In the early 19th century, Northeast Africa largely comprised a motley and shifting hotchpotch of sultanates loosely within the sphere of influence of the decaying Ottoman Empire. The khedives (‘viceroys’) of Egypt were virtually autonomous, and territorially acquisitive, annexing Equatoria and Darfur. The opening of the Suez Canal changed the equation for the Great Powers: using unrest as the pretext, Britain installed a protectorate in Egypt with French support. When the British governor in Khartoum was beheaded by religious rebels (1885), an independent Mahdist state was briefly formed, before being crushed by a British Expeditionary Force (1898). In the ‘Scramble for Africa’ following the Treaty of Berlin (1884), the coastal Horn of Africa was carpeted with French and Italian protectorates. Only Christian Ethiopia somehow clung to independence, repelling Italian encroachment. In Libya’s deserts, the Sanusi religious order, with a non-violent ethos, disavowed the Mahdists, and thus escaped colonial sanction.
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