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Intellectual Movements in Modern Egypt

Session XIII-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • The end of the First World War in 1918 marked the collapse of the medieval Islamic order. The disintegration of the Ottoman empire that for many years gave Muslims a sense of identity and belonging launched the Arab world on a new era of social and political (dis)order. Intellectuals, political activists, and nationalists all faced a new political landscape rife with uncertainty and doubt. Few intellectuals have been able to capture this episode of the post-Ottoman order as vividly as Ahmad Amin, an Egypt polymath and a prodigious historian of Islamic civilization. Amin was not only a chronicle of his moment, but also a quintessential product of a time of accelerated change and transition. In his books and essays, Amin grappled with one question: how to live in a world marked by a collapse of the Islamic order? Focusing on Amin’s massive corpus, this conference paper examines the ways in which the post-Ottoman generation coped with the new realities the WWI created. The primary goal in this talk is not so much to interrogate the answers Amin had proposed, but to illuminate the themes, questions and concerns that preoccupied him and his generation in the wake of the War, the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, and the abolishment of the institute of Caliph. While Amin was not the only author whose life was informed by the experience of the collapse of the Islamic order, he nonetheless belonged to generation that formulated many of the cultural questions that gave shape to modern Arab thought for years to come. Without appreciating this historical moment and the social and cultural concerns it articulated, it would be hard to make sense of the intellectual and cultural debates in the Arab world. As this paper concludes, the collapse of the Ottoman empire created a problem of historical discontinuity in the Arab world. To acknowledge this problem is to begin to understand the tensions, distrust and disenchantment of Arab intellectuals in our present.
  • The nationalization and centralization efforts of the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that overthrew the monarchy and took command of Egypt in July 1952 introduced sweeping changes to the socio-political and cultural landscape of the newly independent nation. Eager to portray themselves as different from their predecessors, the RCC attempted to forge a new modernity by fashioning their policies according to the new social science research findings and methods conducted by Western organizations. Unlike previous Egyptian engagements with social scientific research that simply discussed and suggested ways to improve standards of living, the RCC used research findings to formulate policies that were to be imposed on Egyptians, interfering in the most intimate and private aspects of their lives. Suggested policies that ranged from stricter governmental control over land distribution to dictating what Egyptians were allowed to wear in public animated the discussions of the ulama, public intellectuals, and ordinary Egyptians whose discussions over how these policies should be fashioned often turned into heated debates in the Egyptian press. One of these particularly heated discussions included whether the government should require Egyptian men to wear Western-style hats in public. Using several prominent Egyptian newspapers to highlight the differing perspectives on this matter, this paper will focus on the views of Muhammad al-Khidr Husayn (d. 1958), who was the rector of Al-Azhar at the time. His rejection of the requirement to wear Western-style hats from a religious perspective, as well as his criticism of the government’s social scientific rationale for imposing such a policy, elicited both respect and contempt from the myriad of public intellectuals of the time. By focusing on al-Khidr Husayn’s views and exchanges with intellectuals regarding this matter, the paper examines the rector’s arguments and discovers how he was influenced by, and himself influenced the public discourse, and the ultimate decision by the state to eschew the suggested law. Highlighting the public exchanges about the hat law also addresses the state’s larger aims of fashioning and defining what it meant to be “modern” yet authentically Egyptian. In addition, this paper will shed light on a largely understudied period of Egyptian social and intellectual history, as most studies focus on the Nasser years (1954-70) and overlook the first two pivotal years of Egypt after the end of the monarchy.
  • The influence of fascism in Egyptian in the 1930s and 1940s has been the subject of a long and controversial debate. This paper moves beyond the scholarly fixation on influence by asking what it meant to use “fascist” as an invective in post-World War II Egypt. Specifically, I consider the deployment of “fascism” as a label to criticize religious politics by the Coptic intellectual Salama Musa from 1946 to 1948. Once an ardent secularist and even an admirer of fascism, in the 1940s Musa was part of a larger shift among Copts that advocated for the strengthening of communal institutions, both lay and religious, to act as representative channels in the face of the declining number of Copts in government and to counter illiberal politics. As a writer for the Coptic newspaper Misr, Musa frequently wrote on “religious fascism,” which he conceived of as a blending of religion and politics, rooted in majoritarian chauvinism, that would lead to illiberal governance and the oppression of minorities. While Musa primarily focused on Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood as the agents of “religious fascism,” he frequently presented these forces in alliance with both Egyptian authoritarianism, most notably exemplified in the second government of Ismail Sidqi (1946), and the manipulations of the British occupation. At the heart of Musa’s analysis was the diagnosis of a threat posed by these reactionary co-conspirators that would undermine the freedom and dignity of Egyptians in general and further the precarity and marginalization of Copts in particular. I argue that Musa’s invocations of religious fascism reflected a broader Coptic reaction to the limitations and contradictions of Egypt’s “liberal era” (1923-1952). Religious fascism served as a powerful vocabulary for Copts like Musa to express their anxieties over both the future of liberalism in Egypt and the grim lessons that European fascism offered on the vulnerability of minorities within nation states. In turn, expressing communal anxieties in comparison to fascism lent urgency to the arguments of Copts who advocated for their communal institutions to function on liberal-democratic grounds. By investigating Musa’s place in the Coptic discourse that warned of religious fascism while promoting the representative authority of communal institutions, I highlight a minority approach to navigating the limitations of inclusion in a liberal system. Understanding the struggle for communal rights as one between liberalism and fascism, Musa situated the community in a global moment of anxiety regarding liberalism’s future.
