Egypt, colonialism and terror

NB: a very long historical article; I tried to make it as non-“academic” as possible.


Am American friend just posted on her FB that “It is hard to get any decent unfiltered, unbiased information anywhere. “. And that is indeed the situation we are all in. I am getting real time updates via friends and family in Egypt, and these do not tally at all with what the BBC and other major news orgs are pushing out.


The gist of it is, that the majority in Egypt, the vast hordes who came out on June 30 demanding the ouster of the MB government, are more afraid of the MB and the islamists than they are of the army. Ergo, they are supporting the army in cracking down on the MB protests. These protests have included many things not reported internationally: the destruction of many churches (to be fair, CNN did report this) and an attack on the UNESCO institution of the Alexandria Library, nearly killing the librarians, (We don’t even need to discuss the morality of a “protest” that attacks a library and tries to kill librarians) for example.


That it should come to this equation is of course dreadful. Before 30 of June Egyptian society was growing increasingly horrified by the direction the government was taking, and felt it was driving Egypt to being a totally different country. The president’s exhorting of Egyptians to go and fight Assad in Syria is one example People were appalled Why should we do that? What is Assad to us? And the president standing by seemingly approving an anti-Shia speech that resulted in fanatics attacking and killing a family of Shia, beheading them in the street. I saw the video, it was extremely upsetting. Ordinary citizens feared that if this was the direction the government was going to take Egypt in, it had better be stopped now.


Pundits and Western politicians like to point out that they could have waited for elections in November. But this is disingenuous. Even in the precious West, we know that elections do not necessarily deliver justice. Look at Scotland. They have exactly one Conservative MP, because the Scots do not like Tories and do not elect them. This means that Scotland is basically unrepresented in the present UK government, and therefore has no influence in decision that affect it. (there are Liberal Democrat MPs but clearly they are not running the coalition in Westminster) This is how the Westminster system works and if it is unfair, its tough titty because the system more or less works. But it works because so far anyway no British government of any stripe has attempted to do anything truly dangerous inside the country (I mean, Iraq was dangerous but it happened far away).


In Egypt people feared that by November the elections would either not be held, or be rigged so that the MB would solidify their hold on power through terror. So, on 30 June they came out to demand change.


The result as we have all seen on TV, is that the MB and its supporters are resisting the crackdown, yet most others support it. Many deplore the violence, but an alternative solution has yet to be found. I myself deplore the violence totally, yet the violence is on both sides and when this happens, when protests turn violent or protesters attack civil targets (libraries, churches etc.) it is normal that the state respond with force.

Of course, here in the West the state responds with force even if there is not violence – everybody saw the Occupy clearance in NYC, and elsewhere,  the behavior of the Turkish authorities in Gezi Park. What about our dear ally Bahrain?

However it is not really important what I think, or what you think. We are not in Egypt and we are not Egyptians. As with Syria and Iran, the roots of what is happening today are long and historical and are mired in that unpleasant and little understood and still less acknowledged era we call “colonialism.”


Egypt has existed as an integral nation state for at least 7000 years and maybe more. Yet it was only in the beginning of the 19th C that it was “discovered” by Europe. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte alighted upon the shore of what by then was a fairly sleepy province of the Ottoman Empire, and was amazed by what he found. Aside from starting the practice of shipping great chunks of Egypt’s antiquities over to Europe (which is why you see obelisks and sphinxes in incongruous places like London and St Petersburg), he did bring an army of scholars to explore and catalogue the country. In the mind of Europe, Egypt was “born.”


After Napoleon’s defeat by the British, Egypt, by now “on the map” once more, was seized by the Albanian mercenary Muhammad Ali. But unlike most foreigners who have meddled in the country, Ali actual wanted to develop Egypt and make it something great again. He went a long way in starting this process, as did his successors. But they reckoned without the rapacious nature of European capitalism.


