Arab children of Lear

December 13, 2003 12:00 AM

When there is colonial encounter, there are natives who believe in the colonial promise; this is an attempt to remind every contemporary King Lear with his predecessors.

King Lear of Egypt

“My country is no longer in Africa, truly; it is now a slice of Europe!”

The above statement, made by Khedive Ismail, who autonomously ruled Egypt under the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire from 1863 to 1879, became an emblem of Arab liberals attempting to modernize the Middle East along European lines. Whether they declare it or not, some sort of vibrating pleasure seems to shake their hearts “like a dove shakes her feathers after rain” at the thought of turning their countries into “slices of Europe.”

Many forget however the context in which Ismail’s statement was made. To create a European Egypt, Ismail had to borrow huge amounts of money from European banks. By the end of his reign, Egypt was on the brink of bankruptcy, and an Anglo-French committee was formed to investigate the problem and suggest solutions. The committee concluded that Ismail should delegate his powers to a Prime Minister, whom European politicians as well as businessmen could trust. For all practical purposes, the committee’s dictations amounted to Ismail’s abdication. Ismail, the godfather of liberals in Egypt and the Middle East, had been Europe’s best ally; he was the personal friend of the emperor of France, and rumors used to fly through the streets of Cairo that he was more than a friend to the empress. His faith in European aid and guidance was never shaken. He spent half his time and money trying to secure himself vis-a-vis the Ottoman sultan. He feared that Istanbul would try to reduce Cairo’s autonomy. He never feared London or Paris. Yet it was none other than London and Paris that asked him to give up his throne.

The first time the statement appeared was in Ismail’s decree to implement the suggestions of the Anglo-French committee. In that context, the statement became an attempt by Ismail to remind the Europeans of his friendship, of his “achievements’ and of his worth. The statement was made in 1878, the next year Great Britain came to the conclusion that Ismail was an obstacle to reform (just like Yasser Arafat became an obstacle to peace after he appointed a prime minister). He was dethroned and forced into exile, and to perfect the Shakespearean paradox, no exile accepted the Oriental Lear other than good old Istanbul, the one he so much feared.

Like Lear, Ismail, and his modern liberal offspring in the Arab world are tragic characters. And like all tragic heroes, there seems to be an inevitable hand of destiny that drives them to their doom. It was not only Ismail’s personal passion to Westernize that drove him to throw Egypt in the nets of economic dependency and political oblivion. The treaty of London in 1840, which had created modern Egypt as an internationally recognized entity, and thus gave a stake for the likes of Ismail in keeping the country’s independence, also deprived the rulers of Egypt from the economic means by which to preserve that independence; the treaty forbid state monopoly over land and other means of production and enforced a system of privatization and free trade. While trading with Europe under the system of government monopolies, established by Ismail’s grand father Mohammed Ali, created enough resources at the government’s disposal to develop and thus preserve its independence, after privatization, the surplus was distributed among an elite of landowners, leaving the government with few resources other than foreign investment and excessive borrowing. In other words, the liberal equation of political independence and economic liberalization, which had worked well in Europe, was contradictory and self defeating in Egypt. Liberalization led to dependence and that eventually led to occupation. The treaty of London left the likes of Ismail with either dependent development or no development at all. Thus, Ismail’s extravagance, such as building an opera house, a whole palace just for the temporary stay of the empress of France, and a celebration for the opening of the Suez Canal that cost millions, was not only the fruit of his irrational European passions, it was a policy aiming at creating the image that Egypt’s financial affairs were fine, fine enough to afford that kind of spending. Egypt’s image would then translate into Egypt’s credit, which, in turn, meant more borrowing and more resources for the government.

It was the European hand of destiny, among the many hands of destiny, the put Ismail on his track of doom. Like a cow born and raised in a farm due to the care and kindness of the farmer. It is the cow’s gratitude and loyalty, as opposed to the ingratitude of a fox born in the same farm, that delivers it to the farmer’s plate.

And all cows moo in the same way. Today’s neo-liberals in the Arab world, who believe in America’s programs of liberation in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping that they would eventually become slices of America, will become the first victims of those programs. It is not out of patriotism, nationalism, Islam, or simple morality that I think they should disengage themselves from such plans of “colonial liberation’; it is out of self preservation. Ismail’s desperation and panic, trying to prove his worth and polish his image in the decree mentioned above is replicated in the discourses of most Arab governments trying to “improve their image’ and prove their worth to a grinning American master who helped bring them to power in the first place. Thinking of the classic and neo-classic likes of Ismail, it is easy to realize, that there is a breed of people in the Middle East, other than those blowing themselves up, who are committing suicide everyday.

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