Battle of Tel el Kebir

Great Britain’s victory in the Battle of Tel el Kebir ended the antiforeign, nationalist movement in Egypt known as the Arabi Revolution. Egypt was converted into a British protectorate in everything but name, and it remained under de facto British control until 1946.

Summary of Event

Burdened by massive debts to Europeans and heavy taxes imposed by a Turko-Circassian Circassians alliance that had dominated their country since 1805, angry Egyptians rose against all these outsiders in 1882. The story of this revolution begins, however, in the 1870’s, with the profligate Ismāՙīl, Egypt’s governor, or khedive (a title granted to him by the Ottoman sultan in 1867). As the Ottoman Empire had declined, the Ottoman governor had become Egypt’s de facto ruler, and Ismāՙīl had ruled in that capacity since 1863. When he ran out of cash in the 1870’s, he sold government bonds and obtained loans, mainly from Western banks, until, saddled with a debt of £90 million, he could find no other sources of credit. Two immediate results were his sale of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal Suez Canal Company to Great Britain and the creation of the Caisse de la Dette Publique (public debt fund). The former greatly enhanced Great Britain’s interest in Egyptian affairs, while the latter created a board of European supervisors who took control of Egypt’s national budget. Tel el Kebir, Battle of (1882)
Egypt;Battle of Tel el Kebir
British Empire;and Egypt[Egypt]
Arabi Pasha
[kw]Battle of Tel el Kebir (Sept. 13, 1882)
[kw]Tel el Kebir, Battle of (Sept. 13, 1882)
Tel el Kebir, Battle of (1882)
Egypt;Battle of Tel el Kebir
British Empire;and Egypt[Egypt]
Arabi Pasha
[g]Egypt;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
[g]British Empire;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
[g]Africa;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
[g]Middle East;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
[c]Colonization;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Sept. 13, 1882: Battle of Tel el Kebir[5240]
Muḥammad Tawfīq Pasha
Ismāՙīl Pasha
Seymour, Frederick Beauchamp Paget
Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph
[p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in Egypt[Egypt]

The main purpose of the Caisse de la Dette Publique was to pay Egyptian debts on time. By 1880, it used 66 percent of state revenues to meet this goal. Other government expenditures were cut drastically across the board: Even the police and armed forces were affected. Military officers and soldiers, already owed back pay, now found themselves out of a job. Heavy taxes, combined with a shortage of capital, helped stifle an already weak economy. By 1878, Egypt’s peasant farmers, the fellaheen, were so heavily in debt that they were abandoning their farms and moving into large cities like Cairo or Alexandria. This in turn created food shortages and greatly increased tensions among the urban poor.

The next year saw Ismāՙīl Ismāՙīl Pasha forced out of office and replaced by his son, Muḥammad Tawfīq Muḥammad Tawfīq Pasha Pasha, who also assumed the title of khedive. Muḥammad Tawfīq seemed better equipped to get along with the Europeans and their debt fund, but he was in a small minority among local notables. Most resented the Europeans as outsiders who, although representing only 2 percent of the government bureaucracy, received 15 percent of the total outlay for salaries. With Egyptians either owed months of back pay or being released from their cherished government jobs altogether, they probably agreed with an American eyewitness who castigated the Caisse de la Dette Publique as “that oligarchy of carpetbaggers.”

Egyptian gunners attempting a futile defense against the British naval bombardment of Alexandria.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

Several disturbances resulted directly from the streamlined budgets forced upon Egypt by the Caisse de la Dette Publique. The first such disturbance was in Cairo: On July 18, 1879, army officers, some owed more than a year’s worth of back pay, staged a protest that almost turned into a riot. Blatant discrimination fueled the dissatisfaction of these Egyptian officers, as Turkish, Circassian Circassians , and Albanian officers were protected by the regime. These foreign officers, collectively referred to by Egypt’s majority Arabic-speakers as “Circassians,” represented a ruling elite whose collaboration was considered vital to the preservation of the khedival throne. In reality, they were an inefficient and corrupt combination that despised native Egyptians and made every effort to dominate important military commands.

With no more than twenty thousand Circassians in the nation, Egypt had to fill lower military positions with Arabs. The latter, along with Sudanese recruits, represented 100 percent of the Egyptian rank and file and also dominated low- to mid-ranking officer slots. A good example of the latter was Arabi Pasha, who had risen to the rank of colonel before running into an iron barrier of discrimination. Arabi was a pious Muslim whose charisma and plainspoken manner found considerable support among his fellow Arabs. Early in the 1880’s, he openly criticized the Circassians as incompetent outsiders who had bungled the failed war against Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1876.

The Circassian leadership responded with charges against Arabi, and through one of their own, Minister of War ՙUthmān Rifki, they initiated orders for Arabi to be transfered away from Cairo. While this might have worked in the 1870’s, the army by now held little respect for its senior leaders. A riot on February 1, 1881, demonstrated this change in attitude, as soldiers of the elite First Infantry Regiment refused to follow legal orders issued by ՙUthmān Rifki and instead beat him up and freed pro-Arabi officers from their regimental jail.

A showdown took place on September 9: Fearing he would be arrested and murdered by the Circassians Circassians , Arabi marched two infantry regiments to the center of khedival power in Cairo, the ՙAbdīn Palace. There he read his famous statement, “By the name of God, besides whom there is no other, we shall no longer be inheritable, and from this day on we shall not be enslaved.” Faced with four thousand disgruntled soldiers, Muḥammad Tawfīq Muḥammad Tawfīq Pasha rightfully feared for his life. He instantly agreed to dismiss all current government ministers, increase the army to eighteen thousand troops, and call a legislative assembly.

