Al-Liberaliya al-Misriya Qabla Thawrat Yulyu 1952 (Egyptian Liberalism before the July 1952 Revolution); Talaat Radwan; The General Egyptian Book Organisation’s Family Library; Cairo; 2010
31 July 2011
Fundamentalist or liberal Egypt
Egyptian Liberalism before the July 1952 Revolution, the most recent of writer and critic Talaat Radwan’s books, is now in Egyptian bookstores, right on time to mark the 59th anniversary of the 1952 Revolution. The book candidly tackles the rise of the liberal current in Egypt before July 1952, and its wane in the wake of the revolution which effectively changed life in Egypt to this day, liberalism being among its most conspicuous victims.
Secularism paves the way
Liberalism, Radwan explains, is manifested on the political level as the framework of a social scheme that spawns a liberal ruling system based on a freely elected legislative body to which the government is responsible, side by side with free political parties and civil society organisations. On the intellectual level, liberalism implies free rein to thought and expression with no obstacles whatesover, not even what is frequently termed “national constants” such as religion. Such freedom, Radwan believes, requires a free media and calls for unfettered freedom of scholarly activity based upon two pillars: the right to err and the right to differ, both of which arise out of the firmly established concept of relativity where no absolute truth exists.
Liberalism, Radwan reminds, was not realised till intellectuals and scholars paved the way to it through introducing the concept of secularism—as opposed to religious or God-given rules. In Egypt, liberalism began with Ali Bey al-Kabeer’s attempt in the 18th century to make Egypt independent of the Islamic Caliphate and, later, with Egyptians’ exposure to western thought brought in by Napoleon’s military invasion from 1798 to 1801. But it had to wait for Mohamed Ali Pasha who ruled from 1805 till 1849 and is considered the founder of modern Egypt for Egyptian liberal thought to really take off. Institutions as the Constitution, parliament, and the monitoring of public spending were instated.
In an eminently interesting overview, Radwan leads us through to the culmination of liberal thought in Egyptian schools and in the media. He reveals that, by the late 19th century and early 20th, elimentary school children were taught to speak excellent English or French, and their curricullum included the thought of such enlightened world figures as Jean Jacques Rousseau and local enlightenment pioneers such as Taha Hussein.
The year 1908 marked a turning point in the history of modern Egypt, when the first Egyptian university opened. Given that Egyptians had for centuries before depended on kuttab (schools in mosques and churches, which taught children religion, reading, and arithmetic) to teach their children, secular schools and university went a long way to foster liberal, secular education. Predictably, a counter-liberal movement which had earlier emerged grew all the stronger. The first fundamentalist movement was promoted by the Islamic revolutionary scholar Gamal Eddin al-Afghani in the 19th century; he described the study of Physics as a virus of corruption that would bring ruin to the country, and preached that Islamic religious belonging should precede any Egyptian national belonging.
Afghani was followed by many others until today’s Islamist fundamentalists who, as Radwan sees it, pose a serious threat to an Egyptian renaissance.
The threat was foreseen by pre-1952 intellectuals. Books from these years include Khaled Mohamed Khaled’sMin Huna Nabda’ (We Begin from Here) as well as countless other writings by Taha Hussein, Shuhdy Attiya and Mohamed al-Gibaly.
Matter of life or death
Radwan introduces samples of beautiful, liberal Egypt. There is a chapter on Egyptian pioneering women before July 1952, including Zeinab Fawaz who was the first woman to write a novel Hussn al-Awaqeb (Good Endings) in 1899, as well as Hoda Shaarawy who led women to join the nationalist movement against the British occupiers, and the prominent educator Nabawiya Moussa.
Radwan cites cultural magazines before 1952, including al-Hilal and al-Kateb al-Masry, and depicts the then vibrant scene of the arts. This includes the fine arts as well as the music, theatre and cinema spheres.
The book breeds a poignant nostalgia for liberal Egypt. The Egyptian reader inevitably finds himself or herself before the question: Did Afghani and his followers manage to defeat Egypt’s liberal movement? Would the enlightened sons and daughters of Taha Hussein, Salama Moussa, and Louis Awad rebuild liberal Egypt?” For Radwan, it is a question of life or death.