The question: To what extent do the colonial origins of Egypt and Syria explain their contemporary politics?
“There is one supreme issue that ignites frenzied passions among Arab peoples and that is anti-colonialism. They have shed much blood in liberating themselves from the control of Western countries and they will not tolerate the return of this control in any shape or pattern” – Shepherd 1956, 7.
This essay will utilise Thornton’s position on colonialism as “imperialism seen from below” (1962, 341) to argue that the colonial origins of Egypt and Syria plays a significant role in contemporary politics. His viewpoint is that of the controlled against controllers, a matter of power dynamics whereby a benevolent despot is not regarded for their benevolence, but because they are a despot. Simply put, such a theoretical lens of the indigenous local suppressed by a global superpower will be demonstrated through the British in Egypt and French in Syria. The essay then contends that this control saw rise to an expression of Arab nationalism in great strength, recognised as “identity and group solidarity … desirous of seeing society resist control by outside forces” (Khalidi 1991, 1364-65). Indeed, nationalist theory proposes that through unity liberation from foreigners is plausible (Kramer 1993, 188). While freedom from suppression occurred initially, the weaponisation of colonialist ideals instead correlated with a domination of Arab over Arab, in a state based as oppose to regional spectrum. As colonialism in both Syria and Egypt arguably occurred within the spectrum broadly recognised as contemporary by historians, this essay will instead largely focus within a two-decade timeframe of political activity from current day. The extent of colonial origins is thus significant in contemporary politics for both the outlined nations.
Britain operated a veiled protectorate (non-influential in state affairs) in Egypt until its victory post WWI. A formal protectorate was established, with martial law imposed and the Prime Minister deported. Rising nationalistic sentiments ensued, with ongoing demonstrations and unrest across Egypt. The British grip was relinquished somewhat by 1922, enough to suppress direct challenge while disdain continued to murmur. By July 1952 Free Officers implemented a coup forcing the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Egypt, culminating in the Anglo-Egyptian agreement (Podeh 1996, 163). President Nasser was instated, operating on a position of positive neutrality with the West and world affairs. This approach was inaccurately interpreted by Britain and America for seeking concession rather than the reality of an increasing genuine “manifestation of resentment against Western imperialism” (Podeh 1996, 161) in the form of true Arab nationalism. This disdain augmented in the pulled funding for the Aswan Dam project and the humiliation of the Bandung Conference (Rubin 1982, 85) triggering Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal later discussed by this essay, the ramifications of which are still significant in Egyptian contemporary politics.
With the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, most Arab lands were divided into either French or British spheres of influence. Syria was carved out along tribal lines, weakened by an amalgamation of differing sects. France claimed rule of both this and Lebanon, operating on a three-pillar system; moral, political and economic (Khoury 1987, 27). It had made significant investment in the banking, public utilities and transportation sectors prior to the War, and was keen to maintain control of these. On an educational and religious level, France regarded Syria a compilation of two peoples, the elite, progressive and culturally superior Christian minority and the fanatical, uneducated Muslim majority (Khoury 1987, 28). This Said based narrative of religious ‘othering’ proved itself perpetually ignorant to the collective Arab aims and common political sentiments that would unite and overturn colonial power.
Prior to WWI Arab nationalism in Syria (as then ruled by the Ottoman empire) was limited to the upper echelons of society, whereby socio-economic conditions allured a high literacy rate (Joarder 1977, 15). Upon assumed control of Syria by the French in 1920, this movement trickled through all social classes. By 1925, the nation was engulfed in what became known as the Great Syrian Revolt, one ultimately assuaged by French troops. It wasn’t until 1936 and the Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence that Syria was finally freed of the vanguard of French colonialism (Talhami, 2001). Arab nationalism, freed from its suppresser, gained intense popularity, notably in the Socialist Party of the Ba’th, the predominant political influence in the state post 1954. The Ba’thists believed in, to quote the party’s statutes ‘a single Arab nation, with an eternal mission’” (Parker 1962, 17). The leadership, like Nasser himself, stood for drastic social reforms and a close pan-Arab solidarity, together with the complete expulsion of all kinds of foreign control. As such, when this essay speaks of nationalism, it is referencing Nasserism, Ba’thism and their implicit ties. It is also incorporating the deep anti-colonial, anti-imperial sentiments which provoked the rise of nationalism, and thus the impacts ensued in relevance to colonial powers.