  • The Greek community’s institutions primarily, but not exclusively, were responsible for the education of the Greeks in Egypt. Since their establishment, the community’s schools were granted with a lot of autonomy due to the Capitulations, as the Egyptian state did not intervene in their curriculum or any other educational matter. The schools followed the educational curriculum of Greece, which focused on the classical studies and Greece’s ancient past. Specifically, the curriculum laid great emphasis on the teaching of the modern and ancient Greek languages and on the Greek Orthodox faith. Consequently, until the late 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, there was less focus on the learning of the Arabic language and culture by the community’s schools. In addition, the schools neglected the orientation towards a more technical training, by focusing on classical or commercial studies. However, the new socioeconomic realities in the 1960s, for example Gamal Abdel Nasser’s focus on the development of industries, where more technical personnel were needed and the government’s focus on the Arabic language brought again to the fore discussions on the community’s adjustment, and thus its presence in Egypt. Therefore, this paper discusses how the community’s institutions dealt with the learning of the Arabic language and the orientation towards a more technical education when new educational policies were introduced in Egypt. It examines the concerns, steps and policies the Greek community’s institutions undertook in order to adjust to the new needs and demands of the labor market during the Nasser’s period. Last, it looks into how the antithetical policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat impacted the community’s teaching curricula, and the latter’s approach towards the Greek and Arabic education. By discussing how the Greek community tackled the critical issues of the technical education and Arabic language from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, as they were strongly connected to its presence in Egypt, this paper examines the ways the community’s members understood their place in Egypt, and how they negotiated their future there.
  • The conclusion of the Oslo Accords in the first part of the 1990s raised hopes and expectations that the road to resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict was on the horizon. Nevertheless, as far as Egyptian-Israeli complex relations were concerned, there has been no notable change, particularly at the level of people-to-people peace and cultural normalization. Things started to change slowly in the latter part of the 1990s. The ongoing dialogue between Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian representatives – known as the “Louisiana Process” led to the Copenhagen Declaration of 30 January 1997. Among the Egyptians who signed the declaration were the renowned intellectual Lutfi al-Khuli, Murad Wahba, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Sa’id and ‘Ali al-Shalaqani. Soon afterwards, al-Khuli, as the mastermind and driving force founded (with his colleagues) in April 1998 the Egyptian Peace Movement (EPM). The EPM embraced the Copenhagen spirit that “peace is too important to be left only to governments. People-to-people contacts are vital to the success of the peace efforts in the region.” For several years, the EPM led the efforts to advance dialogues and understanding between the peoples of the region until the outset of the 2000s. The proposed paper will discuss the following issues: 1. The political biography of Lutfi al-Khuli – at times a dissident intellectual and sometimes an intellectual acting within the regime framework. Al-Khuli who started as a staunch opponent of Israel and opposed Sadat’s and Mubarak’s peace strategies, became a champion of peace with Israel in the outset of the 1990s. 2. Major phases in the history of the hitherto under investigated Egyptian Peace Movement – its bearers, activities, and contribution in advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. 3. The reasons for the decline of the Egyptian Peace Movement following the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada and the deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations. 4. A retrospective analysis of the EPM’s achievements and failures and its legacy.
  • In many countries around the world, the nation-state – the most successful political enterprise of the 20th century, holds the responsibility to guarantee an adequate and continuous food supply for its citizens. In Egypt, where the state runs one of the largest food supply and subsidy operations in the world, debates about food supply are often intertwined in wider social conversations revolving around class, identity, and economy. While many argue that both the institutional and conceptual roots of the Egyptian food subsidy system rest in the British colonial apparatus of WWII, this paper demonstrates how the public debate regarding the role of the state in regulating food supply was integral to the national awakening of the interwar period. Central to this debate was the new Effendiyya: a group of educated, urban, upper-middle-class men and women. From their position as state clerks, journalists, and intellectuals, they helped shape the public discourse regarding the state’s responsibility and create the institutions to carry that role. Their project was all but organic to Egypt, where the local economy was still organized around liberal principles of minimal governmental intervention. It took a global economic crisis and radical political transformation to convince those in power that the state should take an active role in regulating the food markets. Drawing on Egyptian periodicals, magazines, and books, as well as on British official papers, this paper traces the intellectual roots of the Egyptian food discourse of the interwar period. First, it confronts the question of why should the state feed its citizens, demonstrating how the idea was part of a wider conceptual transformation regarding the role of the state in national life – from a vehicle expressing national aspirations to a practical mechanism organizing social life. It then moves to explore the way the new Effendiyya imagined how should the state feed its citizens. Many of their suggestions – boosting production, rearranging distribution, and creating new institutions to carry this task—were highly connected to the way they understood the very structure of Egyptian society.