“In most countries feelings of kinship among the population create the need for a state; in Egypt it was the other way around.” So claims historian Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot. In fact, such an organizational inversion deeply affected Egyptian history. Modernizing nationalist and pre-nationalist Egypt faced similar problems that neither ultimately could solve. The fact that men with such different backgrounds and worldviews as Mehmed Ali Pasha and Gamal Abdel Nasser should fail in similar ways is indicative that nationalism, in whichever of its many incarnations, is neither a magic bullet nor a death warrant for states of the third world. Moreover, such parallels demonstrate the enduring power of structures such as states and imperial rivalries.
Whether or not he can be considered the ‘father of modern Egypt’, Mehmed Ali Pasha and his successor Khedive Ismail were keen on creating an Egypt with what they considered modern state institutions. From Europe, they imported military experts, doctors, bureaucrats, and even would-be industrialists. Their model was obviously France, and thus men like Louis Jumel and Clot Bey rose to prominence in the Egyptian government. So too did native Egyptians who were first sent to study in Europe, like the Azharite scholar Rifa’a al-Tahtawi who ran Mehmed Ali’s new School of Languages and Ali Mubarak Pasha who redesigned Cairo to look not unlike Haussman’s Paris.
None of these men could be described as an Egyptian nationalist, and yet all helped establishing a strong state apparatus. Land tenure was reformed to improve the efficiency of taxation, and encourage the growing of more profitable crops. European-style education was introduced to create the next generation of functionaries. Industry, copied from the Europeans, was established to produce hardware and textiles for military use and export. Enterprises were managed as state-run monopolies. Rudimentary healthcare was put in place to protect soldiers, extending state-influence into the personal lives of ordinary men and women.
Several key factors contributed to the failure of this modernization scheme and the eventual colonization of Egypt. The expenses of maintaining a modern military forced Egypt into the international commodity market, and eventually, into debt. An aggressive expansionist policy in neighboring Syria threatened the interests of the dominant imperial power of the day. Monumental projects like the Suez Canal brought in foreign experts, foreign influence, and still more debt. Finally, imperial rivalry, and Egypt’s position on the side of the weaker and more unreliable power drove the nails into the coffin.
The result was relatively clear. Militarization led to dependency on cotton as a means to gain exchange. Fluctuations in the price of cotton, as after the U.S. Civil War, proved deadly. Mehmed Ali’s wars with the sultan brought the British into the picture resulting in the humiliating and disastrous 1840 Treaty of London. The Suez Canal simultaneously left Egypt bisected by a chunk of land under foreign control and bankrupt. Mehmed Ali’s allies, the French, were too weak to save him in the 1830s, and his alliance with them encouraged the British to take a hard line. By the time of Egypt’s bankruptcy, the French and British were in collaboration.
When the British began to push their weight around, it was the structure that Mehmed Ali created that reacted. Ahmed Urabi’s revolt, popular though it may have been, came primarily from forces that had benefited from that earlier rule. Urabi’s Egyptian cohorts in the military were one component, upset that the military was about to stop serving as a place for economic and social advancement of native Egyptians. The wealthy elites who’d been created by Mehmed Ali’s agricultural policies joined, hoping to reduce taxes and weaken the pro-British Khedive. Bureaucrats from the government, unhappy to be under the thumb of foreign debt-collectors, also played a part. Intellectuals with western education from the Egyptian school system and urban guild leaders, threatened by European competition were present too. All these groups coalesced into a single movement with Urabi at its head, under the slogan “Egypt for the Egyptians.” The movement failed because its leaders were defeated and captured by an imperial Britain unwilling to allow an uncooperative Egyptian government to emerge and potentially threaten its financial interests.
While not all those in Urabi’s coalition were clearly nationalists, its chronological successors, the Egyptian National and People’s Parties were less ambiguous. The intellectuals who were most of their members were the same sort who had been active in Urabi’s movement. They too were focused upon ending British control of Egypt. Yet they were by no means agreed on other aspects. The prime financier of National Party leader Mustafa Kamil was none other than Khedive Abbas II, who among other things sent him to Europe to get a law degree and convince the French to back British withdrawal. Whether Egypt was to be independent after the British left, or whether it was to rejoin the Ottoman Empire was an open question. The position and power of the Turkish Khedive under such a new regime was also unclear.
During the same period, the nationalist movement also recreated the alliance with urban workers, but instead of guild leaders, they now turned to a growing working class, often employed by foreign businesses. Indeed, it was competition from European industry that was simultaneously destroying the guilds and creating this new working class. Organizations like Kamil’s National Party helped to support trade unionism among workers, propagandize and negotiate on their behalf, and even establish collections for them during hard times. The Manual Trade Workers Union was an institution that provided its members not only financial support, but also political education. Nationalist organizations were made attractive to these workers since the immediate causes of their grievances were foreign, often openly racist, employers.
