In 1909, the students of al-Azhar, the Islamic world’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, went on strike. On 21 January, roughly 1,400 students marched through Cairo to the Gezira gardens on an island in the middle of the Nile. There they made plans to stop all lessons until the government altered several major curricular and organizational changes introduced the previous autumn.Footnote 1 Rumors that the university administration was contemplating punitive measures only strengthened their resolve. Two days later, an even larger crowd once again set out from the Azhar. When the procession reached the Gezira gardens, their numbers had swelled to several thousand people.Footnote 2
That afternoon, a series of speakers rose to address the assembled multitude. The first, Shaykh Mas‘ūd Farāj, “set about urging union [ittiḥād] upon his brothers so that they might be like the Japanese.”Footnote 3 The next extolled “the duty of union” and “whipped the audience up with a poem he recited against the Westerners [al-gharbīyīn] who had settled in Egypt to sap its resources and deprive the people of them. ‘And indeed,’ [he exclaimed], ‘what is the Western intrusion into Egypt except a ruse they plotted on the pretext of the Egyptians’ need for education, when the truth is quite the opposite.’” He noted the support the strikers had already received from many of the country’s newspapers and led the crowd in cheers of “Long live the National Party.” After several more speeches, the Azharis formed orderly rows and processed through downtown Cairo. Before dispersing, they passed by the offices of the National Party’s official organ, al-Liwā’, where they chanted for the paper, its founder Muṣṭafá Kāmil, its new editor ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Jāwīsh, and Kāmil’s successor as party president, Muḥammad Farīd.Footnote 4
Over the following weeks, with the assistance of Egypt’s two major nationalist parties—al-Ḥizb al-Waṭanī (the National Party) and Ḥizb al-Ummah (the People’s Party)—the Azharis continued to press their case. They established an official body, the Azhar Union Society (jam‘īyat ittiḥād al-Azhar), to represent their collective interests and elected a committee of ten delegates to negotiate with the government and the university administration.Footnote 5 They published their demands in the papers.Footnote 6 And thanks in part to the government’s draconian reaction, they attracted a groundswell of public support. By late February, Khedive ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II (r. 1892–1914) had conceded defeat and suspended the reforms that first motivated the Azharis to strike.
In January of 1909, it was by no means obvious that the strike was an acceptable mode of protest for Muslim seminarians to employ. By adopting the language of “union” and the practices of labor militancy, the Azharis suggested that their situation was in some way comparable to that of the working-class groups that had recently employed similar tactics. Because that choice at first seemed so incongruous, the strike raised a whole series of questions about how multiple frames of comparison served to organize and delimit the political field in Egypt. Most obviously, the Azharis’ unlikely union pointed up the norms and expectations that attached to established social categories—whether of age, class, profession, nationality, or religion—and revealed how such distinctions could fragment the public and obscure latent commonalities. But as their very earliest speeches indicate, the Azharis also invoked a range of other, broader comparisons that linked their movement to developments well beyond the courtyards of the famed mosque-university. First, the institutional reforms at issue were introduced by a khedive—the Ottoman viceregent—increasingly accepting of British rule. For that reason, what started as claims to self-governance within the Azhar were easily refigured as contributions to a broader struggle over the right of Egyptians to rule themselves. Second, in justifying the country’s long tutelage under de facto colonial occupation, British officials often resorted to metaphors of adolescence to situate Egypt within a global developmental hierarchy. Because most of the strikers were themselves young people, their actions elicited extensive critical reflection on this and other comparative frames that assigned much of the world to conditions of perpetual subordination to Europe. Third, in the aftermath of the Young Turks’ revolt of July 1908, the Azharis’ invocations of “union” referred simultaneously to a circulating form of worker struggle and to an organization—the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP)—that had forced the Sultan to restore the Ottoman constitution. Together, these multiple valences of “union” raised the possibility that the protest repertoires of labor militancy could transpose collective ambitions onto an altogether larger scale.
Oddly, despite having blanketed the pages of the Egyptian press for weeks, these events have practically disappeared from history. This article therefore has two objectives. First, through a detailed account of the strike, I aim to establish the importance of this largely forgotten movement as a major catalyst to the emergence of mass mobilization in Egypt in the early 1900s. The pace of strikes and demonstrations was already quickening before the Azharis staged their first rallies. But both the magnitude and the form of their protests played a significant role in inspiring the subsequent surge of popular political action and in broadening the appeal of organized opposition to British rule. Second, the ensuing analysis of the strike engages and extends a rich body of postcolonial critique concerned with the politics of comparison. Comparison, this work has shown, was indispensable to the operations of empire. The production of a comparative knowledge that treated some peoples and places as commensurable and others not provided the “underlying grammar of political work” that enabled imperial formations to manage the irreducible diversity of the populations they sought to govern.Footnote 7 In many cases, however, this critical insight about colonial comparison has led toward a “hermeneutic suspicion” of comparison as such.Footnote 8 In this respect, the archive of commentary bequeathed by the Azhar strike points toward an overlooked history of the countervailing comparisons that nourished anti-colonial political thought. The living subjects who experienced the violence of colonial rule were no less capable than practicing historians today of discerning what was at stake in the politics of comparison. Anticipating many of the signature insights of postcolonial critique, these historical actors recognized the multiple forms of comparison that structured arrangements of social power in their own present.Footnote 9 But they were willing and even eager to pursue their own critical reflections down avenues of political possibility that recent scholarship has sometimes been reluctant to address. For many, the practical work of building a viable anti-colonial movement necessarily required alternative comparative frameworks that might sustain new kinds of solidarity. It was just this sort of insurgent comparison that the Azhar strike inspired among its protagonists and supporters.
When the strike began in January 1909, many observers deemed it almost unthinkable. As one report put it, no one had anticipated that “the Azharis—whom history has seen as a group that would never think to demonstrate or countenance disobeying the orders of their superiors—should one day throng together in demonstrations unlike any Egypt has seen.”Footnote 10 In time, this apparent incongruity would figure into two significant, if largely unremarked, transformations to the character and constitution of popular politics in Egypt. First and most simply, it had a radicalizing effect on the strikers themselves; from 1909 onwards, Azhar students would become fixtures at organizing events for other working groups, meetings of political associations, and mass demonstrations against British rule. That activism would culminate in their conspicuous role in the high drama of Egypt’s 1919 Revolution. Second, the transgressive character of the Azharis’ actions helped to elevate the strike itself as a generalized repertoire of protest. Existing studies have correctly described the early 1900s as a key moment of convergence between Egypt’s formerly elite and elitist nationalist parties on the one hand and a growing labor movement on the other. Those works have explored the rapprochement in terms of a mutually recognized convergence of interests: the nationalist parties were able to mobilize broader popular coalitions while working groups gained organizational and journalistic support to leverage their demands. They have also noted that this popular turn in the nationalist movement entailed a rethinking of “the people [al-sha‘b]” as a collective category encompassing what had once been seen as discrete social groups.Footnote 11 But important as they were, none of these changes on their own explain how the concept of “union” and the practice of the strike became the taken-for-granted idioms of support for the nationalist cause or how, by extension, the capital-labor relation became the implicit frame of reference for construing many other forms of inequality and domination, including those at an imperial or global scale. The unlikely character of the Azhar strike and the telescopic array of comparisons it engendered played a crucial role in bringing about that now largely forgotten shift.
