Such, then, was the life that the fellah "lived in the days of the oppression"; not in the dim twilight of the past, but less than twenty years ago; not in remotely hidden corners of Egypt, but throughout its entire length and breadth.
In 1879 the exactions in Egypt, nominally for revenue, had become so oppressive, that the population refused to pay them, and, rising in revolt, drove Ismail Pasha from power and installed his son, Mohammed Tewfik, in his place. The new pasha found the finances of the country in such confusion, that he was obliged to invoke the aid of European Governments in order to obtain the means necessary to pay the interest on the public debt; and in this way the British and French Governments, as representing a large majority of the creditors, or holders of the debt, were practically given control of all the Egyptian sources of revenue. This condition of affairs was, however, in turn so repugnant to the people that in the spring of 1882 a revolt broke out, headed by Arabi Pasha, the then Minister of War, which, with a popular cry of "Egypt for Egyptians!" seemed for a time likely to be successful. But with the utter defeat of Arabi at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, in September, 1882, the rebellion collapsed; Tewfik Pasha was restored to power, while the British forces, for the purpose mainly of maintaining the situation and insuring peace, practically retained possession of the country. It was under such circumstances that a reconstruction of the antiquated, arbitrary, and unequal Egyptian system of collecting revenue was entered upon as an immediate and imperative necessity for the establishment of a new and better national fiscal policy, and the attainment thereby of some degree of national prosperity.
The career of Ismail Pasha, who as Khedive ruled over Egypt from 1863 to 1879, was a remarkable one. He was "as fine a type of the spendthrift as can well be found, whether in history or fiction. No equally reckless prodigal ever possessed equally unlimited control of equally vast resources. He came to the throne at a moment when there seemed to be no limit to the potential wealth of Egypt. The whole land was his to do what he liked with it. All the world was ready to lend money to develop it." The results of his government may be rightfully characterized from
- Notwithstanding the adverse criticism that has been made on the action and policy of Great Britain, under the then existing circumstances, subsequent experience has proved that it saved Egypt from barbarism and anarchy, and all the nations interested in that country "from incalculable losses in blood and treasure, to say nothing of the deep dishonor which these losses, foreseen and yet unhindered, would have brought on civilized mankind. The Arabist movement possessed great destructive force, but it had not within itself the elements necessary for the construction of anything enduring."—(England in Egypt, Sir Alfred Milner.)