A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt

A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt

A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt

A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt

Synopsis

Though now remembered as an act of anti-colonial protest leading to the Egyptian military coup of 1952, the Cairo Fire that burned through downtown stores and businesses appeared to many at the time as an act of urban self-destruction and national suicide. The logic behind this latter view has now been largely lost. Offering a revised history, Nancy Reynolds looks to the decades leading up to the fire to show that the lines between foreign and native in city space and commercial merchandise were never so starkly drawn.

Consumer goods occupied an uneasy place on anti-colonial agendas for decades in Egypt before the great Cairo Fire. Nationalist leaders frequently railed against commerce as a form of colonial captivity, yet simultaneously expanded local production and consumption to anchor a newly independent economy. Close examination of struggles over dress and shopping reveals that nationhood coalesced informally from the conflicts and collaboration of consumers "from below" as well as more institutional and prescriptive mandates.

Excerpt

During the late morning and afternoon of January 26, 1952, much of downtown Cairo burned. Tensions had been building for several months because of escalating conflict between Egyptian popular groups and British troops stationed in the Suez Canal Zone, the site of lingering British colonial control that had officially begun in 1882. the ongoing British political and military presence in the country had persisted during the granting of limited sovereignty to Egypt in the aftermath of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution. the Suez Canal remained a crucial link in the British Empire, and Egypt’s strategic location for Allied troop mobility had been pivotal in the Second World War. Egypt’s cotton economy continued to bind the former colony to Britain as both an exporter of raw cotton and an importer of finished textiles, despite the trade’s great reduction after the 1930s. the popular struggle in 1951–1952 encompassed a broad spectrum of opposition—university students, communists, religious activists, and paramilitary groups linked to several of Egypt’s political parties, all increasingly mobilized since the end of the war. the collapsing old regime of vastly polarized social classes, ruled by a monarchy that played the various political parties off each other to retain power, was by the fall of 1951 grasping for any form of popular legitimacy. Encouraging guerrilla fighting in the canal zone seemed to deflect, at least initially, popular anger from the internal contradictions of Egyptian politics and society. On January 25 several state officials called on the Egyptian auxiliary police forces in the canal port city of Ismailia to make a heroic stand against British forces. British troops responded strongly, killing, wounding, and capturing large numbers of Egyptian police.

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