In Egypt, Queen's death prompts soul-searching over colonial past

El Sisi mourns the queen's death with words that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago

Egypt's late president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1968. The National
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In a grainy black-and-white clip, a defiant Gamal Abdel Nasser stood in front of several thousand supporters and recounted how the British media insulted him in reports about his military's involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

The video is from the height of Egypt’s anti-colonial fervour in the 1950s and 1960s.

“How dare they insult us when they know that our newspapers can also insult the queen and her prime minister?,” the late authoritarian leader boasted, to the crowd’s wild cheers.

“When the BBC says Abdel Nasser is a dog, we tell them 'you are all sons of 60 dogs'.”

The clip is one of the best surviving examples of the acrimony felt by Abdel Nasser and many Egyptians towards their country’s former colonial power and its symbolic head, Queen Elizabeth II, who was laid to rest on Monday.

But in the years between her taking the throne in 1953 and her death in 2022, that acrimony, once strongly felt, morphed into nearly 4.9 billion Egyptian pounds worth of bilateral trade in 2020, billions more in investments, frequent joint military drills, cordial diplomatic relations and regular intelligence sharing.

In words that would have been unimaginable to his predecessor half a century ago, Egypt’s pragmatic president of eight years, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, has praised the queen and mourned her death.

“I offer my sincerest condolences in my name and on behalf of the Egyptian people to the royal family, the British government and the people of the United Kingdom on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who led her country for many decades with extreme wisdom,” he wrote on Facebook.

And that was not all.

Mr El Sisi, who welcomed King Charles III and his wife Queen Consort Camilla in Egypt last November, reviewed regional and international issues, including climate change, with the new British monarch in a phone conversation on Saturday night.

Mr El Sisi, a former army general, sent his prime minister, Mustafa Madbouly, to attend the queen’s funeral in London on Monday.

Remembering the Suez crisis

The Egyptian leader’s reaction to the queen’s death is in deep contrast to the tumultuous days over 60 years ago when Egypt defended itself against a tripartite invasion by Britain, France and Israel in 1956 after Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal.

Commonly known as the Suez Crisis, the invasion, just three years after the queen's coronation, failed to regain control of the vital canal and has been widely interpreted as symbolising Britain's decline as a global power and the emergence of the US as its replacement.

At the time, a young and idealistic Queen Elizabeth was in the early years of her 70-year reign, sitting on the throne of a once-mighty but fast-waning empire. Meanwhile, Abdel Nasser was riding high on his popularity, boosted by his Arab nationalist and anti-western rhetoric.

He engineered the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy shortly after he led army officers in staging a 1952 coup and later negotiated the end of Britain’s 70-year occupation of Egypt.

Abdel Nasser went on to adopt socialist policies, sided with the Soviet bloc in the Cold War and become an authoritarian leader whose rule saw large-scale human rights abuses, the suppression of freedoms and a crushing defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

While many Egyptians see British rule as an unmitigated evil, a significant minority remain indifferent or dismissive of the entire subject. British rule in Egypt displayed far less of the brutality shown in other parts of the empire, where the topic of the colonial legacy still ignites controversy and resentment.

Broadly speaking, the end of colonial rule and the legacy has faded from public memory over the last 50 years and it is rarely a topic of national conversation in Egypt.

Nevertheless, her death has revived a small-scale conversation about the memory of those days of mutual hostility in the 1950s and 1960s. There has also been a debate among social media users, academics and commentators on the queen’s legacy.

On the face of it, a debate focused on whether she is to blame for staying silent on some of imperial Britain’s misdeeds seems academic now, or even irrelevant. But others say it's important to reckon with the past even if it's not possible to change it.

“History will always be with us,” said Mohamed Anis Salem, a retired Egyptian diplomat who closely follows British political and social trends.

“It’s not going anywhere. We should study and document history, but never be held hostage by the past

Now a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs — a Cairo-based think tank — Mr Salem sees plenty of common ground that has emerged between the two nations over the years, with both countries functioning as magnets for education and the arts.

“But there’s also that approach by those who still have a [axe] to grind and want to relive the past and re-fight its battles,” he said.

HA Hellyer, a fellow at Cambridge university’s faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, noted the diversity of reactions in Egypt to the queen’s death. The late sovereign could not be held responsible for the British government’s policies in Egypt during her reign, he said.

“But, given all the symbolism around the queen’s role as monarch, it’s not very surprising that many people do indeed do so,” he said. “I can understand that, even as a Brit, and I don’t think anyone should be so enraged by it. It goes with the territory.”

Mr Hellyer explains that those moved or saddened by the queen’s death are primarily western-educated Egyptians whose connection to the West has led them to relate to the queen as a contemporary figure of modernity.

“Ultimately, the queen’s passing doesn’t impact Egypt one way or another … it’s fundamentally a very British affair even if, externally, people show a lot about themselves in terms of how they do or do not react to it,” he said.

While some online have held her up as an icon of unity or good governance, Egyptian-born novelist and political analyst Shady Lewis Botros has posted extensively on Facebook against such reverence.

A dual British-Egyptian national, Mr Botros has established himself as a harsh critic of what he sees as the West’s condescending attitude towards people in developing countries, like Egyptians, or the reluctance of western nations to own up to their colonial crimes.

“I don’t see the reaction of Egyptians to the queen’s death as relevant to British colonial rule of Egypt,” he said.

“Rather, their reaction is related to intense and popularised globalisation in which the queen is removed from politics and historical context.”

Updated: September 20, 2022, 2:44 PM