase of work on the canal.

Estimates of how many Egyptian workers died during construction of the Suez Canal vary. According to A History of Egypt:

The number of lives lost from neglect, overwork, malnutrition, or accident has been estimated at the same number as the basic quota of workers: 20,000. Such a large continuing drain on Egyptian manpower at a time when the total population of the country was perhaps 5 million created general economic difficulties… Antislavery societies…strongly objected to what could be considered slave labor…

But according to The Palestine Book Project’s 1977 book, Our Roots Are Still Alive: The Story of the Palestinian People, “over 125,000 Egyptians…died building the canal for the British Empire,” including those Egyptian workers who died of cholera during the 10 years of construction.

After Muhammad Said’s death in 1863, another son of Muhammad Ali named Ismail — whose status was changed from “pasha” to “khedive” by the Turkish sultan in 1866 after Ismail agreed to pay more money in tribute to the Istanbul government — became Egypt’s ruler until 1879.

By 1865, “the value of Egyptian cotton exports had risen to a level more than ten times higher” than in 1860, after Europe’s supply of cotton from the South was cut off by the U.S. Civil war, according to A History of Egypt.

But when the value of Egyptian cotton exports decreased by 50 percent in the late 1860s, Khedive Ismail’s government borrowed heavily from mostly UK and French banks and investors to finance Khedive Ismail’s lavish palace lifestyle, his road, bridge, and railroad construction projects, the expansion of his Egyptian army from 25,000 to 120,000 troops, and his attempts to establish more Egyptian control over parts of Sudanese territory to the south of Egypt.

As a result, as the same book observed:

By the mid-1870s, Ismail was desperate. One-third of Egypt’s revenue was going to service the debt. In 1875 he sold his shares in the Suez Canal Company to Britain…..but that exhausted his assets, and his credit had reached its limit. The following year, Egypt stopped making payments on its loans. The country was bankrupt…Ismail had to agree to the formation of a European commission to manage the debt…. Two Controllers, one British and one French, oversaw collection of revenues to make debt payments… They instituted an austerity program of cuts and expenditures that caused widespread hardships…

[Egyptian] Army officers whose pay had been severely cut rioted, probably at the instigation of Ismail… He dismissed the Dual Control… But these initiatives merely convinced France and Britain that Ismail had to go… On June 25, 1879…two telegrams arrived from Istanbul… Ismail learned that he had been deposed and replaced by his 27-year-old son. It had been a fairly simple matter for Britain and France to pressure the sultan to act in the interests of those countries’ bondholders…

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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