The glories of times gone by

Nostalgia for colonial times: Ryan Crocker. One of the precious pearls today in the testimony of Ryan Crocker was his crocodile tears over the “sufferings” of Iraqis. He said that the Iraqi people suffered even before Saddam: since 1958, he added. All was well under colonialism, he wanted to say. [ From As’ad ]

This attitude is particularly common among American observers of Iraqi affairs; the problems in Iraq began after the revolution of 1958, and its ethnic and sectarian problems do not predate the rise of Arab nationalism, or “radicalism.” Arab nationalism is to blame for ethno-racial and ethno-sectarian hostility. Indeed, the monarchical and colonial regimes that predated the Arab nationalist and republican ones were “liberal.” They represented a time of unprecedented tolerance and openness in the Arab world. This is half-true. This was largely the case for the middle and, especially, upper classes. The rest of the population was largely ignorant or resentful of this liberal period. It is part of an attempt to argue that democratization and liberalization (however vaguely or specifically defined) is possible in the Arab world, because such processes have antecedents, especially in the Arab east. This view is expressed in the works of Barry Rubin, and some “liberal” Arab writers, some of whom are more respectable than others (and is not entirely without validity; I wrote a positive review of a major book on the subject). It is part of a somewhat neo-conservative narrative, though they hold no monopoly over it, and it is a view that has some merit on a cultural level, but not in terms of political or ethnic liberalism or tolerance across society as a whole. The Iraqi monarchy was responsible for acts of genocide against ethnic Assyrians, and viciously battled Kurdish rebels in the north. The main flaw with this view is that it takes Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, and Beirut (or certain quarters of those cities) to be chiefly representative of life during the entire pre-revolutionary period, as opposed to the living conditions and social attitudes present in the rest of the country.

I have observed an attitude somewhat similar to this one among certain Egyptian bloggers and acquaintances. One hears that Egypt under the monarchy was “generally up and coming” or that the country was more “cosmopolitan” and tolerant. And this is true, for some sectors of society. A large and prosperous expatriate community – a medley of Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Syrians, Lebanese, native and foreign Jews, and others — and the social circle (made up primarily of ethnic Turks, Albanians, and mixed members of the aristocracy) around the monarchy did quite well and saw its earnings and profits increase, and in their rather contained environment, separate from Egypt’s largely illiterate and often backwards masses, they got along, embraced many Western values, customs, and costumes – or at least pretended to. Many of them even replaced Arabic with French or English in their homes. Nevertheless, life for everyday Egyptians was rough, gruff, and with little hope for improvement within an exclusionary and semi-feudal society. The fact that the Free Officers movement was so capable of mobilizing a kind of nativist sentiment against the expatriate community – especially the Greek/Italian community – in favor of Egyptianization and anti-capitalist policies, speaks to the alienation that most Egyptians felt during that period. As much of a dictator that Nasser became, he was seen as a man of the people, who looked like the average Egyptian, who spoke like him, and who understood Egypt beyond the bourgeoisie. A family friend who met Nasser once told me that Nasser was the first Arab leader that one didn’t have to bow his head to, and that he gave his people “the pride to walk with their back upright.” Others have said he changed the “A” in “Arab” from a lower case “a” to an uppercase “A.” Such changes are significant for peoples who were previously excluded from their own polity and who were believed to be inferior to foreigners and to those whose only merits were derived from their surnames and familial wealth. For those whose station is and was comfortable, it is not as much the case, and it is difficult to appreciate such phenomena; they are born with the self-confidence of affluence. As much as modern elites may despair at his attempt at social revolution, which one must contend was a failure (and none of this is meant as a defense of Nasserism or other forms of dictatorship), Egypt, as wretched as its present condition may be, it is no more wretched than it would have been had the monarchy been left in place. And it is very difficult to argue that the monarchy had not overstayed its welcome by 1952 any more than the present order of things has today (which many of those who make the monarchist argument would argue has not!).

13 thoughts on “The glories of times gone by

  1. Nice. The monarchy was liberal but exclusionary. Socialism and pan-Arabism was non-exclusionary except for non-Arabs (that is to say, “colonists”) but illiberal. And do the masses have any more opportunity now than they had then? For most, isn’t today just like then without the ritualistic trappings?

    I’m not advocating the monarchy. I’m just saying that Nasser’s new regime manipulated the common people’s hopes and plundered their souls (as well as the property of non-Arabs).

  2. I’m not advocating the monarchy. I’m just saying that Nasser’s new regime manipulated the common people’s hopes and plundered their souls (as well as the property of non-Arabs).

