Monday, November 01, 2004

The Lord Cromer and President Bush Connection: Touting Freedom Abroad While Suppressing Them at Home

At the turn of the Twentieth Century when Great Britain was the undisputed global power, with vast colonies stretching across the whole world, Britain saw itself as a force for good. British colonialism was relatively unabashed about the economic benefits of its empire and often justified its ruling of other people as a way of protecting its economic interests from other colonial powers, specially France. Britain feared for its trade routes into India and on these grounds justified its occupation of Egypt, an occupation that lasted from 1882 to 1954. Yet Great Britain also viewed its colonial activities as civilizing missions.

Lord Cromer was perhaps the most famed British colonial ruler of both Egypt and India. While Egypt was nominally an independent country loosely affiliated with the Ottoman Empire, India was an outright colony of Great Britain. Lord Cromer's role in each country was similar—he was the central authority, the supreme leader.

Lord Cromer viewed Britain's control of its various possessions with an almost missionary zeal: yes trade was important and the supply of raw material for British factories had to be secured, but it was also his duty to "civilize" the natives, lift them from their centuries of social decay and laziness, and liberate their women.

Cromer generally looked down on his Egyptian subjects; he still viewed even those who were educated in England and France as inferior. Cromer was very articulate in his assessment of the failures of the natives and their culture and he often justified harsh tactics against Egyptians as the only means to be understood by a backward culture, a "cruel to be kind" justification. Cromer was very critical of the subservient status of women in Egypt and often invoked examples of abuse of women in Egypt to illustrate how Egypt needed Britain's firm guiding hand. Polygamy and veiling, along with other examples of women's subjugation, were cited by Cromer as evidence of the backwardness of Egyptian society.

A hundred years later, the West is, once again, engaged in the Middle East. Great Britain plays a supporting role in other occupations, now starring the USA. Unlike the primarily commerce driven colonial occupation of the previous centuries, the current American interest in the Middle East is driven more by claims of self defense and the need for social reform. Yet, many opponents of America's policy characterize its interest in the Middle East as primarily economic, focused on oil wealth. Indeed some supporters of America's role in the Middle East use security of oil supplies as a justification for intervention. While debate rages over the pros and cons of America's policy and the presence of American troops in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, there is considerable backing across the political spectrum for the American efforts to liberate women from the shackles imposed on them by local customs and laws.

The interim governments in Afghanistan and Iraq included women; American media was full of stories of the near total subjugation of women under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. While in practice women's rights may have actually eroded in Iraq after the US invasion, most Americans believe that the American presence will result in an improved life for Iraqi women. This view is questionable, given the rise to power of Iraqi theologians as the ultimate guarantors of Iraq's stability following the eventual transfer of true sovereignty back to an Iraqi Government.

Lord Cromer justified British tactics in Egypt on the ground of backward culture that oppressed half of the society, a culture that needed modernization. However, following the British occupation, women's education in Egypt suffered and enrollment fell under the guidance of the West's liberating influence. Yet many liberal minded British people, unaware of the facts, supported Cromer and the British occupation because of the "good" that Britain could do for backward societies. A hundred years later, Americans searching for some positive aspects to the liberation and occupation of Iraq may disagree with the American intervention, but, as with Afghanistan, look for some "good" to come out of it for Iraqi women.

While Lord Cromer talked the language of social reform and justice in Egypt, his record at home was poor. He was a founding member of a leading British organization that opposed women's suffrage in Britain. Cromer worked on gaining the support of women's groups in Great Britain for the British colonial expedition in Egypt using their language of social justice, yet fought against the cause of social justice at home.

George Bush has recently launched the Greater Middle East Initiative, an initiative that focuses on social and economic reform in the Middle East. Many who oppose Bush's policies rally to his side when he talks of social justice in the Middle East, of the right of little girls to go to school and of the rights of women. While the vote for women in America has been achieved long ago, there remain parallels from a hundred years ago. President Bush's sense of social justice has propelled him to call for an amendment to the US Constitution to restrict gay equality and is determined to curb women's rights in other areas such as the choice to end pregnancy. Bush's effort to roll back civil liberties through the Patriot Act have been widely condemned by virtually all civil rights institutions, American and foreign alike! Somehow had President Bush shown more commitment to the issue of social justice and civil rights at home, his stance in the Middle East could be more plausible. Rather than seek to re-launch the Equal Rights Amendment for women in America, President Bush is actively rolling back human rights in at home and fighting diligently for unlimited detention and for new limits on privacy and individual choice.

President Bush is talking the language of democracy and social justice in the Middle East, but much like Lord Cromer, back home he is actively working on limiting both by all available means, from legal maneuvering to the Patriot Act and now a new discriminatory Constitutional Amendment. Lord Cromer would have been proud of President George W. Bush; he could well have been a co-founder of the Society Against Women Suffrage and would have been great fun to chat with in the beautiful gardens of British Embassy on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, the capital of the sovereign, yet occupied, Egypt over one hundred years ago.

AA, Nov 1, 2004