I took a trip yesterday with @Valentine Edgar up the Cairo-Alexandria desert road to El-Alamein to see the German, Italian and British Commonwealth war cemeteries and the El-Alamein Military Museum before the end of my stay in Cairo. El-Alamein, better known to upper-class Egyptians for the resort Marina, is a small town outside Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, where, 70 years ago this month, the British reached the lowest point of its fight against the Axis powers. North and East Africa had been the site of a colonial “cold war” between Great Britain and Italy for the better part of a decade, and when Italy finally entered the Second World War in 1940, it invaded Egypt from Libya in the west. It lasted only three weeks without German support. The British pushed back and set up a forward beachhead against the Axis in eastern Libya, but repeated setbacks in Greece and Crete in 1941 and Malaysia and Burma against the Japanese in early 1942 drained their resources until the tank armies of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel took the last British fortress in Libya, Tobruk. The Allied armies fell back hundreds of kilometers in the last week of June 1942 to the last defensible point just 100 km before Alexandria. Luckily for them, this strained the German supplies and supply chain to its limit. The Axis was beginning to run short of oil, one of the principal objectives in its thrust into the Middle East. By October 1942, the British had built up a far superior air force, running on Iranian gasoline, which clinched its success in the Second Battle of El-Alamein. The following year witnessed the Axis’ long retreat into Libya, Tunisia and Italy itself.
In the Hinge of Fate, the fourth volume (1950) of the six-volume history of World War II that would win him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, Winston Churchill wrote, “It may almost be said, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.'” That judgment turned out to be bit premature. Despite promising just days after the victory in Alamein on November 10, 1942, “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” this is precisely what he did in his second long term as prime minister from 1951 to 1955 — and in the very spot he had proclaimed steadfastness. Although the Suez Crisis occurred under his successor Anthony Eden in 1956, Churchill oversaw the 1952 Egyptian military coup and mounting non-negotiable demands for the nationalization of the Suez Canal and military withdrawl, all of which came to pass.
Egypt had never been a crown colony of the UK. The British military occupied it in 1882 to stop a nationalist revolution against a European-imposed (neo)liberal structural adjustment (70 years before the IMF!). The British declared Egypt a protectorate to sever its ties to the Ottoman Empire when it went with the Central powers in World War I, but this arrangement only lasted until tens of thousands of Egyptians angrily denounced British rule in the 1919 Revolution. In 1922, Britain relinquished the administration of the country as part of a deal to retain military control of the Suez Canal, its lifeline to its Asian and East African colonies. This neocolonial settlement produced a strange, avant-garde sort of politics for the region, much more similar to the American style of hegemony in Latin America, or in the Middle East itself after 1945, than the British way of doing things. In 1939, the British wanted Egypt to declare war on the Axis, but for complicated reasons (Egypt’s army barely had 5,000 properly-equipped men, as a result of British policy), the Egyptian political establishment kept it neutral until 1945. It did, however, cut diplomatic ties with the Axis, and overhaul its entire economy to accommodate a 750,000-soldier military establishment.
At the peace conferences and UN for two years after the war, the Egyptians desperately promoted a narrative that this alliance and its support during the war made the country deserving of more sovereign rights and even of British evacuation. Britain naturally disagreed, and temporarily convinced America that the Cold War required they hold on to Egypt. By 1952, when Gamal ʿAbdel Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew King Farouk, the ideology of Egyptian Nationalism no longer had any place for a positive depiction of the Second World War. Many of the officers would write memoirs in which they expressed bitterness in their youth about being withdrawn from the Libyan front, humiliation from British supervision, and anger at the expropriation of their equipment and munitions, which they claimed ultimately weakened their chances in Palestine in 1948.
In 1950, the Wafd party, in its last term in power, floated the idea of making a museum and touristic resort at El-Alamein to accompany the monumental war cemeteries that the British, Italians and Germans were planning to build by the coastal road. The 1952 coup interrupted any such Egyptian plans, and the economic development projects that dominated the officers’ political agenda prevented them from being taken up for a decade. But in Egypt, the appeal of more tourist destinations is always a strong one. I don’t know the exact turn of events, but in 1965, the El-Alamein Military Museum was finally built. I suspect it came about as a result of multilateral encouragement from the European participants’ war memorialization bureaucracies, because they were active in the area and such an approach would have been less threatening than a single (British) request.
Here’s the result. There’s a dedication plaque below, but mid-1960s architecture is not difficult to spot. The low-slung concrete slab roofs with high windows, the faux-stone facade and the semi-abstract concrete screen (in the back) would not be out of place at any Californian high school gymnasium. The vintage lamp posts, I’m sure, are a bizarre afterthought. The original structure contained four halls in a counterclockwise loop: the overview hall, the Italian Hall, the German Hall and the British Hall.
This plaque reads “President Gamal ʿAbdel Nasser inaugurated the El-Alamein Military Museum, December 16, 1965.” But like many other signs made in advance to commemorate things that hadn’t happened yet, this event did not come to pass.
As fate would have it, the ceremony happened the day ʿAbdel Nasser broke diplomatic ties with Britain over its non-intervention in Rhodesia, which had just unilaterally declared an independent apartheid state in the control of a white settler minority. In the event, it appears the job of inaugurating the museum was sub-sub-contracted to the army chief of staff. I include the English language Egyptian Gazette story (from December 17, 1965) here because I could not find a single line about the event in Al-Ahram.
The Egyptian official post-colonial disdain for El-Alamein as a British triumph did not last, however. READ PART TWO TOMORROW to find out how Mubarak’s neoliberal regime attempted to re-appropriate the story — with an unlikely ally.