North Africa, West Asia

Anti-colonialism, grassroots nationalism and their impacts on international relations in Egypt

How do uprisings and national discourses in Egypt shape the international relations of the country? How are we to understand the current state of Egyptian nationalism and its relationship with the Arab world post-2011?

Youssef Kodsy
2 November 2015
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Demotix/Jonny von Wallström. All rights reserved.

Anti-colonial movements are theatres of nationalism and discourses of nationality. The presence of a colonial regime assists in the formulation and articulation of a discourse regarding an imagined collective community as it provides the indigenous population with an ‘other’ to juxtapose itself against. With national self-consciousness awakened, anti-colonialism is born as the colonised people become cognisant of their political and economic exploitation by a party regarded as exterior to their collective community. This was the specific trajectory of the 20th century anti-colonial movements in the colonised southern Mediterranean, specifically in Egypt. 

Throughout the 20th century, the colonised peoples of the Nile Valley began to imagine themselves as a consolidated collective and attempted to forge for themselves a sovereign state within specific territorial boundaries. However, the anti-colonial struggle in the land of the Nile was not a singular endeavour, but rather a prolonged process which evolved over time to recreate the national ideology fuelling the movement and correspondingly the manner in which the sovereign Egypt would relate to the Arab world.    

The Egyptian anti-colonial movement against the British can be observed in two distinct stages, both of which utilised unique historically-based national identities, disseminated them through popular culture and produced states which would associate with the Arab world in divergent manners. The anti-colonial movement of the first half of the century had a distinctively Egyptian national ideology shaped by the pharaonic Egyptian past, producing a nominally independent nation-state indifferent to the larger Arab region. In juxtaposition, the post-WWII anti-colonial movement employed Arabic nationalism to define Egyptian identity, generating an independent state deeply involved in the affairs of the post-colonial Arab world.

1919 anti-colonial movement

If the British had hoped that by stationing their troops in Egypt in response to the Orabi Revolt of 1882 they would effectively control the native Egyptian population and cripple the emergence of any nationalist movement, then the policy by all measures backfired. Prior to the revolt, the British had occupied the administrative and political offices of Egypt, essentially pulling the strings from behind the scenes, but the presence of their armed forces on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria was a daily physical reminder that Egyptians were a people subjugated by a foreign entity.

Moreover, the conversion of the Nile Valley into a British military base forced the native inhabitants into the sphere of European military conflict, a position from which Egyptians could only stand to lose. As the Ottomans enlisted to fight on the side of the Central Powers in 1914, the British immediately declared Egypt a protectorate and the horrors of war ensued on the Nile Valley. As forced conscription, requisitions, wartime inflation and martial law restrictions diminished the quality of life of all Egyptians, the indigenous population became assertive in their demand for independence.

Although the Egyptians wished for no part in the war, they nevertheless supported the war effort of the Allies with the understanding that Egypt would be recognised as an independent state following the war, a promise Britain was making to many of its colonised subjects.

In the year 1917 alone, the budget of the Egyptian protectorate included three million pounds sterling for the Allied war effort and a million and two hundred thousand Egyptian men to guard the transportation networks of the Allies. Egyptian assistance had been crucial in the campaign against the Ottomans in the Hejaz, the Senussi in Sudan and in the defence of the Suez Canal. With the conclusion of the war, the British could not deny the contribution of the Egyptians to the Allied victory, but refused to meet its obligations of providing the Egyptians with an independent state. 

Feeling cheated, seven prominent Egyptians, led by Saad Zaghloul, formed the Wafd in November of 1918 with the intention of presenting Egypt’s case for independence at the Paris Peace Conference in the upcoming year. With the British authorities denying the Egyptians the right to represent themselves at the Conference, the Wafd took its case to the Egyptian people, traversing the Nile Valley rallying anti-colonial and nationalist sentiment.

Although these elite Egyptians used the Arabic language to vocalise their case for independence, the rhetoric they employed was entirely of European origin.

