Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A background to modern Egypt

By Father Gregory Elder
Parochial Vicar, St. Martha Murrieta

I have often written about the wonderful land of Egypt. I have traveled there, met its people, and studied its history and culture for many years. Unfortunately, what most people know about Egypt is the world of antiquity, with its pyramids, golden caskets and the wonders of the pharaohs.  But as we watch our television and computer monitors, there is another Egypt to be considered.  As we wait for further political developments it is worth recalling the history, religion and culture which has made the modern events what they are.

The lost world of the pharaohs came to an end over a long period of decline in the centuries before Christ. The last Egyptian kings to rule the land was the 30th Dynasty which was defeated by the Persian Empire in 353 BC.  Not long after, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and after his death the land was ruled by one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, who founded a dynasty which bore his name for three centuries.  The last of the Ptolemy’s heirs was Cleopatra VII, the lover of Caesar and Mark Anthony, who died in 30 BC. Roman Emperors would rule Egypt as their personal province until the decline of that empire, when it passed into the hands of the Christian Byzantine Romans, who ruled from Constantinople.

The Egypt we know is tied to the rise of Islam.  When the Prophet Muhammad died in what is now Arabia in AD 632, the world was about to change.  By 639 Egypt was overrun by the Arabs, and it was ruled by the Caliphs, or the successors of the Prophet for 600 years.  About 1250 AD power was seized by a group of Islamic mercenaries called the Mamluks, who ruled the land until the rise of the Ottoman Turks, who destroyed the last of the Byzantines in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, in 1453.  Egypt fell to the Ottomans in 1517, the same year that Martin Luther began the Reformation in Germany.  In later centuries, Ottoman rule was not very effective and foreign influence often penetrated the land.  This was not a good time for the native Egyptian peoples.  But over these centuries of rule by the Arabs, Mamluks and Ottomans, Egypt became an Islamic nation, albeit with a significant Christian minority.

In 1798 the French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Egypt, defeating the power of the Mamluks and the Ottomans.  A minor event in this period was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by French officers, a moment which would later enable the translation of the ancient language of the Pyramid Age, but this was not a major political issue at the time.  Napoleon soon fled Egypt in search of greater political prizes, and his French regime was removed in 1801.  In the political chaos which followed the French occupation, one man emerged victorious, Muhammad Ali.  In many ways, Muhammad Ali is the father of modern Egypt, and he founded a new dynasty of kings who ruled the land until recent times.

Muhammad Ali appears to have hoped for wider conquests, in the Sudan, the holy land and Turkey, but he was checked by the European powers. But he began building a modern military, sent Egyptian students to study agriculture, chemistry and modern sciences in Europe and hoped for the development of his nation.    In 1820, cotton was cultivated in the land which brought in rich income from Europe.  Clever British investors soon learned that, were the cheap cotton produced by human slaves in the Americas to be ended by the abolition of slavery, Egypt might provide an alternative source of the precious substance for their mills in the age of the textile industrial revolution.  It is probable that Egypt’s cotton prevented European intervention into our own Civil War.

Unfortunately for the Egyptians, the Europeans could not keep their hands off of the land.  French developers encouraged Muhammad Ali’s heirs to dig the famous Suez Canal, but the Egyptians spent more than they had enabling the French to gain half control of the canal and its revenues.  When high taxes forced the Egyptian government to sell the other half to the British, popular discontent rose to the level of rebellion.  The British sent in their military and crushed Egyptian resistance.  The Egyptian heirs of Muhammad Ali were kept as symbolic heads of state under various titles and in1914, Egypt became a protectorate of Britain.  Popular rebellion continued and in 1922 Britain granted the Egyptians more self rule and the ability to elect a prime minister to serve under the Egyptian king. Nonetheless, the British maintained a military presence right through the Second World War.  To bring this into modern memory, my wife’s late father served King George VI in Egypt.

The last successor of Muhammad Ali was King Farouk, who was overthrown by a military coup in 1953 after his corrupt rule and colorful morals offended the religiously conservative Islamic Egyptians. The British military was invited to leave the following year and they did.  Power was taken by General Gamal Nassar in 1953, who would later take the title of “president.”  He nationalized the Suez Canal, took a strong position against Israel with whom he would fight several failed wars.  His pro-Russian policies gained him an ally, and the hostility of the United States in the Cold War.  Russian funds and workers would build the Aswan dam, enabling the modern electrical power of Egypt.  The Egyptian military still carries Russian AK-47 machine guns and flies Russian MIGs.  The ones I saw there in 2001 were still in use, a bit battered but still serviceable.

Gamal Nassar died in 1970 and power was taken by Anwar Sadat in 1970. Sadat was significant for his expulsion of the Russian presence, and his participation in a failed 1973 war on Israel along with Syria.   Intervention by the USSR, the US and the UN prevented Israeli attacks on Egypt, and although he lost the war, Sadat was enough of a diplomat to regain the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt and made peace with Israel in the Camp David talks of 1979.  The destruction of the Egyptian military by Israel nonetheless remained a tragedy in the Egyptian mind and the peace treaty did not sit well with all of the Egyptians. My tour guides in Egypt in 2001 made a point of showing us the war memorial to the slain in the unfortunate 1973 war.  Sadat was murdered in 1981 in Cairo by a fundamentalist Islamic military plot. 

With the support of the army, Hosni Mubarak took power after Sadat, and he ruled the land with an iron hand until this year.  When I was in Egypt, there were military everywhere, with towers on the corners and everywhere were well-armed guards. It was a military state. Both popular democratic protests were crushed as well as conservative Islamic religious movements.  One of my Egyptian students said of Mubarak, “he is exactly like Saddam Hussein, except that your country likes him and so you do not hear of the things he does.”  I cannot comment of the validity of this statement, but it is well established that the US gives considerable aid to the Egyptian government.  I see in the media that exiled fundamentalist Islamic leaders are beginning to return to Egypt.  At this writing, Mubarak was removed from power by popular protests as of February 11, and on February 13, the Army dissolved the parliament and has called for national elections.  This is the background to the fall of the current pharaoh.

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