When Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it not only shook the international system but also spurred intense debate in Egypt about the nature of politics and the question of Egypt’s supra-national identity. This paper zooms in on the activities and writings of one active section of the pro-Ethiopian and anti-fascist Egyptian reaction, namely Easternism (al-fikra al-sharqiyya), a widespread community of discourse that conceived of Egypt as belonging to ‘the East’ (al-sharq) as an Afro-Asian political space of shared anti-colonial imperatives and as an abstract topos of cultural qualities (spiritual, moral, peaceful, traditional, etc.) suitable for the collective existence of modern society.
Through an analysis of Easternist writings of particularly liberal thinkers, focusing on the Egyptian lawyer Muḥammad Luṭfī Jumʿa (1886-1953) and his 1935 book Bayna al-Asad al-Ifrīqī wa-l-Nimr al-Īṭālī (Between the African Lion and the Italian Tiger), the paper approaches the liberal Easternist reaction to the Second Italo-Ethiopian War as a means to discuss the larger question about the nature of particularly liberal Easternism in interwar Egypt at large. The paper demonstrates how liberal Easternism developed as a versatile community of discourse that, all the while reflecting a local adaption to the changing contexts of interwar Egypt, simultaneously was formed in interaction with global ideas and developments beyond the Arab and Islamic world. In doing this, the paper not only intends to shed light on the importance of Ethiopia in pan-Easternist visions, but it also proposes to recalibrate the existing research’s understanding of the Egyptian liberals’ Easternism as an Egypto-centric phenomenon of liberal readjustment to the new consumer groups of the 1930s – more inclined to Islamic and Arab cultural and political visions and thus supposedly receptive to the Easternist nomenclature – and as an unstable prolegomenon to better-defined supra-national orientations towards the Arab and Islamic worlds. In contrast, the paper argues that Egyptian liberal Easternism should be understood as a distinct community of discourse that was formed within a global arena and as a project that conceived of an abstracted Eastern culture and spirituality as imperative to liberal order, all the while remaining ambivalent, even critical, about Islam and Arab nationalism as more specific cultural and political forces. Instead, the Egyptian liberal Easternists – upon observing global moments as the struggle of the Ethiopian lion against the Italian fascist tiger – proposed that the future must be strictly Eastern: spiritual in a sense broader than Islam, ecumenical and anti-imperialist.