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iv THE FIRST PHASE OF THE OCCUPATION 69
In the crucial one of 1886-1887, when the jealous eyes of other Powers were looking with confident expectation for the deficit which would have thrown the door wide open for foreign interference, only temporarily held in abeyance foy the London Convention of 1885, the situation was only saved by a surplus of a little over £20,000, after insolvency had twice seemed almost inevitable. That very awkward corner once turned, Egyptian finance got into smoother waters, though it still remained subject to the cumbersome but very effective system of jealous checks and counter-checks which the foreign members of the Caisse continued to enforce under the provisions of the London Convention, even after the necessity for them had passed away so long as Lord Cromer kept his trained and vigilant eye upon expenditure.
The risk couldnowbe taken of proceeding to the abolition of the corvee—a reform in some respects more sensational and revolutionary than any other for which the fellaheen were to be indebted to British control, even if Arabi must in fairness be credited with the original idea, which might or might not have matured had he had more time. A stop had indeed been put from the beginning of the Occupation to the worst abuses of the corvee in the days of Ismail, when the fellaheen were marched off in gangs, often to great distances, to do forced labour on the Khedivial estates, or for any other purpose that the Khedive wanted. But until money could be found to pay for contract labour and dredging, the corvee had to be maintained for the indispensable task of maintaining the protecting earthworks at high Nile and of clearing silt from the canals at low Mle. It was estimated in 1884 that the number of men engaged on the latter class of work alone was equivalent to an army of nearly 100,000 men working for 130 days a year. They were recruited under a system which left almost inevitable loopholes for favouritism and extortion. An inquiry in one district showed that the owners of 53,000 acres
J,hem. They had recognised with him that the only policy for England to pursue for a long time to