Confronting Fascism in Egypt: Dictatorship versus Democracy in the 1930s
Achcar, Gilbert, Arab Studies Journal
CONFRONTING FASCISM IN EGYPT: DICTATORSHIP VERSUS DEMOCRACY IN THE 1930S Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009 (x + 344 pages, bibliography, index, illustrations) $70.00 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)
Reviewed by Gilbert Achcar
The authors of this new book on Egypt in the 1930s-Israel Gershoni, professor of history at Tel Aviv University, and James Jankowski, professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado-state in their conclusion that their work "joins a body of new scholarly literature that presents a more complex, historically grounded, and less politicized picture of the Arab world in the 1930s and 1940s" than the widespread representation of Egypt during that time as a country fascinated by totalitarian movements, especially German Nazism (277). Although the claim to be "less politicized" is a political statement in itself (it might have been more accurate to say "less biased"), this book is indeed an important attempt at correcting the picture of Egypt conveyed by an academic tradition typified by Nadav Safran and P. J. Vatikiotis, both of whom the authors critique in their introduction. They also repudiate the "Orientalist assumption" of the incompatibility of Islam and liberalism that leads scholars to equate the turn of several Egyptian intellectuals toward addressing Islamic themes in the 1930s with a move away from liberalism.
In challenging these prevailing representations, Gershoni and Jankowski take great care to substantiate their own theses, which read as the outcome of truly open-minded research that delved into the archives to examine the historical record thoroughly. In so doing, the two authors add to a set of new works by scholars who refute the simplistic and prejudiced perception of an Arab world enamored of Fascism and Nazism in the heyday of totalitarianism: authors like Peter Wien and Orit Bashkin for Iraq, René Wildangel for Palestine, and, to a lesser degree, Götz Nordbruch for Syria and Lebanon. Israel Gershoni's own previous studies-especially his 1999 book in Hebrew, Light in the Shade: Egypt and Fascism, 1922-1937, of which an updated and adapted version coauthored with Götz Nordbruch came out recently in German (Sympathie und Schrecken: Begegnungen mit Faschismus und Nationalsozialismus in Ägypten, 1922-1937, 2011)-have established him as a leading contributor to this trend in scholarship on Egypt.
The book's first part describes the historical setting of late 1930s Egypt as marked by the impact of the impetuous rise of the Fascist powers in Europe and by the decreasing legitimacy of the Egyptian parliamentary system. The second part examines the attitudes toward Fascism and Fascist powers in the Egyptian public discourse until the outbreak of World War II. In their prologue to this second part, the authors define the social category of the effendiyya as those who were associated by education and profession with the modern state and located at the very center of the Egyptian public sphere. They thus point out what they see as a Eurocentric limitation of Jürgen Habermas's concept of the "public sphere," which emphasizes the state/private dichotomy and separates the "public sphere" from the state. Specifically, this part of the book examines Egyptian attitudes toward Fascism as expressed in the daily press (four major dailies: al-Ahram, al-Muqattam, al-Misri, and al-Jihad); imagery, especially caricatures, in illustrated periodicals (three weekly magazines: al-Musawwar, Ruz al-Yusuf, and al-Ithnayn wa-l-Dunya); and intellectual publications (the monthlies al-Hilal and al-Majalla al-Jadida, and the weeklies al-Risala and al-Thaqafa) in which various writers discussed the totalitarian and racist components of Fascist ideologies and the imperialist policies of Fascist powers. The clear picture that the reader gets is that these makers of Egyptian public opinion were overwhelmingly hostile to Fascism. They were radically hostile to Mussolini's Italy, which Arabs-and more generally, Muslims-saw as a predatory colonial power due to its brutal occupation of Libya, followed, in the 1930s, by settler colonialism, and its 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. …