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

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 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 , but was never given enough credit for it. “His technical interests as a journalist led him to support 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 's theory that print-capitalism laid the foundation for 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 : 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 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 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- and Nasserism.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter


  • Osama Diab

    Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger who lives between his two favourite metropolises: Cairo and London. He writes about the religious, social, political and human right issues of Egypt and the

    View all posts

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

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

  • Pingback: Ramadan soap rediscovers Egypt's Jews |

  • Pingback: Ramadan soap rediscovers Egypt's Jews -

  • Pingback: Film on Egyptian Jews banned | Al-Must'arib (the vocational Mossarab)

  • Asmaa A. Youssef

    Egypt Modernization in the 19th Century

    Egypt was thought to be part of the Ottoman Empire, but succeeded to be a separate identity. It was the core of Arab nationalism, yet has an independent unity. Muhammad Ali wanted to modernize it through relations with Europe economically and technically. Local religious affairs, wealth, properties, political leaderships were under his control and his relatives’. He did so to let him achieve what he wanted. In fact, Ali considered Egypt his own property. And the Egyptians should serve in his lands for his own interests and money.
    Muhammad Ali started monopoly in agriculture and industry, and imposed taxes. That led to crises such as in food supplies and shortage in the country’s budget. As a result, protests started. For example, in 1924, workers in Upper Egypt fired their texture industry. And in 1930, peasants fired their crops. In Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes said that M. Ali used slaves from Darfour and Kurdfan to work in digging canals. A great number of them died because of the bad circumstances. Many Egyptians distorted their limbs in order not to enter the military service. Although M. Ali abused the Egyptians, he put Egypt on the track of modernization. He started to strengthen the economy by building factories and digging canals like the one to Alexandria, called al Mahmudiya, which made the road between Alexandria and the Nile easier and safer.
    M. Ali also made other developments such as the cultivation of cotton in Delta in 1822. This was a source of Egypt income. Through Alexandrian port, he exported crops to Europe via European merchants. And the process of exchanging goods from Europe to India started again. Besides, the railroad and telegraph line sped up communications between Britain and India, and was put to especially good use in organizing military forces to put down the 1857 Indian Mutiny. He also invaded Libya and Sudan in order to expand his power in 1822.These campaigns gave him the chance to get rid of disaffected troops and capture captives to start a new army. Public order was rendered perfect; the Nile and the highways were safe for travellers. In 1829, he opened a dockyard and arsenal at Alexandria which enabled him to build and equip his own vessels. By 1823, moreover, he reorganized his army on European lines; the turbulent Turkish and Albanian elements were replaced by Sudanese and fellahin. He made a strong army inside and outside Egypt. In fact, M. Ali put the basis for a modern society. He created an educational system modelled after the one used by the French, nationalized all farm land, reformed and expanded the army and introduced new crops and technology.
    Unlike M. Ali who tended to separate Egypt from the Europeans, his sons, Said and Ismail, tried to imitate Europe. Ismail wanted Egypt to be part of Europe. In fact, Ismail wanted to make an Egyptian Empire in Africa. In 1873, Ismail got a chart that allowed an independent rule of Egypt without the interference of the Ottoman ruling except in political contracts and treaties with the conforming of paying taxes.
    According to the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, people’s cultural and religious identities are the primary source of conflict (The Clash of Civilizations, p.6). The Ottoman Empire controlled half of the world. It became a dominating power facing the European one. Egypt was under the Ottoman Empire’s control with the same religion. So the Egyptians did not consider the Ottomans as colonizers as the case with the Europeans. However, the Egyptians had different culture from the Turks. Thus the conflict between the Egyptians and the Ottomans arouse on the one hand, and between the Egyptians and the Europeans on the other hand, since the latter were different from the Egyptians in culture and religion.
    Khedive Ismail also made many improvements. He supplied Cairo and Alexandria with water and gas supplies. He also made a grand opera for different performances such as the Italian ones. Ismail also appreciated the French civilization to the extent that he encouraged French culture among the upper classes- clothes and food. Education followed a European procedure. Schools followed a rigid Islamic tradition; Al Azhar taught law and theology.
    Besides, both Ismail and Said took the decision of the Suez Canal construction during 1850s. In addition to completing the Suez Canal, Ismail hired veterans of the civil war in the United States to train his army, built more than thousand miles of railroads, developed a deepwater port at Alexandria, and financed land reclamation and irrigation projects to create more farm land. He attempted vast schemes of reform, but these coupled with his personal extravagance which led to bankruptcy, and the later part of his reign is historically important simply for it led to European intervention in, and occupation of, Egypt. But in part because of its own efforts, and its greater unity and self-awareness as a community, Egypt was on the way of creating a new identity for itself.

