EGYPT: Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922-1936

By Gordon, Joel | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

EGYPT: Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922-1936


Gordon, Joel, The Middle East Journal


EGYPT Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922-1936, by Abdeslam M. Maghraoui. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. xx + 148 pages. Notes to p. 169. Sel. bibl. to p. 179. Index to p. 192. $74.95 cloth; $21.95 paper.

Reviewed by Joel Gordon

In Liberalism without Democracy, Abdeslam Maghraoui calls for a deeper reading of politics that transcends "formal institutional" processes and "biased cultural assumptions about self and other." The setting for his argument, directed primarily at political scientists and policy makers - not least those who continue to be "tempted by the 'liberating' scheme of empire" (p. xii) - is Egypt during the 1920s and 1930s, the onset of the precarious liberal experiment.

During this "vibrant" period, Egyptian political and literary figures, who "drew inspiration from European liberal political and philosophical thought ... felt compelled to degrade local cultures and identities to accommodate liberal principles" (p. 1). By so doing, they effectively adopted the "social prejudices and cultural biases" of the West and cut themselves off from the very body politic that they sought to lead to independence and, ultimately, serve. "Like the Europeans who defined their 'self against the non-European 'other,' Egyptian liberals defined their national identity in opposition to the Arabo-Islamic Other" (p. 69).

Maghraoui's book is concise, clearly argued, and nicely packaged. He moves quickly from the colonial encounter, as a formative period of identity formation, into the troubling first two decades of quasi-independence. How much it has to offer by way of understanding or - more importantly - reconsidering "nationhood and citizenship in Egypt" is less persuasive. This book is rooted in a dissertation completed some 15 years ago and, like the attractive cover photograph, seems to be somewhat frozen in time, theoretically and conceptually.

In that cover photo, green rather than sepia-toned, a European in suit and fedora sits, legs crossed, reading a newspaper in the garden of Cairo's exclusive Continental Savoy Hotel. Off to the side, posed stiffly in a wide peasant gallabiya and turban, is a hotel porter. In the background, equally formal, but sporting more colorful native-cumbellhop dress are two other attendants. One should not read too much into a cover shot, but the absence of any trace of the Egyptian intelligentsia, the liberals treated within the book's pages, is striking.

Maghraoui might respond that this is his point: the absence of the native liberals is emblematic of the gap between them and the common people. …

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