News of revolution (part I): How the nascent print media gave birth to Egyptian nationalism

 
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By Osama Diab

The spread of print media in the 19th century played a profound role in shaping modern Egyptian nationalism and its quest for full independence.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

A page from the revolutionary 19th-century Egyptian newspaper Abu Naddara Zarqa.

From its very inception, modern Egyptian nationalism was defined by its struggle against foreign influence. The Albanian military commander who became the Khedive Muhammad Ali is widely believed to be the founding father of modern Egypt, and also the founder of its bureaucratic establishment, which prompted a growth in the native urban Egyptian middle class, or the “effendis”. The middle class up to this point had largely been confined to Ottomans and Europeans, while the vast majority of native Egyptians focused on farming in this highly agrarian society.

This rise in literacy and the wave of modernisation led to an explosion of print culture, which was also central to Muhammad Ali’s plan. Many newspapers and periodicals were founded in the 19th century. Education and migration from the countryside to urban centres brought Egyptians into contact with Europeans and Ottomans in the workplace and the same neighbourhoods. This made the striking injustice in this ‘caste system’, things such as a separate a judicial system for Europeans known as capitulations, more obvious and glaring by the day.

Adib Ishaq, a Syrian-Christian journalist and writer who lived in Egypt in the second half of the 19th century wrote: “Not a day goes by but we hear that such-and-such Italian or Maltese stabbed an Egyptian national with a dagger. The wounded victim is carried to the hospital,whereas the assailant is delivered to the consulate, and put in a luxurious room where he eats gourmet meals. He is released almost as soon as he arrives.”

The American historian Juan Cole describes Ishaq as one of the first in Egypt to write extensively on ideas of liberalism, constitutional monarchies and democracy, but was never given enough credit for it. “His technical interests as a journalist led him to support freedom of speech and free criticism of government policy. His [Free] Masonic ideals of service to mankind, his vaguely Young Ottoman political culture, and the patronage links he established in Egypt reinforced these interests,” explains Cole.

Cole argues that the rise of ideas about freedom and democracy in Egypt could be traced back to the emergence of cultural salons and political clubs, such as those belonging to the Free Masons (which Ishaq himself belonged too), the Young Egypt and Young Officers movements. All these had a number of goals in common: they strove to bring an end to European hegemony and to reform Egyptian society into one based on the ideals of equality, liberty and democracy.

The development of the print media, postal service, telegraph lines and the extension of the railway network under Khedive Ismail, allowed dissident organisations to recruit and coordinate with members in other cities.

Cole describes print culture as the most significant means of communication between like-minded people who could not meet face to face. This echoes Benedict Anderson’s theory that print-capitalism laid the foundation for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print languages capable of dissemination through the market”. It was easy then to form what Anderson calls the “imagined community”  – a community whose geographical boundaries extend beyond that daily face-to-face interaction of its members – a prerequisite for national consciousness.

The first Egyptian newspaper was published in 1828 during the Muhammad Ali era, although Al-Waqa’e Al-Masreya (Egyptian News) was only circulated among government officials and military officers. In the 1840s, Islamic reformist Rifa’a al-Tahtawi became the newspaper’s editor and used it as a platform for his reformist ideas, which proved so unpopular with the new ruler, Khedive Abbas I, that Tahtawi was exiled to Sudan.

Another major revolutionary publication of the time was Abu Naddara Zarqa (The Man with the Blue Spectacles), which was founded in 1877 by Egyptian Jew and Free Mason Yaqub Sannu. It was a platform for the newly-born Egyptian nationalism and its political cartoons were critical of the political and economic situation of the time. Because it was perceived as too revolutionary, Sannu was, like Tahtawi, also exiled, but this time, to France, in 1878, after publishing 15 issues of the magazine.

Cole wrote that, being a Jew and a Mason, Sannu promoted religious tolerance among Egyptians, but was still willing to use Islamic rhetoric against European exploiters of the country. He continued to produce the magazine from France and the controversial publication was reportedly smuggled into Egypt and widely read despite the ban.

The emergence of an educated middle class with such ideals and the imposition of higher taxes on the peasantry due to Egypt’s financial hardship led to discontent and anger which took the form of continuous protests in 1879 against Khedive Tawfiq. Tawfiq replaced his father, Ismail, who was more of an inspiring and accomplished leader.  Khedive Ismail, who was deposed by the Ottoman Sultan at the insistence of Britain and France, was angry at growing European influence due to Egypt’s inability to repay its debt, and called on Egyptians to rise up against the Europeans.

Led by the legendary Egyptian army general Ahmed Orabi, this uprising drew the support of both the liberal middle-class and the struggling peasantry, and towards its end, Orabi was in complete control of the military, and some argue, the country as a whole.

This struggle against foreign influences and the unjust social reality is believed by many scholars to have marked the beginning of the construction of modern Egyptianism as a cultural and intellectual movement. For a long time prior, Egypt was defined as a state within larger empires and its identity had revolved around its ruling dynasty. For the first time in modern history, Egypt started having a personality independent of its rulers. The Orabi movement led to dramatic changes and promoted ideals which still define Egyptian identity today.

But what defined the first version of Egypt’s modern nationalism? As Cole argues, revolutions against informal empires typically appeal to native symbols, and the most obvious one in the case of the Orabi movement was local religion: Islam. This is why another Western historian Alexander Schölch claimed that the Orabi revolt was not a French secular type of revolution.

It is true that Orabi did not revolt against the religious establishment like the French revolution did, but this could be because the struggle was against a foreign nobility not a local one, as was the case in France. Although Orabi’s Islamic tendencies were unmistakeable and his role in Islamic education in his exile in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is evidence of that, the focus of his discourse was social justice and freedom, and his dichotomy was Egyptians versus foreigners, not Muslims versus Jews or Chrisitians. This is apparent in one of the revolution’s slogans “Egypt for the Egyptians”, which drove people like Ishaq, a Syrian Christian, to abandon the revolution after initially supporting it.

The Orabi movement was so successful that the Khedeivite regime seemed to be on the verge of collapse when Tawfiq escaped to Alexandria and the popularity and power of Orabi was on the rise. However, this all changed when British forces conquered Alexandria to thwart Orabi’s revolutionary project and save Tawfiq Pasha. The British military invasion of 1882 succeeded in defeating the Orabi forces in the famous Elkebir hill battle.

The occupation resulted in Orabi’s exile to Ceylon and the restoration of Khedive Tawfiq as the ruler of Egypt, but, as Egyptian nationalism was largely based on the struggle for independence, the British presence did nothing but boost it.

This is the first part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part II will focus on the role of the media in moulding pan-Arab nationalism and Nasserism.

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The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

 
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By Osama Diab

 Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar University.

Thursday 12 May 2011

al-Azhar in Cairo. ©Khaled Diab

“[Egypt] didn’t change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn’t have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist.” With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt’s history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi’s footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can’t rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years ago. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently, al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians’ feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric’s declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF’s call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar’s ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar’s close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime’s will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to “Islamically” back up some of the regime’s actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the “whipping” of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak’s health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What’s more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak’s regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to “infiltrate” the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the West, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

This article first appeared in the New Statesmanon 7 April 2011. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.


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