When the French proposed the canal at Suez, it seemed like a good way to enrich Egypt, and the King was keen. The British banks got involved, and soon it became clear that, like every major public project (Olympics, anyone) it ran massively over budget. Now what the Europeans did here is the absolute root and core of today’s problem They introduced Anglo-French capitalist banking systems into a Muslim society where usury is a sin.


The result was not terribly different to what happened to the American natives when the Europeans came and explained the process of material exchange to them. “you give me this land I give you these blankets.” The fact that in the native culture ownership of the land was actually impossible: they did not have the European concept of property. But a deal is a deal said the Europeans from the firing end of a musket – who can argue with fire-power?


AP Thornton in his magisterial study (sadly out of print but worth reading if you can get it) THE IMPERIAL IDEA AND ITS ENEMIES has detailed how the (mostly) British and French banks wheedled the King to borrow ever more money, then turning the screws on him. His only response was to tax the people, who rebelled against this. The most perspicacious Egyptians saw clearly that the tax was going right into the European banks, in the form of interest – the rates were exorbitant.


People soon showed their dissatisfaction with their King and with European intrusion, and began to form the first nationalist groupings in 1879, with army general Ahmad Urabi a major leader (see a pattern emerging?). The UK and France intervened militarily (another pattern), bombarding Alexandria and crushing Urabi’s Egyptian army at the battle of Tel el-Kebir.


The result, as we all know is that the British resorted to annexing Egypt, to protect their financial interests and their share of the Canal which allowed the easy shipping to their other colonies in Asia. They did not dare to call it a colony, but it was. Ostensibly annexed in order to sort out the Egyptian finances (i.e. debts to British banks), the British soon started treating the Egyptians like colonised peoples. The brutality of the British occupiers at Tel El-Kebir and later incidents prompted many neutral Egyptians to join the nationalist movement. But it was not just about brutality, which was relatively rare. It was the condescension, the financial rapacity, and above all the disregard and disrespect that the British have for all their colonised peoples that rankled to the heart.


The best way to see how this operated is not through reading despatches or official documents, but novels and stories. Algernon Blackwood’s The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath is a fabulous example (get it free here This is how well to do bourgeois English people viewed, lived in and treated Egypt. Orientalist fantasy for the past, mingles with a general disdain for the modern people, who rarely appear as characters in British fiction set in Egypt. Even Lawrence Durrell’s wonderfully-written Alexandria Quartet betrays the author’s lack of knowledge of, and general uninterest in, Egyptians – apart from a thin layer of mysterious foreigners and doomed Christian aristocrats To get a sense of what the occupation felt like you have to go to Egyptian writers, notably Naguib Mafouz.


By the early 20th century Egypt was an occupied country with a strong nationalist movement, but at the same time it was a country that was being rapidly modernised. Industry, cinema, cosmopolitan culture, all were being established and creating a vigorous, diverse and modern society. Egyptians started to make capitalism work for them: figures such as the nationalist industrialist Talaat Harb were in the forefront of creating the modern country. Harb (among countless other ventures) founded Studio Misr the first major Egyptian film studio, establishing Egypt as the world centre of Arab language film-making. And the rise of the Egyptian workers movement also beings here. (It is not reported in western news that worker’s strikes and actions have been constant and ongoing in rejection of both the Mubarak regime and the MB.)


It is the murky secrets surround the struggle of Egyptians to rid themselves of the British occupiers that the rots of the MB lie. These roots are indeed murky and for this reason there has always been a distrust toward the MB among some Egyptians. Many questions remain unanswered ( What was the MB’s relationship with the Nazi party, whom they supported? How instrumental were they in ejecting the Egyptian Jews?


