Egypt: Cradle of Arab Resistance

Egypt: Cradle of Arab Resistance

Egypt is one of the cradles of human civilisation. It has also become a cradle of Arab resistance to imperialism and oppression. As much as it has been a by word for magnificent construction, it has also been the scene of great oppression.  The polytheistic religion of the ancient Egyptians numbered the ruler Pharaoh himself amongst the deities. The scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths indicate the breath taking structures built by the Pharaohs, were the products of extreme oppression and particularly slave labour. The Prophet Moses [peace be upon him] was able to break the power of Pharaoh and liberate the Hebrew people with Divine intervention.  The dialectic of the Pharaonic oppression versus Prophetic justice has continued to run through Egyptian history.

In time the three Abrahamic faiths developed side by side in Egypt, with the Jewish community in Alexandria producing a Greek translation of their scriptures, thus making them more widely available to all the communities in the region. A distinctive Coptic [Egyptian] church also developed, 10% of the population are still Coptic Christians. Islam became the religion of the majority of Egyptians, as well that their rulers, who were mostly drawn from foreign dynasties. Egypt became and has remained the most populous Arabic speaking country, being a paramount centre for popular Arab culture particularly music and films, and also for Islamic scholarship through Cairo’s Al Azhar University.

The Turkic and Circassian slave soldiers to the Kurdish Ayyubi dynasty; themselves became rulers about AD 1250. These Mamluks through their superior military skills managed to defeat the dreaded Mongols in 1260 at Ein Jalout. Out of the ruins of the Mongol destruction, came the Turkish speaking Ottomans, who added Egypt to their empire in 1517. While the Ottomans continued to expand their territories throughout the 16th Century they were coming under mounting pressure from the European powers.

The distinguished Lebanese historian Albert Hourani [1] chronicled the rise and fall of the Ottomans. According to Hourani, Ottoman society was based on class distinctions between the mass of people, and the military, merchant and scholar classes. While the masses seemed to accept this status quo for most of the time, the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul found his local deputies in far-flung corners of his empire, striving to become more independent.  At the same time the balance of power between the Ottomans and the European states was shifting slowly but surely to the latter.
As in the rest of Ottoman world, Egyptian merchants found themselves increasing subordinated to European merchants who had developed direct access to the “Indies”, a generic term which included the Far East and India. The middle men in Cairo were cut out of the spice, coffee and textile trades, and increasingly selling more costly European finished products on the home market, and in exchange only selling their cheaper raw materials to the Europeans. This economic imbalance has continued to the present day reducing Egypt and the other Arab countries, to developing of Third world status under the hegemony of developed capitalist economies.

In 1798 a French expeditionary force commanded by Napoleon appeared off the coast of Egypt. Egypt became a battleground for the British and French empires. The defeat of Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of the Nile [1798] by the navy of the emerging British superpower brought Egypt into their sphere of influence. The Europeans undermining of the Ottoman order in Egypt allowed a local agent of the Sultan, a Macedonian soldier Muhammad Ali Pasha, to become the virtual ruler. The European powers opposed his attempts to extend his rule into Syria and Arabia, fearing he would destroy the Ottoman order and create a dangerous vacuum. He was eventually accepted as the Khedive of Egypt and given the right to designate his descendants as successors, while still nominally acting as a viceroy of the Ottoman Sultan. Muhammad Ali’s attempts to strengthen the Egyptian economy were resisted by the imperial powers and by the end of his reign Egypt’s economy was even more under their domination. The surplus wealth created by the workers and peasants was accumulating in the bank accounts of European merchants and officials [2], with a smaller share in the hands of Egyptian middlemen merchants and landlords. The intellectual and cultural domination of the Islamic scholars was similarly undermined by Western laws introduced by the rulers in an attempt to modernise Egypt.

By 1861 £1.5 million worth of Egyptian cotton was being bought and processed by British cotton mills [3]. Egypt had become England’s cotton plantation. It became even more vital to the British Empire after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 80% of the traffic going through the Canal was British [4]. The Egyptian government’s inability to repay the massive loans used to finance the Canal, led to Britain buying 50% of the canal shares from the bankrupt Khedive Ismail in 1875[5]. Needing to protect European investment Anglo-French financial control was applied to the Khedive’s government in 1876. Further manoeuvring by Britain saw replacement of the mildly nationalistic Khedive Ismail, by the vacillating collaborator Khedive Tawfiq.

If the Egyptian rulers suffered an erosion of power, the ordinary Egyptians groaned under increased taxation needed to pay off the loans. An embryonic nationalist movement emerged, aiming to limit the power of the Khedive with the creation of a Chamber of Deputies. One of the leaders of this movement Ahmed Oraabi Pasha was an Army Officer, but unusually of Egyptian “fellah” [peasant] origin, not from the Turkic warrior “caste”. Having remained subordinate for centuries the Egyptian masses suddenly had a champion. The Illustrated London News [6] noted with tangible alarm, Oraabi’s relatively humble origin and his Islamic background. Indeed Oraabi’s education had been influenced by the great Islamic reformer Muhammad Abduh [7]. Abduh in a long and distinguished career as an Islamic scholar, managed against the current of increasing imperialist infiltration, to produce a stream of original Islamic thought that was to influence several generations of Egyptian patriots.
In 1881 an attempt by the old officer caste [based on the Turkic-Circassian aristocracy] to bar officers of fellah origin, sparked off a mutiny with Oraabi the peoples champion at its head. Oraabi marched on the Khedive’s palace demanding the dismissal of the old ministers, new elections, and an increase in the size of the army. The Khedive Tawfiq with the British representative by his side decided to concede to the rebels’ demands. The new government with Oraabi as an Under Secretary for War was greeted with acclaim by the masses, and anti-imperialists like the English poet Wilfrid Blunt [8]. Blunt started a campaign amongst the British in support of Oraabi. His aristocratic circle complained he would reduce the value of their Egyptian investments [9]. The British and French governments formally expressed their support for the Khedive against his rebellious subjects. The new Assembly responded by proposing to take control of the finances left after the debt repayments. This touched an imperialist nerve; their golden rule was never allow the “natives” to exercise any real power [10]. The Assembly were also looking to cut the numbers and salaries of the foreign officials. Inevitably the imperial super-power went on the offensive.

