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Egypt at Turn of the 20th Century: Community and Identity, Subject Formation

Panel XI-21, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • This project uses sources drawn from various factions of the Egyptian periodical press to understand how depictions of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion reflected broader questions of transnational solidarities in the face of imperialism. Periodicals I look at include Al-Ahrām, Al-Muqtaṭaf, Al-Manār, Al-Muʾayyad, Al-Hilāl, which all featured coverage and editorials about the Boxer Rebellion. These print forums used the Boxer Rebellion as a foil for pointing out contradictions and contesting meanings of the colonial situation in Egypt. This paper is concerned with what representations of the Boxer Rebellion can tell us about how the ideologies these authors expressed reflected visions of Egypt’s future. My work asks how discourses surrounding the issue of the Eastern Question fueled debate among Egyptian writers, and how they fashioned their defenses against decline narratives in an east facing manner. Most works that take up the Eastern Question offer indigenous responses to it as defensively facing West, whether that be through projecting internal cultural strengthening or through projecting strength outwardly toward the West. I intend to argue that discourses surrounding the Eastern Question were also used to strengthen conceptions of “Eastern” identities internally. This project looks not at how the West characterized the East, but rather it looks at how a self-conscious Egypt fashioned itself in an East facing direction against Western narratives of their own supposed demise and need for tutelage, thus bolstering Eastern solidarities transnationally. This was further a matter of the “civilized world” versus “barbarity”. Many Egyptian writers thought, as reflected in their coverage of these events, that the brutality and violence of Western incursion into China contradicted the narratives of civilizational progress that Western empires used to justify their colonial and imperial projects. Further, the idea that Eastern states, including Egypt and China, possessed a deeper intrinsic civilizational heritage began at least as early as the turn of the twentieth century. This inherent heritage, reformers thought, could be used to make the technological strides necessary to prove their superiority over the West. However, the editors’ and authors’ proposed solutions forward from this point differed markedly. These differences of opinion about the situation in China ultimately reflected the authors’ own struggles in defining what it meant to be Egyptian under colonial rule.
  • To date, little is known about how Copts viewed landmark debates in Egyptian history. This is especially true for the period before 1910. One historian has observed that Copts were simply “absent” from the national movement. Others have limited their engagement with Coptic history to elite politicians such as Butrus Ghali or eccentric figures like Salama Musa. Through analyzing the early historical writings by Coptic thinkers, I argue that early Coptic historiography served to legitimize specific conceptions of the Egyptian nation state that have gone unnoticed. I examine the ideological contexts in which the first generation of modern Coptic historians operated and ask how we might relate discourses of a “Coptic nahda” to that of the Arab Nahda. Did Copts meaningfully contribute to this transnational cultural movement (i.e. the Nahda), or should the Coptic nahda rather be approached as a derivational product? How, if at all, does it change the way we view the place of the Coptic community in the late Ottoman world?
  • Writing in 1912, one lay Coptic observer opined that the question of the supervision of the waqfs, constitutes “the mother of all [Coptic] communal issues: the problem of all problems and the hurdle of all hurdles.” So central was the issue of overseeing the waqfs—the mortmain properties for religious or charitable purposes—that it has been the locus of the laity-clergy struggle for representing and organizing the Coptic community since the inception of the Communal Council (al-majlis al-millī) in 1874. Against this backdrop, this paper centers the question of the supervision of the waqfs in its analysis of the escalating strife between proponents of laic reform coalescing around the Communal Council on the one hand and the high clergy on the other since the inception of the Council in 1874 until the renewal of the fifth majlis in 1912. Departing from the customary narratives of a lay reformist agenda met with clerical resistance, this paper argues that both camps sponsored rival visions of reform centering on overseeing the waqfs and harnessing their revenue streams. To this end, the paper will first start with an overview of the status of endowed Coptic properties at the turn of the century and their estimated revenues. Secondly, it will present a diachronic synopsis of key events marking the laity-clergy struggle, starting from the inception of the majlis in 1874 and its subsequent renewals in 1883, 1892, 1906, and 1912—highlighting major management abuse cases that fueled the escalating struggle between the two camps. Lastly, the paper will conclude with a brief discussion on the significance of the triumph of the clerical camp in controlling the waqfs enshrined in the charter of the 1912 majlis. This study rests primarily on an examination of a wide array of Coptic publications from the period of inquiry including newspapers and magazines (e.g. al-Waṭan, Firʿawn—from which the above quote is drawn, al-Ḥaqq, and al-Karmah) as well as other publications and reports produced by charitable societies (such as Jamʿiyat al-Tawfīq and Jamʿiyat al-Ikhlāṣ al-Qibṭīyah al-Markazīyah), and by journalists and public intellectuals, including a 1907 survey report on Coptic waqf properties and their revenues.
  • After Ibrahim Hassan, the village head (‘umda) of Bagour, spent a year in prison between 1897 and 1898, he vowed to never break the law again. The Tanta Criminal Court had sentenced Hasan to eight months in prison for torturing suspects in a case of robbery in his village. In the years after his release, he tried to embody the respectable and charitable man. After some advocacy from a high-ranking local official, a khedival order granted Hassan a general pardon. The former ‘umda of Bagour would no longer be haunted by his criminal past. Hassan’s crime, sentencing, and eventual pardon raise questions about the criminal justice system in modern Egypt. Was Hassan’s violence an overzealous attempt to fight crime? Was he a tyrant who brutalized villagers? Was Hassan a policing agent, a tyrant, or a criminal? The hundreds of petitions, letters, and correspondences pertaining to ‘umdas in the Egyptian National Archives reveal that these puzzles were not Hassan’s alone. Many villagers petitioned against ‘umdas who wronged them. ‘Umdas’ crimes ranged from terrorizing villagers to illegally confiscating lands, and from aiding infamous criminals and bandits to petty thefts. Conversely, many villagers petitioned to reappoint dismissed ‘umdas whom they believed to be just and incorruptible officials. I interrogate the seemingly contradictory roles that ‘umdas played in policing and committing crimes in their villages and in shaping law and (in)justice. If we center rural conditions, specifically the intersection between landholding and policing powers, what can we learn about the meanings of justice and crime in Egyptian villages during a period of sweeping legal and economic changes? Did villagers see ‘umdas as tyrants, state representatives, or administrators of justice? Where and how did villagers seek justice? What was the ‘umdas’ relationship to crime and criminals and to the local police station and state bureaucracy? Using state archives, book fairs, visual and auditory material, memoirs, fiction, and oral history, I argue that the specificity of rural social and economic conditions, reforms, and gendered regimes shaped different categories of and interactions between “criminals,” “villagers,” and “law enforcers.” The village itself, rather than courts, police stations, or siyasa councils takes shape as a primary site of the making and unmaking of criminal justice.The liminality of ‘umdas also allows us to see “law enforcers” and “criminals” not as pre-social categories, but as social, legal, and bureaucratic subject positions that are always under construction and negotiation.