Egypt had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. However, by the mid-1800s, this empire was crumbling. The Ottoman viceroy in Egypt, called the kkhediv, had become nearly independent. The khedive still paid some tribute to the Ottoman sultan, but he ruled Egypt with absolute authority. In 1854 a French company headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps gained a concession to build a canal through the Isthmus of Suez. The Egyptian government bought almost half of the stock in the company. Individual French citizens bought most of the remaining shares. Isma’il, the khedive when the canal was completed in 1869, not only inherited a significant debt but was also extravagant and unwise in his own decisions about spending money. Between 1869 and 1879, he increased the foreign debt of his government by more than 2,000 percent.
One of Isma’il’s attempts to avoid bankruptcy was to sell Egypt’s stock in the Suez Canal. This action provided an opportunity for the British, who wanted to control the canal because it was a vital link in the trade and communication route between Great Britain and India, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1875 the British government bought the Egyptian stock and became the largest single stockholder. Because the British now owned so much of the stock and the rest was so widely scattered among private investors, the British gained virtual control of the canal. Near the end of Isma’il’s reign, an international committee had been established to manage Egypt’s huge debt. Having lost favor, Isma’il was deposed in 1879. His successor was challenged by a nationalist group whose members resented increased European control. The nationalists mounted a rebellion in 1882. A British fleet bombarded Alexandria to put down the rioting. Britain then sent troops to suppress another pocket of rebellion near the Suez Canal and then to occupy Cairo. The Egyptian government remained outwardly independent during this period of British occupation, but the British actually ruled Egypt.