Argument

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Anti-Colonialism Doesn’t Mean Ignoring Human Rights Abuses

Oppression should be condemned, regardless of who is behind it.

By , a doctoral candidate at Western University in Canada.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Every time I remember the story of the Denshawai incident—which I learned about in school, and which my mother told me as a child with emotion and vigor, just as her mother told it to her—I feel the same anger at colonialism.

In 1906, British soldiers in Egypt, feeling entitled by virtue of colonization, decided to go pigeon-hunting for leisure in the village of Denshawai—notwithstanding the villagers’ objections to the hunting of their domesticated pigeons. The soldiers accidentally wounded a female villager and set fire to grain, which angered the villagers and led to mayhem and casualties on both sides. Because one British soldier died—reportedly due to possible heatstroke—dozens of Egyptians were tried in a special tribunal, receiving sentences that included flogging, imprisonment, and death by public hanging.

Similar stories are familiar to all formerly colonized people as well as to those whose countries were exploited by Western imperialism and subjected to racist regimes of control. From Egypt and the rest of Africa to Asia and Latin America, resentment of Western imperialism is entrenched in public memory. Thanks to nationalist movements’ struggle for independence, which culminated in a wave of decolonization in the mid-20th century, those nations are now free.

Every time I remember the story of the Denshawai incident—which I learned about in school, and which my mother told me as a child with emotion and vigor, just as her mother told it to her—I feel the same anger at colonialism.

In 1906, British soldiers in Egypt, feeling entitled by virtue of colonization, decided to go pigeon-hunting for leisure in the village of Denshawai—notwithstanding the villagers’ objections to the hunting of their domesticated pigeons. The soldiers accidentally wounded a female villager and set fire to grain, which angered the villagers and led to mayhem and casualties on both sides. Because one British soldier died—reportedly due to possible heatstroke—dozens of Egyptians were tried in a special tribunal, receiving sentences that included flogging, imprisonment, and death by public hanging.

Similar stories are familiar to all formerly colonized people as well as to those whose countries were exploited by Western imperialism and subjected to racist regimes of control. From Egypt and the rest of Africa to Asia and Latin America, resentment of Western imperialism is entrenched in public memory. Thanks to nationalist movements’ struggle for independence, which culminated in a wave of decolonization in the mid-20th century, those nations are now free.

But not fully—or not as nationalist ancestors anticipated when they dreamed of postcolonial freedom. Many formerly colonized nations, including Egypt, continue to be oppressed, not by Western imperialists but by authoritarian rulers and security apparatuses of their very own.

The long history of injustice inflicted on Egypt by Western imperialism has led a segment of Egyptians to remain in denial about repressive measures taken by their leaders and governments against critics at home. Some have even condoned the draconian human rights violations of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi just to side with the Egyptian state in the face of criticism from the international community.

This hatred of Western imperialism and the support for a state that once resisted it is deeply rooted in history, and it has led some Egyptians to mislay their moral compasses. More than 70 years of British occupation and Western hegemony fed Egyptians’ nationalist cause. Their skepticism toward the foreign other grew as they watched various foreign communities that inhabited the country during the colonial period be privileged in a system that placed ordinary Egyptians at the bottom of its racial-based hierarchy.

In 1952, many Egyptians finally felt they were witnessing justice when a clandestine group of army officers toppled the monarchy and instated indigenous rule for the first time in Egypt’s modern history. In the wake of this coup, Egyptians endorsed then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-imperial endeavors, which were too grand to allow Egyptians to pay attention to his crackdown on dissidents and independent voices. It all seemed justifiable during a euphoric wave of decolonization that swept the world like wildfire, promising to restore justice to the global order, including in Egypt.

Colonialism had been humiliating, and it seemed redemption was now in order. Nasser and his officers indeed ended the British occupation of Egypt, nationalized the Suez Canal, and reinforced Egyptians’ sense of pride in their nation’s world position. But they also abrogated the constitution, dissolved political parties, and suppressed their opponents, normalizing undemocratic rule.

The current Sisi regime crushes dissidents at home at a much wider scale than during the Nasser era. Its supporters fail to see or pay attention to the scores of political detentions; enforced disappearances; and cases of torture, neglect, and deaths in prison under his rule.

But instead of despising the crushing of their fellow citizens by a state that is supposed to protect every Egyptian, a minority who live in the postcolonial past buy into the president’s rhetoric about a foreign conspiracy they think justifies oppression of “fifth-column” opponents at home. (Those in the “fifth column” are critics of the government who are seen as serving the interests of foreign enemies and weakening the Egyptian state.)