    Moreover, Egypt began modernization and became Europeanized because Khedives Said and Ismail tried to please and imitate Europe. Although Egypt was under control and dept, these elevate the spirit of Egyptian, not Arab, nationalism. Many national voices increased opposing the foreigners- the British, French and Turkish. In the early 19th century, the West became a more complex, powerful society which led to being a cognitive and economic growth. It depended on specialization in different fields which led to efficiency and proficiency.
    And in the late 19th century, a cultural renaissance, Al Nahda, started in Egypt which was the geographical center of the movement. Arab Christians played an important role in this movement. They were the educated elites and bourgeois class who affected the dominant culture, politics and economy. Rifa’a El Tahtawi (1801-73) is regarded as the leading figure of the movement of Al Nahda. He thought that Egypt and the Muslim world had much to learn from Europe, and generally embraced Western society, but also believed that reforms should be adapted to the values of Islamic culture. After five years in France, El Tahtawi returned to Egypt to implement the philosophy of reform he had developed there, summarizing his views in his book Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (1834). He noticed several similarities and differences between the Egyptians and the French people. For example, the concept of woman was different in both cultures. For the French, she was the core of life. For the Oriental minds, she had no voice. In Europe, women took their political rights in voting in the mid of the nineteenth century, while in Egypt, about the beginning of the twentieth century. He also advocated women’s education. In 1873, the first Women School opened; it was established by one of Khedive Ismail’s wives. Another important voice that supported women, and founded a new concept of women’s equality and freedom was Qasim Amin (1863-1908). He followed Muhammad Abdu’s philosophies concerning equal rights between men and women. He believed that freer and educated Egyptian women would improve the society.

    El Tahtawi also wrote about politics. He gave a fair image of the Europeans, and did not condemn them. Through his book, he tried to make reconciliation with European culture, and brought an understanding between Islamic civilization and Europe Christian one. Reading, writing and translating were the basis for The Egyptian enlightenment. Learning French, El Tahtawi began translating important scientific and cultural works into Arabic. His ideas about secular authority and political rights and liberty founded the basis for resisting the British colonialism. He emphasized the fact that Islam principles function successfully with Europe modernization. In his The Extraction of Gold or an Overview of Paris, he stressed that every individual should have a national spirit.
    The aim of nationalism was to create an autonomous and flourishing modern society, the revival of Arabic language as a medium of modern expression and a bond of unity was a central theme. Ahmed Shawqi emerged in the 1920s as a spokesman of Egyptian nationalism. . He and Hafez Ibrahim used poetry to explore themes of anti-colonialism as well as the classical concepts.
    -During these national movements, to be independent was to be accepted by European states on a level of equality, to have Capitulations, the legal privileges of foreign citizens. To be modern was to have a political and social life similar to those of the western countries.
    –The influence of Al Nahda (Renaissance) on the Modernization of Egypt was obvious in various fields such as religion, literature, politics, language and media.


    Gamal Eldien Alafghani (1838-97) introduced a modern interpretation of Islam accompanied with anti-colonial spirit. He sought a doctrine that faced the European hegemony. He also opposed the ruling monarchy, and favored the representative rule by the choice of people. At that period, , Islamic traditionalists led the Islamic world to a moral and intellectual decline. Islamic traditionalist, Mohammed Abduh believed, left the true Islamic faith and followed cultural habits rather than the religion which would have given them greater intellect, power, and justice. And that was the reason for the colonization of the Islamic countries by European power. At the same time, colonization helped to spread out the spirit of nationalism. Fukuyama says, “Nationalism replaces the relationship of lordship and bondage with mutual and equal recognition” (p.266). His sense of nationalism made him recalcitrant towards imperialism and colonization. He followed Al Afghani’s reforming practices of Islam. He also condemned Islamic authority which prevented moral and intellectual development. These new visions empowered the Egyptians to face colonization and tyranny, and enlightened their way of thinking. Egyptian nationalism began as a reflection to European colonialism and the Turkish occupation of Egypt. The national identity of the Egyptians tended to strengthen when their country was threatened militarily. They united together to fight against the colonizer. This national spirit appeared in modern novels. In Edward Kharat’s Saffron, its Soil, the writer presented the Alexandrian society with its different religions and classes. After the Second World War, the national spirit spread among Egyptians. The narrator went from one story to another, focusing on his love for Alexandria. He described the relationship between Muslims and Christians, emphasizing that their devotion was only to their country. In their feasts and festivals, both exchanged plates of cookies and biscuits. And in revolutions, they were defeating the same colonizer. Their national identity came from elements of their daily lives: national symbols, anthems, language, national colours, history, blood ties, culture, music, radio, television, etc.
    – Muhammad Ali established the Public Print House in 1820 to print governmental publications, scientific, juristic and literary books and various works. With the new printing techniques, The Egyptian newspaper “al-Ahram” appeared in 1875. That assured that classical Arabic would spread through society in its updated form, Modern Standard Arabic. Political, scientific and literary newspapers played an important role in forming the Egyptian nationality. Many nationalists were enthusiastic by these journals.
    During the reign of Khedive Ismail, many Jewish families appeared. They had a great rule in forming the Egyptian economy. Among them were Sawares, Qetawi and Rolo families. They founded many banks, companies and institutions. Al Ahly Egyptian Bank, French Owing Bank, Cairo Bourse, sugar companies and the Egyptian railroad were a few among other projects. Although the world was suffering from the WWII, the Egyptian Jewish sect was the richest in the Middle East. Besides, in 1882, Egypt was under British occupation. That led to the establishment of co-relations with foreign countries which made a movement in modernizing of Egypt.


