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Debating Public Knowledge in Modern Egypt

Panel X-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Prosecutions of regime critics on charges of spreading “fake news” have spiked in Egypt in recent years. These cases raise questions with urgent stakes: who draws the boundary between truth and falsehood, and what knowledge belongs in the public sphere? How is “public” knowledge defined, disseminated, and policed? This panel examines debates over public knowledge in Egypt in historical perspective, challenging the perception that they are a product merely of our digital age. Probing episodes from Egypt’s Ottoman, colonial, and postcolonial pasts, the panel investigates how members of the public sought to disrupt the state’s monopoly on knowledge production along with strategies powerful institutions have deployed to delegitimize publicly circulating narratives they deemed to be threatening. The papers extend from the 1890s to the 1980s, bookended by legal trials that brought to the fore the relationship between the public’s right to know and its capacity to act. Some papers consider the force of imperialism or the weaponization of its specter in fights to control the mediums and institutions charged with disseminating knowledge. Others dissect and challenge the dominant narratives about these institutions, including schools and media outlets. Collectively, we draw on telegrams, newspapers, and cassette tapes, and on memoirs and court transcripts, to show how clashes over the circulation of knowledge complicate our understanding of relations between society and the modern Egyptian state.
  • Prof. Khaled Fahmy -- Presenter
  • Ms. Farida Makar -- Presenter
  • Dr. Andrew Simon -- Presenter
  • Dr. Chloe Bordewich -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Chloe Bordewich
    In the early nineteenth century, states, including Egypt, did not share basic details of how they functioned with people outside government. But a conception of a public “right to know”—about information as a public good—crystallized in Egypt in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. How did this happen and what were the consequences? The watershed 1896 trial of a low-ranking Cairo telegraph operator and a newspaper publisher offers a window onto changing public expectations of the state. It was the first time in Egypt someone was tried for leaking a telegram, in this case one reporting on the condition of the Egyptian army in Sudan. It was also the first time that the bounds of official secrecy were debated in public, in a courtroom where anyone could observe the proceedings. Shockingly, the defendants won. Yet their victory was a pyrrhic one, this paper argues, for it linked the growing nationalist movement to demands for wider circulation of government information. Within a decade, a string of violent confrontations between colonial and anticolonial actors had led to the legal fusion of policing deeds and policing ideas. Even as telegraph operators, journalists, lawyers, and activists challenged the bounds of public knowledge, however, who was counted as part of the public entitled to certain knowledge remained highly circumscribed. Class, gender, religion, and geography hang in the shadows of both the 1896 trial and the clashes over secrecy and transparency that followed. This paper offers a close reading of the 1896 trial through Egyptian newspapers with conflicting political orientations. Drawing on Ottoman and British archives, it also situates the trial and its afterlife in relation to the codification of state secrecy in Britain and the “fake news” panic that haunted Hamidian officials as the Ottoman Empire contracted.
  • Dr. Andrew Simon
    Decades before social media platforms entered our daily lives, audiocassettes, composed of little more than magnetic reels, plastic cases, and a few metal screws, empowered an unprecedented number of people to create culture, circulate information, and challenge ruling regimes. The creative power and circulatory potential of this everyday technology is no more evident than in the case of one Egyptian artist, Shaykh Imam, a blind performer and political dissident who set the poetry of Ahmad Fuʾad Nigm and others to song and undermined the stories told by the Egyptian government. Taking aim at several state-engineered accounts of seminal events, from the 1967 War and American President Richard Nixon’s visit to Egypt in 1974 to French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s arrival in Cairo the very next year and the 1977 Bread Riots, Shaykh Imam composed Egypt’s history anew on informal cassettes recorded and distributed by individual listeners within Egypt and well beyond its borders. In this talk, I will focus on the 1970s and how Imam’s music serves as an unsanctioned mixtape to a momentous decade. I will consider the potential of popular culture to radically reshape our understanding of history, as opposed to simply complementing what we already know about it. Likewise, I will place Imam’s songs into conversation with state-orchestrated spectacles and watershed moments to contemplate how we might make sense of such occasions in the absence of the Egyptian National Archives. Lastly, I will examine both the life and afterlife of Imam’s subversive anthems, which continued to resonate with listeners for years to come, including after Imam’s passing in the 1990s. Here, I will introduce the revival of Imam’s music during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, performances that are part and parcel of his wider resurgence on-the-ground in the Middle East and online, where the preservation of his legacy assumes the form of a collective enterprise to which anyone may contribute. By taking Imam as a starting point, I will address the politics of public knowledge in modern Egypt and demonstrate how “fake news” and the crafting of counternarratives are by no means new. To illustrate these points, I will rely upon a wide array of materials in the absence of the Egyptian National Archives, including memoirs, Egyptian magazines, audio recordings, and social media content, items that make new stories about Egypt’s recent past possible.
