Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Middle East's First 'Shock & Awe' 1

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

Remember Bush's 'shock & awe', unleashed on Baghdad in March 2003? Wikipedia describes it as "a campaign tactic... based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force designed to paralyze the enemy's perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight."

It's worth pointing out, however, that, as with all forms of imperial criminality in the Middle East, not to mention elsewhere, the British got there first with their bombardment of the Egyptian port city of Alexandria in July 1882.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. To fill you in on the gory details, and the British invasion of Egypt that followed, here's the first of 2 posts on the subject, taken from Jeremy Salt's invaluable history, The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (2008):

"In Egypt the khedives [Ottoman viceroys] had slowly sunk into a morass of debt. Mehmet Ali [1769-1849], understanding full well where economic dependence leads, had refused to accept money from foreign lenders. His descendants had to learn the lesson the hard way. They borrowed heavily on European markets to finance various projects. Indebtedness had compelled the Khedive Ismail to sell Egypt's share of the Suez Canal company to Britain for the paltry sum of P4 million... The country's finances and public works were placed under the dual control of the British and the French, but by 1879 the situation was such a mess that the two powers had succeeded in securing the sultan's assent to Ismail's deposition in favour of his son Tawfiq.

"By this time the nationalists had adopted a slogan that was to be repeated until Egypt finally won independence through the revolution of 1952: 'Egypt for the Egyptians.' Their leader was Urabi Pasha (1841-1911), an army colonel. Patriotic and a man of the people, whereas the khedive was an alien in all ways, he had risen through the ranks, capturing the imagination of the people and compelling the khedive (whom he regarded as no more than an instrument of foreign domination) to bring him into the government. By late spring 1882 popular support for Urabi had forced the khedive to accept him as war minister. The establishment of a defiant patriotic government ended foreign supervision of Egypt's finances. The controllers left the country. Momentarily impotent, Britain and France demanded that the khedive dismiss the government and send Urabi and his troublemaking colleagues into the country. No sooner had he bowed to their demands than the Alexandria garrison mutinied, forcing Tawfiq to reappoint the ministry as quickly as he had brought about its downfall.

"A torrent of propaganda was now directed at Urabi from afar. Egypt had 'fallen into the hands of a clique of obscure officers, most of whose names had never been heard of in Egypt twelve months before.' [British PM] Gladstone, using language strikingly reminiscent of Sir Anthony Eden's attacks on President Gamal abd Al Nasser in 1956, called Urabi a 'usurper and dictator.' British and French warships were sent to Alexandria in the name of being on hand to protect the lives of Europeans should the 'rabble' turn on them. They took up their positions in the late spring and lay waiting, as motionless at anchor as crouched animals on a hot day. The British fleet consisted of nine warships (Alexandra - the flagship - Inflexible, Superb, Tremeraire, Sultan, Condor, Monarch, Invincible, and Penelope) and five gunboats (Bittern, Cygnet, Beacon, Helicon, and Decoy) fitted with 'torpedo apparatus' as well as the Gatling guns and Nordenfeld cannon with which the ironclads were also equipped. They were later joined by the warship Achilles. This display of naval power must have filled the inhabitants of the city with rising apprehension as the days went by without the warships moving.

"Alexandria's population of about 230,000 included 70,000 'Europeans,' a category that included Maltese, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews as well as the nationals of European states (including about 4,500 Britons). The provocative, ominous presence of the warships inevitably ended in disturbances. On June 11, a fight in the Rue des Soeurs between two donkey boys - one a Maltese Christian and the other a Muslim - triggered rioting in which about 300 people died. The estimated 150 European dead included the chief engineer of the Superb and two other Englishmen... who were 'literally done to death' in the street. Many of the victims were Maltese; others were Muslims cut down with rifles distributed beforehand to local Christians by the British consul... with the help and planning of the commander of the British fleet and the 'implicit backing' of the Foreign office and the Admiralty.

"News of the rioting caused panic in Cairo. Thousands of European and local Christians fled to Alexandria to book passages on ships out of the country. About fourteen thousand had left by June 17, and a further eight thousand were waiting to leave. The departure of so many trained personnel threatened to disrupt government services, including railways, posts, telegraphs, and the provision of water to Alexandria. The khedive was urged to move government offices to the port city, where the British fleet riding at anchor would be close at hand in case of further trouble.

"A conference that was convened in Constantinople to resolve the crisis ended without a solution being found. On July 3, the commander of the British flotilla (Sir Beauchamp Seymour) warned the Egyptian government to stop strengthening coastal fortifications at Alexandria or face the consequences, and on July 9 Gladstone gave his approval for an attack two days later. Having stationed their warships off the coast of another country and triggered serious disorders by their presence, the British now claimed the right to attack as 'a measure of self defence'."

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