Incomplete Modularity and the Social Specificities of the Strike
In the strike’s early days, many critics described the Azharis’ decision to employ the language and tactics of “union” as a kind of category error rooted in a dubious conflation of their own situation with that of Egypt’s working classes. That such commentaries were commonplace is testament to the fact that the strike still appeared to contemporaries as a mode of action appropriate only to specific social groups making specific sorts of demands. It may also help to explain the marginal status of this incident in subsequent accounts of the period. Strong claims for the importance of little-known events beg the obvious question of their obscurity. The strike’s particular location in histories of modern Egypt, in that sense, provides the beginning of an answer. Within social histories of workers and labor militancy in Egypt, the Azharis are all but invisible.Footnote 12 The strike does appear in studies of educational reform within the mosque-university, but there, it mainly functions as evidence for the conservative resistance of the ‘ulama to modern science.Footnote 13 The one recent study that rebuts that much-rehearsed allegation through a careful reading of the strikers’ actual demands goes on to suggest that their movement “degenerated” once they were “drawn into the larger arena of the 1908–1909 political protests.”Footnote 14 In brief, the limited treatment of the strike has tracked with the very sorts of categorical distinctions that the Azharis were acting to undo.
Rather than a mere oversight or error, however, this way of hiving off the Azhar strike from histories of labor organizing and Egyptian nationalism might actually provide a useful point of departure from which to reconsider some longstanding methodological issues around the colonial politics of comparison. Ever since the publication of Benedict Anderson’s study Imagined Communities four decades ago, the concept of “modularity” has remained a regular flashpoint for debates about the colonial genealogies of mainstream social-scientific comparativism. As Anderson first introduced the argument, after a formative period of emergence in Europe and the Americas, nationalism “became ‘modular,’ capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations.”Footnote 15 Numerous critics have noted that Anderson’s rendering of “modularity,” by treating Euro-America as the dynamic site of creative production and the rest of the world as “perpetual consumers of modernity,” exemplifies the pitfalls of diffusionist global history.Footnote 16 But if, within the vast field of nationalism studies, “modularity” has long been an object of critical scrutiny, the concept has enjoyed a rather different career among theorists of social movements and contentious politics.
In a now-classic contribution to Social Movement Theory, Sidney Tarrow adapted Anderson’s terminology to name a significant transformation in modes of collective protest. Whereas “traditional” repertoires of contention were “attached to the identity of the challengers and of those they challenged,” beginning in the eighteenth century, a wide range of social groups began to employ new “modular” forms of collective action. Unlike the traditional repertoires, Tarrow explains, “the strike is modular; it can be employed in a variety of settings by a variety of actors against a variety of opponents.”Footnote 17 For present purposes, two features of Tarrow’s rendition of modularity are notable. First, it is explicitly Eurocentric; his account describes “the more general changes in collective action that heralded the rise of the social movement all over the West” and the subsequent circulation of those “modular” forms into the rest of the world.Footnote 18 Second, the distinguishing characteristic of the modular repertoire, in Tarrow’s rendition, is its availability as a form independent of either the content of the action or the social identity of the actors.
By describing the modular repertoire in this way, as a globally circulating, universalizable practice of European provenance, Tarrow’s account at once raises and elides a crucial historical tension. Even as such modular forms—whether of political identification in Anderson’s case or contentious action in Tarrow’s—assumed an increasingly generalized character, they nevertheless retained some residual associations in the minds of contemporary actors with particular histories, geographies, and social strata. It is in just this sense that the Azhar strike’s historiographical obscurity is instructive; conceptions of the strike as a practice specific to certain kinds of actors (i.e., workers) making certain kinds of demands have proven sufficiently durable to render some events far more likely to appear in histories of popular politics than others. It was, moreover, this same incomplete modularity of the strike as a globally available form that made the Azharis’ movement such an important case for challenging the colonial regime’s operative logics of comparison at the time.
Colony by Comparison
Though they employed different terminologies, the European empires of the nineteenth century approached the project of foreign rule as a fundamentally modular undertaking. The achievement of “moral and material progress,” so understood, entailed the judicious implementation of so many modular forms, whether of technology, law, politics, education, or market exchange. As a long tradition of postcolonial critique has demonstrated, the notion that components of European modernity represented adaptable parts to be exported and reassembled abroad located colonial societies within complex fields of global comparisons. On the one hand, what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called a “hyperreal Europe” became the comparative standard against which all other societies would be judged. Colonial rule, accordingly, operated by promising to replicate Europe’s own history of development and then judging that process endlessly unfulfilled.Footnote 19 On the other, the obsessively taxonomic qualities of colonial discourse rendered manageable the otherwise overwhelming diversity of human life across the planet. Comparative epistemologies, in this sense, became a ubiquitous technology of colonial rule. By compressing the actual variety of concrete life-worlds into abstract categories of commensurability, such comparisons made the colonies themselves into second-order sources of modularity. As Ann Stoler has noted, “Colonial bureaucracies were therefore invested in selective comparison with other polities…. Category making produced cross-colonial equivalencies that allowed for international conferences and convinced their participants—doctors, lawyers, policy makers, and reformers—that they were in the same conversation, if not always talking about the same thing.”Footnote 20
Though it was never officially colonized, Egypt was the colony of comparison par excellence. The transformations that culminated in de facto British rule inscribed the country within a field of overlaid and multiplying comparisons. In the early nineteenth century, Egypt’s ambitious Ottoman governor Mehmed Ali Pasha launched a self-styled project of modernization that rested upon an eclectic bricolage of modular forms. To finance a war machine inspired by Britain’s conscript army in India,Footnote 21 the Pasha borrowed American technologies and expertise and remade the Nile Delta into a gigantic cotton plantation.Footnote 22 As the complexity of this state-building enterprise increased, Mehmed ‘Ali looked to Europe for new institutions of order and discipline. Cairo would become a Paris on the Nile. In this regard, the process of “colonizing Egypt” began long before the advent of the British occupation itself.Footnote 23
The financial burdens of this state-building project mushroomed until by 1876 Egypt was bankrupt. When the austerity measures imposed by European creditors provoked a national-popular uprising, British forces invaded, promising to restore order and financial stability. British officials now alleged that the Khedives had copied European modernity in travestied form. The ensuing occupation would therefore serve the educative function of managing the process of replication. The first generation of British “advisors,” including the Consul-General Lord Cromer himself, were recruited mainly from the British Raj. They approached the country as an instance of something they had already encountered elsewhere in “the Orient.”Footnote 24 To become more like Europe, Egypt would need to look more like India.
By January 1909, this “veiled protectorate” faced a range of serious challenges. Since the early 1890s, a fledgling opposition organized loosely around the young Khedive ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II had assailed the British occupation on the pages of a thriving Arabic press. Arguing sometimes on behalf of an old order threatened by European vice and at others in the name of a universal modernity withheld by foreign interests, these early critics sought to puncture the occupation’s narrative of rapid improvement.Footnote 25 British officials responded by casting Egypt’s self-proclaimed nationalists as a marginal coterie of urban, middle-class upstarts whose professed patriotism ignored the fabulous prosperity that British rule had bestowed upon the long-oppressed peasant majority.
Two major developments in the early 1900s, however, shifted the terms of debate over the occupation. The first was the so-called Dinshawai Incident. In June of 1906, a group of British soldiers hunting pigeons in the village of Dinshawai became embroiled in an altercation that resulted in the wounding of one and the death, by heat stroke, of another. The occupation reacted by summoning a special tribunal, under British supervision, to try fifty-two villagers for a premeditated conspiracy; the tribunal sentenced four of the villagers to death and over a dozen others to public floggings and imprisonment. Condemned as a perversion of justice, Dinshawai lent new credibility to arguments that Egyptians, whether in villages or cities, constituted a singular national public united in its outrage against colonial violence.Footnote 26 The second development was the massive financial crisis in 1907 that brought Egypt’s much-vaunted economic boom to a close. The crisis soon precipitated tens of thousands of farmer bankruptcies, and critics of British rule found new grounds to assert that the occupation was failing even by its own economistic criteria.Footnote 27 In this moment of “hegemonic contraction,” a growing number of political parties vied to diagnose the ailments of the colonial present and propose visions for a sovereign national future.Footnote 28 Their aspirations only intensified with the CUP’s victory in the summer of 1908. This was the charged context in which the Azharis took to the streets.
