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

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Abdeslam M. Maghraoui. Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922-1936. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. xx + 192 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $74.95. Cloth. $21.95. Paper,

The question of how to assess the impact of the "West" without eliding the internal dynamics of change animates many new studies on the history and politics of Egypt. Indeed, the very meaning of the "colonial" in Egyptian history is subject to reexamination. Abdeslam M. Maghraoui attempts to do this by providing a cultural analysis of why liberalism failed in Egypt during the interwar period.

Relying on a linguistic definition of culture derived from Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and drawing on the discourses of a handful of liberal reformers whom he terms "secular modernists," Maghraoui charts the unconscious workings of Egyptian liberalism as essentially the expression of the desire to become "Other," that is, to become European. The exclusionary politics of identity that resulted were, he asserts, the bases of liberalism's failure in Egypt. This heavy-handed application of Lacanian metaphors of self-recognition (such as the "mirror stage" of infants) to explain Egyptian political maturation-or lack thereof-is problematic, to say the least. As a historian of the interwar period in Egypt, I have objections to this study that are primarily of a historical nature and may be overly empiricist; but it is precisely the author's failure to attend to history as more than a reservoir of "telling moments" that undermines the potential theoretical contribution of this work both to history and to the author's own discipline of political science.

The promise, as well as the fundamental flaws, of this study might be gleaned from chapter 1, "Colonialism as a Literary and Historical Phenomenon." Leaving aside the very general and dated observations about the usefulness of such postcolonial theorists as Bhabha, Spivak, and Said in developing a nuanced understanding of the colonizer-colonized relationship, there is some value to the author's reading of Lacan alongside Fanon in order to foreground the intangible factors behind the appropriation of liberalism in Egypt. Maghraoui writes, "To reduce the appropriation of Western political institutions to some objective reality, whether social, economic, or cultural, would be equivalent to confusing 'desire,' which is mental, with 'need,' which is physical, thereby privileging biological instinct over meaning in the march toward achieving emancipation" (35). …

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