Will Post Colonialism Mar the Growth of Egypt’s Revolution?

A month after the start of Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, the outstanding question to me is not whether the people of Egypt have the capacity to endure the building process of a new democratic country representative of the protester’s demands and visions, but whether Britain and the United States can handle it.
Egypt is an important country in US national security strategy, because it’s peace with Israel during Mubarak’s regime – a peace established by his predecessor Anwar Sadat – acts as the backbone in the protection paradigm set up by the powerful Israeli lobby in the United States against Israel’s Arab neighbors. Mubarak’s signing of peace with Israel however had not significantly impacted the majority of the Egyptian people’s conviction that the United States and Israel were the real enemy.  Many adapted to the reality of a hostile and ever-fluctuating coexistence with Israel, however, general sentiment maintained that there would consistently be a fundamental difference between both states and their peoples. Mubarak’s outright betrayal of the Palestinian people via closing borders of Gaza during humanitarian crises, in submission to US and Israeli demands, had from the start been frowned upon and perceived as a source of shame felt by the people towards their regime. The remnants of the Arab defeat in 1967 manifested a form of psycho-cultural acquiescence on part of the people towards the existence of the state of Israel, and a deflated hopelessness towards the effects of its existence on the genuine industrial, infrastructural and hence social growth of Egypt – and all surrounding Arab states for that matter. Up until now.
The revolution in Egypt underlines just how important the country is, not just geopolitically because of its Suez Canal and proximity to Israel, but more so because of the value of the country’s cultural history, which is respected by the entire Arab region and sets a precedent for the concept of self-actualization – affirming the reality that Arabs have an identity, an autonomy, that requires basic rights and the consequential dignity which emanates from those rights. Egypt’s revolution has inspired the entire world indeed, and has allowed the people of the Arab world a renewed hope; a hope which is priceless, and very much feared by Britain and the United States.
Britain in the past has had a history of drafting strategies through its colonialism that robbed the Egyptian people, and all colonized people, of their rights with the idea in mind that such thievery vis a vie tyrants propped up by the British and later their American counterparts would create stability; a stability that allowed the colonial powers control over the populations of the colonized. This is where post-colonialism has made grave mistakes.
An excerpt below of a Press TV interview with Chomsky outlines the reasons as to why:
Press TV : Let me go back to Egypt, if I may, just for a moment. Considering as I mentioned that revolution has not yet, in a sense, succeeded to fulfill the complete demands of the people who brought it about, do you believe that if that revolution were to succeeded in a way that the people have envisioned it, how much of an impact, do you believe, would that have on not only North Africa but obviously the Middle East region?  

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.

Britain had clear interests to safeguard against Egyptian power and in favor of their own control of the area. The fear remains that such political behavioral patterns may continue until present day. To shed light on the history of stunting Egypt’s economic, and sociocultural growth, below is a short history on the nascent industrialization of Egypt in the 19th century which was interrupted by Britain.
A Short History of Muhammad Ali, Industrialization and British Colonialism

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.


These advisers convinced Muḥammad Ali that they could build a ‘Manchester of the East’ in Cairo. Muḥammad Ali divided his energies between serving his new master Mahmud II and pursuing his own interests.

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


5 responses to “Will Post Colonialism Mar the Growth of Egypt’s Revolution?

  1. The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury who was Palmerston’s step-father was President of the Jewish society in London and a Christian Zionist who was a head of the evangelical community. In 1838 Palmerston appointed William Young as first British Consul to Jerusalem as ‘protector of the Jews’ there, because you couldn’t have a consulate under the Ottoman rules unless you were protecting a particular religious community, like the Russia Consul protected the orthodox etc…

  2. Royce Christian

    Isnt’ post-colonialism concerned with moving past the colonial period by resolving issues create by foreign oppressors, reconciling communities and people building for their selves systems that serve their interests?

    It seems to me the real significance of these revolutions is the re-establishing of an identity. The term “neo-colonialism” is thrown around a lot, but I find it quite apt for the status quo at the moment, as all these Western-back dictators and their regimes provide “stability”, which translates to access to resources and strategic military partnerships. It is no different from the old-style colonialism. Independence from colonial possessors was only the first step in the post-colonial process; populations still had to establish a system that works for them, serves their interests, and regain their identity and self-respect that has been robbed from them all these decades. This, to me, is the most inspiring thing about the revolutions.

    • Thank you for your comment Royce. You are absolutely right, and are saying – in your words – what I was explaining in my own words. Post colonialism, in the way I use it, is taken by reference from Edward Said’s definition, which underlines the problems you had stated. Physical independence didn’t actualize the people’s true disconnection from the West and its colonialism. Post colonialism in this definition is actually just the continuation of colonial presence through covert measures, typically by Western support of dictators who allow foreign powers to coerce their own nation. This in turn has created in my opinion an identity dilemma throughout the Middle East due to the reality that the masses were not birthed, if you like; they did not establish their autonomy, because the geopolitics of their states, and their strategic value to western powers, remained more important to Arab dictators than the self determination, development and evolution of the people themselves. Thats the true bane of existence of people suffering in the region, culminating in their need for revolution.

  3. Royce Christian

    Thank you for this. I’m relatively new to Post-Colonial theory and I still have a lot of reading to do.

    Have you read Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth? If you have, do you think this work provides a relevant insight into the revolutions we are seeing today?

    • You’re welcome, thank you as well. I read Wretched of the Earth in University, several years ago, and revisited it once since. I appreciate the work for its psychological investigation into colonialism’s destructiveness; it spoke to me personally and validated various phases of rage I experienced growing up in relation to foreign intervention in local affairs. I do think its valuable when studying colonialism, but that it may be outdated in only some aspects when attempting to understand contemporary alternatives and solutions to present day revolutions against colonialism – specifically when taking in the affects of globalization on postcolonialism. It definitely provides relevant insight into today’s struggle if one wants to appreciate where the anger emerges from. I’d start by looking into Tim Mitchell, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Ilan Pape for an introduction to postcolonial theories and approaches, and Spike Peterson and Cynthia Enloe for feminist/gender studies approaches to postcolonial theory.

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