Reforming the Azhar
From their first demonstrations, the Azharis drew multiple connections between their own situation and the eventfulness of the global moment they were witnessing. But even if the strikers were quick to locate their struggle within these wider frames, their protests first emerged from a longstanding conflict over the organization and curriculum of the Azhar itself. At issue was the venerable mosque-university’s place in a society in flux. For centuries since its establishment in the late tenth century CE, the Azhar had trained and educated the learned classes who not only managed the affairs of local mosques and kuttabs but also performed the vital functions of government as judges and bureaucrats. The notion that the Azhar was an institution of “religious education” was itself a controversial effect of the transformations of the nineteenth century. When Mehmed Ali launched his state-building project, he relied initially on foreign expertise. But he quickly recognized that new institutions founded on imported models would require Egyptian personnel to run them. The Ottoman wālī thus began to send students on educational missions to Europe where they could acquire training in a range of new subjects including military science, engineering, medicine, irrigation, and printing.Footnote 29 As the literati of the country at the time, it was mainly Azharis who first traveled abroad and subsequently enrolled in the new schools that Mehmed Ali’s regime soon began to establish. Azhari ‘ulama likewise collaborated with their European counterparts to translate key works of science, medicine, and philosophy into Arabic.Footnote 30
If the Azhar played a pivotal role in mediating the introduction of new knowledge and new types of education, however, these changes posed several significant threats to the mosque-university’s preeminent status. First, in restructuring the state’s fiscal apparatus, Mehmed Ali began to seize the waqfs (pious endowments) that funded the Azhar. This centralization of state revenue resulted in both a reduction in the Azhar’s institutional autonomy and a diminution in material support. Second, the proliferation of specialized institutions—whether for medicine, engineering, warfare, music, or translation—circumscribed the Azhar’s role in new ways. Increasingly, the mosque-university would be seen not as the central locus of higher knowledge in general but of particular kinds of specifically religious or Islamic knowledge. Third, the more pronounced and extensive this new division of labor grew, the more restricted the employment prospects of the Azharis became.
The long struggle over Azhar reform unfolded in response to these mounting pressures. Advocates of reform argued that its curriculum and methods of instruction were badly antiquated. Whereas the country’s new schools employed European procedures for assessing and graduating their students, it was often unclear what Azhar-trained ‘ulama had studied and to what level. Beginning in 1872, the Azhar therefore adopted a system of examinations for those seeking qualification to teach at the university.Footnote 31 If this early move toward standardization sought to credential the faculty, many subsequent changes aimed at clarifying who was or was not an Azhari student. Learning at the mosque-university was one of the few pursuits that conferred exemption from military service and corvée labor. As the state’s demands upon their bodies and labor time increased in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, growing numbers of young men from the countryside thus sought refuge at the Azhar by claiming to study there. Beginning in 1885, the government therefore took steps to introduce a registration code, but the bureaucratic complexity of monitoring thousands of students delayed its implementation.Footnote 32 The impetus to enact stricter regulations finally arrived in 1896 when a cholera outbreak in Cairo took a severe toll on the overcrowded Azhar. The Organization Code of 1896 introduced a system of entrance requirements, imposed new curricular guidelines, and centralized the management and finances under the Rector of the Azhar and his Administrative Council.Footnote 33
Over time, these efforts to render the organization of learning and the granting of degrees more akin to the procedures of Egypt’s Westernized schools had the effect of demarcating both the students and faculty of the Azhar as a distinct social group. Although this tendency toward professionalization found some support as a possible strategy for protecting the Azharis’ prerogatives and employment prospects, it was, from the beginning, bound up with another issue that proved far more controversial. In short, the question of “reform” concerned not just who could study and teach at the Azhar and how to assess mastery, but what sorts of subjects the curriculum should cover. For this reason, proposals for reforming the Azhar figured prominently in wider debates about the place of Islam in the modern world. According to a line of critique developed most famously by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and his disciple Muḥammad ‘Abdūh, the embattled condition of Muslims around the globe was due, in no small measure, to the ossification of Islamic thought at institutions like the Azhar. Arguing that those responsible for guiding the faithful ought to cultivate the individual’s capacities to reason and promote the advancement of new knowledge, this modernist camp pushed for the introduction of new subjects and pedagogical techniques imported from abroad.
In his published writings, his role as editor for several important journals, and his work as the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Muḥammad ‘Abdūh was a tireless advocate for overhauling the Azhar curriculum. At his death in 1905, however, those efforts had amounted to little. Many histories have cast ‘Abdūh as a courageous advocate for progress whose agenda was thwarted by conservative ‘ulama.Footnote 34 The most common interpretation of the Azhar strike of 1909 treats it as yet another manifestation of this same reactionary position. But as the historian Indira Falk Gesink has shown in an important reassessment, the obstacles ‘Abdūh encountered may have had more to do with the strategies he pursued than with the substance of the changes he advocated. ‘Abdūh himself often disparaged the Azhari ‘ulama as the stubborn enemies of modernity, and his public criticism of these perceived adversaries unsurprisingly left them disinclined to endorse his plans. The aura of suspicion was only augmented by ‘Abdūh’s cordial relations with prominent members of the British community, including Lord Cromer. Eager to wield control over the country’s Islamic institutions, Khedive ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II, moreover, saw ‘Abdūh’s efforts as a direct challenge to his authority and therefore obstructed them.Footnote 35
A mere two years after ‘Abdūh’s death, however, the Khedive’s position on Azhar reform had changed. Like his earlier opposition, the reversal was closely bound up with his political calculations. In 1907, after nearly a quarter century as the personification of British rule in Egypt, Lord Cromer announced that he would be stepping down. Whereas Cromer had butted heads with the young Khedive since the latter’s accession in 1892, the new Consul-General Sir Eldon Gorst had developed a cordial relationship with the viceregent while serving as Adviser to the Ministry of Finance in the 1890s. Upon his return to Cairo, Gorst had advocated “a serious effort on the part of the Government to meet the desire which exists among certain sections of the population for a larger participation in public affairs.”Footnote 36 Privately, he acknowledged that these adjustments aimed not at hastening Egyptian independence but at “taking the sting out of the local Anglophobia, and at the same time, from the House of Commons point of view, … pushing the Egyptian question well into the background.”Footnote 37 Though the Khedive had once sought to position himself as the patron and leader of a patriotic resistance to British rule, Gorst recognized that he regarded the increasingly popular and horizontalist character of the nationalist movement with jealous unease. What the new Consul-General sometimes called his “policy of conciliation” thus entailed granting the Khedive more autonomy and thereby cultivating the Palace as a potential counterweight to the growing constituencies of al-Ḥizb al-Waṭanī and Ḥizb al-Ummah.
