The “Genuine History” of Egypt in the Second World War (Part III)

The Egyptian Military Museum in the Citadel (covered in part II) presents a spacial metaphor for the status of various episodes in the Mubarak regime’s official historical narrative. It was designed, in Muhammad ʿAli’s palace, to rehabilitate the history of the Muhammad ʿAli dynasty. The period from 1798, Napoleon’s invasion, to 1882, the British occupation, easily occupies 70% of the museum’s floor space. Wars during the British occupation are stuffed into a few small consecutive rooms after this, and then the path opens out onto a large hall for the 1952 military coup, an even larger hall for the 1956 Suez Crisis, culminating in the upstairs ballroom that tells the story of the October 1973 triumph against Israel. Along the way, there is an exhibit for the 1967 war, an Egyptian defeat, but it is cordoned off and shrouded in gloom. There is also a door with the sign “1948 Palestine War” on it — shut firmly and locked.

You will recall from part I that Gamal ʿAbdel Nasser consented to build a museum at El-Alamein in 1965, but didn’t bother showing up to its inauguration or instructing Al-Ahram, the Arabic language newspaper of record, to report a word about the event. But Mubarak reversed this policy, renovating the museum in 1992 with an all-new hall to celebrate the Egyptian role in the war. Kim Il Sung’s encouragement probably resulted in the overall size of the North Korean-aided monument and museum building spree the regime undertook in the early 90s, but the intellectual impetus within these new war museums was wholly Egyptian. Compare the full-page article about the re-opening of the El-Alamein Museum in Al-Ahram on the 50th anniversary of the first day of the Second Battle of El-Alamein, (October 23, 1942), to the miniscule column in the Egyptian Gazette from 1965 from part I:

The headline reads “The Battle of El-Alamein in a Historical Document,” and the boxed taglines read “For the first time, the documents confirm the Egyptian role in the War (sic) of El-Alamein,” and “What did Sir Bernard Paget say to King Farouk about the Egyptian role in the war?” The decision to celebrate the Egyptian role in a British/Allied victory was undoubtedly a political one: so undesirable to mention in the non-aligned Nasser days, it became a sign of prestige in the Mubarak era of neoliberal globalization and realignment with the west. But the Egyptian authorities also needed to defend the academic authenticity of this new course. They have somewhat oddly decided to emphasize a 1945 letter from a minor military commander, General Sir Bernard Paget, thanking King Farouk for Egyptian help in the war, as a great new discovery. But this letter had been published in a book available in the museum’s library and elsewhere for years. Moreover, Winston Churchill on a few occasions made similar statements of gratitude to the Egyptians on the floor of Parliament (however much good it did the Egyptians), so why did they choose such an obscure exchange? I think it reflects the tendency of Egyptian historians, even those working for the state, to hunt down and promote new documents or “secrets” as containing more truth than standard narratives. While historians everywhere are guilty of this sin, the extreme restrictions the state has put on access to its historical archives since 1952 has resulted in much 20th century Egyptian historiography relying on memoirs and newspaper accounts, and an according stress on secrets and rumors. The museum does have some Egyptian army documents on display obtained from the archives that show its cooperation with the British, but mostly everything in the exhibit is published information — particularly from the period 1942-1947 when proudly demonstrating Egyptian support of World War II was official policy.

The renovation contractors added a room on the side of the building and knocked a hole through the wall of the existing Italian Hall for access to the Egypt Hall. It also necessitated signs leading the visitor in the correct direction. There’s the dummy from the newspaper article. Over all of the high windows in the room are bright nylon banners bearing examples of the assistance the Egyptians offered the Allied army. The one visible reads “Cultivated Corn [i.e. grain, actually wheat] Instead of Cotton our (White Gold).”  The subtle resentment on this matter has endured for 70 years. The Egyptian state did not willingly change its agricultural policies, but was forced to do so to feed its urban population because the German u-boat war on shipping ended the external trade that fueled the liberal Egyptian economy. It could not export as much cotton as before, and some years it could not import any wheat — or fertilizer.

This remarkable panel greets visitors at the beginning of the Egypt Hall. It epitomizes the political priorities in Egypt’s new historical narrative I described above. The translation strangely implies something external is demanding the museum of Mubarak. My translation: “Directive: It is necessary to record history truthfully by highlighting the role of Egypt in the Second World War.” The implication is that to date, the role of Egypt in the war has been hidden or neglected in the narrative and that for a “true history,” Egypt’s role must be made more prominent. The executor of this task: Al-Musheer himself, then the recently appointed Minister of Defense, Muhammad Tantawi, who lasted in his job 20 years until the 2011 revolution made him the nominal head of state as Chairman of SCAF. Tantawi was delivered a speech about this new direction in Egyptian history at the museum’s 1992 re-dedication ceremony. Finally, a sign of just how far Egyptian postcolonial resentment has faded in official symbolism: those are the pre-1952 monarchy-era Egyptian flags pasted side by side with the current Egyptian flags. It is the perfect complement to the overall project of realigning the state with the diplomatic, cultural and economic policies of the so-called liberal era.