Blunt passed on rumours to Oraabi about the British annexing Egypt, and where British forces would land [which turned out to be true]. British gun boats shelled Alexandria on July 11th 1882.The destruction of much of Alexandria and of Oraabi’s army two months later, saw the beginning of Britain’s unofficial occupation of Egypt. Oraabi was exiled, his work to be completed seven decades later by another broad shouldered soldier son of the Egyptian people.

Blunt saw that a wind of Eastern resentment against Europe would rise to a whirlwind. In his poem “The Wind and the Whirlwind” he predicts the defeat of the British Empire:-

Thou hast deserved men’s hatred. They shall hate Thee
Thou hast deserved men’s fear. Their fear shall kill.
Thou hast thy foot upon the weak. The weakest.
With his bruised head shall strike thee on the heel.

For some the day of reckoning started, when the Sudanese mystic Muhammad Ahmad [11] claiming to be the Mahdi, revolted against the Khedive and his British allies, raising an army of followers who destroyed General Gordon and the British garrison at Khartoum in 1885. The Sudan existed as an independent Islamic state for another thirteen years, until Kitchner’s British and Egyptian forces defeated the army of the “Mahdi”, led by his successor in 1898.Although the Mahdiyyah movement had initially united many of the peoples of the Sudan, it did not attract Egyptians.

Less than a decade later the Egyptians were once again in rebellion. An incident in the village of Dinshawi 60 miles north of Cairo in June 1906 caught the British occupiers by surprise. British officers killing pigeons without permission near the village had enraged the locals, who relied on this meagre game bird to supplement their diet. Some of the British were beaten; shots were fired by the British wounding some Egyptians. In the violence that followed one Briton died. The retribution exacted by a Special Tribunal on villagers, resulted in four being hung and sixteen imprisoned after being flogged. There was outrage throughout Egypt and beyond, shattering the complacency of the British ruler Lord Cromer and his cronies. Prominent critics in London like the Irish play write G B Shaw were no doubt an embarrassment to the rulers, however more devastating was the evident hostility of the Egyptian people to British rule. This merely required an appropriate channel to become a potent force.
The economic privations caused by the First World War [1914-1918] and the stirring up of political nationalism, not least amongst the Arab elites by the competing Empires, made for unsettled times. The demand for forage, beasts of burden and manpower, made profits for the Pasha’s but only added to the misery of the fellahin. The cities started to fill up with the dispossessed, angry and above all hungry people.

The British like the other imperial nations faced rebellion in every colony. The British King/ Emperor had suffered a rising in his oldest colony Ireland, which was fast developing into a revolution. The King’s cousin the Tsar of Russia had received a bullet in the head from his ungrateful subjects. Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution were calling on the oppressed of the world to follow their lead. The Bolsheviks publicised the Sykes- Picot agreement found among Tsarist papers [12]. This agreement between Britain and France specified how they intended to divide the Middle East between them.  Still many nationalists had great expectations of the promised Peace Conference, and particularly the role US President Woodrow Wilson would play.

November 1918 saw a three-man delegation [in Arabic “Wafd”] present themselves before the Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt, requesting immediate negotiations for independence, suspension martial law, and a place at the Peace Conference to present their case. The leader of the Wafd, Saad Zaghlul [13], was a veteran politician with a flair for populist rhetoric. While Wingate the High Commissioner was in favour of allowing the Wafd to attend the peace conference, the Foreign Office in London refused permission. A massive petition was signed by hundreds of thousands and Zaghlul urged the Khedive to demand complete independence. As tension mounted the British arrested and exiled Zaghlul to Malta. The masses including the students of Al Azhar came out on the streets; the country was convulsed by strikes and demonstrations. Police batons and bullets were used to maintain order in the cities; in the countryside bombs were dropped on rebellious villages. Some Egyptians started to take reprisals. The new Commissioner General Allenby immediately made concessions to the Wafd. Zaghloul was freed and allowed to go the Peace Conference in Versailles. The conference was a major disappointment; however the British thought it politic to grant some nominal independence, while maintaining economic and military dominance particularly in the Canal Zone and Sudan, which became a directly administered British colony.

Zaghlul and most of the nationalist movement rejected the phoney independence, while continuing to agitate for real self-determination. Zaghlul maintained his huge popularity right up until the end of his life in 1927. British High Commissioner George Lloyd had to call in the gunboats three times in as many years to keep the Egyptians under control. Gunboats might have scared the Pashas, but the ferment on the streets was unquenchable. The urbane Ottoman politicians like Zaghlul in tarbush hat and frock coat, would soon be replaced by leaders who preferred the back street cafes to genteel drawing rooms.