It was in this context that ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II and his Palace Secretary Aḥmad Shafīq Pasha, took up the mantle of Azhar reform as a means of burnishing the Khedive’s reputation. In December 1907, Aḥmad Shafīq began working with the Council of Ministers on a new law governing the university. This legislation, commonly referred to as the “New Order,” was ratified the following March. The regulations would entail the expulsion of non-enrolled students from the grounds of the Azhar, the progression of students year-by-year through a systematized curriculum, the implementation of standardized annual examinations, and the introduction of “modern” subjects—composition, history, natural science, cosmography, and physiology.Footnote 38 The reorganization also established a new “Higher Council” headed by the Rector of the Azhar and comprising the Mufti of Egypt, the Shaykhs of the Mālikī, Shāfa‘ī, and Ḥanbalī madhāhib, and two government employees (both hand-picked by the Khedive). It would thereafter control the budgets and curricula of the Azhar and the other major religious institutes in Alexandria and Tanta.
In Aḥmad Shafīq’s self-congratulatory account, the New Order fulfilled a years-long campaign to implement “a system of instruction that should accord with the spirit of the age.”Footnote 39 Noting that “the late Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abdūh did not succeed in his endeavors at reform,” the Khedive’s confidant attributed his achievement to having treated the ‘ulama with great care and respect.Footnote 40 But during the drafting process many within the Azhar complained that they had not been consulted, and the establishment of the Higher Council roused concerns that the Khedive aimed to usurp the Azhar’s autonomy for his own ends.Footnote 41
By October 1908, when the regulations went into effect, those localized objections had begun to resonate with a more generalized critique of Egypt’s political condition. ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II had spent the summer of 1908 in Istanbul and experienced firsthand the drama of the Young Turks’ movement. Alarmed by what he witnessed, the Khedive had resolved to stop the momentum of revolution from spreading to Egypt. What greeted him in September hardly allayed his anxiety. Within hours of his arrival in Alexandria, the National Party started bombarding the Khedive with telegrams from across the country. These coordinated messages congratulated the sovereign on his safe return and demanded an Egyptian constitution straightaway.Footnote 42 According to the British chargé d’affaires Ronald Graham, the Khedive immediately reached out for British support in forestalling that eventuality.Footnote 43 Over the following months, critics in the nationalist dailies decried the rapprochement between the Palace and the British consulate as antithetical to the principles of popular self-government that seemed to be gaining traction across more and more of the globe. It took no great leap of imagination to see the Khedive’s power grab within the Azhar as a potential violation of those same principles.
Challenging the New Order
Although its protagonists were quick to link their struggle to these larger issues, the Azhar strike first coalesced around specific objections to the New Order. Following the demonstration on 21 January 1909, local papers began to publish the students’ demands.Footnote 44 The strikers carefully emphasized their support for institutional reform and the introduction of modern subjects. Their grievances mainly concerned how the New Order affected the distribution of power and material resources within and beyond the walls of the Azhar. The earliest published lists focused on protections against job competition from the graduates of Egypt’s many new educational institutions, support for the rising costs of education, and more gradual introduction of new course material. As conditions for resuming their classes, the students initially demanded the following: First, that Azharis be given priority over graduates of the new School for Jurisprudence (madrasat al-qaḍā’) in matters of judicial employment. Second, that the government equalize compensation between the Azhar and the country’s other higher institutes of religious learning, where pay for students and faculty was generally much better. Third, that the Azhar cover the costs of the books and scientific instruments required for the curriculum’s new subjects. Fourth, that the university hire sufficient instructors qualified to teach those subjects. Fifth, that concessions ensuring basic employment be granted such that primary degrees would confer employment in waqf-funded schools and secondary degrees would guarantee jobs as clerks in the sharī‘ah courts and in the management of waqfs. Sixth, that the new curriculum be introduced in a gradual and reasonable fashion. Seventh, that final examinations in this first year of the New Order only cover topics that students had actually studied. And finally, that candidates for the higher degree not be examined on arithmetic and algebra, as had been true the prior year. Together, these three last demands addressed what the students regarded as a grave injustice. As originally implemented, the New Order applied to all grades at once, so advanced students would be examined on subjects they had never studied.Footnote 45
A revised list, published the following day, added several more demands concerning governance and university finance. The new list began by insisting that the new Higher Council should be chosen not by the Khedive but by secret ballot of the university ‘ulama and that the Council should elect the Rector of the Azhar. This elected Council would, moreover, manage the Azhar’s budget with the assistance of the High Judge of the sharī‘ah courts. The Council’s meeting times and proceedings would be published in the papers. When added to the demand for faculty pay equity, these strong claims for institutional autonomy made clear that the strike now encompassed both students and faculty. Because the New Order had emanated from the Palace and arrogated new powers to the Khedive, the demands regarding governance represented at least a potential challenge to his authority.
By January 1909, such challenges seemed to multiply daily. When he succeeded his father Tawfīq in 1892, Khedive ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II had quickly earned the rancor of British officials for his energetic defiance. Guided by an inner circle of Palace advisors and seasoned bureaucrats, the young Khedive provided material support for the fledgling National Party and for Shaykh ‘Alī Yūsuf’s paper al-Mu’ayyad, which had earned a reputation as the central organ of patriotic opposition to British rule.Footnote 46 But much had changed since then. In the realignment that ensued from Gorst’s “policy of conciliation,” ‘Alī Yūsuf’s paper continued to endorse and amplify the position of its royal patron. When the strike began, al-Mu’ayyad thus became the focal point for popular animus that many hesitated to direct toward the Palace itself. For its part, the paper quickly seized upon those demands pertaining to faculty as grounds to discredit the strike as a whole. Al-Mu’ayyad acknowledged the legitimacy of some complaints about the “New Order” but cautioned that “[the students] have now mixed their demands with those of their shaykhs and added to them, all of which demonstrates that some of the ‘ulama have a hand in the matter.” Distinguishing the worthy content of the students’ demonstrations from their inappropriate form, al-Mu’ayyad urged patience on what it depicted as a collection of well-intentioned, if misguided, youngsters. The enlightened Khedive and his advisors would consider the students’ legitimate grievances as they worked to amend the New Order.Footnote 47
That the tone of such commentary echoed the statements of British officials was hardly accidental. In his correspondence with the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, Gorst explained, “Privately, I have advised them to take the attitude of looking into the grievances of the students (some of which I believe are well founded), but at the same time to insist upon the maintenance of discipline pending a settlement.”Footnote 48 This strategy cast the strike as the expression of particularistic concerns amenable to technical redress. But the resonance between al-Mu’ayyad’s statements about the youthful impertinence of the students and a more generalized discourse about Egypt’s political adolescence was not lost on those it aimed to silence. Almost immediately, supporters described the strike as a contribution to the struggle for political representation in general. Even as al-Mu’ayyad’s position hardened, the official organ of the People’s Party, al-Jarīdah, began to develop this more expansive interpretation:
It is not typical of our Egyptian character that we should like to offend against our teachers or to disobey the orders of our leaders. But we have happily come to regard with joy and exultation each act that reveals the desire to replace the will of the individual with consultation in every department and every institution. So it is that the Azharis desire that their administrative council should be elected by the ‘ulama and that those who supervise them should be [selected by] the will of the whole body of the ‘ulama.Footnote 49
