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Self-Determination under Occupation? Formation of the Modern Egypt, 1879–1956

This project explores the emergence of an independent Egyptian State and the institutions and practices thereof—an elaborate legal system and state medical apparatus, the election of an Egyptian parliament and promulgation of a constitution, and new understandings of citizenship and the rights and duties of the State—against the backdrop of transition from Ottoman rule, to British protectorate, through quasi-independence, toward greater autonomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The leading research question is how modern Egypt came into being through multi-layered political, cultural, and religious negotiations of Ottoman, European, and Egyptian pasts.

As Egypt became the main center of Arabic literary production and Islamic reform at the end of the nineteenth century, various actors freely discussed the meanings of democracy, secularism, and independence as well as the significance of diverse cultural and religious identities. Although a secular consensus prevailed in the national independence movement and the political system in the first half of the twentieth century, parliament and the king often obstructed each other’s plans. At the same time, groups, which were not primarily committed to democratic practices—Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ultra-nationalist forces—attracted the younger generation. As a result, with pressure from within and without, the functioning of the parliamentary system and the protection of political, religious, and ethnic minorities were volatile. The 1929 Egyptian Nationality Law stipulated that only a person whose family had lived in Egypt since 1848 without interruption was an Egyptian. Thus, it discriminated against mobile Jewish, Greek, Italian, Armenian, and Syrian minorities, residing in Egypt since Ottoman times.
Meanwhile, discussions of public health and public order among nationalist reformers, religious groups, social welfare organizations, Egyptian lawmakers, and colonial administrators functioned to normalize certain gender performances and construct others as dirty, unhealthy, or unnatural, i.e., non-normative. Emerging modes of hygiene and disease prevention were then deployed in the surveillance and policing of spaces and bodies that were rendered non-normative and the construction of gendered subjects.

This research project takes stock of colonialism, nationalism, and processes of modernization and democratization in Egypt and how they constructed modern subjects and affected the lives of all those in Egypt, including minority ethnic, religious, and gendered groups.