Book Review: The told and untold histories of early 20th century foreign investors in Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 19 May 2021

Beyond the accounts of foreign investors who lived and worked in Egypt at the intersection of the 19th and 20th centuries, Moustafa Ebeid’s book unintentionally shedding light on some interesting issues

book cover

Saba’a Khawgat (“Seven foreigners in Egypt”), by Moustafa Ebeid, (Cairo: Shakhabit), 244 pp

For his book that attempts to tell the stories of seven foreign investors who lived and worked in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century, Moustafa Ebeid chose the subtitle “the history of leading foreign industrialists in Egypt”. The subtitle highlights the main intent of the book, described in the introduction as “doing justice to the memory of foreign entrepreneurs whose contribution was much overlooked, almost deliberately.”

Ebeid’s book is compilation comprising profiles of each of these seven industrialists who lived and worked in Egypt over a time period that saw a wide presence of foreign communities in Egypt.

The seven industrialists that Ebeid chose to shine a spotlight on are Henri Naus, Samuel Sornaga, Theodoros Cozzika, Ernest Trembley, Lynnos Gauche, Joseph Matossian and Conte Michel de Zogheib. They are a Belgian, Italian, two Swiss, an Armenian, a Greek and a Lebanese who respectively contributed to sugar refining, pottery and constructions, alcohol, textiles, tobacco, cement and confectioneries.

In addition to their individual success launching prosperous businesses, these seven men were brought together by the creation of the Association of Egyptian Industries in 1922, the first such association in Egypt.

The significance Ebeid attributes to these seven men launching mega-scale industries in Egypt as early as late-19th century is something that many researchers have contested since the launch of the book in late-2020.

However, what these profiles reveal, perhaps unintentionally, is much more significant than anything related to the success of their industrial schemes.

One thing that Ebeid himself mentions is the “lost archives”. The author of the book had to go through a great amount of work to find as many documents as possible on the work of these seven men and the history of their respective communities. The archives of the Association of Egyptian Industries, the archives of the respective official bodies and the archives of the communities were all a big challenge for Ebeid. Clearly, any discrepancy in the volume of information that the author dedicates to each of the seven men is a function of the discrepancy in the volume of available research material.

Then there is the issue of the untold history of the relationship between the ruling elite of Egypt at the time and some of the leading figures of the foreign communities in Egypt. There is equally an untold history of the Free Officers with the leading figures of foreign entrepreneurs in Egypt post-1952. Ebeid shares a few anecdotes here and there that entice the reader to wonder. However, he never provides an in-depth treatment of the complexity of the relationship between the successive regimes in Egypt and their role in the making-and-or-breaking of foreign investments in Egypt.

The author tries contextualize the role of each of the seven industrialists within their respective communities – with obvious references to the thorough integration of the Greek and Armenian communities as compared to others. However, he does not share much about the broader significance of these communities to the industrialization of Egypt from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.

The passing references to the impact of the religious identity on the status of each of these seven men in society, including the occasional references to the status and role of Jews of Egypt at this phase, also offer more questions than answers.

Ultimately, the book is an easy read that would prompt those with interest to further investigate the many issues that the story of these seven foreigners meant for the history of Egypt.  

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