    I’m not arguing that one was superior to the other. I would, though, argue that the masses, at least early on (in terms of access to education, literacy, and social services), did enjoy more opportunity than under the monarchies.

    Today, things are not much different than under the monarchy. Nevertheless, this has been due in no small part to the fact that, at least in Egypt, most of the socialist and nationalist reforms made under Nasser were rolled back under Sadat and Mubarak.

  3. I believe one of the other reasons the monarchy time was idealized (apart from the obvious orientalist movement in Europe) has less to do with regime than with demographics. Nasser was just another type of monarch, more populist and probably less “enlightened”.

    As it happens, my grand-grand father lived practically all his life in Egypt, generally in Cairo and around. My grand-mother lived there many years too, before the Second World War. You could call them bourgeois, from a certain point of view, though there standards of living and condition were far below most of the “native” Egyptian bourgeoisie. My ancestor was a painter and my grand-mother worked as a teacher.

    What she says about that period is basically that people were poor, yes, but the city was much smaller and less crowded than nowadays. And that makes all the difference. You could find a house in the old city of Cairo at that time, even without much revenues. Nowadays, Cairo is a massive agglomeration of suburbs with extreme poverty being a serious problem. Finding housing and jobs is a battle for most and corruption is everywhere.

  4. Nowadays, Cairo is a massive agglomeration of suburbs with extreme poverty being a serious problem. Finding housing and jobs is a battle for most and corruption is everywhere.

    Certainly sounds like an Arab city to me!

  5. “The fact that the Free Officers movement was so capable of mobilizing a kind of nativist sentiment against the expatriate community – especially the Greek/Italian community – in favor of Egyptianization and anti-capitalist policies, speaks to the alienation that most Egyptians felt during that period.”

    Nouri,

    When describing the attitudes of Le Pen supporters (who are preferentially unemployed/low income group) towards Muslim immigrants, would you rather use the term “alienation” or “xenophobia”?

  6. When describing the attitudes of Le Pen supporters (who are preferentially unemployed/low income group) towards Muslim immigrants, would you rather use the term “alienation” or “xenophobia”?

    Xenophobia. There is no comparison between Le Pen and Nasser. Period. In Egypt we are talking about an issue of class compounded by ethnicity. In France we are talking about an issue of race prejudice, if not hate.

  7. “Xenophobia. There is no comparison between Le Pen and Nasser. Period. In Egypt we are talking about an issue of class compounded by ethnicity. In France we are talking about an issue of race prejudice, if not hate.”

    Could you please explain why a desire to stop new foreigners from coming is clearly a race prejudice, while expelling ethnic minorities that lived in a country for many generations is a class issue?

  8. 1. The ethnic minorities in Egypt, save for the Jews and perhaps the Armenians, had not lived in Egypt for “many generations.” The majority of them had arrived during the British occupation which was perhaps two generations (even many of the Jews and Armenians were recent arrivals from Syria). They were used as an extension of the colonial infrastructure in order to reenforce British control over the economy.

    2. The minorities as a whole, were seen as a separate class from the rest of Egyptians, irrespective of their origin, religion, or race. They were the non-Egyptians and their social and economic network operated above the rest. Had the system not been such that natives were not allowed to deal in or participate in the major professions, upper ends of government and military, and the market place, the expropriation of their properties likely would not have been quite as popular. It was very much a bourgeoisie versus peasantry kind of occasion.

    3. The minorities, save for the Jews, were never expelled. Their properties were taken, and the majority of them took what they could and left the country on their own. Their situation was very similar to the pieds-noirs — they were never expelled, they left of their own choosing.

    4. The rhetoric used by Le Pen and company is clearly made to target non-white immigrants and is based on cultural and economic scapegoating (which is not to say that Nasser’s was not, but the goals and reasoning are different).

    5. The goals of Le Pen and Nasser are entirely separate. Egypt in 1952 was under foreign occupation, militarily and economically and had been for many years. Native Egyptians were excluded from much of their own society. France today, is needless to say, not comparable by any means and the politics of the two countries cannot be looked at in such a manner.

  9. I will also add that immigrants have no status of extraterritoriality, where as the minority communities under the monarchy had precisely that. That this class of people was placed above the law, with European fire power backing them up with the military of what was one of the world’s most powerful colonial powers. There are no gun boats from Algeria or Cameroon or Senegal backing up the immigrants moving to France and they are not a part of a strategy of control on the part of their countries of origin.