What al-Jarīdah described as a progression toward the adoption of electoral principles, the more openly oppositional papers affiliated with the National Party took as grounds to confront the narrative of political immaturity head on. Denouncing the “saboteurs” who portrayed the students as hapless marks of a few scheming ‘ulama, al-Liwā’ identified two main sources for their discontent. The first was the university’s “loss of its administrative independence.” The second was that “the doors to a future livelihood are closed in the faces of those students.” As to the allegation that they “wish to remain stuck in their ways,” the paper countered that they were “the people most loving of reform and the most welcoming toward the modern sciences.”Footnote 50 Marveling that for eight consecutive days, twelve thousand young men remained united and orderly, another paper aligned with the National Party, Miṣr al-Fatāh, praised the strikers for “that notion, constitutional in its character, democratic in its nature, that inspired the Azharis to demand their rights.”Footnote 51
When the strike started, the students had set up thirty-seven distinct committees to manage the varied tasks of their movement. Modeling the form of political representation to which they aspired, they held elections. On 28 January they established the Azhar Union Society (jam‘īyat ittiḥād al-Azhar), which would thereafter negotiate on the strikers’ behalf with the government and the university administration. Miṣr al-Fatāh went on to herald the students’ youth as a political virtue. “If you were to ask the learned shaykhs in which of life’s phases the power of union is to be found,” the paper explained, “they would respond that it appears in its purest manifestation in the phase of youth, the phase of power and action.”Footnote 52
Like the strikers themselves, by invoking “union” these papers linked together what might otherwise seem like distinct political traditions. In the heady aftermath of the Young Turks’ Revolt, the line that Miṣr al-Fatāh drew between the Azharis’ “union” and a “notion, constitutional in its character, democratic in its nature” was far from incidental. The leaders of the Ottoman CUP themselves exhibited at best an instrumental commitment to that “notion.” Strong adherents of scientific positivism, many advocated the restoration of the Ottoman constitution of 1876 less out of attachment to democratic ideals than as a necessary component of Ottoman modernization and self-strengthening, a project that Sultan Abdülhamid II’s tyranny had hampered. In this version, “union” was in fact a substitution for “order” in Auguste Comte’s motto “Ordre et Progrès,” a name for the organic coherence that a rightly governed society might achieve.Footnote 53 For the CUP, “Representative government (parliament) was a necessary evil in order to challenge the negative power of the state, but even then the representatives were considered ‘agents of the state’ rather than ‘representatives of the people.’”Footnote 54
The revolt, however, inspired popular aspirations that were far more diverse than the narrow instrumentalism of its organizers. Across the empire, the CUP’s triumph occasioned widespread celebration and speculation about the practical entailments of abstract principles like freedom, liberty, and representation.Footnote 55 In Egypt, demands for a constitution, for more powerful representative institutions, and ultimately for self-rule had been building since the Dinshawai Incident of 1906.Footnote 56 And while the CUP’s secularist tendencies and their manifest challenge to Abdülhamid’s authority proved somewhat controversial in Egypt, where the National Party and its supporters had once looked to the Sultan as a counterweight to Britain’s imperial ambitions, the reinstatement of the constitution itself inspired tremendous excitement. In the pages of al-Liwā’, its editor ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Jāwīsh expressed a prescient concern for the contradictions between the high-handed elitism of the CUP and the remarkable advancement of “‘representative, constitutional government.’”Footnote 57 Ever vigilant against the stale assertions of colonial discourse, he moreover proclaimed of the revolution, “‘Lord Cromer has today forgotten what he wrote yesterday. And what has caused him to forget except that extraordinary deed which the Turks accomplished, for they shocked the Western world and thereby invalidated and annihilated a large portion of his book [i.e., Modern Egypt].’”Footnote 58 In what might easily be read as a pointed critique of Orientalist discourse and the ways it functioned to structure expectations, Jāwīsh here extolled the potential of concerted action to “annihilate” the aura of facticity that the statements of colonial officials too often enjoyed.
Beyond the celebrations and critical reflections that it inspired, the Ottoman revolution also gave new weight to a second, more commonplace meaning of “union,” not as a principle of social cohesion but rather as a scalable strategy for upending steep asymmetries of power. As histories of labor movements in the Arab world have noted, ittiḥād (union) was not used in this period to designate workers’ organizations; niqābah (syndicate) and jam‘īyah (society) were most common for that purpose.Footnote 59 But “union” did already name both the principle and the practice that such organizations employed to achieve their objectives. However the CUP leadership may have interpreted the term, the success of a movement comprising Ottoman subjects massed together against the Sultan’s paranoid authoritarianism ignited the hopes of disadvantaged groups across the empire. Most notably, the Sultan’s capitulation precipitated a swift intensification of labor militancy. The occurrence of strikes and the establishment of formal bodies to represent the interests of working groups accelerated rapidly after July 1908.Footnote 60 The famed strike by Cairo’s tramway workers that October marked a continuation of this empire-wide trend.Footnote 61
From the beginning, the Azharis’ calls for “union” thus braided together what were elsewhere often separate strands of meaning. In the name they chose for their organization, the repertoire of contention they adopted, and the basic material concerns that motivated their walkout, the strikers asserted that their own situation was meaningfully comparable to those of the many other groups that had recently employed the union and the strike. But because their struggle concerned the university’s right to self-governance and entailed a direct confrontation with the Egyptian state itself, their particular demands resonated immediately with calls for both an Egyptian constitution and an end to British rule. These multiple significations were only augmented by the way their sudden activism stood at odds with prevailing assumptions about the Azharis as a social category. It was this apparent incongruity that led both detractors and supporters of the Azharis’ movement to comment on the uneven and incomplete modularity of strikes and constitutional self-government alike.
In a bitingly dismissive articulation of the British occupation’s developmentalist mode of comparison, the Anglophone Egyptian Gazette adduced the strike as the latest evidence that Egyptians were as yet unprepared to employ the modular forms of modern politics. If the strikers described their struggle as both analogous and directly related to the wider movement for self-rule, the main organ of the local Anglophone community drew just the same connection. “The Nationalist parties of Egypt,” opined a column from 1 February 1909, “are constantly trying to impress upon the rest of the world that this country is ready for self-Government, and that the present generation is absolutely capable of directing its own affairs.” Egypt’s political life, however, was unfolding in reverse. The Azhar strike was only the latest demonstration “that the country is not yet ready for self-Government and that the rising generation will probably be even less ready than their fathers.” The resulting “wave of discontent and wanton idiocy” might soon “bid fair to engulf the country in a kindergarten revolution.”Footnote 62
For the Gazette, the unlikely phenomena that the paper referred to in scare quotes as youthful “manifestations” were a dangerously shoddy imitation of a European original. But among its advocates, the strike’s surprising character had revealed a transformative possibility. Precisely because striking had not previously seemed an appropriate mode of collective action for seminarians, the choice to adopt this “modular” repertoire became a way of rendering visible and transgressing the categorical distinctions that served to restrict political participation under Egypt’s current regime. Making explicit this internal relation between form and content, al-Liwā’ observed, “It was long understood that the Azharis were predisposed toward apathy, that they were unconcerned with their own affairs, and that they did not give a hoot about their future or their rights…. But as soon as the strike commenced, … people began to ask, ‘How is it that those we considered the sector least likely to act, have … dared to hold the authorities to account and to square off against them, confident in themselves and certain of their victory.’”Footnote 63