By 2015 and the launch of an expansion on the Suez Canal, then President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi commented that “no one will ever be able to prevent Egyptians from achieving what they want, as long as Egyptians remain united” (France 24, 2015). His rhetoric was a nod to that of Nasser’s speech sixty years earlier, “where powers of imperialism have prevailed, Egypt stands solidly and staunchly to preserve her dignity” (Elbenni, 2017). Nasser’s accumulated frustrations with the West culminate in various speeches, the earliest of which was made to fellow army officers and spoke of how “Egypt must rid herself completely of every foreign influence so that she can stand on her own feet” (CIA 1999, 4). Nasserism thus looks upon Britain and France as an unreconstructed colonial power afflicted with incurable greed (Range 1959, 1006). In return, these nations regarded Nasser as the strongest anti-colonial force in the MENA region at the time (Shepherd 1956, 4). His success in defying the colonisers of Egypt’s past in the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, solidified both his image as the emblem of independence and the nation’s stature globally. France and Britain had in actuality invaded and been forced by the US to retreat from the region, yet the propaganda and iconography of this success evades such overarching support. It is this heralded strength in entrenched Egyptian (for Nasser, Arab) Nationalism, combined with a willingness for support on the nation’s terms, which underpins the choices made by current leadership and their self-representation.
With the development of the United Arab Republic (UAR) came about a change in the regional power balance. “Yemen joined in a loose federal arrangement, Saudi Arabia was driven into neutrality, Lebanon was paralysed by internal stride, and Nasser was unchallenged” (Seale 1960, 300). The UAR formed in 1959 with the union of Syria and Egypt. This was seen as a success of the pan-Arab movement, whereby two dissimilar nations in ethnic makeup, geographical separation by a sworn enemy in Israel and uncomplimentary economies of the time were united in their keenness for Arab Nationalism (Parker 1962, 16). Moreover, the Ba’th party, believed they would become the “great political party and ideological source of a unified Arab world” (Seale 1960, 300). The Egyptians however sought to run Syria like a colony, one badly operated in its dampening of potential and initiative (Kramer 1993, 187). This seeking of domination by Nasser saw the loss of Syria in 1961, a short-lived representation of the potential for unification. While rousing power dynamics toppled the pinnacle of pan-Arab success, its undertones can be felt in modern day nation politics.
“Nasser and Ba’th carried Arab nationalism to the summit of its achievements” (Kramer 1993, 186). While an occurrence over 50 years ago, the effects of this summit remain significant. Having said this, the rapid success post-colonisation of Egypt and Syria was arguably undermined by the 1967 six-day war with Israel and the dramatic failing for unification behind the Palestinian cause. There remains support however, for an intangible sense of ‘Arabness’ across the region, a unique recognition for the plight of indigenous populations against their colonisers, no matter the difference in how this may manifest itself (Kramer 1993, 172). Amid current politics of Iranian entrenchment in the Levant and a rise in Hamas operations and radical Islam, Egypt has remained a largely secular and reformist state (Clingan, 2018), attributed to its nationalist origins and their testament against the course of change.
Amidst the populist uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring and its repercussions, Egypt witnessed ongoing leadership contests and a continued struggle for the military to maintain control in a state of protestors. In current political might, President El-Sisi has explicitly sought to incorporate sentiments aroused by Nasser and his anti-colonial, pro-national stance, namely the preservation of that most entrenched in state power, ardent militarism (Cook 2016, 112). Current conscription methods enforce all young men to serve time, thus reinforcing its narrative as a body for all Egyptians regardless the demographic. No oversight exists on military activity, it dominates nearly every industry in terms of manufacturing and sale, offering discounts to service personnel. In 2012, Egypt made the decision to return tanks into the Sinai Peninsula, deliberately aggravating Israel for the lacked consultation and potential undermining of the terms for weapon deployments as set out in the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty (Rudoren, 2012). The Sinai is a deteriorated region, for which Egypt is now being accused of mass atrocities enforcing military rule under el-Sisi (HRW, 2019). This is no new fact of Arab nationalism and is aforementioned in detail across this essay. As Thornton explains, “more of a case exists for saying that the British, upon abdication from empire, did so less because they had become convinced of its immorality than because any policy of defending it would be ruinously costly” (1962, 339). Colonialism undoubtedly inhibits itself in the current military rule of Egypt.
