In 1904 Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, remarked that the British should rule there as if ‘for ever’; they were the new Romans, bringing their language and law to a half-continent, along with proper communications and monumental buildings. At the same time, similar confidence reigned in Cairo, where another version of the Raj seemed to be coming into being. Over the previous twenty years, Egypt had been transformed. The British-built Aswan Dam (not to be confused with the later, hideous and now better-known Soviet one) was well designed, regulating the Nile flow without unforeseen consequences. Bilharzia – a water-snail-induced disease – was controlled, justice was brought to the eternally put-upon Egyptian peasant, finances were set on a secure footing and cities benefited from proper planning. This last measure did away with the endless epidemics and fires that afflicted the higgledy-piggledy narrow streets of traditional Muslim towns, with their sudden culs-de-sac and flimsy structures stuck onto roofs. For a time, the British thought that they had reformed the country and were very pleased with themselves.
Many of them loved Egypt, and they got on pretty well with the Egyptians. But they also mostly thought that Arabs were incapable of self-government. Egypt had been governed largely by outsiders since 1517, when the Turkish sultan Selim I took Cairo and went on into Arabia. Selim the Grim,