The Arabic here is “Egypt’s Commanders (plural) in the War,” but the size of the image of King Farouk implies that the exhibit planners consider him the most important leader, as constitutional “commander-in-chief.” Farouk’s role in the war, and in the political history of Egypt itself, was ambiguous and has been the subject of plenty of controversy. He succeeded his father to the throne of Egypt at age 17 in 1936. The enemies of the Wafd party exploited his youth and popularity to gain political power in the first five years of his reign. The extensive powers given the king in the 1923 constitution, to appoint and dismiss ministers and dissolve parliament at will, were an important source of instability in this era. These factors emboldened Farouk to make nationalist and, privately, even pro-Axis statements at the beginning of the war. Because of his attitude and general government mismanagement owing to political infighting, the British stormed ʿAbdin palace with tanks and delivered Farouk an ultimatum on February 4, 1942 either to appoint Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas prime minister or to abdicate. The young man obeyed, and the event has entered political legend as one that eventually destroyed both his and the Wafd’s legitimacy. This visible embrace of Farouk in a state museum would never have been allowed under ʿAbdel Nasser.

While Egypt remained officially neutral, the Egyptian military offered a host of services to the Allies that belie official passivity. Much of these activities naturally related to civil defense of Egyptians, like manning anti-aircraft batteries at all major cities and in the Suez Canal zone, providing naval surveillance at ports, etc. The Egyptian Air Force did run sorties over the Red Sea, and then provided relief pilots on convoys to deliver planes from rear areas to Italy in 1943. I like the background art here showing spotlights over the Muhammad ʿAli mosque at the Citadel, natural high ground where the civil defense did set up its AA guns.

Leave it to the North Korean creative team to paint a propaganda centerpiece for the room that takes liberties with “genuine history.” Despite all of the useful things Egypt did for the Allies, manning field artillery during the Battle of El-Alamein was not one of them. I suppose the painters used the pictures of the anti-aircraft guns above as reference and mentally plopped the Egyptians into the midst of the battle. It appears the creative team finished this painting just eight days before the re-dedication ceremony. Talk about just-in-time supply chain management!

I believe the contribution of Egypt to the British in the war was quite significant — but the bulk of it happened in places like the workshop in the image above, not on the battlefield. (The museum does display about 20 great original prints of Egyptians at work that I had never seen before).  At its peak in 1942-44, the Allied military bases in Egypt employed 250,000 Egyptian civilians as clerks and skilled and unskilled laborers, more than the total industrial workforce in Egypt at that time. Beyond this, Egyptian army engineers built barracks, warehouses, piers and gun emplacements for the Allies, and private contractors indirectly involved uncounted thousands more workers in the military economy. In withdrawing promises of treaty renegotiation in the late 40s, British politicians complained that Egypt hadn’t declared war when the Italians crossed its borders in 1940. But Egypt’s productive impact helped far beyond its own borders, even as far as the shores of Normandy — Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla al-Kubra produced half a million yards per month of light and strong long-staple cotton fabric for Allied parachutes in 1943 and 1944. (These were for supply drops; the RAF preferred silk and nylon for paratroopers). Dominated by tactics and the speeches of Great Men, military history as a genre is usually not very good at including these more obscure logistical elements in the historical narrative. Behind Egypt’s ostensible neutrality, the trends and activities above had a crucial impact on the role of the Egyptian state in society and in the economy for decades to come. But that’s for another post…

As for the rest of the museum, it contains a decently informational and colorful, if chaotic version of events, perhaps because of the Egyptian authorities’ enthusiasm to display any texts or artifacts sent to it by participants of a dozen nationalities. The British room in particular has been given over to sophisticated-looking descriptive panels obviously produced somewhere like the Imperial War Museum. But gladly, some Egyptian humor seeps in to the displays in the corny human mannequins, like this British pilot enjoying a mug of beer between sorties against the enemy.

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About ericschewe

PhD, History. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
This entry was posted in Egypt, Military, Second World War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The “Genuine History” of Egypt in the Second World War (Part III)

  1. James Hoard says:

    As regards King Farouk, you may like to note that in recognition of his contribution during WWII, he was made and honorary General in the British Army on 12/3/1950,.and Chief Commander of the US Legion of Merit in 1945.

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