Regarding leadership and its nationalistic ancestry, el-Sisi has been heralded as the new expression of Nasser. He is perhaps however one more radical and conservative in his isolationism as oppose to seeking leadership of a broader Arab region (Chulov, 2013). El-Sisi’s coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 is notable, as is the later declaration of their group as a terrorist faction (BBC, 2019). Gulf Allies and their considerable funding streams are poured into the suppression of young Islamists, as intended by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to crush the religious faction (al-Anani, 2014). Both Nasser and El-Sisi assume a ‘moderate’ Islamic position, the ongoing suppression of more extremist societal elements underpinning Arab nationalism as a theory and thus its significant factor in Egyptian politics then and now.
Contemporary politics in Syria incorporates significant elements of the history earlier discussed. The Sykes-Picot agreement and subsequent imperial rule proved humiliating to national psyche (Holtmann 2013, 135), and thus contempt for Western intervention is significant. Despite this, the 1963 coup by the Ba’thist party (against the National Union) for control of Syria resulted in the rousing of social services and a welfare state system. These were Western in ideal, though premised on the core tenants of the UAR with the adaptation of a shift in focus to the private sector rather than nationalisation of industry. As in Nasserism, religion was viewed as but one element of the region’s Arab tradition (Meininghaus 2016, 73), appealing to society against the backdrop of Islamist political parties.
While under Ottoman rule, the ‘Country of Greater Syria’ existed, it was much larger than modern day. Thus, in its recent history, Syrians have shifted their ancient connection to Arab identity to what it is now representative of the nation’s people. It is indicative of a moving away from the French Mandate and the truncations it proposed (two divide the nation four ways), which nationalists saw as dividing and illustrative of occupation (Van Dam 2017, 7). This Ba’thist perception remained ignorant to the understanding that for a shared people to exist in union, they must feel equally represented. Moreover, the French Mandate in Syria resulted in a nation united with Druze and Alawite tribes. al-Assad himself is of Alawite ancestry, which make up approximately 12% of the population. It’s a factor ultimately culminating in the ongoing civil war the region is now witnessing, and the president’s grapple to maintain authority. Al-Assad exists a nationalist, pitted against Islamist organisations like the Free Syrian Army since 2011 and the onslaught of pro-democracy, liberalised protestors demanding fairer representation. His ongoing success in doing so, while autocrats like that in Tunisia have fallen, is a testament both to international support and the factors at play from a nationalistic state, particularly that of a strong and loyal military.
Both Syria and Egypt have sought anti-colonial stances in the Middle East, all the while accepting financial support from similar great powers. Without aid from Washington, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Gulf States, Egypt would fonder at the brink of collapse (Cook 2016, 118). Viewing the state as a regional stabiliser, the US has spent $71.6 billion in bilateral military and economic aid between 1948 and 2011, second only to Israel (Clingan, 2018). Essentially, Egypt relies on the support of Western superpower allies and institutions, while explicitly scorning the impact of similar foreign oppression. It’s a backhanded, hypocritical narrative, one encompassing elements of neo-liberalism which conceptually act in dichotomy to anti-colonial stances. In practice, el-Sisi is merely utilising whichever political narrative works best for him, a lesson learnt by Nasser who brilliantly posited East against West for increased funding. Al-Assad is no different, allowing a proxy supporter in Russia to uphold the Syrian regime. This contends its principle of foreign non-intervention as established upon removal of French power (Kramer 1993, 183). Protection from UN sanctions through veto, the sending of ground troops and aerial artillery have all served al-Assad well (Hubbard et al., 2019). Not fundamentally recognised as a tenant of Arab nationalism, Nasser, el-Sisi and al-Assad have all sought foreign powers to curtail their strategic aims, while remaining anti-imperialist on principle.
The extent to which colonial origins in Syria and Egypt impact contemporary politics is dramatic. Foreign intervention arguably seeded the growth of Arab Nationalism, spurred by an emotive undertaking for revolution against western suppression and the uniting of a region once so controlled. Pan-Arabism as a movement may have died in the fallout of the UAR, yet the undertones of Arab or state based nationalistic fervor as a reproach for the discontent of colonialism is significant. In a contemporary setting, Egypt continues to utilise its military as a means of controlling protests, particularly the ongoing rise and fall of Islamists. Al-Assad in Syria has utilised the proxy of a foreign nation, similarly to Nasser upon his seeking of increased authority and power. Undoubtedly, the ties to colonialisation, surges in nationalism and the implicit pan-Arabism, are implicitly interwoven in both states. These ideals now form the foundation of contemporary politics, leadership and national psyches in the region. This essay thus contends that there is no question of the importance of colonial heritage in both the Syrian and Egyptian states to their actions in the modern day.
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