Thursday, October 07, 2004
I feel that I want to write a little bit about the history of Egypt in the past 200 years. I believe you will gain some insights into how the Arab world developed to be in the shape it is today. As an Arab country with enormous influence, Egypt can be taken as an example of the several evolutions that Arab nations went through throughout the past 2 centuries.
In 1798 the French General Napoleon Bonaparte and his French army landed in Egypt. The French expedition in Egypt lasted for only 3 years but it left a drastic effect on the region. First, the French invasion literally shocked the Muslim world because this was the first time that a country from Christendom managed to invade a land in the heart of the Muslim empire with such unexpected ease. What was more dramatic though was the fact that only the power of another Western nation, Great Britain, managed to force the French out of Egypt. The Egyptian's resistance to the French occupation was not enough to liberate Egypt.
The French invasion had another massive effect on the Arab/Muslim psyche. For the first very time Muslims asked questions such as: what went wrong? How did those infidel Christians manage to advance to such a degree?
After the French withdrew from Egypt, the country descended into anarchy as rival factions began to compete for power. A group of Egyptian noblemen approached a general sent by the Ottoman Sultan (Egypt was an Ottoman province) and asked him to rule over Egypt. The General's name was Muhammad Ali.
Instead of enveloping the country against "vile western developments", Muhammad Ali chose to incorporate things from the west and created what we call in Egypt "the modern period". He sent student delegations to France and imported military advisors from the west to shape the Egyptian army based upon the modern western standards.
In 1882 the British fleet lands in Egypt and the British colonization of Egypt begins. When World War 1 erupted, the British declared Egypt to be a "British protectorate" and thus exerted full control over Egypt. In 1922 Britain grants Egypt nominal independence. The ruler at that time was King Fouad, a descendent of Muhammad Ali, who had to balance between the aspirations of the nationalists and the influence of Great Britain over Egypt.
In this period, Egypt flourished in almost everyway. The first secular university was built and Egypt literally became a bridge between the east and the west. It became the center of entertainment and culture in the Arab world. Egypt's monarchy was considered to be one of the most important in the world.
To counter the "western influence" that was evident in Egypt, a man by the name of Hasan Al Bana started an organization called "The Muslim Brotherhood". It was first a social entity with the aim of convincing Egyptians that they should return to the original puritanical form of Islam, but sooner the organization became a paramilitary and was involved in several political assassinations.
In 1948 the state of Israel was born. Egypt and several Arab countries waged war against the newly born state and they lost. The defeat at the hands of an army of immigrants shocked the Arab world and it paved the way for the Arab nationalist revolution in 1952 that overthrew the monarchy.
The revolution was headed by an Egyptian officer called Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser and his colleagues teamed up with all opposition entities to start this revolution, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.
Alarmed by Nasser's overly secular Pan-Arabism rhetoric and his attempt to sideline them, the Muslim Brotherhood turned against him and tried to assassinate him. Nasser responded by literally wiping out this organization from Egypt's political scene. He arrested and executed scores of them (one of the very few good things he has done!).
Nasser was considered to be the symbol of Pan-Arabism in the Arab world and its ideology in the Arab world. It was characterized by its anti-Western sentiments and its closeness to the soviets.
In 1967 Israel launched a 6 days war that enable it to occupy lands "or buffer zones" from 3 Arab countries. The swift Israeli victories humiliated the Arabs and shock their confidence in Pan-Arabism. Islamists seized the opportunity and declared that since Pan-Arabism and Naser's socialist agenda brought defeat to Egypt then the only answer is Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood's slogan was "Islam is the answer".
I consider the 1967 defeat to be the date when Islamists stood tall and provided their agenda as an alternative.
Nasser died in 1970 and his vice Anwar Sadat took over. Sadat along with Syria's Assad launched the 1973 war that erased some of the humiliation that Arabs felt in 1967. I personally believe that even though the 1973 war was not a total military victory for Egypt, Sadat proved that Egypt's military is to be reckoned with. The war also enabled both Sadat and his Israeli partner to have a peace agreement.
Sadat's fatal mistake was that he opened the door for Islamists to counter the opposition coming from communists and other Nasser era socialists. He freed them from their jails and brought back their exiles. Sadat paid a huge price for opening the cage's mice, they assassinated him in 1981.
Sadat was not the only one who did this fatal mistake. Israel helped Hamas at the beginning of its inception to try to counter Arafat's secular nationalist movement. The Shah of Iran focused all his attention on communists instead of Islamists and it later appeared that the Islamists had more power than the communists. The US financed Islamic militants and other Afghan freedom fighters in Afghanistan in their war against the soviets in the 80s. US allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia did the same thing. The US got 911 in the end.
Sadat, the Shah, the US, and pro-western governments were busy fighting the Red. Now let us welcome our new enemy: the Green.
I hope the above short account gave you an idea about how things evolved here.