Since the Napoleonic invasion of 1798, Egypt’s political and intellectual class had deeply absorbed European ideas, specifically the concept of the nation-state. In their quest for independence, the Wafd was not seeking to return the Nile Valley to the fluid Islamic Empire it had once been part of, but rather to create a nation-state based on a limited collective group and a defined territory, much like the European model.

Based on Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, the Wafd argued that the Egyptian nation-state would not be a novel creation, but a simple return to Egypt’s rich pharaonic past. The nation in this case would be based on the bloodline of the pharaonic civilisation, departing from Egypt’s previous Arab (and Ottoman) orientation. 

Pharaonism 1919-1933

As Zaghloul and his political associates disseminated the Egyptian national discourse from the top-down to secure Egyptian independence politically, a grassroots movement of the intellectual class commenced to articulate this national consciousness from the bottom-up.

To assist the anti-colonial struggle, the intelligentsia developed a new-found interest in Egypt’s pharaonic past and began to construct an image of a nation with a distinguishable historical and territorial character from the Ottoman and Arab worlds.

Indigenous Egyptology surfaced accompanied by a renaissance of pharaonic history, culture and society, a practical resurgence functioning to assist the anti-colonial movement by establishing the civilizational depth of independent Egypt. Egyptian drama, poetry and novels, the mediums of popular culture at the time, began employing themes and symbols of the Pharaonic past to produce an identification with an autonomous national heritage.

The Wafd argued that the Egyptian nation-state would not be a novel creation, but a return to Egypt’s pharaonic past.

Tawfiq Al-Hakim, the highly acclaimed Egyptian novelist, facilitated this process of pharaonic identification by drawing parallels between the plight of modern and ancient Egypt with his 1933 novel The Return of the Spirit. Weaving the pharaonic narrative into the anti-colonial movement, Al-Hakim likened the detention of Saad Zaghloul with the god Osiris, “who had to reform the land of Egypt [but was] seized, imprisoned in a cask and banished, dismembered, to the depths of the sea!” Employing the pharaonic belief that souls would return to the body after death, the novel’s title itself alluded to the return of the original and pure national Egyptian pharaonic spirit to an Egypt killed by colonialism. As a call to action for the Egyptian nation, the novel’s opening lines appealed, “arise, arise, o Osiris!”

Muhammad Husayn Haykal, a prominent European-educated author, asserted that “a nation without a past does not have a future.” However, in search for Egypt’s past, Haykal chose not to turn to its Arab history, maintaining that “it is completely absurd to claim that Egypt is Arab.” Instead, in search of the past on which the nation was to be built, in 1926 the author called for “the need to repair the rift between ancient Egypt and modern Egypt.” With an appeal to ethnic-nationalism, Haykal upheld the position that “the contemporary Egyptian is pharaonic by nature—so pharaonic in his blood that no other blood has been able to overcome it.”

This appeal based on the pharaonic bloodline was not unique to Haykal.

In 1931, Hafiz Mahmud attested that “the Arabs are a group of people who entered Egypt as foreigners but who lived there as Egyptians.” For the sake of pharaonic purity, Mahmud further asserted that “when Egypt came into contact with them she swallowed their Arabism and was able to Egyptianise them completely.”

The aim of the nationalist intellectuals was to disseminate this pharaonic identification at the level of civil society, and by the early 1930s it appeared that they were successful. Sati Al-Husri, the Syrian Arab nationalist, recalled to his displeasure that the Egypt of the early 1930s “did not possess an Arab nationalist sentiment; did not accept that Egypt was a part of the Arab lands, and would not acknowledge that the Egyptian people were part of the Arab nation.”

It is worth noting that upon passing away in 1927, Saad Zaghloul was not buried in an Arabic/Islamic styled mausoleum, but rather a mausoleum of pharaonic design.

