03 February, 2009

Colonial nostalgia and prerevolutionary Egypt

I just started reading John R. Bradley's Inside Egypt - The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (how can you stay away from a book with a catchy title like that?), and I must say I'm slightly put off by the first chapter. It's not that I am a hardcore fan of Nasser or don't agree with much of the criticism of the Free Officers disdain for democracy and so on, but I do think it's a bit unfair to judge the revolution as if the history of oppression and corruption in Egypt only started in 1952.

The essence of Bradley's take on history is captured in this amazing sentence: "Nasser's coup got rid of everything that was good in Egypt, and slowly replaced everything that was bad with something much worse."

Thus, everything that is bad in Egypt today ultimately derive from the wrongdoings of Nasser and his cronies, described as having "none of the positive attributes of the former decadent, but culturally sophisticated, aristocracy they had replaced and humiliated." (Note that cultural sophistication is the only "positive attribute" of the ruling aristocracy that the author bothers to mention here, perhaps because there were no others)

In his scarce references to the situation before the Free Officer's coup, Bradley gives the impression that it was a wonderland of democracy. Thus, he writes that "Nasser banned the opposition political parties that had similarly thrived in prerevolutionary Egypt." While the first part of this sentence is certainly true, it doesn't exactly hit the spot to say that opposition parties "thrived" in prerevolutionary Egypt, as communists and muslim brothers alike were persecuted and British colonial officials repeatedly intervened in national politics, while striking workers and demonstrating students were often shot and killed by the police.

In one paragraph, Bradley describes the prerevolutionary era as "a time when Egyptian society's undoubted inequalities and exploitative political manipulation by outside powers were somehow tempered by the refined high culture of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, intellectualism and architectural extravagance." It's a beautiful sentence, but I fail to see exactly what role "architectural extravagance" or "high culture" played in tempering "inequalities," since the latter were constantly on the rise in Farouq's Egypt.

The intellectual weakness of Bradley's reasoning is displayed most clearly in the following paragraph:

"By the interwar years of the early twentieth century, after Egypt had been granted nominal sovereignty by the British and was ruled by a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy [sic] in all matters except national security and control of the Suez Canal, Cairo became the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But six months before the 1952 revolution, on a day remembered as Black Saturday, anti-British mobs torched Cairo's Western landmarks including the Turf Club, major hotels, banks, cinemas, and residences.... Nasser's Free Officers would hijack the popular unrest to seize power."

The problem here is that since the Cairo fires or "Black Saturday" occurred before the revolution, the Free Officers and Nasser clearly cannot be blamed for it. So if Cairo somehow changed from "the most cosmopolitan city in the world" to one where raging "mobs" would attack and set fire to British targets, then surely this must be the responsibility of the prerevolutionary regime.

Bradley's take on prerevolutionary Egypt is completely in line with official British imperial history - perhaps not surprising for someone who has been reporting regularly for The Economist and The Financial Times. It's very revealing, for example, that Bradley doesn't care to mention the incident that preceded and triggered the Cairo fires: the attack by British forces on a police station in Ismailiyya - during which tens of police and gendarmes were killed - an event that was perceived by the public opinion in Cairo as an outrageous massacre.

Most importantly, the all too common idea of early 20th century Cairo as a cosmopolitan heaven must itself be critically examined, since this would certainly not apply to Egyptian workers and government clerks who were being systematically discriminated against in favor of Europeans, or to the rural migrants who were deported back to the countryside to preserve the social order in "cosmopolitan" Cairo. But as often seem to be the case with writers in the tradition of colonial nostalgia, "cosmopolitan" here should perhaps be interpreted simply as "dominated by foreigners."

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