Book Review: Spoiling Egyptians: British Capitalism and Egyptian Nationalism

British Imperialism in Egypt. By Elinor Burns.
 No. 5, Colonial Series. Published by the Labour Research Department. 72 pp. Price 6d.

This book is a very succinct and useful account of British control in Egypt from about 1850 to the present day.

From 1517 to 1914, Egypt was nominally under Turkish rule, and was required to pay an annual tribute, fixed in 1873 at £675,000, but during the 19th century a new overlord entered Egypt—the foreign financier—who demanded tribute on an immensely larger and ever-increasing scale.

Foreign capital was given its first opportunity by the construction of the Suez Canal during the reign of the Khedive Ismail, who was the first Egyptian ruler to foresee prospects of wealth and power by developing the country’s resources on West European lines. The first twelve years of Ismail’s reign call to mind the famous tribute to the “ bourgeoisie ” in the Communist Manifesto for, during this period, the following, among many other works, were completed: The construction of the Suez Canal and 8,400 miles of irrigation canals; over 900 miles of railways and 5,000 miles of telegraph ; the building of 430 bridges and numerous houses in Cairo; the Alexandria harbour and the Suez Docks; the construction of roads, including a special road to the Pyramids; and the completion of 15 lighthouses and 64 sugar mills. Irrigation increased the area of arable land from four million to nearly five-and-a-half million acres. Most of these works were carried out by British capitalists who lent the money at immense interest and obtained enormous profits on their contracts. In a short space of time these capitalists were owed by the Egyptian State more than a half of the money lent, and the bulk of revenue was required for debt redemption. More and more loans were contracted to pay off other loans, and the finances of the country became in such a hopeless condition that excuse was afforded for the British Government to “step in” in the interest of its “nationals”—the bondholders and financiers. The Khedive in 1875 was compelled by the creditors to sell his shares in the Suez Canal to the British Government for £4,000,000, and a financial mission was sent to Egypt “to assist in remedying the confusion.’’ Following this decision, Goschen, the representative of the bondholders, and the financial mission, forced upon the Khedive a scheme which included the appointment of two Controllers-General (one British, one French), and the consolidation of the debt at 7 per cent. interest (except on the loans of Goschen’s firm on which the old rates of 10 and 12 per cent. were to be paid!) Ruthless pressure was put upon the peasants to keep the State finances solvent. Crops were forestalled, and customs dues and railway rates were increased. Despite the occurrence of a cattle plague and a failure of crops, which led to a holocaust of deaths from starvation and disease, the British Government would not allow even postponement of interest payments. Repercussions followed elsewhere; salaries of soldiers and Civil Servants were unpaid and their numbers seriously reduced. The Egyptian Finance Minister who protested against foreign control, was “put out of the way.” At last, in 1879, a revolt in the Army and widespread discontent, compelled the Khedive to dismiss the foreign ministers and to institute, through an elected assembly of Sheiks and others, a native government. This gave birth to a National Party, whose slogan was “Egypt for the Egyptians.”

However, High Finance was not prepared to take this blow “lying down.” The British Government induced the Sultan of Turkey to depose the Khedive Ismail and to appoint Tewfik, a tool of the foreign interests, as his successor. A few weeks later the foreign Controllers General were re-installed in office, and agitation for Egyptian Independence received a further stimulus.

The Army, now the only native institution within the State machine, was the leading force in this movement, and an officer named Arabi, a former “ranker” of peasant origin, became its storm centre. The movement received support also from |he landlords, who objected to foreign exploitation of Egypt’s new resources, and the peasants, who were being bled white by taxes for debt service. A programme was drawn up, which included the dismissal of all ministers, the granting of a constitution, and an increase in the strength of the Army. To stifle the agitation, the Khedive ordered Arabi and his regiment to the provinces, but Arabi refused to go, and instead marched his troops to the Palace and compelled the Khedive to appoint a new Anti-Imperialist Ministry.

