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Egypt, whose very name appears a cipher, a hieroglyph, who can but feel humble before Thee! Foremost among the Five that complete the African Mediterranean States, You are the oldest; You, must be preeminent in any reckoning. Pyramids that puzzle eminent thinkers to this day, so simple in their structure. Sphinx gazing eternal at Leo’s horizon, stupidly marred by the mechanical troops of Napoleon, but a pretender to thy glory, O Egypt.

Select images above for banknotes of Egypt.

Egypt is ancient, breathtakingly ancient.

Egypt has been invaded and conquered many times, say our encyclopedias. The elders smile, the old men sigh, and the Sphinx remains, poised, unmoved, resting, waiting. The pyramids point, mark, remind, as the simplest of mathematical constructs. Egypt has never been conquered.

From the Crisis over the Suez (1882) to the Suez Crisis (1956) – Colonialism through the 20th century Great War…

The Suez canal had opened in 18691, with great international fanfare, just six months after the completion of the Trans Continental Railroad.2 The combined openings dramatically adjusted costs of trade and brought the world closer. Just 4 years later Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days in which his protagonist, Phileas Fogg, made use of these dramatic advances to accomplish his record journey. The Suez Canal soon assumed the world-wide strategic significance as we know it today.

Unsurprisingly, the cost to complete the canal was double the cost estimated. The subsequent indebted Egyptian ruler sold Egypt’s shares, 44% of the total of the Suez Canal Company, to Great Britain which had opposed the project during construction.3

The cost of the Suez increased the debt burden upon the already distressed Egyptian economy. Soon, Egypt sold its 44% share to Great Britain, and in addition to other measures, increased taxes upon the people. To protect their interests, France and now Great Britain too, increasingly meddled in Egyptian affairs. In those days, a colonel in the army named Urabi, rose up and led a nationalist revolt4 seeking to curb the European influence, especially of France and Great Britain.

Great Britain invaded Egypt, and defeated Urabi at Tel el-Kebir September 13, 1882. The intervention was ostensibly at the invitation of the Egyptian ruler, but certainly also to secure its own interests, as well as prevent default on the British loan for shares in the Suez canal. The British presence, ostensibly for just a short while, extended until finally expelled by Egypt in 1956, almost a hundred years later, the decade following WW2.

Britain remained in Egypt from that event in 1882 through the start of WW1, in what has come to be known as the veiled protectorate, “veiled” because there was no legal basis for it, “protectorate” because that was the official term applied to the continuing British military presence following the outbreak of WW1. With the entrance of the Ottoman Empire into WW1 on the side of the Central Powers, Britain unilaterally declared the protectorate of Egypt and compelled Egypt to declare itself independent of the Ottomans. Just a few years after the close of the war, Egypt unilaterally declared itself independent of Britain. Nevertheless, Britain’s military remained, a situation not “normalized” until a 1936 treaty granting that permission to Britain, in order to provide security for its primary link to its great colony, India. 1953 was the year the decolonization wave finally broke for Egypt, and the revolution cast out the British “advisers”, in that mighty tide of colonial revulsion following the close of the Great War of the 20th Century, divided by some into WW1 and WW2. It could not have been stopped, but the British managed to make it seem preventable. Rather than leaving it as an incontestable surrender to the supremacy of the goddesses of fate, they managed to make it look like a bungled administrative bureaucratic mistake. Well, it was that, but it was also the other; and so the history stands.5 6

From Independence to the Arab Spring…

Independence as the Republic of Egypt was declared June 18, 1953 with General Muhammad Naguib as President; but he was forced to resign the following year by General Abdel Nasser, generally acknowledged as the true leader of the independence movement. Nasser assumed power June 1956, the British completed their withdrawal from the canal zone and Nasser raised the Egyptian flag over the zone June 18, 1956. A few weeks later in July, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and the Suez Crises ensued.

Nasser ruled in Egypt until his death in 1970. His era is remembered among Egyptians as a time of increasing prosperity, growing standards of living, and the flourishing of culture and the arts.

Anwar Sadat walked onto the world stage in 1970 as the 3rd president of Egypt following the death of Abdel Nasser; and ruled Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. Sadat was a key man in the 1952 revolution and a key confidante of Nasser and his vice-president twice. He grew into a giant of a man, both renowned and reviled, but enshrined with a Nobel Peace Prize for his bold endeavors for world peace. His kind is missed.

Hosni Mubarek held onto power from 1981 for thirty years, until his people refused it to him any longer in the Arab Spring, 2011.

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  1. November 17, 1869
  2. May 10, 1869
  3. An interesting anecdote from the Wikipedia entry on Suez Canal: The canal opened under French control on 17 November 1869. The opening was performed by Khedive Isma’il, Pasha of Egypt and Sudan, and at Ismail’s invitation, French Empress Eugenie in the Imperial yacht L’Aigle piloted by Napoléon Coste, upon whom the Khedive bestowed the Ottoman Order of the Medjidie.

    Although L’Aigle was officially the first vessel through the canal, HMS Newport, captained by George Nares, passed through it first. On the night before the canal was due to open, Captain Nares navigated his vessel, in total darkness and without lights, through the mass of waiting ships until it was in front of L’Aigle. When dawn broke, the French were horrified to find that the Royal Navy was first in line and that it would be impossible to pass them. Nares received both an official reprimand and an unofficial vote of thanks from the Admiralty for his actions in promoting British interests and for demonstrating such superb seamanship.

  4. In the days of Abdul Nasser to come, this revolt was looked back upon as a “glorious struggle”, the “first instance of Egyptian anti-colonial nationalism”
  5. Thus, British military presence began with an anti-colonial uprising and ended with an anti-colonial uprising.
  6. It seems that the Suez canal may be viewed as a blessing and a curse, a blessing to the world, and a blessing and a curse to Egypt. It brought crushing debt to Egypt, and then for three-quarters century a foreign military presence, and yes, a steady stream of income. Perhaps this mixed consideration is one reason why it, although a supremely important engineering success, is not featured on any of its banknotes.