In a similar vein, Miṣr al-Fatāh identified the Azharis’ movement as a signal departure in both the uses of the strike and the broader potentialities of “union.” In a front-page story entitled “Strikes in Egypt: Egyptians Have Agreed to Agree,” a journalist named Sayyid ‘Alī identified the strike as an abstract, global form: “The strike [al-i‘tiṣāb] is a peaceful force to which organized, unified associations resort in order to address an injustice by which an overweening oppressor has harmed them or to reclaim a right that has been seized by a coercive tyrant with no sense of justice.” In this account, the strike had an identifiable point of origin “among the working classes of Europe.” Because of that prior history, this “peaceful force” first appeared in Egypt among the working classes as well. For that reason, “the other classes of the Egyptian nation used to regard the strike with disdain, alleging that it was inappropriate to their social rank and standing.”Footnote 64 But those perceptions had begun to change in recent years, most notably when Cairo’s law students had gone on strike in 1906 to protest changes to their own curriculum and school regulations.Footnote 65 While acknowledging that precedent, however, Sayyid ‘Alī suggested that the Azhar strike, in its magnitude, its duration, and its broad appeal for the Egyptian public, was doing more than extending the possible uses of the strike. Rather, the Azharis had performed “a greater and more lofty service by removing from the face of their nation the stigma with which their enemies and the pessimists among them had besmirched them, the stigma of perpetual disagreement, strife, and feuding.” That is, by demonstrating how the modularity of the strike might be stretched and extended to new segments of Egyptian society, they had shown that such forms of union might encompass the nation as a whole.Footnote 66
Such expansive interpretations of the strike only gained credibility as the Khedive and his supporters dug in their heels. At the outset, ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II had called upon the students to resume their studies while his committee investigated their demands.Footnote 67 When they refused, the university administration warned that any who failed to return by 30 January would lose the stipends upon which most Azharis relied to feed themselves. The Council of Ministers moreover threatened to strip the strikers of their customary exemption from military conscription.Footnote 68 When the Azhar Union Society did not balk, the Khedive delivered on his threats. On 1 February, he expelled all students above the first and second years and revoked their stipends and bread rations.Footnote 69 Cowed into submission, several thousand of the youngest students returned to their classes on 6 February, but the rest maintained their demonstrations outside the university gates.Footnote 70 As the Union Society urged its members to persevere, al-Mu’ayyad alleged once again that the pliant students were being manipulated by a few trouble-making shaykhs and nationalist conspirators.Footnote 71
Hoping to resolve the impasse, the Rector of the Azhar, Shaykh Ḥassūnah al-Nawwāwī, met with the strikers’ representatives and promised to negotiate a full pardon if, in return, they would end the demonstrations.Footnote 72 The government, however, rejected his proposal, announcing instead that the committee would continue its deliberations. Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid, editor-in-chief of Ḥizb al-Ummah’s official organ al-Jarīdah, read the government’s choice to forego an amicable resolution as yet another manifestation of “the policy of conciliation [siyāsat al-wifāq]” and an inclination to “substitute methods of compulsion for principles of tolerance.”Footnote 73 Even al-Liwā’ expressed confidence in the Rector’s commitment to his students and hope that the committee’s deliberations might still reach a positive outcome.Footnote 74 They did not. Rather than issue a full pardon, the Higher Council announced that they would readmit only those students who signed a special form begging the Khedive’s forgiveness and disavowing any support for the strike.Footnote 75
At an emergency meeting of its entire membership on 14 February, the president of the Union Society, Shaykh Fahīm Qandīl, rose to “warn you against taking part in a matter laid as a trap for your cause.” The architect of this dangerous plot, he continued, was “this treacherous, hypocritical, reprehensible, vile man, this viper, this spider, this dog, and all of you know who he is. He is ‘Alī Bin Yūsuf the schemer, the spy, may discord rain down upon him!” Shaykh Qandīl explained that the reviled publisher of al-Mu’ayyad had “counseled a number of hypocritical ‘ulama to write up and sign a petition to His Highness the Khedive that they are not in agreement with the actions of the Union Society.” He urged the assembled crowd to “tear it up and strike anyone who carries it with your sandal.”Footnote 76
Undeterred by the Khedive’s coercive maneuvers, the thousands of Azharis who remained on strike readied themselves for a confrontation. In a last-ditch effort, Shaykh Ḥassūnah al-Nawāwī offered the Higher Council an ultimatum: either pardon all of the students and allow them to return or accept his resignation.Footnote 77 The Council was unphased, and on 16 February, the Rector kept his word and resigned.Footnote 78
The following day, the Higher Council deputized the Director of Religious Endowments, Khalīl Ḥamādah Pasha, to oversee the return of the penitent students. Only those bearing signed copies of the official petition could enter the Azhar. Having judged the entire procedure as a plot to divide their membership, a large crowd from the Union Society continued to mass outside the university. When eventually a contingent attempted to force their way past the university guards, Ḥamādah Pasha summoned the police. In the ensuing melee, witnesses claimed to have seen him beating several students with a club.Footnote 79
Public outcry was swift and furious. In the flood of columns condemning Ḥamādah Pasha’s tactics, many identified his violence as “terrorism [irhāb].” At the time, the word often connoted the state’s own use of force to intimidate and to quash dissent. This had been the term the Arabic press employed in 1906 when it denounced the brutality of the occupation’s special tribunal at Dinshawai.Footnote 80 By 1909, the Dinshawai Incident had already gained its reputation as the outrage that launched a new phase in the nationalist movement’s campaign to end British rule. With evident unease, the Egyptian Gazette reported that the Arabic paper al-Dustūr “exclaims that a new Denishwai [sic] has appeared in the Al Azhar.”Footnote 81 Deploying a protest technique they had pioneered in the aftermath of the Dinshawai executions, al-Ḥizb al-Waṭanī coordinated a campaign of telegrams from points around the country to the Prime Minister Buṭrūs Ghālī Pasha conveying their “indignation” at Ḥamādah Pasha’s misdeeds.Footnote 82 Within weeks of the scandal, Ḥassan Mar‘ī, who had written one of the first theatrical representations of the Dinshawai Incident, published a new “political play” entitled, “The Story of the Azhar and the Case of Ḥamadah Pasha.”Footnote 83
While these allusions to Dinshawai refigured the strikers’ physical suffering as a microcosm of Egypt’s political condition, Ḥamādah Pasha’s involvement also established a more direct connection with events in Istanbul. In a fiery piece entitled, “For that Reason We Demand a Constitution,” Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid argued that such abuse by the sovereign’s chosen deputy smacked of “the spirit of that tired old maxim that ‘We are fallāḥīn [peasants] whose only remedy is the whip.’”Footnote 84 In his plaintive conclusion, he declared:
If we do not demand a constitution because it is the only reasonable form of government. If we do not demand a constitution because it is our sole guarantee that our money will be spent for our own interests. If we do not demand a constitution so that our children might learn as we desire. If we do not demand a constitution so that the nation may know that it holds the highest power and ranks above all others. If we do not demand a constitution for the sake of any of those objectives, then the very least that may come from a constitution is that it should serve as a barrier between Ḥamādah Pasha’s cane and the bodies of our sons. For that reason, we demand a constitution.Footnote 85
Miṣr al-Fatāh put matters even more bluntly with its headline “God Spare the Weak: The Constitutional Director of Awqaf Establishes an Arbitrary Government [ḥukūmah ‘urfīyah] in the Largest Islamic Institute in the World.”Footnote 86 Before his recent return to Cairo, Ḥamādah Pasha had served as one of Sultan Abdülhamid’s appointees to the upper chamber of the Ottoman Parliament. His involvement thus dramatized the contrast between the inspiring revival of constitutionalism across the empire and the persistence within Egypt of a tyrannical regime over-determined by colonial racism and khedivial intransigence.