Shortly after the events recorded above a massacre of Christians by a hired band of Bedouins took place at Alexandria. Whether the massacre was instigated by the British or the Turks is obscure, but the effect was harmful from a British point of view, for the European residents demanded the recognition of Arabi and the setting up of a joint conference of the six Powers having interests in Egypt—France, England, Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia.

The conference met at Constantinople in June, 1882, and a protocol was signed on behalf of the respective governments renouncing exclusive territorial and commercial privileges, and agreeing that none of the Powers should take isolated action in Egypt except in case of special emergency. As exclusive British control was impossible under this arrangement, it was imperative that a “special emergency,” should arise and a pretext was soon found to justify a British occupation of Egypt. The repairing of some forts at Alexandria by the Egyptians was seized upon by the British Government as an excuse to bombard Alexandria by warships on July 11th, 1882, troops were landed to “restore order” on the Nile, and Arabi and his followers, who showed resistance, were finally routed at Tel-el-Kebir. Thus the British occupation became an accomplished fact, and the other Powers were not at the time in a position to assert their own “rights” under the protocol. The dual control was abolished, and the Egyptian constitution and Assembly were replaced by councils whose powers were merely advisory. Egypt for the next 25 years was treated to the “humane” administration of the British Consul-General, Sir Evelyn Baring, a London financier, who was afterwards made Lord Cromer for “services rendered.”

The Baring regime introduced a new era of economic development. It was seen that the continued impoverishment of the peasants would lead to loss of revenue through land going out of cultivation. Accordingly the production of cotton on a greater scale for export was encouraged. This, in turn, created a demand for products of British heavy industry, for vast irrigation works and light railways, and, strangely enough, for foodstuffs, which were not now a paying proposition for the Egyptian peasant. In 1907 the exports of cotton were worth £30,000,000 as against £8,000,000 in 1892; and in 1908 foodstuffs to the value of £5,000,000 were imported, though a few years previously Egypt was a self-supporting country. It would be impossible in this article to trace the rapid industrialisation of Egypt to the present day, but some idea may be obtained from the estimate of the amount of British capital invested in Egypt, which is stated in this book to be about £200,000,000, on which the sum taken by British capitalists in interest and profits is given as £20,000,000.

Under the Baring administration the “key” positions in the Civil Service, Local Administration and the Army were held by Britishers, but as time went on it was found necessary to placate the class of rising Egyptian capitalists and large landowners which capitalist development had brought into being, and concessions had to be made continually to these sections. Saad Zaghlul Pasha, for example, was made Minister of Public Instruction in 1906. Nevertheless, control of the Egyptian State machine has never been relaxed by the British capitalist interests, and a persistent struggle between the Egyptian native capitalists and the British capitalists has been going on up to the present day. The political history of Egypt since 1906 has been a record of demonstrations, strikes, assassinations, riots and armed revolts on the one hand and of bloody repression, judicial atrocities, bombings, imprisonments, martial law, deportations; interspersed with attempts at compromise, on the other. Prior to the European War, Mustapha Kernel had been largely instrumental in organising the students, and by street demonstrations and the publication of newspapers, which had large circulations, the question of Egyptian “independence” was kept to the fore. By 1914 the movement had become so menacing that in November of that year Egypt was put under martial law. A rigorous press censorship was instituted; in December a British Protectorate was declared, and the pro-Turkish Khedive Abbas was deposed in favour of Hussein, who was given the title of Sultan. Although the British Government declared publicly that Egyptians would not be required for war service, yet within a year tens of thousands of peasants and workers were “rounded up” and compelled to join the Labour Corps and the Camel Transport Corps. The total number computed to have been enlisted in this manner in the various forces was about 1,000,000. Such measures as these induced violent hatred of British rule and popular support of the Nationalist movement. Further, the hypocritical talk in Allied journals about “self-determination” and the rights of “small nationalities” was seized upon by the Nationalists as imflammable propaganda and in order to harass the Government. Soon after the Armistice an Egyptian delegation (Wafd) was formed under Zaghlul Pasha to proceed to London in order to discuss the question of Egyptian “independence” with the British Government, but passports were refused and Zaghlul and three members of the Wafd were subsequently arrested and deported to Malta on March 8th, 1919. Open revolt followed this act, but was crushed with barbarous severity by brand, bomb and bullet. Attempts to break up the Wafd organisation failed, and as the country continued to be in a state of unrest and turmoil, the British Government at last conceded a constitution to the Egyptians. The first elections (January, 1924) gave an overwhelming majority to the Zaghlulists.

