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Monday, August 23, 2010

Egypt, 1898: A Daydream

I've been reading a bit lately on the "modernization of Egypt". I place the term in quotes because I have no idea how Egyptians refer to the period, circa 1880 - 1915. I've mostly read fictionalized accounts that were sympathetic to Egypt though written by non-Africans, plus some newspaper articles & diaries that are overtly racist by today's standards. Basically, just enough bits of this and that to mull over, daydreaming, during a couple of 5 hour solo car trips last weekend.

During this period in Egypt, there was a "cotton bubble" caused when the US Civil War interrupted European supply thereby raising the prices that Egypt could command. The Khedive used the boom to launch a series of "modernizing" efforts without raising taxes, like the Suez Canal and the Royal Opera House.


Accounts of the Khedive's re-workings of Cairo described the newly re-done city in chess-board terms, gridded out with equestrian statues lording over squares. I imagine that slave labor also helped the Khedive keep taxes low, which is ironic when you consider that the end of slavery in the US triggered the re-opening of the US cotton market which burst the cotton bubble: Bad news for Egypt.

The Khedive, unable to raise taxes due to political opposition and the economic downturn, borrowed, largely from England and France, until he couldn't afford the interest. Britain and France stepped forward and pretty much took over Egyptian finances. (Bear in mind that I'm daydreaming this history, so take it for what it's worth.)
The British imposed a fellow called Lord Cromer. He didn't officially run the country, but apparently, to paraphrase a Spanish diplomat, Egypt's leaders went to Cromer to ask his opinion on all important affairs, and they "just happened" to always agree with Cromer's advice.

As Europe took control, the Khedive's mad desire to Europeanize his nation was more fully realized than he had envisioned. A deal with the devil perhaps.
Well, I've skipped over all the bloodshed by European forces, but believe me, there was no shortage. I've also skipped over talking about the true victims, the Egyptians who suffered under tessellating forces of power.

Most accounts, or perhaps just my daydreams, suggest that the locals helped Britain dispose of the Khedive in disgust, but check out this picture of his funeral in opera square:


Not long after the Khedive's death, locals were plotting Cromer's assassination, hoping to switch power over to France. The plan was to start a mob while Cromer attended an opera in the Khedive's beloved opera house--and lynch Cromer in the chaos. Cromer caught wind of the plot. He invited the French diplomat to attend the opera with him, and he posted heavy security in the opera square, clearly visible from the opera house windows. Though history doesn't record this detail, there were probably horse-mounted British troops beneath the statue of horse-mounted Ibrahim Pasha in opera square.

At the key moment when the lynching was begin, a move that was to shift power to France, the would-be assassins were thrown into confusion by the sight of Cromer walking through the opera house beside the French diplomat like two comrades in arms--and further thrown off by the sight of the British troops out the window.

Had the assassins succeeded, it's likely that France and Britain would have launched into full-scale war against each other, triggering what would have been World War I in 1898--a scenario that was prevented when the France inexplicably joined ranks with Britain and slyly helped prevent Cromer's assassination.

The assassination attempt, in retrospect, looks like a trial run for the larger Fashoda incident. In my daydreams, and perhaps in history, the British were expanding north/south and the French were expanding east/west. Their paths happened to meet in Fashoda, south of Egypt in the Sudan. Both nations felt that control of Fashoda was their key to controlling Africa. Once again, France backed off when offered a diplomatic solution.

It's hard to know how the world would have turned out if World War I had occurred at the turn of the century, but in my daydreams, which here turn into nightmares, I see Britain and France weakening themselves in battle and opening up a path for Germany to seize control.

It's crazy to see Cromer--who organized the British control of Egypt and symbolized a key European pillage of Africa--as someone who prevented Nazi takeover by negotiating his way out of assassination with sheer gumption and hoo-za bravado, delivering himself right into his plotters' trap. It's also crazy to see the end of slavery in the US as helping to trigger the British take-over of Egypt.

It's all crazy because connecting the lines between such seemingly unrelated blips in history draws patterns we rightly refuse to accept: We don't want to see bad lead to good or good lead to bad.

It's all crazy because these are the connections drawn by paranoia. Is linear history called into question? If so, is this because there are larger, unseen forces in control?

Of course not, silly.

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