Chomsky: Well, Egypt is an important country. I mean, there is a long interesting history … in the early 19th century, Egypt was poised for an industrial revolution. It might have actually carried it out. It was a situation not very much unlike the US at the same time but the US had been liberated to do what it wanted. Egypt was under control of primarily England which would not permit it and the story continues up to the present.
I think that the United States and its European allies will do everything they can to prevent full flourishing democracy in Egypt for exactly the reason I mentioned. In Egypt even more than the rest of the Arab world, the United States is considered the main enemy. They do not go along with the US policy on Iran; in fact they are strongly opposed to it in most other issues. Furthermore, this is one tradition during the period of secular nationalism in Egypt which was very much opposed by the Unites States and Britain, as you know, there was a threat that Egypt might spearhead an effort to use the energy recourses of the region for the benefit of its own population and not for Western investors, Western powers and our ruling elite. That is a real threat. I mean that is why Britain and the United States have traditionally supported radical Islamic fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia primarily, in opposition to secular nationalism. That provides them with, I think, stability.
When Selim III came to the throne in Istanbul, he was the great hope of the Ottoman Empire but was deposed and killed in 1807. Before he was killed, Selim III had sent an expeditionary force to Egypt to repel a French invasion. The expeditionary force under Tahir Pasha was successful and included an assistant commander called Muḥammad Ali who rose to power so fast that by 1805 Selim had given him the title of Wali or Viceroy of Egypt. After gaining political control over the Mamelukes, Muḥammad Ali, who had himself been through the Nizam-ı Cedit army between 1792-3, decided to implement reforms himself to develop Egypt’s economy, and he did so with almost immediate success. Industry and services were set up to supply the army exactly as in Selim III’s model and he had the help of renegade French officers such Colonel Sève and Lefebure de Césiry who had stayed behind to advise him after the defeat of the French army.
The requirements of the new military-industrial complex demanded that Syria be placed under Egypt’s control, and that imperative eventually brought Muḥammad Ali into conflict with his master. When Muḥammad Ali defeated the Sultan’s armies both at Konya and later at Nizib, his acquisition of Syria assured him important timber supplies for the Alexandria arsenal. This arsenal became self-sufficient, and he began building a range of warships including frigates and corvettes with all their equipment. In twenty-five years of war Muḥammad Ali had built a veritable military-industrial complex. Between the Citadel, Bulaḳ and Rhoda there were weapons and paper and textile mills as well as other specialised factories, medical and training centers the like of which were never to be seen again until after Gamal Abdel-Nasser came to power in Egypt. Some 70,000 people were employed in these sectors including Greeks, Italians and French who settled in Egypt. Mahmud II died almost immediately after the battle of Nizib and was succeeded by sixteen-year-old Abdulmecid. Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, favored at that point conquering Istanbul and demanding the imperial seat, but Muḥammad Ali wanted to stay with the original plan of just keeping Syria.
Before Mahmud II died, he and the British made common cause; Sultan Mahmud’s reforms of the military were successful but the growth of Muḥammad Ali’s military industrial machine had stolen a thirty year march on those of the Porte. In response to this Egyptian success, the Foreign Minister in London, Lord Palmerston signed the London Convention of July 15, 1840 with Austria, Russia and Prussia whilst sidelining the French, who were pursuing a pro-Egyptian policy. The purpose of the London Convention was to offer Muḥammad Ali hereditary rule in Egypt in return for withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon. This agreement was not proposed and signed by Britain without strong opposition on the part of several members of the British cabinet. Palmerston forced the measure through by declaring in a letter to Lord Melbourne who was Prime Minister at the time, that he would resign if his policy were not adopted. This was clearly therefore a very personal commitment on the part of Palmerston. When Muḥammad Ali refused the offer, the British blockaded the Nile with the Austrians, shelled Beirut and eventually seized Acre in November 1840. Following their exclusion from the London Convention, the French quickly adopted a new foreign policy more in line with that of Britain.
Muḥammad Ali could no longer play France off against Britain so with all the European powers and the Porte ranged against him, he was forced in 1841 to agree to the terms of the convention and reduce the size of his army. Muḥammad Ali’s feat of industrialization could have been the basis for continuing major change in the economic conditions of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. It was undone however by British imperial policy which Palmerston fervently declared demanded the survival of the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian ambitions on Britain’s colonies.
The Treaty of Balta Liman which Britain had signed with Mahmud II in 1838 secured favourable trade concessions from the Ottoman Sultan and included the abolition of all monopolies under his jurisdiction which ultimately included Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. As most nascent industry invariably starts off as monopoly, this effectively meant the abolition of industry in the area, and in respect of Egypt led to the focusing of its economic activity on a cotton monoculture. This de-industrialization which happened in the 1840’s and 1850’s was an event without parallel in an industrial age; it condemned Egypt, the Levant and Turkey to backwardness for generations. The price to be paid by Egypt couldn’t have been higher and would become clear by 1882; financial collapse was followed by full military invasion by Britain.
The Egyptian people today do not only have to work on the inside to locate a representative and structure that best speaks for their needs, building it and fighting for its sustainability; they must also fight foreign interests whose continuity depend on controlling Egypt’s capabilities and resources.
In following posts we’ll be closely monitoring the EU’s response to the Egyptian struggle for freedom.
– Love in a Box
* Image in article from Media Storehouse, Mary Evans Picture Library 2007