Following the clashes, both the National Party and the People’s Party organized meetings and demonstrations in support of the Azharis. On 18 February, a group of lawyers and notables held a rally at the headquarters of al-Liwā’ to condemn Ḥamādah Pasha’s handling of the strike. A delegation of lawyers launched their own investigation of the previous day’s events.Footnote 87 A procession of ‘ulama also marched to the Qubbah Palace, where they implored the Khedive to pardon the students and suspend the New Order.Footnote 88 The next day, another crowd marched from the offices of al-Jarīdah to the ‘Abdīn Palace to deliver a petition begging for the Khedive’s intercession. Later that afternoon, the Council of Ministers recommended a blanket pardon for all of the students. The following morning, ‘Abbās Ḥilmī II announced that he would readmit all of the students and restore their stipends. The university would suspend the New Order reforms while the government deliberated over amendments. In the meantime, the Azhar would revert to its old curriculum and administrative arrangements.Footnote 89
A Singular Revolt
Unsurprisingly, this decisive victory occasioned an outpouring of commentary about the wider implications of the strike. The Egyptian Gazette lamented, “At the present moment the policy of leniency is the policy which is adopted by every person in authority in Egypt, and it is questionable whether it will not spell disaster in the future.”Footnote 90 Well aware of such concerns among the local British community, Gorst acknowledged to Edward Grey, “The whole business has been another example of the wave of insubordination to constituted authority which is passing over the whole of the East.” Undeterred, he resolved to “pay no attention to the absurd criticism which follows almost every act of the Government.”Footnote 91
Having insisted from the beginning that the strike was about more than the condition of the Azhar, the country’s leading political ideologues saw greater meaning in the unexpected triumph. Throughout the month-long confrontation, both the National Party and the People’s Party had remained steadfast in their support for the strikers. That they appeared to be acting together is amply attested by the cheers for both parties with which the Azharis regularly concluded their rallies.Footnote 92 This blurring of distinctions between the Ummah Party and the Watanists gives the lie to conventional narratives that posit a sharp ideological cleavage between two opposing forms of nationalism, the former moderate, liberal, secular, and Westernizing, the latter extremist, populist, religious, and xenophobic.Footnote 93 Nor was this rapprochement between the parties simply a matter of popular perceptions. Writing to the Khedive in April 1909, Minister of the Interior Muḥammad Sa‘īd detailed an agreement between the two parties to “collect the money necessary to cover the expenses of sending delegations to the European capitals with the aim of broadcasting their complaint against the Egyptian government with regard to the restriction of press freedom and the refusal to grant the nation a constitution.”Footnote 94
If they shared an opposition to “the policy of conciliation” and an appeal to the promise of constitutionalism, though, the foremost voices of the two parties did offer distinct interpretations of the strike. For both Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid and ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Jāwīsh, these events stood as powerful rejoinders to the occupation’s discourse of colonial adolescence and the politics of deferral that it served to justify. But they drew different conclusions from what they had witnessed. Rather than treat them as articulations of opposing party platforms, we might better understand their commentaries as moments within an evolving debate around the normative and strategic contours of a self-confidently anti-colonial comparativism.
In an essay entitled “Public Opinion,” published on 22 February, Luṭfī al-Sayyid opened with an explicit comparison: “The newspapers in countries other than ours may limit their concern to the promotion of the practical political objectives that they hope to achieve in service to the homeland,” he explained, “but politics in our country—in my opinion—has more of a theoretical than a purely practical meaning.” Journalists in Europe might judge events against “principles rooted in the heart of public opinion,” but in Egypt, the “cherished goal” of writers like Luṭfī al-Sayyid was the “cohesion of public opinion itself.” Yet the Azharis had demonstrated that “only a short distance remains until the fragments of public opinion form a solidary whole.” At first, the strike had been “nothing more than a school affair,” but as the confrontation intensified, “the nation arose as one to demonstrate its discontent and demand respect for the law.” Far from an expression of “mere religious idealism,” Luṭfī al-Sayyid insisted that “public feeling in this matter was marked by the stamp of nationalism and motivated by love of respect for freedom and law,” a fact amply attested by the support that many Coptic Christians had offered to the Azharis.Footnote 95
On first glance, Luṭfī al-Sayyid’s essay seems to rehearse the logics of a Eurocentric historicism internalized by an aspiring nationalist elite. The piece presents the Azharis’ confrontation with the Khedive’s government in the abstract terms of a struggle for freedom, nation, and rule of law. It gestures at a comparative developmental hierarchy within which Egypt occupies a different rank than Europe. Yet even as he described this transparently stagist vision, Luṭfī al-Sayyid repudiated the Eurocentrism of colonial appeals to those same liberal categories. He concluded the column by insisting that “the coalescence of public opinion around the demand for a constitution arises wholly from the genuine conviction of the people as to its necessity and not from some faddish imitation that will pass with the times.”Footnote 96 Here the Ummah Party’s leading ideologue articulated a kind of deep universalism anchored not in the example of Europe’s particular history but in the rational contemplation of human experience everywhere. Elsewhere, Luṭfī al-Sayyid emphasized that the political ideals he championed had no special European provenance. The claim that they did was a pernicious ruse concocted to defend a colonial regime that was hindering, rather than encouraging, a natural process of human development.Footnote 97
For Jāwīsh, the Azharis’ accomplishments offered a different lesson. His lengthy exposition on “The Noble Azhar,” published on 21 February, began by emphasizing a dimension of “union” that had gone largely unremarked in prior accounts of the strike. The Azharis “adorned themselves with the oneness [tawḥīd] that is the foundation of their true religion. They were one before their God, one in their language, one in their hearts, one in the nobility of their goals.” Jāwīsh here interpreted “union” as a logical, earthly realization of divine unity (tawḥīd). Leading author and political strategist for the Egyptian National Party though he may have been, the itinerant Maghrebi Jāwīsh’s nationalism here rubbed up against his vision of an expansive Pan-Islamic ummah from two sides. On the one, his Pan-Islamism could and did at times shade into a divisive sectarianism. On the other, his writings suggest an ambivalence about the ideal political form that a resurgent and unified community might assume. But Jāwīsh was amply aware of both concerns, and his comments on the strike exemplify the complexity and breadth of his political vision.
