- Monarchy and Modernity in Egypt: Politics, Islam and Neo-Colonialism between the Wars by James Whidden
Students of revolution and counterrevolution in modern Egypt would do well to read James Whidden’s recent monograph Modernity and Modernity in Egypt on Egyptian political culture in the interwar period. In this impressive work, Whidden offers a substantive revision of the longstanding “three-legged stool” model of interwar politics, by taking on three conventional frames that still typically inform analyses of the period: the fundamental elitism of Egyptian interwar politics; the decisive role of British colonial interference; and the so-called liberal character of Egypt’s constitutional and parliamentary government. Whidden’s main contribution to the fraught, complex political history of Egypt after the 1919 Revolution is to refocus our attention on the many forces of conservatism that shaped political transformation in this period, and to argue for conservatism’s role as a constitutive element of Egyptian modernity. The brand of conservatism actively sold to the public by the monarchy was, in Whidden’s view, an expression of “a very modern concern with the negative consequences of rapid political or cultural change,” and thus not merely “a strategic bid for power” (p. 191).
Beyond the book’s introduction and conclusion, both of which are concise and sharp, Whidden arranges his study in six main chapters. Chapter 2 offers a useful overview of the main political parties, actors, and events that he will revisit through the work. Chapter 3 focuses on the intellectual roots of modern Egyptian conservatism, offering a close reading of key works of political theory by Zaki Fahmi and Diaeddine Saleh (as well as White Ibrahim, as a republican counterpoint). The upshot of this chapter is to demonstrate a spectrum of views within the umbrella of “conservatism,” and also to argue that monarchism — as an ideology and a cultural policy — was in fact “a creature of modernity” (p. 36). Chapter 4 grounds its analysis of Egyptian elections in an argument concerning the “cultural distance between the effendi and notable sectors of society” (p. 65). Whidden argues convincingly that elections in this period were not simply manufactured by colonial or elite interests, but rather “laid bare a conflict of values at the heart of Egyptian political life” (p. 92). This chapter also highlights the contradictory nature of Sa‘d Zaghlul’s Wafd Party: elitist in its composition and structure, on one hand, while representing the democratic will of the nation, on the other. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the so-called monarchist coup after 1924 and the decisive shift in Egypt’s political culture towards forces of counterrevolution. The centerpiece of Chapter 5 is Whidden’s analysis of the monarchist Ittihad Party’s membership lists (obtained from the Egyptian National Archives), which reveal the monarchists’ shrewd strategy in enlisting a broad cross-section of support from various strata of society, including “marginal members of the state system, particularly Islamic scholars” (p. 125). Chapter 6 returns us to the political writing of Zaki Fahmi, and focuses on the overtures that the monarchy made to key religious institutions and groups throughout the 1920s. Finally, Chapter 7 switches gears and focuses on how the British Residency read the changing Egyptian political landscape and adjusted its policies accordingly, in a strategy Whidden terms “neo-colonialism.”
This is a fine work of political history, grounded in an array of interesting new archival evidence; though one might wish for more documentation from the Egyptian archives to counterbalance Whidden’s findings from the British Foreign Office records. Whidden’s arguments concerning the trajectory of Egyptian political culture in this period are wholly convincing, and this book should serve to refocus historians’ attention on long-standing yet diverse forces of conservatism within the Egyptian political field, as well as the ways in which conservative and monarchist arguments had a wider public following than is typically believed in many studies of “liberal” Egypt. Whidden is on somewhat shakier ground when dealing with cultural materials: he never provides [End Page 641] a clear...