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Posts Tagged ‘al-qutr al-misri’

“Ironically, the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and the Veiled Protectorate that followed did much to bolster notions of Egypt’s national
independence. During the early years of the occupation, the situation of
Egypt vis-a-vis the British and Ottoman Empires was characterized by two
fictions. Public discourse pretended that the Ottomans retained a measure
of control over Egypt and that Egypt retained a measure of independence
from Britain. In official correspondence, Egypt was carefully and consistently referred to as al-qutr al-misri, the “Egyptian region.” It was also
referred to with safe synonyms for “region,” such as tarafand diyar. In
the interests of pragmatism, oppositional political strategy was structured
around opposition to British imperial control. The nationalist discourse
that emerged in the 1890s appeared to instrumentalize (or even marginalize) Ottomanism in order to address the BritishY Nevertheless, it seems
that the Veiled Protectorate instilled its narrative of light, almost imperceptible rule successfully: Britain’s influence over Egypt’s citizens is obscured
in historical memory.

Although Britain drew most nationalist political fire, the Ottoman
Empire remained the key referent for Egypt’s elite political and intellectual
culture, even as late as the turn ofthe century. Egyptians were active observers of, and indeed participants in, the Ottoman reform movements of the
early twentieth century. Egypt is often portrayed as a site of exile for Young
Turks, but it was not merely an inert foreign land. Just as the United
States of America remained (and remains) in the cultural, economic, and
indeed political sphere of the British empire long after independence, so
too did Egypt remain part of the Ottoman commonwealth. This commonwealth was most visible in the writings of a small intelligentsia. The Ottoman Empire experienced a brief episode of constitutionalism and limited
representative government in 1876 and another starting in 1908. Egypt,
meanwhile, had no constitution or elections until the 1920s. Government
was for bureaucrats, not citizens, and political discourse was the realm of
journalists and a handful of elite activists.

A whole literature endeavors to define Ottomanism, and it is by no
means unusual that this elusive label should fail to fit Egyptians exactly. Ottoman citizenship, the central concern of this chapter, had its first legal
articulation in 1869.  The idea of citizenship was foreign to the nineteenth-
century Ottoman Empire; the great Egyptian chronicler of Napoleon’s 1798
invasion merely transliterated the term: sitwayan. The Arabic jinsiya (related to “genus”) came to designate “nationality.” Even the neologism for
national citizen (muwatin) does not designate the rights-bearing liberal
subject of a certain vision of Western citizenship. Subjecthood, on the other
hand, has a more stable Arabic and Ottoman vocabulary, in common usage
during the nineteenth century. The Arabic/Ottoman term tab’iyat/tabiiyet
derives from tabi’/tabii, meaning subject (of a state or sovereign). But the
truly stable term is the eighth-century reaya, for “flock” or “subjects.”

The relationship of shepherd (the Ottoman sultan) and flock (his subjects) was based on protection and loyalty rather than sovereignty and allegiance. This tie was bolstered by the sultan’s role as caliph, or earthly head
of the Islamic commtmity. Even when his secular powers were limited, the
Ottoman sultan maintained spiritual dominion, to which Egypt signaled its
symbolic loyalty. The province was given the right to mint its own currency
in 1834 (a mark of monetary autonomy), but this token of independence
bore the sultan-caliph’s name (his tugra) until 1914. The same name was
invoked at Friday prayers throughout this period. On this basis, more
recent scholarship argues that as late as 1905, “in the final analysis, the
majority of Egyptians considered themselves to be Ottoman subjects,” and
those interested in forging an independent Egypt pursued a policy of de-Ottomanization as a result. Ottoman wars were increasingly defined as
Islamic, and enthusiastic moral and material support from Egyptians during the Italo-Turkish war over Libya (1911-1912) were the last great sign
of Egypt’s Ottoman affiliation. The fact remains, however, that the sultan’s
direct control over his Egyptian flock was definitively supplanted by his
own governor during the 1830s. After that point, Ottoman sovereignty was
reduced to suzerainty and symbolic payment of tribute; no more Egyptian
troops fought Ottoman wars.

If the sultan retained only spiritual and symbolic authority over his
Egyptian subjects, his nominal subalterns enhanced direct sovereignty at
the provincial level. The upstart governor Mehmet Ali and his descendants
used the techniques of modern control to extract ever more military, agricultural, and public works labor from Egyptians. The debt crisis of the
1870s and British occupation of the 1880s transferred much of this dominion to the European comptrollers who directed the Egyptian economy. The
Egyptian state, ftguratively controlled by the Ottomans and literally controlled by the British, communicated with its subjects through its officials.
These agents of the “local government”- tax collectors, police, and local
headmen – articulated economic, legal, and military subjecthood at the
local level.”

– Will Hanley, “When Did Egyptians Stop Being Ottomans?
An Imperial Citizenship Case Study.” in Willem Maas (ed.), Multilevel Citizenship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. pp. 89-109.

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