Egypt’s relations with the Arab world 1922-1933

Born out of pharaonic nationalism, the Egyptian state, which gained nominal independence in 1922, would naturally be devoid of any affinity for its Arab neighbours. The Egyptian anti-colonial movement was rigorously using the Wilsonian Moment and the principle of national self-determination to climb out of its own colonised abyss, but it was not particularly interested in assisting the similar ambitions of its neighbours.

Egyptian national discourse disconnected the state from the Arab world and dismantled the solidarity between Egyptians and colonised Arabs, enabling Egypt to reject any call for anti-colonial support from peoples once considered part of the same civilisation. 

Libyans were amongst the first Arab peoples to suffer from this Egyptian attitude. In the early 1920s, Libyan political activists who had been resisting Italian colonialism had made Egypt a place of political refuge and a base from which to strategise against colonial rule. However, following a request from the Italian authorities in January 1924 that Egypt to no longer provide a safe haven for the individuals resisting imperialism, the nominally independent Egyptian government declared that the Libyan political refugees had to leave.

Egypt had sided with an imperialist European power over their Arab siblings, who were involved in the same anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle as the Egyptians.

This siding with a colonial power over its Arab victims was not limited only to the Italians and Libya, but extended to the case of the French and Syria. Throughout the Syrian revolt of the mid-1920s, Egyptian newspapers had been continuously relaying the events and Egyptian poets had offered their pens in support of the rebellion, but beyond meagre humanitarian financial assistance, the Egyptian authorities refused to politically aid the Syrians in realising independence. Rejecting the request for diplomatic support, Prime Minister Zaghloul affirmed that Egypt could offer nothing to the Syrians, claiming that “if you add a zero to a zero the result will be zero.”

The logic of siding with colonial powers over Egypt’s anti-colonial compatriots was explained by Egyptian pan-Arabist, Makram Ebeid. Ebaid observed that Egypt could not offer any attention to other Arabs until its own national question had been settled.

As the national question of Egypt lingered unresolved, and the state remained a 'zero', the Egyptian authorities could not afford to alienate the Italians and the French for a matter which was not of direct benefit to Egyptian independence. Egyptian nationalism had promoted independence for only the descendants of the pharaonic civilisation, and it was therefore with ease that Egyptians cooperated with European powers over their anti-colonial counterparts. 

The Egyptian politicians refrained from attacking not only France and Italy, but also their own colonial aggressor in matters deemed unrelated to Egyptian independence. In the wake of the 1929 riots in Palestine, Egypt’s political parties held no meetings or protests with regards to the issue of the British colonised Palestinian mandate. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas prohibited the Palestinian Arab delegation from hosting any public meetings in Egypt and Finance Minister Makram Ebaid declined Palestinian leader Jamal Al-Husayni’s request for financial assistance. For fear of evoking sectarian tensions within Egypt, Egyptian anti-colonialists remained neutral on the issue of Palestine and refrained from using the riots to further attack their own imperial aggressor. Discussion of the Palestinian riots in Egypt were only raised to emphasise the need for national unity between all religious groups.

1952 anti-colonial movement

As war was declared in 1939, Egypt was forced to side with Britain and all illusions of Egypt’s sovereignty were instantaneously shattered, discrediting the liberal experiment of Egypt. The socioeconomic hardships of WWI re-imposed themselves on the Nile Valley as 500,000 British troops appeared on Egyptian streets while the Axis invaded the Western Desert and Alexandria was aerially bombarded. Socio-economic difficulties however could not compare with the damage bestowed on Egypt politically.

The 4 February incident of 1942 confirmed that the political capital of Egypt was London, not Cairo. King Farouk was in the process of appointing Ali Maher as prime minister, however, like many Egyptians, Maher was pragmatic towards the Axis for fear that the war might end with German troops on the streets of Cairo.

The British responded by enclosing Farouk’s residence with tanks and with an ultimatum that he would either allow the Wafd to form a pro-Allies government, or he would have to abdicate. This incident not only revealed the foreign domination of Egypt, but also sabotaged the once revered nationalist Wafd, as the party appeared to be an imperial agent.

