A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by the former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clark to the British Egyptian Society. The meeting is usually held in one of the halls of the Institute of Directors just off Trafalgar Square. It is usually well attended by a host of highly educated professionals of Egyptian background as well as British friends of Egypt. The famous politician spoke warmly of Egypt and its history, then noted its significance in Middle East politics. He was careful enough not to direct any digs at the current regime; or lament the falling of the rule of the Moslem Brothers as do some British politicians and journalists. Instead he made the case that Britain has a significant role to play in Egypt, not just for being the largest trading partner but also for old ties sake and Egypt’s certain significance in the region. He suggested that Education in Egypt is an area which needs help and development. He saw this as a suitable field for the British expertise to be accessed for the benefit of the needy Egyptian education system. As Mr Clarke spoke my mind wondered some hundred years earlier, when the Egyptians scorned the Dunlop Education System that Lord Cromer the British Consul-General at the time tried to introduce in Egypt. Cromer and Dunlop were interested in creating a suitable (and compliant) educated governing class and civil service, modelled on their experiences in British India. The education policy of the Egyptian government prior to the occupation had been to create a meritocratic system. Dunlop, on the other hand, oversaw the creation of an elitist two-tier system, with fees introduced for the elite schools. Modernisation also occurred, with elemental schooling being both centralised and expanded. The Egyptians at the time saw this as a colonial ploy to produce government clerks and keep the education system less ambitious than what they aspired to have. When I landed in London some 40 years ago I discovered that this was in many ways similar to the British system. The education was designed according to the state’s needs. During the time of the occupation the British were concerned with building a robust system of civil service and therefore educated clerks and civil servants were needed. It was a flexible system designed to meet the different needs and different abilities at a given time. The fierce opposition took place around the time of the 1919 revolution and eventually Dunlop resigned and his project was partially reflected in the subsequent educational efforts.
This was an example of the fraught relationship between the British and the Egyptians throughout the occupation and afterwards. The fierce opposition of the Egyptians to the occupation was going hand in hand with the rise of the national pride. Looking back on the history there were lots of missed opportunities on both sides and the relationship collided in the end at the Suez crisis which left a bitter taste from which the relationship between the two nations has never really recovered.
The talk of Mr Clarke was well received and in the break I greeted him and asked if he could still recognise a long standing, possibly historical sense of unease in the Anglo Egyptian relations which is in need for rehabilitation. He readily agreed and went on to say this need not be the case. However he was not sure how it can be addressed. I touched on the underlying layers of historical factors which we both agreed without going in too much detail. I then suggested that since Britain is the bigger sister a decisive step would have been needed to bring the two nations closer; to which the eminent politicians nodded in agreement. I asked him has it ever been considered that the British monarch should visit Egypt. I reminded him that several American presidents did visit Egypt which brought significant impetus to Egypt’s relationship with the US. He seemed surprised and said he did not realise that such a move was never taken. I did not labour the point but suggested that a symbolic gesture was needed to change that uneasy truce and bring us forward, Mr Clark politely agreed.
Whenever I think of the Anglo Egyptian relations I see a history of lost opportunities and a catalogue of mutual misunderstandings. This would take a doctoral thesis to detail and analyse, but for the time being there is a need to seek proper rapprochement between two very similar yet distinct nations with a deep sense of history and ingrained pride.
Egypt rejected the British occupation as it did the French despite accepting the Ottoman and the Mamelukes domination. Notwithstanding the legitimate anti colonial stance that Egypt inherently maintained; there is no comparison between the damage that the Ottomans and
the Mamelukes inflicted on Egypt and the modernisation that the French and the British brought to her. On the other hand the British treated Egypt is if it was a small India, failing to recognise the special characteristics of the Egyptians as a nation. It was probably never sufficiently acknowledged the crucial role that Egypt played in bringing victory against Nazis in the Second World War. At the end of that war the prize for Egypt was the leaving of a dagger in the back of Egypt called Israel which will always be a source of suffering and disadvantage.
Efforts are still needed to bring the two nations closer. For Britain there is a need to stabilise the region eradicate terrorism and open the door for a huge potential strategic alliance in an emerging new world order that will see new conflicts and competitions between east and west. Egypt will remain a formidable force in the middle. On the other hand Egypt is in need of massive modernising effort. It is becoming increasingly obvious that a respectable old friend is needed for this to take place. When that starts to happen a supporting visit by the monarch will then become a natural happy step to take place.
Dr Salah Abou-el-Fadl
London , July 2018