Sisi recently invoked the us versus Western conspirers trope when a journalist from a Western media organization, France Médias Monde, asked him to “comment on the numerous criticisms regarding the issue of human rights in Egypt.” Sisi rebuffed the journalist: “Do you love our people more than we do? Do you care more about our country than we do? … Our country lacks the basics, and you don’t want to help us? This country wants to live and this people [Egyptians] want [their country] to grow and develop like other countries without obstacles or impediments… through talk [criticisms] like this.” His response implied that Western and international criticism as well as their lack of support were preventing Egypt from catching up economically with the West.

As a result of this thinking, democracy and human rights defenders who network with foreign peers, speak up on an international level, or receive funding from international donors are accused of treason and espionage. Charges are laid out, politically motivated trials are held, assets are frozen, and travel bans are imposed—all in the name of protecting national security and fighting imperialism. It happens not just in Sisi’s Egypt but in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.

It is easy to buy into this rhetoric—unless one sees all oppression for what it is, regardless of whether it is perpetrated by imperialists of the past or local autocrats of the present. Although some in the formerly colonized world continue to be blinded by autocrats’ hypernationalist and anti-foreign rhetoric, living under autocratic regimes—and seeing the dissidents among us get locked up, disappeared, or even pulled off a flight and arrested—has made many learn the hard way that autocrats’ angry accusations against traitors and foreign agents are most often empty words used to justify dictatorship.

And when Western governments and Western-based human rights organizations criticize undemocratic non-Western states’ violations and provide support for (or express solidarity with) local democrats, it is not always a manifestation of imperial hegemony. Nor is it a perpetration of notorious Cold War-era assassinations and regime change operations carried out or supported by Western intelligence agencies in non-Western countries, as in the CIA-backed overthrows of Iranian nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 or leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. 

You cannot claim that you are being democratic at home when your foreign allies are dictators.

On the contrary, Western leaders’ all-too-frequent failure to support democracy and instead bolster alliances with autocrats is what is actually wrong and shameful. You cannot claim that you are being democratic at home when your foreign allies are dictators and when you are rewarding them with diplomatic and political support—and even arms sales, the cherry on the top. Last month, the Biden administration approved $2.5 billion worth of arms sales to Egypt. Revenues from Germany’s arms exports hit record levels in 2021—nearly half of which went to Egypt. To save face, Washington and Berlin likely pressured Egyptian authorities, whether directly or indirectly, into releasing just a handful of political prisoners as a cosmetic measure. But the West knows that, even while Egypt was releasing a few political prisoners, it was arresting and sentencing many more.

Some well-meaning leftists and liberals in the West fear that supporting democracy and human rights defenders in the non-Western world undermines local activists’ agency and overlooks different nations’ cultural peculiarities. But this fear is misplaced and might even be racist in and of itself—based on a subliminal assumption that some people are more deserving than others of having their rights and freedoms respected. It also insinuates that so-called Western-style freedom does not apply to other cultures, as if freedom and rights have never been known or respected except among Westerners!

Moreover, the world needs look no further than the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection to remember that those who reject democratic values exist in every culture.

When Egyptian democrats and rights defenders call on Western politicians to refrain from rewarding the Sisi government for its human rights violations, they are not Western puppets without agency or an independent voice. On the contrary, they are exercising their agency by holding the international community accountable for values that its members claim (but often fail) to honor.

Egyptian democrats are intelligent enough to understand how to navigate a complex global order where values and interests compete and interact as well as how to advance rights and freedoms despite such complexities.

By calling for democracy and human rights in their own country and by demanding that world powers stop rewarding the Sisi government for its suppression of freedoms, Egyptian human rights activists are following in the footsteps of their ancestors who rose against their oppressors in Denshawai. Resisting oppression is an ever-dignified cause, whether the oppressor is a British soldier hunting the Egyptian people’s pigeons or an Egyptian plainclothes security agent rounding up their sons and daughters with no arrest warrants to silence dissent.

Sara Khorshid is a doctoral candidate at Western University in Canada, where she is writing her dissertation on the history of Egyptians’ postcolonial perceptions of the West as portrayed in Egyptian cinema during the Cold War. She previously worked as a journalist and columnist in Egypt for 15 years. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, HuffPostJadaliyya, and numerous other outlets. Twitter: @SaraKhorshid

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