Lord Cromer’s Disdain

On December 19 1908, on the occasion of an address by Lord Cromer, recently retired as effective ruler of Egypt, the Spectator newspaper noted :

” Frankly, we regard the future fitness of the Egyptians for Constitutional government as an open question. There is no analogy between one country and any other ; the Young Turks have acted with singular coolness and wisdom, the Egyptian Nationalists never have; and similarly we might go on and demonstrate that there is no possible comparison between Persia (whatever one may think of the prospects of Constitutionalism there) and Egypt, or between India and Egypt, because of their fundamental differences in personal character and the difference in their obligations to other Powers. Englishmen have that habit of mind which postulates Parliamentary government. We say honestly that we would rather live under a bad democracy in Britain with the continual hope of improvement than under a good autocracy. But then Britain is peopled by men of Western race, and men who believe in and desire free institutions. Nothing we have said can be taken as a symptom of a wavering democratic faith. But we refuse to bow the knee in the temple of any universal formula, or to admit that because Constitutionalism agrees with white men, it must therefore agree with those of a totally different race.

A dozen years after Lord Cromer’s departure from Egypt the country would have surprised him, had he lived, by rising up and demanding a constitutional government. Barely two decades after this review Egypt had an imperfect but functioning parliamentary system. Since then the path has been uneven, in no small part due to the flaws inherited from the man who could rightly be called a founder of the modern Egyptian state. Cromer worked hard to improve Egypt’s finances and administration but his disdain for the Egyptians left a major gap in three distinct areas : education, where he saw the need to train but not educate the Egyptians; business, where insisted on a heavy government hand to keep Egypt a market for British goods; and constitutional government, where he felt the people have as much need for it as fish for a bicycle.

The Egyptian elite hated, respected and feared Cromer in equal measures. In time they absorbed many of his flaws, especially disdain for the masses. That disdain has proven to be a heavy legacy dragging down Egypt’s prospects for economic and political development. It can be seen in Nasser’s comment that “letting Egyptians practice politics is like leaving children to play in traffic”. It can also be seen in Sadat’s imperious behavior toward critics, student activists and his own staff. In his final moments he rose to face his assassins perhaps in disbelief that his “children” could commit such an act. The same disdain can be seen in Mubarak’s final speeches in power, where he harangued and pleaded with the revolting masses as their “father”. Even nominally populist movements suffer from this disdain. The Muslim Brotherhood heavy-handed hierarchical structure is disdain built into an organizational chart. Their downfall was due in part to their imperious behavior and a sense that “Murshid knows best”. Like Sadat, they could not believe that the people they claimed to guide and represent could rise with such ferocity against them.

The best democracies distrust the passion of the masses but do not disdain the collective good sense of the people. Until Lord Cromer’s sad legacy is purged from the Egyptian soul, the country will continue to look for strong men to follow and revolt against.

— Maged Atiya

One Comment on “Lord Cromer’s Disdain”

  1. Dioscorus Boles says:

    Good article, Maged, but to blame Lord Cromer for the disdain by which Egypt’s rulers post-1952 feel towards their ruled follow-Egyptians is a little bit misleading. To date the contempt of our rulers to the ordinary people of Egypt to 1881 AD or indeed to Lord Cromer’s reign while ignoring how Egypt had been ruled by foreigners before that, basically using religion and the ‘kurbaj’ to subdue and exploit the Egyptians who were seen as less than humans or men is absolutely wrong.

    If anything, I think Lord Cromer and the British were the reason why Egypt could have its only liberal and democratic experiment from 1922 to 1952. Rather than blaming Lord Cromer for our failures, particularly those of Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Tantawi, Morsi, or indeed Sisi, let us look at our dominant culture that does not have democracy in its DNA.

    This is of course sad but it’s bitterly true too.

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