Ismail Pasha

Ismail Pasha (1830-1895) was the charming but spendthrift pasha and khedive of Egypt during the decade prior to British occupation.

Ismail Pasha was born in Cairo, the grandson of Mohammed Ali and second son of Ibrahim Pasha. He completed their work in that he bought from the Ottoman sultan the right to the new title of khedive, father-to-son inheritance of the new title for his dynasty, administrative and commercial independence, and relaxation of military restrictions imposed upon Egypt by the European powers in 1841. But Ismail accomplished this at tremendous expense—and it was only the beginning of his financial adventures.

Ismail succeeded Mohammed Said as the ruler of Egypt in 1863, when the American Civil War increased the demand for Egyptian cotton and when the expected profits from the soon to be completed Suez Canal made Egypt seem more prosperous than it actually was. In the euphoria of the 1860s Ismail dreamed of an Egyptian empire in northeast Africa and of Cairo as the Paris on the Nile. He borrowed heavily on Egypt's future and spent lavishly on explorations far up the Nile almost to Lake Victoria for the extension of Egyptian influence, on building many public works such as improved canals and new telegraph lines, and on the modernization of Cairo.

Ismail took a personal interest in the Suez Canal, the concession for which his predecessor had negotiated with a French company. He agreed to pay a huge indemnity equal to half the original capital of the company in order to eliminate the forced labor and other onerous requirements of the initial concession. For the grand opening of the canal in 1869, Ismail lavished over a million dollars on the entertainment of foreign dignitaries.

The close of the American Civil War ended the Egyptian cotton boom, and the Suez Canal did not, at first, earn the expected profits. Ismail resorted to huge loans at ruinous discounts to obtain the funds necessary for his dreams; he further pledged the revenues of the railroads, taxes, and royal lands. In 1875, in desperation, he sold his one remaining investment, his approximately 44 percent of the shares in the Suez Canal Company, to British prime minister Disraeli for £ 4 million.

Bankrupt in 1876 with a 14-fold debt increase to some £ 1 billion since his accession in 1863, Ismail had to accept Anglo-French financial supervision, called the Dual Control. The influx of foreigners during his reign, the special privileges they received via the capitulations, and their obviously increasing influence in Egypt led in the late 1870s to the development of an Egyptian national movement. When Ismail sought to shift the blame from himself to the foreigners for Egypt's financial debacle and when Bismarck threatened German intervention, Great Britain and France succeeded in having the Ottoman sultan depose Ismail in 1879 in favor of his son Tewfik Pasha. Ismail's vainglorious ambitions and gross extravagance had paved the way for the British occupation 3 years after his deposition.

Further Reading on Ismail Pasha

The only biography of Ismail is Pierre Crabitès, Ismail: The Maligned Khedive (1933). Mary Rowlatt presents a briefer and not very favorable picture in Founders of Modern Egypt (1962). Ismail's ambitions in the Sudan are considered in Richard Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 1820-1881 (1959), and in William B. Hesseltine and Hazel C. Wolf, The Blue and the Gray on the Nile (1961), which describes the story of former Civil War officers in Egyptian service. For general background on 19th-century Egypt see John A. Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Relations, 1800-1956 (1954; 2d ed. 1965), and Tom Little, Modern Egypt (1967).

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