The recent revival of military imperialism has had many commentators rummaging in history for precedents. The occupation of Egypt in the 1880s is a favourite one, largely because its imperialist character was similarly denied at the time. The British government was going in to rescue the Egyptians from tyranny and mismanagement; it had no desire for territory, and as soon as it had set up a 'reformed' local administration its forces would move out again. The comparison with Afghanistan and Iraq today is obvious. There are other similarities: suspected economic motives; an assertive Islam; Christian religiosity on the Western side; international difficulties (especially with France). Only time will tell whether one further aspect of this earlier imperial history repeats itself in our new protectorates: the way Britain was sucked into Egypt, so that a temporary occupation became a long-term and more overtly colonial one. Many contemporaries believed this was inevitable. The longer you stayed, the more you were needed - or thought you were. It was an iron law of empires. We have yet to see whether our modern imperialists can resist it.
LRB 18 November 2004 | PDF Download