When 'independence' means substituting colonial masters for local ones

June 02, 2004 12:00 AM

For the last few weeks, members of the Iraqi Governing Council have been coming out against the American occupation. Most of them would thank the Americans for what they would call the liberation of Iraq, but then they would state that the Americans have gone too far and that it is time for the Iraqis, or rather, the American installed Iraqi government, to take control.

In essence, those officials are accepting the colonial redefinition of Iraq; the Iraq created by the American occupation, yet they want to take control of it, to perform the same function the Americans would have performed, only in Iraqi hands.

Nevertheless, their verbal attacks against the American occupation contain a semblance of nationalism; a very particular form of nationalism, one that I called in a previous article benign nationalism. If the colonial power redefined the colonized nation, the nationalism that emerges from accepting such a redefinition would be harmless to the colonial power, a continuation rather than an antithesis of occupation.

This was exactly the case with the nationalisms that developed around entities like Egypt and Lebanon as they were severed form the Ottoman Empire and redefined by British and French occupations. Instead of an Ottoman autonomous governorate, Egypt, with the efforts of the British became a constitutional monarchy. The British declared that they wanted Egypt to be a parliamentary democracy modeled after Great Britain, only under occupation.

The leaders of the Egyptian nationalist movement of the early 20th century accepted that redefined image of Egypt and tailored their national discourse around it. Not only was the nationalist discourse a derivative of the colonial discourse, the men and women who led the nationalist movement were historically collaborators with the colonial power. I will take the examples of Saad Zaghloul and Nazli Fadel. The first was the leader of the Egyptian liberal nationalist movement and the hero of the 1919 revolution, and the second is seen by many as the founding mother of Egyptian feminism.

Until 1883 Saad Zaghloul, who was born to a middle class rural family, was an Azharite student and a journalist, somewhere between a young sheikh and an effendi. While his family belonged to landowners, he himself did not own any land, and his own personal interests and thus political sentiments coincided more with those of the urban learned youth in Cairo than the landowner elite in the provinces.

In 1882, he was accused of collaborating with the Urabi revolt against foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs, and right after the occupation of Cairo by the British he was put in Jail. However, as soon as he was released from jail, his career took a 180 degree turn. He worked as a private lawyer, a job that did not require an academic degree at the time.

Due to his mastery of Arabic, whose arts of khataba and jadal (oration and debate) he had been learning since he was twelve, and due to his own intelligence, he was qui te successful in his new job and he started to rise socially. Then, Princess Nazli Fadel chose him as her legal agent. Nazli Fadel was a princess from the Khedivate family, the daughter of Mustafa Fadel Pasha, son of Ibrahim son of Mohammad Ali.

According to the treaty of London which defined Egypt's autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, her father had a good chance of ruling Egypt, since the system of inheritance in the treaty gave the throne to the eldest male descendant of Mohammad Ali. Khedive Ismail, Mustafa Fadel's brother, spent a lot of time and money to change that law of inheritance. He got the Ottoman Sultan to issue a decree making Egypt's rule hereditary for Ismail's descendants, excluding Mustafa Fadel and his uncle, Mohammad Halim.

Most probably, for that reason, Nazli Fadel held deep grievances against Ismail's descendants, Tawfiq and his son Abbas the Second. She had relations with oppositionists when the British supported Tawfiq. Yet, after the occupation, when the British were against Abbas, she was notorious for supporting the English occupation, as part of her anti-Khedive policy, and she used to publicly praise British officers and receive them as guests in her palace south of Cairo. She held a regular salon, where she introduced the most prominent and the most promising Egyptians to occupation officers.

In such meetings Zaghloul first met and befriended Evelyn Baring, later known as Lord Cromer, Britain's Paul Bremer in Egypt. Through Nazli Fadel and Cromer, on June 27, 1892, Zaghloul was promoted to become a vice judge, then judge with a salary of 40 pounds a month, still without having acquired any degree in law.

Mohammad Farid, the leader of the Watani party that led the resistance against the English before 1919, wrote in his memoirs about Nazli Fadel: "She was especially fond of British officers, and she used to meet men according to the European tradition (unveiled) and arrange musical nights at her house, and she drinks liquor, especially champagne, all the time with every meal and sometimes before meals."

Farid also reported rumors that Saad, who now became the princess' private lawyer, had an affair with her. Although Farid's remarks could be discounted as exaggerations for reasons of political rivalry by the time he wrote his diaries, the strong business relations between Zaghloul and the princess, the fact that he attended her meetings and the friendship he had with occupation officers, including Cromer, is documented by Zaghloul himself in his diaries. He wrote: "Lord Cromer used to sit with me for hours talking to me about many things to enlighten me in my political career."

Saad Zaghloul then married Safiyya, the daughter of Mustafa Fahmi, first Prime Minister under occupation, and a faithful friend of the English occupation. Zaghloul thus solidified his links to the pro-British branch of the ruling Turco-Egyptian elite. After getting his appointment as a vice judge, and before attempting to get a degree in law, Zaghloul started learning French.

Getting the job, getting married, and learning French were the three signs of Sheikh Zaghloul's transformation into Mr. Zaghloul and Zaghloul Pasha simultaneously. The revolution this figure headed in 1919 resulted in a political system that did not differ much from occupation, and the feminism that Nazli Fadel bred did not bring dignity to women, rather, with its complete cultural subordination to European colonialism, it took away the dignity of men and women alike.

The men and women on the Iraqi governing council should know that they cannot play the British game again, precisely because it has already been played before. Their verbal attacks against the American occupation should fool no one, they do not oppose the occupation because they are the occupation's enemies, rather, they oppose it because they compete with it and they think they should be the ones to occupy Iraq instead of the Americans ... but it would still be an occupation!

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