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BRITISH POLICY IN EGYPT
We trust it may be granted to us to labour for maintaining the interests of the Empire, for promoting the welfare of the Egyptian people, and for doing honest work towards the establishment of the peace and order of the world. Speech of Mr. GLADSTONE in the House of Commons,
July 27, 1882.
THE STRUGGLE FOR A POLICY
Intentions of the British Government-Proposal to reduce the garrison
-Sir Edward Malet's opinion-Difficulty of combining reform
It is probable that, if any one had told Lord Granville on the morrow of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir that twenty-five years later a British force would still be garrisoned in Egypt, and that for twentytwo out of those twenty-five years the Egyptian question, in its political aspects, would remain unsettled, he would have ridiculed the idea. For, in truth, in 1882 the British Government had a tolerably clear policy. Its execution was very difficult, but at the time the difficulties did not appear absolutely insurmountable.
Their policy was to restore order, to introduce some elementary reforms, and then to withdraw the British troops. The sound of the guns at Tel-el-Kebir had scarcely died away, when Lord Granville requested Sir Edward Malet to send “as soon as possible, suggestions as to the army, finances, and the administration for the future.” At that time, “Her Majesty's Government contemplated shortly commencing the withdrawal of the British troops from Egypt.
During the summer of 1883, the British force
numbered about 7000 men. On August 25, 1883, Chérif Pasha addressed a Memorandum to Sir Edward Malet urging, on grounds of economy, that the force should be reduced to 2000 men. Sir Edward Malet agreed that there could be no doubt as to the necessity of economy:
“The question,” he added, “which unfortunately presents itself, and to which there can be no decisive answer, is whether the existing tranquillity is not mainly due to the presence of the troops.” He was unable to recommend so large a reduction as that proposed by Chérif Pasha. « An immediate reduction of 2000 men was,” he thought, "the most that should be effected."
On September 6, Lord Granville wrote me a despatch, which reached Cairo simultaneously with my arrival from India. In this despatch, after alluding to Sir Edward Malet's communication, which is quoted above, he went on to say :
“Her Majesty's Government entirely concur in the desire to reduce the force as far as is consistent with the preservation of public order, but they have been unwilling to take any fresh step for the purpose until they could have the advantage of your opinion. Sir Evelyn Wood has expressed to me personally his belief that the British garrison might be entirely withdrawn from Cairo without disadvantage. The number of troops to be retained elsewhere and their disposition, would be matter for careful consideration. I have to request that you will consult the military authorities, and report fully to me on the subject.'
From recollection, and from a perusal of contemporaneous despatches and private letters, I am able to give an accurate account of my frame of mind at this time. I was deeply penetrated with the importance of the step taken by the British Government in sending a military force to Egypt,
and I doubted whether the Ministers themselves fully realised its gravity. They saw, indeed, the obvious objections to a permanent occupation of Egypt; they held to the broad lines of Lord Palmerston's policy;' but they underrated the difficulties of getting out of the country. Nevertheless, all history was there to prove that when once a civilised Power lays its hand on a weak State in a barbarous or semi-civilised condition, it rarely relaxes its grasp. I was in favour of the policy of evacuation, and I saw that, if the British troops were to be withdrawn, no long delay should be allowed to ensue; otherwise, the occupation might drift insensibly into a condition of permanency. Total and immediate evacuation was, indeed, impossible for the reason given by Sir Edward Malet, that is to say, that by the adoption of such a measure, public tranquillity would be endangered.
But although the maintenance of public tranquillity stood first in the order of importance, the question of the withdrawal of the garrison could not be decided with reference to a consideration of this point alone. The question had to be considered in another aspect.
What would be the effect of the withdrawal on the future of the country ? What prospect was there of Lord Dufferin's programme being carried out if the British troops were withdrawn? I did not see so clearly as at a later period that the alternative policies of reform and evacuation were absolutely irreconcilable, but I had some fairly clear perception of the fact. I saw that the system of government in Egypt had been shaken to its base, and that, if once the British troops were withdrawn, it would be necessary to leave to the Khedive a tolerably free hand in the government of the country. I saw more especially that the Egyptian Government should be allowed full
i Vide ante, vol. i. p. 92.