Some say that the MB organisation are a British creation. Others assert that, instead, the British found a way to employ them in their favour, to weaken the nationalist Wafd Party and its national unity idea against the British occupation. As a student of British colonial history, I am quite convinced of the latter idea (explored in the book at the above link) which Thornton and other authors suspect also. It fits with the British modus operandi, then and now A few weeks back the Daily Telegraph (the conservative party newspaper) made a throwaway comment that “there is a long standing relationship between the MB and sections of the British government” Which was news to me, given the relentless scaremongering about Islam and so on since 2001, maybe even since 1979 if we count Iran. Yet when I thought about it, it makes sense. Britain and the west in general are really just about money, and they will get in bed with anyone who will ensure they can make money. Of course they have nurtured the MB all through the era of Nasser and probably after. Weird that this rather puts the UK and US on the same side as Zawahiri. Yet this support also must have given a false sense of support to the MB, and like the 19th C Kings before them, put them into a relationship of trust that can only be broken.


Yesterday on the news BBC reporter Tim Whewell marvelled that the Egyptian people seem to be so keen on demanding secularism that they are willing for the army to crush the MB. Of course it is far more complex than that, but reporters speak in sound bytes. What I thought was bitterly funny is that he wondered at the fact that “many of them devout Muslims”. Well yes; if you are devout you especially do not want your religion to be made a political football; you do not want terrible things to happen in the name of your religion. If I were a devout Catholic, I’d be more outraged at the things that errant representatives of the Church have done, than would an atheist.


Let us not forget the role of the media in not only keeping us under-informed but also in giving us vicarious thrills: “Watch live coverage as Egyptian security forces surround a Cairo mosque full of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on Saturday as protesters planned fresh marches after street battles left more than 80 dead.” How exciting. So, let us watch people die as a substitute for actual information.


The fact is that we in the West are under-informed about what is happening in Egypt. We are even less informed about how the legacy of colonialism runs like a raw, bloody thread through all of this story. And we are even more unformed about the financial deals that have taken place and which lie behind the ostensible support or non-support by our leaders.


But the last word really is not mine, it is this:


“what is happening in Egypt is now an internal matter, and we are the people of Egypt commissioned Egyptian army and police to deal with the elimination of the terrorist group and will not allow any state whatever to intervene in this matter. Egypt is a sovereign state.”



Some history

This text was given to me by the Egyptian person who wrote it, a person uninvolved in politics


Brief history of Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam

1. Muslim Brotherhood is an Egyptian group founded in 1928 by Hassan ElBanna. We saw in Egypt that the group was a reaction to the collapse of the khelafa of the Ottoman empire, seeking a substitution political formation

2. as the very theory of the MB embraces the concept of khelafa it had to fundamentally reject the notion of the nation state, starting above all with the nation state of Egypt – both because this is where they were, and it’s also because Egypt is the oldest nation state on earth. And therefore they were banned and rejected by Egyptian establishment.

3. for being kept in the dark and banned since their existence they had to depend on foreign help for their funding and exile existence outside Egypt; therefore over the years they collaborated against Egypt with every foreign secret service that we know. That includes collaborating with the Nazis against the British and the Jews in Egypt.

4. Both President Nasser and President Sadat, who were in their early political life members of the MB, knew the kind of danger that ideology represented, and kept the lid on them most of the time.

5. In the early 1950s Egyptian philosophy scholar Said Kotb was awarded his PhD in the USA for writing the second phase of Hassan El Banna’s theory, which subsequently led the way to political Islam as we now know it. Although Kotb was executed by President Nasser, his influence lived on and spread outside Egypt and that is why the first postage stamp of the Irani Revolution of 1979 has a picture of the Egyptian Kotb on it, not Khomeini

6. during the late 1970s and 80s the CIA recognised the power of political Islam as a tool of fighting social and Marxist influence coming from the eastern bloc during the cold war (basically the idea being, if the masses can go Islamist they will never look at Communism)

7. That was Sadat’s mistake: agreeing to this deal and letting them loose in Egyptian society – starting with the university union elections, thinking that he can keep them under control and get them back to the closet when he wants. That was proven wrong on the 6th of Oct 1981 when they collaborated with ex president Mubarak and many foreign secret services to assassinate President Sadat.