A women’s movement similarly developed associated with, though not wholly subsumed by, larger nationalist currents. The organizations that proliferated following the publishing of The Liberation of Women were strongly oriented toward the nationalists. By 1923 though, women from the Wafd like Huda Sha’rawi and Safiyya Zaghlul were leading the Egyptian Feminist Union. Despite most women involved being from the elites, they could not convince male Wafd party leaders to push forth any significant legal reforms. Even Nasser’s more radical nationalist government was willing to suffer only a feminist movement that offered consistent support, as the attack on Duriyya Shafiq’s Bint al-Nil demonstrated.
Whatever the ultimate goals of the early nationalist movement, they were quickly subsumed in the events following the 1919 Revolution by the new Wafd party. Led by key figures from the events of 1919 like Sa’d Zaghlul, the Wafd gained a broad foothold in the countryside. Moreover, the party was effectively in the hands of the landowning elite. The Wafd was able to use its initial popularity to sweep parliamentary elections in 1924, and seize control of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Through a combination of patronage and intimidation, they could keep political rivals like the National and People’s Parties weak. Simultaneously, they suppressed workers activities, arguing that actions against Egyptian employers were both detrimental to national development and public order. Neither of the original two nationalist parties was able to expand its base into the countryside, and consequently throughout the constitutional period, they remained firmly out of power. Trade unions remained legal only fitfully until 1942.
Wafd policies were dictated by several realities. Firstly, the British retained significant power over the country, and continued to manipulate the government as they saw fit. This included keeping Sa’d Zaghlul out of power after the 1925 assassination of Sir Lee Stack, and using tanks surrounding the palace to bring in a collaborationist Wafd government in 1942. They also opposed letting Egypt gain real independence in such areas as foreign affairs and the control of the Suez Canal. Secondly, the Wafd contended with kings who were far from excited about the idea of sharing power, and consequently used their generous constitutional powers to dissolve parliament regularly. Not one Egyptian government from 1924-1952 lasted its full period with parliament in session.
With power distributed as it was, the major issues of the day were never meaningfully resolved. Governmental instability and British intransigence meant that even after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, British troops remained in Egypt throughout the constitutional period, and Britain retained a veto on much of Egyptian foreign policy. The other major issue of the day: poverty and land distribution was something the Wafd would not touch, for it meant going against the interests of its own landowning and industrial base. Peasant unrest and alienation remained, and flight to urban areas continued unchecked. Even a modest proposal like Muhammad Khattab’s 1944 limitation of new purchases to fifty feddans at a time led to denunciations and his expulsion from the party. The instability of Egypt from 1948-52 is but one indication that the Wafd could neither accomplish their own stated objective of full independence, nor satisfy the vast majority of Egyptians, whom they theoretically represented.
Colonel Nasser’s 1952 Free Officers coup brought together a number of different currents. The Free Officers embodied the successes and the failures of the 1919 Revolution. All native-born Egyptians of lower to middle-class backgrounds, the Free Officers could not have risen to where they did without the reconstitution of the Egyptian military following the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty negotiated by the Wafd. The embarrassing defeat at the hands of Israel in 1948, which catalyzed their discontent with the current regime, was a direct result of the lack of effective national governance under the Wafd and the ability of the King to run roughshod over it. The lack of a military plan or functional weaponry was a problem that would not have occurred under a competent national administration.
Nasser’s regime immediately and energetically tackled the problem of limits on Egypt’s sovereignty. Negotiations in 1954 ended the British presence in the Canal Zone by 1956. The 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal completed the decolonization of Egypt, ending the privileged position of foreign enterprises and foreign nationals on Egyptian soil. As Edward Said put it, in 1869 with the opening of the canal, “… the Cross faced down the Crescent, the West had come to the Orient never to leave it (until, in July 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser would activate Egypt’s taking over of the canal by pronouncing the name of de Lesseps).” Nasser’s position as a leader of the Non-Aligned movement symbolized Egypt’s newly won political and economic independence.
The success of Nasser and nationalization in 1956, while not unqualified, in many ways brought Egypt full-circle, reassuming the course of history that Britain had interrupted by forcing the 1840 Treaty of London upon a then rising Egypt. Once again, a strong centralized Egyptian state would seek to modernize, industrialize, and expand its influence across the Arab world. Yet there was a twist. Power for power’s sake was no longer legitimate. The son of peasants from Upper Egypt restructured society to benefit all poor Egyptians. The means at Nasser’s disposal were similar to those Mehmed Ali could rely on but the ends profoundly different. The key difference would be nationalist ideology.
The role of the citizen in Nasser’s Egypt is interesting. In return for political obedience, Egyptians were given a slice of the national wealth. Not only did the state pay the salaries of many Egyptians, it also provided services like healthcare and higher education. A minimum wage was instituted throughout the public sector. Necessities like grain were subsidized. While not a true ‘rentier state’, Egypt nonetheless developed a unique citizen-state contract in which the state granted certain benefits like social services, expecting in return that its citizens would remain politically loyal. Nasser’s military regime was even more intolerant of dissent than the Wafd had been.
