Book Review: From fatalism to individualism – Egyptian politics from 1798 to 2011

Dina Ezzat , Friday 26 Jan 2024

On the occasion of the 55th Cairo International Book Fair, Al-Ahram Online offers its selected list of the best books, fiction and non-fiction, published in 2023.



Sahwat Al-Mahkoumin fi Misr min Ra’iyah ila Mwatenin (“From subjects to citizens: the awakening of the ruled in Egypt 1798-2011”), by Mahmoud Hussein, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2023. pp 335

Original title in French : Les révoltés du Nil: Une autre histoire de l’égypte moderne. Translated from French by Mohamed Madkour.

In the book that depicts Egypt’s 200-year-long pursuit of modernity, the Egyptian-French authors Bahgat El-Nadi and Adel Rifaat – writing jointly under the name “Mahmoud Hussein” – explain why the country’s revolutions have undermined the use of religion by its rulers to oppress the ruled.

It is usually hard for many to square the recent state discourse relating the association between Police Day, which is celebrated on 25 January, to mark the battle between national police officers and occupation British soldiers on 25 January 1952 in Ismailia, and the 25 January 2011 Revolution when the masses took the streets to demonstrate against police abuses. 

However, according to the two authors, the true association is far from artificial, but nonetheless different than the official narrative that promotes a duality between the admiration of police bravery under British occupation with police authority today.

Originally published in French in 2019, the book argues that on both days Egyptians were trying to stand up against their ruler in pursuit of dignity – which was independence from British occupation in 1952 and end of autocratic and increasingly police-dependent rule in 2011.

According to the authors, leftist political philosophers who escaped “the brutality of the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser to France” in the 1960s, both on 25 January 1952 and 25 January 2011, are part of a much longer timeline that started with the French expedition to, and occupation of, Egypt in 1798.

El-Nadi and Rifaat explain why the arrival of the army of Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt “was a working and transformational moment.” It gave the Egyptian people, who had been living for centuries as subjects under a sovereign ruling in the name of God/Sharia, a reason to start contesting their rulers. Contesting the rule of the French was perceived as performing the will of God, as the Egyptian Muslim majority rejected rule by the non-Muslim French. 

The book shows how Egyptians – both Muslims and Christians – found it possible, for different reasons and to different extents, to contest their rulers through the subsequent 200 years preceding the January Revolution of 2011.

Over these two centuries, El-Nadi and Rifaat argue, Egyptians evolved from subjects of a God-ordained sovereign to citizens. This was made possible, they add, by those magical moments of revolution when the people acted upon their own independent will, away from the fear of the rulers or the submission to the Ulamas (Muslim scholars) or the clergy of the Church of Egypt – and at one point the leading rabbis, who were mostly closely associated with the will of the rulers.

Religion is in a sense held responsible for the fatalism that took over Egyptians – even as they contested the rule of the sovereigns. However, it is mostly the association, illicit as the book suggests, between the religious leaders and rulers, including the French, the British, the family of Mohamed Ali, and the presidents of the republic until the January Revolution that made it possible for the Egyptians to accept unfortunate conditions. 

This acceptance was not absolute, however, “but only to a point when the bad got worse that Egyptians would resort to their individual will to act against the sovereigns, often enough independent of the say of religious leaders,” the book says.

With the pursuit of individualism away from fatalism, the book shows, came the realization of nationalism – as the people were acknowledging themselves as Egyptians and not just as subjects of the Ottoman Empire or part of the Muslim nation ruled by the God-endowed Sultan. 

It was this realization that allowed for the rise of national leaders who supplanted the religious leaders. These leaders at times inspired the the people to act on a shared sentiment, as in the case of Ahmed Orabi, and at times were inspired by the will of the people as in the case of Saad Zaghloul.

The analysis that this book offers shows that the rulers of modern Egypt – from Mohamed Ali to the Free Officers and each of the presidents thereafter (except for the brief rule of Mohamed Naguib) – were acting to regain the uncontested prerogatives of the sovereign but not necessarily upon religion, except where there was a need to reintroduce the religious claims. Crucial to this pursuit of hegemony, the book shows, was to reign in religious institutions and to oppress civil society and politics.

Overall, the 335 pages that were translated into Arabic by Mohamed Madkour, offer a new take on Egypt’s modern history, the relations between religion and politics, occupation and nationalism, democracy and individual will. It is a concise history of Egypt’s political modern history, with all the key names, dates, and events that have made Egypt the way it has been since the late decades of the 18th century into the early decade of the 21st century.

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