Imperial Intersections: Divided Sovereignties, Migratory Concepts, and the Public Sphere in Egypt, 1866–1925

AHA Session 267
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room M104 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Marquis Level)
Matthew H. Ellis, Sarah Lawrence College
Matthew H. Ellis, Sarah Lawrence College

Session Abstract

Spanning six decades— from the moment that Egypt’s ruling dynasty purchased the title of vice-regent  (“khedive”) from the Ottoman Sultan in 1867 to the political crisis that followed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after WWI—  the four papers comprising this panel examine the Egyptian state as the locus of multiple, overlapping and contested sovereignties. A series of influential studies in the early 1990s challenged the methodological nationalism of Egyptian historiography by resituating the reign of Mehmed Ali Pasha in the early nineteenth century within its wider Ottoman context. But to date, that “Ottoman turn” has had little influence on histories of the late nineteenth century, which still tend to narrate the British occupation of 1882 in stagist fashion, as the moment when one imperial power eclipsed another.

While remaining attentive to the transformations wrought by Britain’s “veiled protectorate,” this panel reconsiders the politics of the colonial era by tracing the divergent ramifications of Egypt’s status as a site of imperial intersections. From the Khedivial dynasty, which extended and refashioned Mehmed Ali’s state-building projects to the emergent social movements that deployed new forms of mass mobilization, political actors in Egypt’s public sphere struggled to command the material and ideological resources that flowed within and between empires. In particular, this panel explores the migratory concepts through which a shifting spectrum of political projects were envisioned and enacted.

The first paper examines the reconfiguration of Egypt’s political order during the reign of Ismail Pasha. In an attempt to gain autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, Ismail purchased the semi-sovereign title of Khedive from Sultan Abdülaziz in 1866-67. The Egyptian notables who supported him drew upon older Islamic idioms of kingship to bolster his legitimacy, in the hope that they might transform the Pasha from a provincial Ottoman governor into an Arab monarch. Within a decade, Ismail’s reliance on European capital to finance this bid for semi-autonomy from the Ottoman Empire would bring about the debt crisis that culminated in the British occupation. The second paper takes up this eventful moment of political-economic upheaval by tracking the category of “sovereignty” itself through several collections of sources that offer discrete perspectives on the plurality and fragmentation of Egypt’s political order. While British rule had assumed an air of permanence by the early 1900s, the country’s formal ties to Istanbul were yet to be severed. By elucidating the double valence of the category of “union”—signifying global practices of militant labor as well as the constitutional revolution of the Ottoman Committee for Union and Progress—the third paper reveals how the persistence of imperial intersections provided a key point of reference for popular opposition to both khedivial and colonial autocracy. The final paper examines the years before and immediately after WWI, which shook the foundations of the ruling family’s political legitimacy. As the prospect of self-rule began to seem attainable for the first time, intellectuals began to question whether older models of kingship could be truly compatible with the emancipation of their nation.

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