In recent years the dominating question at issue between the Egyptian native capitalists and the British Government is the control of the Sudan. This huge area of over a million square miles lying south of Egypt, bordering Uganda on the south and Abyssinia on the east, was annexed by the British Government in 1898. Since that date a similar story of capitalistic penetration to that of Egypt has to be recorded. Now Egypt is entirely dependent upon the Nile, and the Sudan controls the Upper Nile. A hostile power in the Sudan, therefore, could easily render Egypt impotent by changing the course of the Nile. Further, the sheep and cattle of the Sudan supply Egypt with much of its food, and the development of cotton production must inevitably react on Egyptian conditions. In addition, future Egyptian industrial progress is dependent upon electricity supplied from Sudanese water power, for Egypt has no coal, and poor oil resources. It will be seen, therefore, that, economically, Egypt and the Sudan are inseparable, and Egyptian capitalist interests are endangered by British control of the Sudan. But the Sudan is of equal importance to British capitalist interests apart from internal economic exploitation, for its coastline along the Red Sea forms an important link in Empire communication.

When Zaghlul took office in 1924 he thought that the British Labour Government, then in office, would help the movement for Egyptian Independence, but he was soon to learn that lip opposition to imperialist principles did not imply action along those lines. MacDonald, in fact, told the British High Commissioner in Egypt in a despatch that they (the British Government) “regard their responsibilities as a trust for the Sudan people; there can be no question of their abandoning the Sudan until their work is done”; and in the interview with Zaghlul in London he was very sympathetic with the “sufferings ” of the holders of the Turkish Government’s bonds, payment on which had been stopped since the War by the Turkish Government. The first British Labour Government also showed its “Labour” principles by condoning domestic slavery in the Sudan. So much for Labour professions!

But if the British Labour Government proved an “eye-opener” to the Egyptian Nationalists, the actions of the latter when in power proved their utter worthlessness so far as the peasants and workers in Egypt were concerned. The whole of the legislation put through by the Zaghlul ministry was favourable to the Egyptian capitalists, and one of its first actions was the replacement of the Militant Trade Unions, which had grown up after the 1919 rising, by organisations controlled by the Wafd, whose members held all the important positions. Strikes were frequent, but these were suppressed by the usual capitalist methods of imprisonment and deportation. It is deserving of notice that at the present time more than one-half of the persons engaged in agriculture are wage workers, and tobacco, silk, railway, constructional and transport workers are organised in Trade Unions.

Recent events in Egypt will doubtless be familiar to our readers. The struggle between the native and British capitalist interests becomes ever more acute. “Crisis” has succeeded “crisis,” and on July 19th, 1928, the Egyptian Parliament was suspended for three years and a complete dictatorship has been established, which has prohibited meetings of the Wafd, and exercises a rigid censorship over their press.

Apart from some little glorification of  Communist “leaders,” the book is free from the expression of personal opinions. There is much statistical data, and the diction is clear and devoid of literary “frillings.” It concludes with the following passage:—

It is evident that no solution of the Egyptian problem has been reached. For imperialism there can be no solution, because the satisfaction of its own needs inevitably fosters the growth of native capitalism, brings into being the working class, robs the Egyptian peasantry of the very means of existence, and thus strengthens the forces which are drawn into the anti-imperialist struggle.

If, after their previous experiences, the Egyptian workers and peasants are again drawn into this struggle between two sections of their exploiters, they will have themselves to blame, and it should be clear that the workers here have nothing to gain by lending their support to capitalist national movements in any land.

W. J.