Between the British invasion of 1882 and the emergence of the first nationalist parties in 1907, Egypt's foreign resident communities were among the country's most influential social groups. Even though their numbers were rather modest, ranging between 91,000 in 1882 to 151,000 in 1907 – that is, 1.0 to 1.5 per cent of Egypt's total population – their socio-economic and cultural impact was significant. This role has been duly acknowledged by both contemporary observers and latter-day historians, but much of the historiography still portrays these groups in largely static terms as colourful accessories of an idealised ‘cosmopolitan’ past. On the fewer occasions when their role is more rigorously studied, we still find them described in reductionist terms as ‘middlemen’ or ‘agents’ of European ‘capitalist penetration’ and ‘expansion’. In either case, however, students of colonial Egypt are left to grapple with a striking discrepancy. On one hand, they learn that the country's socio-economic life during the nineteenth century was dominated by powerful foreign resident communities like the Greeks, Italians, French and Armenians, but on the other they seldom have the opportunity to see how these ethnic groups exercised their power in practice. Apart from a few exceptions, much of our knowledge about Egypt's foreign resident communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is still based on generalities and schematic abstractions.
This chapter focuses on the role of Egypt's largest and possibly most powerful foreign resident community, the Greeks, with particular emphasis on their relationship to the British occupation during Lord Cromer's term as proconsul from 1883 to 1907. Its central aim is to show how this ethnic group, because of its dominant position, was treated by the British authorities in Egypt as a potential threat and how its own members used their agential power in different ways to respond to the new colonial conditions that started to define their social, cultural and political lives. Although the number of Greeks residing in Egypt at that time was not particularly large, ranging from 38,000 in 1882 to 63,000 in 1907 – that is, around 0.4 to 0.6 per cent of Egypt's total population – their social and economic presence was clearly much stronger.