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!).