Nasser’s primary domestic policy was modernization. Land reform, although not implemented perfectly, did occur in a meaningful fashion with the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952. Importantly, the reform also helped break the power of the landowning elites that had dominated pre-1952 Egypt. Additionally, land reform opened the way to new state influence, in the form of state-run cooperatives. Another plank of Nasser’s policy was state-run industrialization, beginning with the steel-works of Hilwan, and ultimately leading to the completion of the Aswan High Dam. Nationalization of major Egyptian businesses, like Bank Misr, was also carried out. Expansion of education helped many, including women, enter the workforce.
While these moves did improve the financial situation of many Egyptians, they also reintroduced the state into business life in a fashion that had not been seen since the days of Mehmed Ali. The focus on large-scale heavy industry and monumental public works projects was also reminiscent of the earlier period. The fact that government jobs and connections became the main avenue of financial advancement was also significant. Once again the state disproportionately dominated the economic sphere, exerting a large degree of control over the process of modernization and industrialization.
Ironically, modernization, as Nasser carried it out, required a loss of independence. Preventing future 1948-style defeats required weaponry and expertise, both of which Nasser had to get from the Soviets, since western powers refused. Massive projects like the Aswan Dam needed more capital than even the nationalized Suez Canal could provide, and Nasser again resorted to Soviet aid. Nasser’s dependence on the weaker Cold War superpower would cost him dear.
Political adventures in Greater Syria sealed Nasser’s fate. A strong Soviet-oriented Egypt with expansionist ambitions in the Arab world was unacceptable both to western powers and Israel. Nasser’s misplaced 1967 showmanship cost everything. As in the 1840s, western power politics had spilled over into the Middle East. Just as Mehmed Ali had found the French too weak and undependable as allies against the British, Nasser found himself unprepared to confront Britain’s newfound allies: America and Israel.
1967 destroyed Nasser’s brand of Egyptian nationalism. National pride was deflated even as national independence was compromised. The cost of that lost pride was the ’73 war, and the switch to the American camp of the Cold War in return for the Sinai. The welfare state at home, badly underfunded due to earlier militarization, was gutted by Nasser’s successors. Political representation did not reappear though. Real economic independence was even further compromised due to Egypt’s increasing reliance on American loans and aid. The economic gains made by peasants and the public sectors in the early Nasser years were simultaneously reversed.
Despite the fact that Nasser was a 20th century Arab nationalist and Mehmed Ali a 19th century Ottoman autocrat, the similarity of their rules’ is not a matter of mere coincidence. The ways that Mehmed Ali organized the society around a central bureaucratic state prefigured in many ways the manner in which later nationalists, including Nasser, would conceive of their mission. It is no accident that Nasser’s Egyptian modernization followed a trajectory similar to Mehmed Ali’s. It is no accident that militarization was a key component of the modernization. It is no accident that modernization in both cases, paradoxically increased dependence on foreign powers in an ultimately detrimental fashion. It is no accident that the key player in these projects was a strong, central and aggressive state bureaucracy.
Ultimately Nasser was a failure, in much the same way Mehmed Ali was. Over-ambitious projects, foreign meddling, and the limitations of the bureaucratic state meant that most achievements were neither full nor lasting. Nasser’s Egyptian nationalist regime did not achieve its goals of full political and economic independence, nor of modernization. Yet whether its failures were due to ideological, structural or circumstantial shortcomings is far from clear. Both attempted to change Egypt subject to the constraints of a world not of their making. Nationalism meant many different things to different people at different times, and in this particular case, it appears not to have drastically altered the end-result.
After Nasser’s death, matters dragged on for nine more years, but the writing was on the wall. It was for Anwar al-Sadat to do the honors of signing a new Treaty of London with the imperial power of the day at Camp David in 1979. Bandung was officially dead, and Egypt once again, as under Khedive Ismail, prepared itself for colonization. Ten years later, instead of the Dual-Control administration of Britain and France managing Egypt’s economy for the benefit of European financiers and industrialists under the unwilling Ismail, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund took on the role of integrating Egypt profitably into the global capitalist economy with the blessings of soon-to-be six-time ‘president’ Hosny Mubarak. Plus ça change, plus la même chose.
Beinin, Joel: “Egypt: society and economy, 1923-1952” in The Cambridge History of Egypt 2. ed. M.W. Daly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beinin, Joel: “Napoleon in Egypt”, lecture 04/26/05.
Beinin, Joel: “Cotton, the Suez Canal and the Urabi Revolt”, lecture 05/24/05.
Beinin, Joel: “The 1919 Revolution”, lecture 05/30/05
Beinin, Joel: “The Revolution/Coup of July 23, 1952”, lecture 05/30/05
Fahmy, Khaled: “Women, Medicine and Power in 19th Century Egypt” in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. ed. Lila Abu-Lughod. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hourani, Albert: Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lockman, Zachary: “The Social Roots of Nationalism: Workers and the National Movement in Egypt, 1908-19” in Middle Eastern Studies no. 24. 1988.
Mitchell, Timothy: Colonising Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid: A Short History of Modern Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Said, Edward: Orientalism. New York: Random House. 1994.
Vatikiotis, P.J.: The History of Modern Egypt: From Muhammad Ali to Mubarak, 4th edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1991.