As the world marks the first anniversary of the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime, it's interesting to note that Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, in his political activity a century ago, was sensitive to what was going on in Arab societies. After he despaired of receiving a charter from the Ottoman Empire to settle Jews in Palestine, it seemed for a brief period that there might be an option to settle Jews in El-Arish in the northern Sinai (or "Egyptian Palestine," as Herzl called it ).
The international status of Egypt at that time was unique: Although there was an Egyptian regime headed by a khedive (viceroy) from the Muhammad Ali dynasty, effective control over it was in British hands.
A Zionist delegation was sent to examine the possibility of establishing agricultural settlements in the El-Arish area, with Herzl himself visiting Egypt in 1903. He met with the British governor and with Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali (grandfather of former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali ), who seven years later, when he became prime minister, was assassinated by an Egyptian nationalist.
In the end, nothing came of the initiative - because agricultural development in northern Sinai would have been impossible due to a lack of water, and because both the British and the Egyptians rejected the idea.
Like any visitor to Egypt, Herzl traveled to the pyramids. In his diary he didn't say anything about his impression of them, but he did record his shock upon seeing the poverty of the Egyptian fellahin (peasant farmers ) whom he encountered en route to Giza. In a patronizing fashion typical of the liberal Europeans of his time, he vowed, "when I have the power to do so, I will pay attention to the fellahin." It was clear that he was not refering to the Egyptian farmers, but to those of Palestine.
But the most interesting of his impressions of Egypt appears in Herzl's report on a lecture delivered by a British expert on the problems of irrigation in Mesopotamia. Herzl wasn't particularly taken by the speech, but was very impressed by the audience, "particularly the large numbers of young, intelligent-looking Egyptians that filled the hall."
Understanding the dynamics that Britain was hindering vis-a-vis certain processes taking place in Egypt, Herzl made comments reminiscent of Karl Marx's statements on the dialectic nature of the British regime in India: "These are the future masters; it's surprising that the English don't realize this," wrote Herzl. "They think that they'll be dealing with fellahin forever.
"Today a force of 18,000 troops is enough for a country of this size, but for how long?" he continued. "The role of the British is grandiose; they are purifying the Orient, bringing light and air to the polluted corners there, eradicating ancient tyrants and undermining the regime's distortions.
"But with their freedom and progress, they are teaching the fellahin what rebellion is. The English colonial methods will either shatter England's colonial empire, or lay the foundation for Britain's world dominion. I would want to come back here in 50 years to see what will happen."
Not a bad forecast for a European journalist, who with his political and historical instincts understood something that few of his generation had contemplated: that European imperialism would, with its own hands, create the ideological and social infrastructure that would bring about its own destruction.
Nearly 50 years after Herzl wrote these things, on July 23, 1952, the Free Officers Revolution, led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdul Nasser, cast off the last remnants of British colonialism in Egypt.
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