No easy transformation

Published February 12, 2011

FOR the last two weeks I have, like innumerable others, careened from TV news to Internet updates and back, longing for the moment that came Friday night, when the tyrant finally yielded to a brave and spirited people.

History has been made; celebrations are in order. But it’s not too early to ask what next. The so-called Higher Military Council inspires no confidence. Does another military strongman lurk in the regime’s entrails? I wonder if western leaders, shamed into moral bluster after being caught in flagrante with Mubarak, will, when we relax our vigils, tip the balance towards ‘stability’ and against real change.

I grow apprehensive too, recalling the words of an extraordinarily perceptive observer of Egypt’s struggles in the past. “The edifice of despotic government totters to its fall. Strive so far as you can to destroy the foundations of this despotism, not to pluck up and cast out its individual agents.”

This was the deathbed exhortation of the itinerant Muslim Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), who pursued a long career in activism and journalism. Travelling in the last half of the 19th century, he saw how unshakeable the “foundations of despotism” in Muslim countries had already become. That they were reinforced in the next century, even though many of the “individual agents” of despotism were plucked up and cast out, would not have surprised him.

He spent eight years in Egypt at a crucial time (1871-79), when the country, though nominally sovereign, was stumbling into a long and abject relationship with western powers. Invaded by Napoleon in 1798, it had become the first non-western country to try to catch up with western economic and military power. Building a modern army and bureaucracy required capital, and Egypt’s rulers began large-scale plantations of a cash crop highly valued in Europe: cotton.

This led, in the short term, to great private fortunes. But having bound its formerly self-sufficient economy to a single crop and the vagaries of the capitalist system, Egypt was badly in debt to European bankers by the late 1870s.

Its nascent manufacturing industry stood no chance in an international economy. In the late 1870s and early 1980s, resentment against a despotic regime beholden to foreigners erupted in what were the first upsurges against colonial rule anywhere in Asia and Africa.

The British invaded Egypt in 1882 to protect their interests, most important of which was the Suez canal.

In Ottoman Turkey, al-Afghani observed a similar advance of western interests backed by gunboats. In his native Persia, he participated in protests against the then shah’s sale of national resources to European businessmen.

Al-Afghani came to realise that the threat posed to the east by Europe was much more insidious than territorial expansion. Imposing, for instance, the urgencies of internal modernisation and the conditions for ‘free trade’ on Asian societies, Europeans got native elites to do their bidding. In turn, local rulers were only too happy to use western techniques to modernise their armies, set up efficient police and spy networks and reinforce their own power.

This was why, al-Afghani explained presciently in the 1890s, Muslims moved from despising despots propped up by the West to despising the West itself. Even national sovereignty and electoral democracy were no defence against materially and intellectually resourceful western powers. Peasants, students and working classes joined the uprisings against British rule in 1906 and 1919. Secular nationalism fuelled these anti-imperialist movements.

The British declared Egypt a sovereign state in 1922, but made it impossible for the democratically elected Wafd party to govern. As the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru commented from a British prison in 1935, “democracy for an eastern country seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the behests of the imperialist ruling power”.

This dismal truth was to be more widely felt among Arabs as the US became the paramount power in the Middle East; and securing Israel and the supply of oil joined the expanding list of western strategic interests in the region.

The rest of this story would have been as familiar to al-Afghani as it is to us.

— The Guardian, London

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