  • Prof. Khaled Fahmy
    A few hours after the outbreak of the 5 June 1967 War, the Israeli air force managed to launch simultaneous raids on more than fifteen Egyptian airbases knocking the Egyptian air force off battle. With no air cover, the fate of the 80,000-strong Egyptian army in Sinai was sealed; and, indeed, by the afternoon of 7 June, that army was defeated, its soldiers retreating in haste towards the Suez Canal. Remarkably, throughout these fateful days, the Egyptian media, both the radio station, Voice of the Arabs, and the government dailies, al-Ahram, al-Akhbar and al-Goumhuriyya, were broadcasting news of stunning victories: tens of Israeli planes downed, Arab armies converging on Tel Aviv, and victory was within grasp. This paper studies the remarkable gap between news coverage and what was taking place on the battleground. It relies on published memoirs of newscasters, army commanders and average Egyptian citizens to understand both the logic of the blatant misinformation that the Nasser regime adopted and the manner in which this misinformation was received by the public. The paper also relies on the few published memoirs of combatants in Sinai to see how the soldiers reacted to radio broadcasts informing them that their army was on the verge of achieving a stunning victory over their historic foe when their first-hand experience was telling them otherwise. The paper also studies the impact this public misinformation had on the decision-making process in the military high commands of both Syria and Jordan, Egypt’s partners in the war. Finally, the paper also studies the dramatic change in the tone of Egyptian print media following the defeat. In the latter half of 1967 and throughout 1968, Egyptian newspapers ran extensive coverage of the public trials of the generals responsible for the catastrophic defeat. While this media coverage was eagerly welcomed by the reading public, and while it had a cathartic effect on millions of readers keen to see those responsible for the defeat punished, no one was held responsible for the misinformation that took place during the short days of the war. The aim of the paper is to understand the logic shaping the media policy of the Nasser regime, in general, and during the 1967 crisis, in particular. It asks the following two questions: What is the role of media in revolutionary regimes? And, what is the logic, and cost, of using misinformation during military crises?
  • Ms. Farida Makar
    In June 1963, public intellectual Luis ‘Awad published an article in Al-Ahram newspaper titled “The Trojan Horse of Imperialism: The University and the New Society.” The article in question demonised the education policies of the bygone parliamentary period and critiqued their architects—chief among them former Minister of Education, Isma‘il al-Qabbani. ‘Awad was certainly not alone in attacking al-Qabbani as he was joined by other public intellectuals of the period including thinker Adib Dimitri who propagated similar narratives in the press. Al-Qabbani is most remembered as the archenemies of Taha Husayn because he publicly endorsed a position against the removal of primary school fees in the late 1940s in what came to be known as the kamm (quantity) vs. kayf (quality) debate. Or so the narrative goes. This paper explores the ways in which narratives about this debate emerging twenty years later, i.e. at the height of the Nasser regime, have clouded popular perceptions about the incident and about the history of public education as a whole. While al-Qabbani and Husayn undoubtedly supported opposing views, al-Qabbani’s positions have rarely been explored in great detail since he was cast as a British puppet, a palace supporter and a classist. Yet, by exploring his writings more closely a different image emerges: one in which al-Qabbani was actually a champion of social justice and a proponent of what we today refer to as ‘progressive education’. This is why most members of the teaching profession supported his position. The paper therefore asks two interrelated questions: If these narratives are false, what truly transpired in the 1940s? And why do these narratives continue to have staying power until today? Through the use of the pedagogy press and ministerial documents, the paper seeks to present a different reading of the debate arguing that the Nasser regime’s tendency to oversimplify and to scapegoat contributed to the obfuscation of the otherwise highly nuanced history of free public education in Egypt.