    In Egypt, there were no literary, artistic developments during the Ottoman Empire. Conservative and dogmatic religious ideas did not help in artistic modernization and caused art denigration. With Al Nahda, the 19th century and early 20th century noticed the appearance of certain literary forms along with the classical forms, facing new themes, problems and difficulties of the modern Arabic world.
    Refaa Al Tahtawi established Al Alsun (or language) School for translation, and issued Al Waqaee Al Masriah (or Egyptian Events) Newspaper in 1828, which was Egyptianized in 1842 by Al Tahtawi. The movement of translating European and American literature contributed in the modernization of the Arabic language. Scientific, academic modern vocabulary was included in Arabic language.

    Arts and Media:

    Al-Tahtawi also established the first museum of Egyptian antiquities in Al Ezbekieh area in 1835. The Book House and Arabic Antiquities Service “Islamic Museum” at Bab Al Khalq were opened in 1897. The reign of Khedive Ismail noticed the building of cultural institutions and scientific societies such as The Kutubkhana or National Library, Al Gamiya Al Khairia Al Islamia (or Islamic Charitable Society), “Al Gamiya Al Goughraphia Al Khediwiya” (or Khedivial Geographic Society), Gamiyiat Al Maaref (or Knowledge Society), Al Magmaa Al Ilmi (or Scientific Athenaeum). These places introduced knowledge, information, experience, researches and discoveries to the Egyptians. Khedive Ismail’s period noticed also the foundation of Zizinia and Al Fairy Theatre, the Comic Theatre in Al Izbekiyyeh 1(868), Opera House (1869). Cairo Tram was built in 1896. It connected the districts of Cairo with each other. These made people have the opportunity of staying outside homes late, which was unfamiliar. Egyptians went to cinemas and theatres like Salama Higazi at Azbakia and Arabic Theatre of Iskandar Farah and the Abbasid Theatre in 1896. These theatres played an important role in defiance colonization and injustice. Artists exposed anti-colonial issues. That was why these theatres were under the control of police in order to close any one that encouraged riots or opposed authority. Besides, there were various developments in music and singing. People were free from the restrictions of el mouashahat, and developed new techniques and melodies as shown in Abdou Al Hamouli’s songs.
    Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab(1914) was the first Egyptian novel. Haykal was influenced by the French novel where realism was an important element. He presented ordinary characters that were not perfect; they were neither good nor bad. The influence of romanticism was also clear in the use of poetic language when describing the countryside of Egypt. The novel depicted the relationship between men and women. It related the story of the young peasant girl, Zaynab, and three men who tried to have a relationship with her. The novel also defended women’s rights in love and freedom. Haykal depended on the description of places, objects and characters within a limited date and time. The use of characters highlighted the importance of individualism. The author used distinguished techniques like the use of dialogue in the Egyptian vernacular. It also raised a liberal political voice. This novel gave importance and prestige to the Egyptian peasant and the countryside against the aristocratic upper classes, Turkish and Europeans. And that ideology was the reason for 1952 revolution. Haykal signed the novel with the name “Peasant Egyptian,” not an Egyptian peasant, because he evaluated the sense of being an Egyptian rather than of being a peasant. Haykal was a lawyer, and travelled to France to continue his study. And he did not want the Egyptians to be inferior to the French peers Prose writing rapidly developed from this date.

    In general, the 19th century noticed the rise of Egypt modernization in various fields- economy, literature, art and religion. It became a cosmopolitan society which absorbed different identities and cultures which in turn enriched its own identity. That put Egypt on the path of modernization.
    The new culture of Egypt liberated the Egyptian politically and economically. They became interested in their nation and nationality, and tried to develop their country by building institutions, factories, companies, schools and hospitals. The culture started to convert from a pre-modern society to a modern one.

    Asmaa A. Youssef (PHD Student, Alexandria University)
    [email protected]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Enjoyed your visit? Please spread the word