8. In the 1980s and early 90s Egypt, especially Cairo, experienced an IRA-like wave of bombing organised and led by MB and new-born Islamic groups and sub-branches. They all launched assassinations on some of Egypt’s finest writers and thinkers. They stabbed Egypt’s biggest writer and Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz in the neck. Luckily he survived. But the secular economist and intellectual Farag Fouda, like many others, did not survive the attack.

9. Also, during the 1980s, Mubarak was encouraged by the CIA to release these criminals from jail to send them all over the middle east spreading their ideology, fighting and recruiting fighters from around the middle east to fight the Russians in Afghanistan (1979-1989).

10. After 9/11 Mubarak with Britain and America found that the MB is a convenient tool to help n polarising society and dividing it, to create evidence that justified George Bush’s “war on terror.” This period was very interesting as all the enemies that America and its allies seemed to be fighting were actually all made by the American system headed by the CIA: such as the Political Islamism in general, Saddam Hussein (CIA number 1 guy in Iraq), Bin Laden CIA Number 1 “freedom fighter” who hid for years in the tunnels designed by the Americans to fight the Russians!

11. With the start of the second decade of the 21st century, all nations on earth started to get agitated on the street because of the way they are governed under the name of “democracy”. Their leaders spend their budgets on “holy wars” that serve only Anglo-american corporations – it is done in our name, and the name of democracy. While we are starving, having no medicine, no job, no education. All over the planet, and that includes many places in the USA.

12. Egypt was one of those countries that wanted to join this global liberation movement. Because Egypt is in the “middle east” their actions suddenly became designated and labelled “Arab spring” to disconnect it from the global cause. And when the Egyptians peacefully managed to move a military dictator, the whole revolution was hijacked as they were given in the “election” no choice but to choose between a member of Mubarak’s cabinet or a member of the MB. Of course you are crazy if you vote for a member of the Mubarak government again! Therefore the MB won by a minute majority. Now its clear this was intended to set an example to what is to come in any other stage for “democracy” in the middle east.

13. It is important to be aware that the support by the USA for the MB is similar to their original support for Saddam. They are keen on creating and exploiting Sunni-Shia division as a tool against Shia Iran. As a so-called Sunni group, the MB is potentially an ally against Iran. By the way, the Sunni-Shia division has never been part of the Egyptian consciousness.

14. During the last 2 years Egyptians watched their society being dominated and destroyed every minute by a minority of freaks who used every single old tool to harass the nation and to kill the freedom of speech, as well as inventing new tools of horror such as gang bang and deliberate sexual harassment of Egyptian women on the street, a phenomena that never existed in Egyptian society before the last six years.

15. Between the 29th of June and the 3rd of July 2013 more than 30 million Egyptians from all walks of life gathered in the streets of Egypt creating the biggest political human gathering in political history (said The Guardian) and demanded to take control of their country. And they did. Helped and supported by the Egyptian army which is part of the nation for thousands of years. The army did not start the protest; the army did not joint the protest; the army stepped in after it was clear the protest was bigger than anything ever seen and that it was not possible for the people to just go back. And for those who don’t know, every single Egyptian male spends at least a year of his life as a member of the army; we are all army). The people gathered to overthrow Morsi and to kill and bury the MB as an ideology forever.

16. Egyptians are farmers by nature. They know how to grow a tree, they know how to protect a field and they know how to chop any evil plant that might find its way into their field trying to corrupt their crops. The MB, as an organisation and as an ideology, is the root of a tree that branched widely in over 40 countries from the USA to the mountains of Tora Bora . We Egyptians know that to kill an evil tree you destroy the roots. And the rest of the branches will just die out.


Thornton, A.P. The Imperial Idea and its Enemies (1959), Doctrines of Imperialism (1965)