In the winter of 1897, the celebrated English traveller and poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt undertook a private journey across the Egyptian Western Desert to the oasis of Siwa. Shortly after his arrival, Blunt's camp was besieged by a large force of around three hundred Siwans, commanded by Osman [‘Uthman] Habun, a powerful Siwan notable and the local agent of the Sanusiyya Brotherhood. Blunt's entire camp was pillaged, and he narrowly made it out of Siwa alive.
Upon his return to Cairo, Blunt appealed to British Consul-General Lord Cromer in hopes of mobilising the full force of the Egyptian Government to bring the Siwan attackers to justice. Cromer replied, however, that it would be impossible to prosecute the orchestrators of the attack, given that such legal action might ‘incur a possible quarrel with the Senussia brotherhood’. A few months later, Blunt sent another scathing letter to Cromer arguing that, as a British subject, he had a basic right to demand government intervention in the pursuit of justice, which Cromer had flouted. After all, Blunt chided Cromer: ‘Siwah is an Egyptian town, paying its taxes to the Government, and the Egyptian Government is responsible there as elsewhere for law and order. These may be difficult to enforce, but the responsibility remains.’
Cromer's unsympathetic response is extremely illuminating:
You started for this remote region, which is notoriously inhabited by a very turbulent and fanatical population, and over which the Egyptian Government has, for a long time past, exercised little more than a nominal control, without, so far as I am aware, warning any one in Egypt of your intentions (emphasis added).
At the same time, Cromer suggested that Siwa was hardly the secure ‘Government town’ Blunt claimed it was:
To any one who has been so long acquainted with this country as yourself, I need not insist on the point that, for the purposes of the argument, Siwa cannot, with any degree of reason, be assimilated to the rest of Egypt.
This little-known correspondence over Blunt's hostile treatment in Siwa offers a crucial window into the tentative nature of Egyptian authority and jurisdiction in the western domains of the state towards the end of the nineteenth century.