On the first count, he addressed the closing paragraphs of his column directly to Būṭrus Ghālī Pasha to praise him for pressuring the Khedive to meet the strikers’ demands. Jāwīsh extended to the Coptic Prime Minister the thanks of “an ummah … that knows no fanaticism [ta‘aṣṣub] except on behalf of what is right and no battle except against what is wrong.” Tackling head on the British occupation’s constant allegations of Egyptian fanaticism, Jāwīsh thus identified these labels with attempts to discredit struggles that Christians and Muslims shared together. On the latter count, Jāwīsh’s commentary about an Islamic ideal of unity was about far more than an unresolved tension between national and supra-national identities. The oneness that the Azharis had displayed, “such that there was between them not even the space of a needle’s eye into which discord might slip,” was itself an instance of something else. Having “armed themselves with patience and resolve,” he explained, “they vanquished what no armored fleets or cannons or weapons could.” The strikers’ victory was therefore significant in several respects at once.Footnote 98
Within Egypt, the Azharis’ actions had caused their ministers to “feel the ground tremble beneath their feet” such that they “stood before the people for the first time in their history as helpers of the weak and champions of what is right [anṣār li-l-haqq].” Mass action, in other words, had brought about a seismic shift in Egypt’s political topography, forcing ministers to respond to the demands of “the people.” Within this reading of events, Egyptians already possessed a fully formed concept of right (al-haqq). Unlike Luṭfī al-Sayyid, Jāwīsh suggested that a shift in the balance of forces, rather than the pedagogic constitution of public opinion, had proven decisive. That practical achievement of union marked a signal departure in Egypt’s recent political history.Footnote 99
While insisting on the novelty of the Azharis’ accomplishment, Jāwīsh made no recourse to the developmentalism that informed even Luṭfī al-Sayyid’s analysis. Nor did he retreat into a defense of Islamic particularism. Instead, his language anticipated arguments that he would develop more explicitly in the months and years to come. Ultimately, for him the Azharis’ movement was an exemplar of the transformative potential that union could confer upon “the weak [al-ḍu‘afā’]” even when they confronted the armed violence of the powerful. In place of the binary geography of East and West that organized Orientalist thought, Jāwīsh offered his own basic comparative categories—the weak and the strong—as the starting point for a manifestly radical analysis of unequal power relations on multiple geographic scales. From this perspective, the Azharis were not moving Egypt through a stage that Europe had completed at some time in the past. Rather, their strike represented just one moment in an unfolding global present of intensifying struggles waged by the weak against the strong.Footnote 100
Conclusion: Peaceful Wars
During the months that followed, Jāwīsh would find ample reason to assert that those struggles were gaining momentum. The Azharis would strike several more times as they pressured the government to amend the New Order reforms to meet their demands.Footnote 101 When, two years later, the government finalized what came to be known as the 1911 Reform Plan, the revised regulations included several major concessions to the strikers. Unlike the ill-conceived original modification to the curriculum, this version would introduce the new subjects gradually. While the ‘ulama did not gain the right to elect the Higher Council, its outside members would now be appointed by the Council of Ministers rather than the Khedive. Further, in order to preserve a greater degree of prestige and autonomy for the ‘ulama, the Reform Plan established a new Corps of the Great Scholars (hay’at kibār al-‘ulamā’) comprised of thirty senior shaykhs who would deliver three weekly lectures on traditional subjects for enrolled students and the general public alike.Footnote 102
But it was not only in service of their own immediate interests that the Azharis retained their activist role. As recorded by the government’s burgeoning network of spies and informants, whose findings the Minister of Interior reported to an uneasy Khedive, they became a ubiquitous presence in the varied activities that characterized what Zachary Lockman has called the nationalist movement’s “turn toward the masses.”Footnote 103 In this sense, they drew in practice on the very sorts of connections that commentators like Jāwīsh and Luṭfī al-Sayyid had attributed to their movement. They delivered speeches and recited poems at the meetings of new political societies and associations with names like “The Society of Fraternal Solidarity,” “The Union Society,” “The Society for Strong Eastern Union,” “The Egyptian Union Society,” and “The Society for Youth Progress.”Footnote 104 They volunteered at the People’s Night Schools that the National Party opened for the urban poor in Cairo, and they participated in efforts to unionize other working groups.Footnote 105 They organized rural lecture tours, teaching literacy and love of the nation (ḥubb al-waṭan) to the peasants in their home districts.Footnote 106 And they faced off against the batons and fire hoses of the police in protests denouncing the occupation’s renewed efforts to suppress the nationalist movement through press censorship and targeted arrests.Footnote 107
Jāwīsh himself described this burst of popular activism in the spring of 1910 as exemplifying the “peaceful wars” whereby self-conscious groups of “the weak”—among whom he included “the peasant, the servant, the cook, the worker”—were challenging “the powerful” and reclaiming their rights across the planet.Footnote 108 For Jāwīsh, these loose terms indexing social power provided a way to think across existing social categories and strengthen “the bond of union.” Through a telescopic series of comparisons that linked everyday class struggles within countries to anti-colonial struggles on a global scale, Jāwīsh suggested that Egyptians could find both cause for optimism and grounds for solidarity in combatting their own oppressors. Though the firebrand journalist drew these connections with particular clarity, he certainly was not alone. At their meetings and rallies, the members of Egypt’s many new political associations, too, conjured comparisons with the constitutional revolutions in Iran and the Ottoman Empire, the recent Swadeshi movement in India, and the exploited condition of other colonies like Ireland.Footnote 109 Working to counteract an official discourse of British rule that had, for decades, posited a sharp and unbridgeable divide between a docile, narrowly materialist peasantry and a vocal but demographically insignificant opposition in the cities, activist Azharis seized upon their geographically diverse origins to begin mobilizing support for the nationalists across the countryside.Footnote 110 By the summer of 1909, several of the most militant groups were speculating that the recent global wave of revolutions might soon arrive in Egypt as well.Footnote 111
The electric potential of this moment would ultimately fail to generate the grand transformations that both its most enthusiastic protagonists and its most alarmist detractors envisioned. The assassination of Premier Būṭrus Ghālī Pasha in February 1910 gave the occupation a new pretext for the coercive turn its critics labeled irhāb. Footnote 112 While the crime conjured new fears about political violence, it also provided Consul-General Gorst with yet another reason to claim “that the country is not yet ripe for a further development of existing institutions, that any attempt to introduce self-government prematurely would endanger the progress made under the British occupation and could not therefore be allowed, and that recent events have tended to confirm … that it is not desirable at present to extend the powers of either the Legislative Council or the General Assembly.”Footnote 113 Judging his own experiment in local self-government a failure, Gorst received London’s blessing to escalate his crackdown against the nationalists and their leadership, Jāwīsh foremost among them.Footnote 114
For the time being, the repressive policies worked. But when the forces of popular protest surged again into what would become the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the Azharis were among the very first constituencies that took to Cairo’s streets. In January 1909, the notion that Muslim seminarians should assume a vanguard role seemed almost unthinkable. A decade later, their ties to both Egyptian nationalism and the labor movement were so well established as to elicit little comment from the British authorities who documented the uprising.Footnote 115 If the strike of 1909 was largely responsible for that shift, it also prepared the ground for the events of 1919 in a broader sense. Because the strike was “modular” but not equally available to all, the choice to employ this particular repertoire thereafter became an increasingly common way of rejecting ascribed social categories and asserting alternative frames of comparison. So it was in the spring of 1919 that each new social group to join the movement asserting that Egypt’s situation was comparable to those of other nations claiming the right to self-determination announced that intention through the mechanism of the strike.
In identifying comparison as necessary to the operations of empire, many postcolonial critics have come close to asserting that comparison is necessarily an imperial mode of thought. They suggest, accordingly, that the appropriate counterweight to the imperial politics of comparison is an avowed anti-comparativism. But to those who a century ago denounced the steep asymmetries of wealth and power that imperialism sustained, this was not the only or even the most appealing response. For some, the repudiation of colonial comparative frameworks could and did point toward a rejection of comparison as such and a strong invocation of uniqueness and particularism. But beyond the comparativism still implicit in such claims, even that nativist variant of anti-colonial critique entailed a practical embrace of comparison at the moment it inspired a political project. Solidarity, on whatever scale, always rests on some assertion of commensurability. There may be no empire without comparison, but there can be no politics either. For others, that fact provided grounds not to negate comparisons but to subvert and augment them. The equivalences that colonial categories forced upon prior worlds of difference created repositories of common experience that could be mobilized against colonial rule itself.Footnote 116 Precisely because its protagonists so dramatically violated the roles colonial categories assigned them—as youth, as Oriental subjects, as religious students—the Azhar strike unleashed a cascade of such hopeful comparisons conjuring other possible futures.
Over the course of its long journey to print, this article has benefited immensely from the comments, advice, and criticism of a great many friends and colleagues. The detailed reviews by the anonymous CSSH readers provided some much-needed guidance about how best to frame the central arguments, and David Akin was extraordinarily helpful and patient in ushering the piece through the publication process. I would also like to thank Hussein Omar, Matthew Shutzer, Zachary Lockman, Emma Park, Ahmad Shokr, John Chalcraft, Matthew Ellis, Omar Cheta, Marilyn Booth, Esmat Elhalaby, Shana Minkin, Sherene Seikaly, Angela Zimmerman, Charles Anderson, Peter Hill, Benoit Challand, Abram Smith, Adam Mestyan, Oz Frankel, Julia Ott, Claire Potter, Jeremy Varon, Federico Finchelstein, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Elaine Abelson, Eli Zaretsky, and Will Milberg.