  10. “The ethnic minorities in Egypt, save for the Jews and perhaps the Armenians, had not lived in Egypt for “many generations.” ”

    If I remember correctly Alexandria was built roughly a thousand years before Omar. So the history of the greek community in Egypt (even excluding the long interruption by the muslim conquest) counts at least ~40 generations.

    “The minorities, save for the Jews, were never expelled”

    Are you implying that the egyptian jews, being all Zionist spies, do not count?

    “Their properties were taken, and the majority of them took what they could and left the country on their own. Their situation was very similar to the pieds-noirs — they were never expelled, they left of their own choosing. ”

    Nouri, hypothetically speaking, if tomorrow all your property in the US were confiscated and, being denied any decent employment (from now on 90% of the jobs go to “native” americans), you had to emigrate, would you say “I left of my own chosing”?

  11. Are you implying that the egyptian jews, being all Zionist spies, do not count?

    That is exactly the opposite of what I am implying. The Jews were expelled. Re-read that sentence, please.

    If I remember correctly Alexandria was built roughly a thousand years before Omar. So the history of the greek community in Egypt (even excluding the long interruption by the muslim conquest) counts at least ~40 generations.

    This is so cartoonish I cannot believe I am responding to it. The classical period is neither here nor there. A merchant family from Athens that migrated to Alexandria in the late 19th century does not count as a part of this “40 generations.” (The Greeks who fled after 1952 had nothing to do with the Greeks who founded Alexandria.) They were new arrivals, in the same way as Britons, Frenchmen, and Italians, in any sense of comparison with native Egyptians. You are making the same colonialist argument made by Frenchmen and Britons in justifying their colonization of North Africa and India, which have been thoroughly discredited intellectually and morally.

    Nouri, hypothetically speaking, if tomorrow all your property in the US were confiscated and, being denied any decent employment (from now on 90% of the jobs go to “native” americans), you had to emigrate, would you say “I left of my own chosing”?

    Yes, I would. (And the non-natives who had their properties taken were not denied “any decent employment” (whatever that is meant to mean)). The real push factor behind many of the formerly dominant minorities that fled the decolonized country was that they lost their historic advantage over the native population. History has winners and it has losers. Those who were used by colonial regimes as tools were the human face of larger losses.

    The comparisons you continue to make are not useful. The United States and Egypt differ in major respects; Native Americans have rights to equal and fair treatment. Native Egyptians under the monarchy/British occupation did not. The better comparison are the German settlers placed throughout eastern Europe during the Nazi occupation, their privileges were more comparable and the purpose of their presence and it was maintained by force (as in Egypt, though obviously not to the same extent).

  12. Nouri,

    When I accidentally stumbled on your blog, I was struck by one sentence in the introductory post. “If you disagree with me, you probably know something I don’t.” The rare modesty and the tolerance of contrary opinions that was implied by this phrase have prompted me to read many of your posts with real interest. However, your latest manner of discussion (e.g., “This is so cartoonish I cannot believe I am responding to it”) suggests that that phrase was probably directed at the audience more intelligent and erudite than me. As this is your blog, you are certainly within your right to choose both the audience and the manner of discussion. Personally I find that this type of argument does not bring the best in me, so this would be my last post here (which, of course, you can ignore and delete).

    “History has winners and it has losers. Those who were used by colonial regimes as tools were the human face of larger losses.”

    This is something we agree on. Greeks, Italians, Jews and the other “colonial tools” have lost when Nasser came to power and the newly liberated Egyptians presumably won.
    The victory, however, may take different forms. As an illustration, one may compare the history of Egypt with that of Singapore, both countries becoming fully independent from Britain roughly half a century ago.
    The Egyptians forced the British and their “colonial tools” out, “changed the “A” in “Arab” from a lower case “a” to an uppercase “A”” and got rid of the colonial influences, like “French or English in their homes”. This is the Egypt’s victory and if at present poverty, unemployment and the resulting mass emigration mar the feeling of this victory somewhat, this is clearly the fault of British colonialism/American imperialism/Zionist aggression/…
    Singapore on the other hand pressed the British troops to stay as long as possible, made great efforts to attract more “foreign exploiters”, developed “English in their homes” often at the expense of Chinese and made sure that the “c” in “chinese” does not become taller than “i” in “indian” or “m” in “malay”. Today Singapore is one of the world richest and educated countries, ahead of their former “colonial masters”, and this is their victory.

    I suspect that we have a preference for victories of different kinds, but as the French you dislike say: “a chacun son gout”.

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