Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

In search of an attribution
WhatOs in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation

Sayyid Qutb: Othe right to revoltO
Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150

Interpretation and beyond
Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222

Questioning the body, questioning the mind
Nawal al-Saadawi, TaOam Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258

A political scientist among the historians
The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215

Ancient Egyptian windfall
* Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Isabella Brega, trans. C.T.M. Milan. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp135
* Egyptian Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Pharaonic Times. Lise Manniche with photographs by Werner Forman. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp160
* Ancient Egypt. David P. Silverman ed., The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp255

Intersection points
Al Jadid, vol. 5, no. 28, 1999, Los Angeles, Al Jadid

Sharing the self
Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, issue no. 12, December 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 493, December 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 11, December 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Mirrors, Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen, illustrated by Seif Wanli, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp186
* Ibdaa (Creativity), monthly magazine, issue no. 10, November 1999, Cairo: GEBO
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 36, November 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamia (OWorld CultureO), Kuwait: The National Council for Culture and Arts
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 171, November 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
* Qadaya Fikriya (Intellectual Issues), occasional book, issues no. 19 and 20, October 1999
* Al-OOsour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 2, 1999, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Nizwa, quarterly magazine, issue no. 20, October 1999, Oman: Omani Corporation for Press, Publishing and Advertising

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215

A political scientist among the historians

Fine: never judge a book by its cover. It is glib to dwell upon such details, but must David Roberts be recycled yet again? The familiar figure of the Pasha, reclining on his divan in Alexandria, and captured ad eternam on that fateful day in May of 1839 -- barely a year after Balta Liman, the treaty that, according to the conventional wisdom, was to cripple Egypt's modernisation drive by ending the state monopoly system -- adorns the otherwise attractive cover of Fred Lawson's book, against an ivory background and burgundy piping. In the historiography of nineteenth-century Egypt, Mohamed Ali looms large, casting an inevitable shadow over the 45-odd years during which he ruled the province -- but also over the subsequent and even, ironically, the preceding period. His role is hotly contested -- was he the worthy heir to Napoleon's grand plans, the "Father of Modern Egypt"? Or a despot who cut off the Islamic tree of capitalism at the root?

Given such a daunting choice, it is comforting, after all, to see the Pasha himself, lolling on his divan, his back resolutely turned on the view: he is a solid figure. You can almost reach out and touch him. Like dates and genealogies, the outcome of battles or the construction of palaces, his existence is easier to ascertain than the impact of import-substitution policies or the reason for a certain pattern of marital alliances. This is more true than ever today, at a time when the very idea of causality as a force of historical change is being questioned by a number of practitioners of the craft, and when, in an attempt to understand the dynamics of certain historical phenomena, many historians continue to rely on the "great men" (and, albeit far less frequently, women) approach dear to the royal biographers. In the case of nineteenth-century Egypt, the figure of Mohamed Ali looms so large as to dwarf almost all others. The wali has been used as a cipher for dictatorship, democracy and almost anything in between.

The cover of the book, then, is galling only because Fred Lawson, an associate professor of government at Mills College, recognises this point well and, in a particularly well-phrased passage of the introduction, remarks: "Conventional explanations for Egyptian expansionism after 1810 primarily focus on the motives and strategic calculations of Muhammad 'Ali himself. Each of the expeditions undertaken between 1810 and 1835 is accounted for by showing how it represented a rational move as part of this leader's general program of enhancing his position in regional affairs relative both to that of the Ottoman sultan and to those of the governments of Europe."

Lawson himself adopts a somewhat different approach, and attempts to reply to the following question: "Given a favorable set of international circumstances, what are the domestic political conditions that lead a regime to act upon an opportunity for a policy of foreign expansionism?" Examining three examples -- military campaigns in northern Sudan and the Hijaz; Greece and islands in the Aegean Sea; and greater Syria -- he argues that conflicts within the coalition of state and wealthy import-export merchants that ruled Egypt led to a policy of expansionism. In each case, he outlines the domestic political benefits of such expansion, and seeks to explain how it resolved -- in the short term, at least -- "the more pressing contradictions arising from [the ruling coalition's] uncoordinated efforts to maintain their predominance within Egyptian society". Lawson argues, thus, that crises of accumulation accompanied by powerful challenges to the dominant social coalition, and the regime's attempts to meet these challenges through policies that threaten this coalition, lead to policies of expansionism. In this way, for instance, the years that preceded the Hijaz campaign witnessed a shift in the country's ruling coalition, "from one whose core consisted of large estate-holders and state administrators to one in which government bureaucrats came to be allied instead with rich merchants involved in importing and exporting a wide range of goods throughout the country... As the interests that state forces had in extending central authority and maintaining domestic stability began to coincide with those of the tujjar [wealthy merchants] and richer 'ulama, the central administration became the vehicle whereby collective action on the part of artisans and tradespeople was suppressed. Expansionary military operations by government forces played an integral part in this process."

Such interpretations make this study a very interesting one, if only for the fresh view they offer on old controversies. Lawson concerns himself little with debates over the nature of the system prevailing in Egypt when Mohamed Ali came to power; nor has he done battle with the formidable reserves of contradictory information concealed in the National Archives. He has used the basic reference works on the period -- Rivlin, Dodwell, Holt, Vatikiotis -- as well as the handful of groundbreaking studies that had appeared at the time when he was working on his book: Marsot, Raymond, Gran, Cuno, Waltz. He takes all these -- despite the fact that, within and between these two groups, insurmountable contradictions prevail -- more or less at face value, and can hardly be expected, therefore, to offer a decisive contribution to the profession's landmark disagreements. But in treading with impunity over so many carefully tended flowerbeds, Lawson liberates himself from the obligation to address traditional challenges and offers a completely new perspective -- one that takes the dynamism and adaptability of the "indigenous" economy, among other things, for granted. He applies singular interpretations to old problems: the question of the European imports said to have flooded the Egyptian market during the first half of the century, destroying the monopoly system through a combination of lower prices and better quality goods, for instance, is presented here as a strategy adopted by Egypt's wealthy merchants, who increased the quantity of these imports "as a way of breaking the strength of Cairo's well-organized artisanat". The fact that this work is not flooded with antiquarian detail contributes further to the brisk, blow-away-the-cobwebs style of Lawson's scholarship.

Paradoxically, however, there is little chance that The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism will appeal to the mysterious lay reader to whom it is often so convenient to appeal. There is not enough detail to weave a really gripping story; what little there is has been offered mainly in support of the author's theory. Nor will historians be satisfied; many will see it -- rightly so, I believe -- as a work by a political scientist, written with his peers in mind. Nor will they be pleased with the book's conclusion, in which Lawson, astonishingly, applies his theory to the case study of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

Grand schemes with sweeping validity are certainly reassuring, but the line between general applicability and platitude is fine indeed. If Lawson has managed to stay on the right side of the fence, thankfully foregoing the use of irrelevant mathematical models, for instance, this does not validate his approach across the board. Many historians have come to realise that reality is far too complex to be encompassed in convenient frameworks. Some have taken refuge in the study of increasingly restricted microcosms: from the study of a neighbourhood or a street to individual or family biographies. If this return to the "ground floor", inspired in large part by new directions in the social sciences, is a necessary prelude to the dismantling of overarching theories with little explicative value, perhaps political scientists, too, should take heed. Reviewed by Pascale Ghazaleh

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