Politics

Egyptian Nationalism: A Review of Eve Troutt Powell’s A Different Shade of Colonialism

Egyptian Nationalism

Eve Troutt Powell’s A Different Shade of Colonialism projects on the rise of nationalism in Egypt and offers a different reading of colonialism as she demonstrates how the colonized emerges in the role of the colonizer and subjugates others. Her research on the formation of Egyptian nationalism shows how Egyptian representations of the Sudan in popular culture buttressed the difference and hence uniqueness of the Egyptians from the Sudanese. To validate her point Powell resorts to critics of Said’s Orientalism and asserts that in this seminal book Said presents the “Other” as completely passive. Powell then claims that in the process of “the objectification of Egypt in European literature, Said did not include in Orientalism a single sample of Egyptian literature or a discussion of Egyptian’s long history of creative and eventually successful response to British occupation” (11). Providing a review of works on the responses to imperialism by Eric Hobsbawm, Albert Hourani, and Timothy Mitchell, Powell indicates that at one point of the colonization process, the colonized aspires to be a colonizer and “the existence of colonialist tendencies in the colonized” (13) is what Said’s discourse on colonialism does not address.

With the objective of addressing what Said did not, Powell aims at having a “view from below” and “examines in detail the books, speeches, plays, journals, newspapers, and songs of several generations of nationalist [Egyptian] elites for what they wrote about the Sudan and its people” (13). What she finds is nothing but the very continuation of the process of inclusion and exclusion applied by the European imperialists as the Egyptian elites reproduces the binary division of “Us” and “Them” putting the Sudanese people to the second category. This tendency of the Egyptians what Powell calls “the perspective of the colonized colonizer” capitalizes ethnicity in the “otherfication” of the Sudanese in shaping Egyptian nationalism. Being the victim of European otherification, the “thousands of colonized bureaucrats [who] made their way to the colonial metropole … found themselves excluded [by the imperial centers] … [and] became central to the development of nationalism in the colonial regions” (15) . Referring to Benedict Anderson’s challenge to those who insist that nationalism grows from “fear and hatred of the ‘Other,’” Powell reads Egypt’s establishment of a national language for identity, a language that is replete with meanings borrowed from Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Africa. Reading this as Bakhtin’s “heteroglossia” in the novel, Powell asserts that this was a deliberate effort by the Egyptian elites in unifying Egypt through language. The “imagined community” that the Egyptians tried to form as a nation incorporated culture, ethnicity, and at times race, a concept of nationalism that exceeds Anderson’s theory of it.

Powell’s analysis of the formation of Egyptian nationalism recourses to the enslavement of the Sudanese people, mostly women, and shows the ambivalent positions that people took for or against it. From her discussions on the Egyptian representations of the Sudanese in popular culture, we may say that the Sudan had been instrumental in establishing what it meant to be Egyptian or not Sudanese. This very idea of exclusion of the self from the other is what Said capitalizes in his book in showing the European colonization, and this is also the very strategy that the Egyptians applied in recolonizing the Sudan. This is a strategy that simultaneously accepts and rejects the other.

However, Powell’s analysis of Egyptian nationalism portrays it as merely a reaction to the exclusion of the bureaucrats from the metropolitan centers. It seems that other than their difference from the Sudanese people and their frustration for not being incorporated into the “Official Nationalism,” the Egyptians did not have anything. It seems like a kind of nationalism without a common glorious history, culture, or tradition. Powell’s description of the colonized-colonizer is a phenomenon applicable not to the Egyptians alone, it applies to many of the nations across the world. Be it the case of England colonizing the Irish or Pakistan manipulating the Bangalies, dominance and exploitation is a given in history. This is why Egypt’s case is not exceptional.     

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About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.

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