Egypt’s colonial history has certain parallels with Eritrea’s, but ultimately was far less violent, traumatic, or long lasting. The violent occupation by Italian forces of Eritrea and the ensuing apartheid government they established left physical, psychological and economic scars on the country. Egypt’s colonization was largely peaceful on the other hand. Egypt was colonized through a form of economic conquest and was not controlled nearly as stringently as Eritrea.
Egypt had spent a vast portion of its national treasury on the construction of the Suez Canal, finished in 1869. This remarkable engineering feat encouraged large amounts of trade for the region, but had left the Egyptian government bankrupt. The government had borrowed most of the money needed for the canal’s construction from European banks. In order to pay off its debt Egypt sold its share of the canal to the British. The British quickly became the effective rulers of Egypt as they manipulated the country’s politics through their control of the canal and the European banks who still held bonds of debt issued by the Egyptian government. This economic occupation meant that the British’s limited military presence in Egypt did not lead to mass scale violence. The only incident of organized military conflict occurred at the battle of Tel El Kebir in 1882 in response to a popular Egyptian independence uprising.
British occupation of Egypt was very limited compared to the Italian conquest of Eritrea. The British did not even officially declare any degree of sovereignty in Egypt until 1914, when the outbreak of WWI compelled them to declare that Egypt was a protectorate of the British Empire. Even this limited form of official control ended quickly. By 1922 uprisings in Egypt led to the British making a unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence (though British control of the canal would not end until 1956).
Impactful British influence was very limited in Egypt compared to Eritrea in large part because the British did not view Egypt as a new frontier for settlement, but instead focused on extracting economic value from it. The British certainly had a presence in Egypt but it was small in terms of actual people and was primarily limited to a few large cities, namely Alexandria. The Italians sought to establish a whole new Italian society in Eritrea, leading them to focus on clearing the land of its native people to make space for its own citizens. Because they felt a need to control Eritrean society, the Italians took a very active and often violent role in shaping how natives fit into their new structure. The British never imposed a system of apartheid because it would have been counterproductive to their goals, as they were dependent upon the cooperation of the Egyptian people. It was the Italian’s focus on settlement rather than economic exploitation that led to their fraught and traumatic relationship with the native population.