Thursday, December 20, 2007

Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East, by Juan R.I. Cole

This book is not a general discussion, but is focused on Egypt in the 1870s and early 1880s, as indicated by the subtitle, Social and Cultural Origins of Egypt's 'Urabi Movement. Ibn 'Urabi was an Egyptian army officer who led an uprising against the European-dominated Viceroyal government of Egypt and the culturally-Turkish upper-class, in the name of "Egypt for the Egyptians." His revolt had many causes, but was particularly inspired by the crushing taxation that European governments insisted that the Viceroy enact and enforce, to guarantee that holders at home of Egyptian government bonds would be paid on time. The revolt was aimed as much at European infiltration of Egyptian life as it was at a cruel and unresponsive government; the two things went hand in hand. The revolt was also a failure; the British invaded Egypt and imposed a "viceroy" of their own who could control the Viceroy who supposedly ruled the country for the Ottoman sultan. Britain continued to occupy the country in whole or in part until the 1950s.

This book is not an action-packed narrative like Cole's more recent Napoleon's Egypt -- it doesn't tell the story of Urabi's revolt or much about Urabi himself -- but I found it, given my interests, a more valuable book. In my course on the History of Islamic Civilization, I've lectured on this period, using standard books, but I learned a great deal from this treatment.

First, the relationship between Ottoman reform in Istanbul and what might be called Ottoman reform in Egypt is well drawn-out. It's easy to treat Egypt as not really part of the Ottoman Empire, given its undoubted autonomy and its diverging history in later time, but there was lots of interaction between Constantinople and Alexandria and Cairo.

Second, I had no idea how strong the European influence was in Egypt, though I knew it was strong. Details of influence by elite Europeans and expatriate European workingmen add up to a fascinating if rather gruesome picture. (Can you say, "hit by a runaway locomotive"?)

Third, Cole's big contribution here is to discuss different Egyptian social and political movements that led to the explosion of the 'Urabi movement, many of which are entirely ignored in more general accounts. I was particularly interested in the role of the urban guilds and their internal electoral institutions, institutions which may have by example encouraged the push for parliamentary, responsible government at the level of the state.

Finally, I found little to object to in the style of this book, unlike Napoleon's Egypt. Did in fact NE's editor urge Cole to repetitively explain what I found obvious.

I think as I find time I'll continue to read on Modern Egypt.

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