Thus began the Arabi Revolution (also known as the ՙUrābī Revolution). A nationalist government was formed, and Arabi became the minister of war. The government focused on ending foreign influence over Egypt. This goal naturally worried European investors, who feared Arabi could use his influence to end the power of the Caisse de la Dette Publique. Their voices joined those of diplomats, businessmen, and European expatriates living in Egypt. All called for intervention. On January 6, 1882, France and Great Britain issued a joint note to Egypt declaring their support for the khedive, while a powerful naval force was prepared for dispatch to Alexandria.

The diplomatic note infuriated Egyptian nationalists and enhanced Arabi’s political capital. Tensions only increased on May 20, 1882, when the British and French squadron entered Alexandria and Muḥammad Tawfīq Muḥammad Tawfīq Pasha fled to his summer palace there. The next day, the rest of Egypt’s cabinet resigned, and Arabi effectively became the nation’s dictator. On May 25, another joint note from Great Britain and France demanded that Arabi and his supporters leave the government and go into exile. Arabi’s response was to order repairs to Alexandria’s coastal defense system. Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Paget Seymour Seymour, Frederick Beauchamp Paget , commander in chief of Britain’s Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, viewed these repairs as an act of aggression and requested the right to destroy the city’s defenses before they were improved.

Alexandria was the flash point for conflict in the summer of 1882. Although mainly an Arab city, it also held a considerable minority of European residents. Religious, economic, political, and international rivalries boiled over in June, leading to a series of riots. Although these riots were described as “Christian massacres” by the European press, only fifty foreigners were killed or wounded in them. They caused nearly three thousand Egyptian casualties.

On July 10, Admiral Seymour issued an ultimatum: Arabi’s men must stop their work, or the British fleet would open fire. Arabi refused, and on July 11, Seymour’s ships launched an artillery assault against the city, now known as the Bombardment of Alexandria. As Seymour’s Seymour, Frederick Beauchamp Paget ironclad warships were nearly impervious to the defenders’ small guns, the bombardment was rather one-sided. Within four hours, Egyptian batteries were silenced and Arabi’s forces were evacuating the city. Between the June riots and July shellings, about half of Alexandria was in ruins.

A British occupation of Alexandria followed, but it did not end the fighting. Arabi withdrew his soldiers into the Nile Delta, where myriad canals funneled transportation along just a few main lines. The Egyptians were well entrenched by the time a British expeditionary force arrived under the command of General Garnet Joseph Wolseley Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph
[p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in Egypt[Egypt] . Looking to avoid a bloody encounter against fixed defenses, Wolseley skillfully boarded 17,400 of his troops, moving via the Suez Canal so he could land at Ismailia and approach Cairo from the more open terrain of eastern Egypt. Although surprised by this maneuver, Arabi was able to prepare new defenses manned by twenty-two thousand men at Tel el Kebir. Covering almost four miles, these defenses were formidable, and they commanded the high ground overlooking the railroad tracks connecting Ismailia to Cairo.

Wolseley scouted the Egyptian position and instantly ruled out a conventional assault, as it would “have entailed very great loss.” Instead, he opted for a night advance, hoping to surprise the Egyptians and overwhelm their defenses. His cavalry was held in reserve, with orders to race for Cairo as soon as the infantry won a clear victory. Setting off at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of September 13, 1882, two British columns advanced on the Egyptian trenches. Both veered off their planned axis, but this mistake turned out to be a stroke of luck, because it allowed the British to avoid the strongest enemy fortifications. When they were finally discovered by Egyptian picquets at 4:55 a.m., some British troops were already within two hundred yards of the main line. A sharp fire fight broke out, but Wolseley’s Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph
[p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in Egypt[Egypt] novel tactics had paid off. The Egyptians were surprised, and Arabi himself was asleep in the rear. Fighting ended around 5:30 a.m., when—with 2,000 dead and numerous wounded—the remaining Egyptians fled. British losses amounted to 57 killed and 412 wounded.


Great Britain’s victory at Tel el Kebir was decisive, causing the surrender of Cairo and ending the Arabi Revolution. More important, it signaled the beginnings of the “veiled protectorate,” in which Great Britain dominated Egyptian governments behind the scenes until 1914. Ironically, then, by forcing the issue and precipitating armed conflict, the Arabi Revolution brought about the consolidation of foreign control of Egypt. World War I caused the “veil” over this control to be lifted, making it clear that Egypt was nearly a British colony, a situation that did not end until 1946.

Further Readings:

  • Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Explores the history, practice, and politics of secularism in the Middle East and the West.
  • Dunn, John P. Khedive Ismail’s Army. London: Frank Cass, 2005. Detailed analysis of why Egyptian armies of the 1870’s and 1880’s consistently failed.
  • Featherstone, Donald. Tel el-Kebir 1882. Wolseley’s Conquest of Egypt. London: Osprey, 1993. Looks at the battle from a British perspective. Excellent illustrations and maps.
  • Royle, Charles. The Egyptian Campaigns 1882-1885. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1900. A standard British account, probably the best.
  • Scholch, Alexander. Egypt for the Egyptians. London: Ithaca Press, 1981. The best scholarly work in English.

Arabic Literary Renaissance

Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred

Exploration of North Africa

British Expedition to Ethiopia

Suez Canal Opens

Siege of Khartoum

Sudanese War

Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Muḥammad ՙAbduh; John Bright; Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī. Tel el Kebir, Battle of (1882)
Egypt;Battle of Tel el Kebir
British Empire;and Egypt[Egypt]
Arabi Pasha