In these conditions, the anti-imperialist Egyptian Free Officers seized political power through a coup in July of 1952. Led by the young and ambitious Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the officers wished to purge Egypt of everything obstructing its sovereignty. This included the occupation and presence of the British military, the foreign influence over political life and the monarch who had been too cooperative with the British.

Motivated by the 1951 rebellion against British troops and fuelled by the disdain towards a political elite detached from the socio-economic realities of regular Egyptians, popular support immediately followed the Officers.

This new anti-imperialist movement realigned the trajectory of Egyptian resistance from the European rhetoric of the nation-state and self-determination to a radical form of anti-capitalism and national self-sufficiency. The failure of the Wafd to attain Egyptian autonomy discredited the narrow territorially-based pharaonic nationalism and moved Egypt towards a national discourse of pan-Arabism.

Unlike the landed Europeanised class of political elites of the Wafd, the Officers were socialists who had risen to prominence through military service. Their radical attitude towards political and economic self-sufficiency drove them to develop comradeship with other colonised and imperialised peoples, specifically in the Arab world. Pharaonism was substituted with secular pan-Arabism of a socialist orientation and until June 1967 Egypt was defined as the Arab nation that would liberate the Arab community.  

Pan-Arabism 1952-1967

Just as pharaonism was disseminated to civil society through popular culture, so too was pan-Arabism propagated through the accessible media of the age, radio and television. In place of the Sorbonne-educated nationalist writers of pharaonism, pan-Arabic sentiment was vocalised by folk musicians of humble origin.

As Nasser, the powerful rhetorician, traversed Egypt and the Arab world promoting solidarity and sovereignty, Egyptian musicians assisted the anti-imperial movement through radio and television by advocating for the unity of the Arab community and for socialist development to liberate the Arab world from the imperial west.

Abdel Halim Hafez, the popular Egyptian singer, pioneered this nationalist movement with songs such as Allah Ya Baladna, Baladi, Ehna El Shaab and Hekayet Shaab. In Ahlif, I Swear, Hafez swears over everything dear to him that “the Arab sun will never set, as long as [he] live[s]”. In juxtaposition to the pharaonic symbols previously present in Egyptian popular culture, the emphasis on Arab images reflects the new pan-Arabic nationalism. Alluding to the Arab sun in place of the Egyptian sun does not express the rebirth of the Egyptian nation, but rather the dawn of the post-colonial Arab world.

The Officers' radical attitude drove them to develop comradeship with other colonised and imperialised peoples.

The themes of revolution, anti-colonialism and socio-economic development featured prominently in Hafez’s music as he referenced the 1952 revolution, the 1956 Suez crisis, and the building of the Aswan High Dam. While Hafez always encouraged Arab unity and development, he was sure to cement Egypt’s role as the leader of this process, referring to Nasser as the “the spirit of the Arab community” in Nasser Ya Horeya. In Ya Gamal Ya Habib El Malayeen,Hafez further asserted that Nasser was the “hero of the Arab community” bringing them “light, well-being and freedom.”

Muhammad Abdel Wahab was a fellow Egyptian composer likewise propagating supra-Egyptian nationalism through music. Like many pan-Arabists, the first Arab-Israeli war spurred Wahab’s Arab self-consciousness leading him to compose his 1948 song Filistin, Palestine. The song was a direct call for Egypt and all Arab peoples to unite and reclaim Palestine from colonialism and zionism as Wahab opposed the division of the Arab community, both physically and psychologically. Wahab maintained in the song that Palestine was the theatre where the war between Arab nationalism and colonialism would be decided.  

Twelve years after Filistin, Wahab released his pan-Arab masterpiece in 1960 Al-Watan Al-Akbar, The Greater Homeland. As a song to celebrate the United Arab Republic, it featured the most notable Arab voices with a music video akin to Soviet propaganda. The Greater Homeland is a reference to the greater Arab state, a “home of the Arab people,” a nation “which runs between the two oceans, from Marrakesh to Bahrain,” and a country characterised by “the unity of all the Arab people.” The song is rich in anti-colonial sentiment as it claims that “colonialism will end by our hands” and the struggle will not seize “until the victory of the Arab people” is to be realised.

