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The War in Egypt: Destruction of Alexandria

We have now to deplore a terrible event, one that, next to that of May 24, 1871, in Paris, seems the most terrible in the history of our times. One of the greatest commercial cities of the Levant, half European, the trading mart and residence of mercantile men of the Western nations, has perished in an outbreak of wild passions, occasioned by a desperate situation at the beginning of fierce and unsparing warfare. It is in human nature that such acts of criminal madness should be possible; and they have sometimes been perpetrated by races which boast of a high civilisation. The wisdom and beneficent power of enlightened statesmanship in Christendom ought to be exercised with a view to prevent their occurrence. In the present instance, though an irremediable injury has been inflicted, not alone upon Egypt, but upon immense interests shared by the leading nations of the world, and upon the common interest of humanity, a lesson may hereafter be drawn from so vast a piece of mischief. Our connected record last week of the proceedings at Alexandria was necessarily written on Wednesday evening, and stopped at the incidents of a flag of truce being displayed at noon that day, and of negotiations with the British Admiral being ostensibly invited by the Egyptian officers presumed to be acting on behalf of Arabi Pasha, the Minister of War and the chief of the military faction. We had then no telegraphic news later than half-past one in the afternoon, and we hoped that a suspension of hostilities was arranged, and that Arabi Pasha would surrender the city, as well as the forts already disarmed and almost demolished by the naval bombardment. But Thursday morning brought the publication of the dreadful news of atrocities consequent upon the defeat of the Egyptian garrison in the forts, and accompanying the forced retirement of Arabi Pasha's troops, which were half disbanded, extremely demoralised, and apparently disposed to join the town rabble and the Bedouin robbers lurking around in committing every kind of licentious and ferocious outrage. What the depraved rabble of that city and of the neighbouring Arab suburbs were capable of doing, whenever the restraining presence of a disciplined military force should be removed, had been exemplified in the riot and massacre of Sunday, June 11; and it will be remembered how, upon that occasion, while the worthless city police or municipal guard, during two hours of unchecked outrage, robbery and murder, had rather aided than opposed the malefactors, they were promptly dispersed when the regular Egyptian soldiery came to the scene of disorder. This was vividly illustrated by the Sketches of an eyewitness, published in our Journal on the 1st inst., and by his personal testimony, in the accompanying letter, that "both officers and soldiers behaved well," in clearing the streets and keeping them afterwards; and that "the military are indignant at the excesses committed by the mob." It is, unhappily, too well established by many historical instances, that a soldiery, who form the trustworthy guard of social order while retained in the bond of regimental discipline, may, by sudden disbandment, at an exciting moment of warfare, be converted into its direst foes; and this seems to have taken place with a certain portion of the Egyptian army on Wednesday week. There are, it is known, different races, negroes of the Soudan, Arabs of various tribes, and Fellaheen or native Egyptians, composing the regular forces then under the command of Arabi Pasha; and it is probable that when he abandoned the city, under covert of a deceitful flag of truce, he could not or would not take with him those regiments upon whose adherence he might not rely. It is certain that he left thousands of soldiers behind, without their commanders, in a state of utter demoralisation, and that they instantly joined in the orgies of plunder and slaughter renewed by the local rabble, continued during two hours after the withdrawal of the troops, and finished by setting fire to the European quarter of the city, which has thus been entirely destroyed. There had been good order in Alexandria, though great panic was felt by all classes, during a whole month previous to the bombardment of Tuesday week, as the actual Ministry, to which Arabi Pasha belonged, then had a regular force under strict command to repress every motion of popular disturbance. The expulsion or the voluntary removal of that force—if not driven away by the bombardment, then treachcrously withdrawn to permit the disaster that ensued—appears to have been the immediate cause of the inconceivable havoc on the Wednesday evening.

Source: The Illustrated London News, No.2255—Vol. LXXXI, Saturday, July 22, 1882, p.81