Egypt’s relations with the Arab world 1952-1967

The independent state of Egypt took on a far different approach in its Arab relations with the refashioning of Egyptian national identity, from pharaonic and territorially confined to Arab and transcending borders.

With Arab identity embedded within the Egyptian national discourse, Egypt positioned itself as the liberator of Arab peoples, investing heavily in opposing imperialism as it manifested itself within the Arab world. Appearing to have defeated France and Britain in 1956—the imperial powers which had colonised the majority of Arab lands—Egypt branded itself as the champion of the region with the aim of assisting the anti-imperial and socialist movements throughout the Arab world and becoming the centre of economic and political gravity in the region.

The relationship between Egypt and Syria provides concrete evidence of the change in Arab relations from the period of pharaonism to the pan-Arab age. In juxtaposition to the dismissal of Syria’s request for assistance and solidarity in the mid-1920s, Egyptians outright united their country with Syria to create the United Arab Republic in 1958, responding affirmatively to Syria’s proposition of forming a union just one year after Syria had first proposed the idea in 1957.

It is important not to perceive this act as benevolent on the part of Egypt. Egyptians did not unite with Syria to assist them in stabilising their political realm and developing their country, but rather to dominate Syria politically and exploit it economically. However, the experience of the union itself displays the manner in which Egypt’s Arab nationalism permitted the state to take an active role in the Arab world.

While the union with Syria quickly dissolved in 1962, the relationship between Egypt and the Palestinian anti-colonial resistance lasted for the entire duration of Egypt’s pan-Arab nationalism, up until its fateful death in June of 1967.

In comparison to the lack of interest in the Palestinian cause in 1929, which had been regarded as sectarian and jeopardising Egypt’s secular government, the post-1952 Egypt was deeply absorbed in the attempt to liberate the Palestinian people.

In contrast with the prohibition of Palestinian groups assembling in Egypt in 1929, it was under Egyptian leadership that the Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed in 1964. It was also from Cairo that the PLO broadcasted its Voice of Palestine radio programme. Much like in the case of the U.A.R., it is important to understand that this form of assistance was not altruistic on the part of Egypt. Rather, it was a way by which Egypt could control all Palestinian resistance activity, and since the Palestinian case had been the central issue of pan-Arabism, Egypt would ensure its leadership of the Arab world by dominating the Palestinian cause.

Nevertheless, it was anti-imperial pan-Arab nationalism which led Egypt to deploy forces in the Sinai in May of 1967, gesturing to the world that Egypt was willing to fight for the Arab cause, a fateful decision in hindsight. 

A third national discourse?

This article has argued that the prolonged Egyptian anti-colonial movement of the 20th century can be observed in two distinct phases, each of which utilised unique national identities, promoted by nationalists of different social strata and disseminated through popular culture, establishing independent states with distinct relations with the Arab world.

The first phase employed pharaonism as the national identity, advanced it by a Europeanised class of politicians and intellectuals, disseminated it through literature and formed a state indifferent to the Arab world. In contrast, the second phase promoted pan-Arabism, advocated it by a group of military leaders and musicians with a socialist inclination, propagated it through music and fashioned a sovereign state highly active in the Arab world.

Tahrir Square in 2011 demonstrated to the world that Egypt’s struggle against imperialism is still ongoing. While no foreign troops are directly present in Egypt, Egyptians have realised that the economic model of neoliberalism is essentially neo-colonialism which exploits them politically and economically in manners similar to Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It will be of the utmost importance in the upcoming years to follow the method by which the middle class, university educated youth use the medium of online space to oppose this neo-colonialism, and to observe the national identity which will surface from this process and how it will relate to the wider Arab world.

Egypt’s anti-colonial movement is not over and the events currently ensuing will warrant a third section in this article. 

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