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Political Thought In Modern Egypt - Coptic Wiki


The bases of Egyptian thought had remained fundamentally Arab- Islamic until its roots extended themselves into the modern soil of European culture throughout the nineteenth century. Eventually, Egyptian political thought crystallized into modern concepts and terms. However, other influences also played an important role. Most sources agree that the French invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) opened the eyes of the Egyptian intelligentsia to political concepts they had never known.

Even though the Egyptians did not benefit immediately or directly, the French factor marked the beginnings of the modernizing of society in MUHAMMAD ‘ALI’s reign (1805-1848). Muhammad ‘Ali’s educational missions to Europe were a potent factor in the development of Egyptian political thought and bridged some gaps between Egypt and the West. European academicians and experts brought into Egypt new ideas and principles. They also extended the wide and active translation movement, which had transplanted into Egypt, among other things, many new political ideas.

The press was also an important factor in promoting political consciousness, an influence of the French. During Muhammad ‘Ali’s reign, the Bulaq printing press was built (1821) and the al-Waqa’i‘ al-Misriyyah was issued (1828). Pope CYRIL IV gave orders for the purchase of a press to be established in 1860. This was followed by a great journalistic revival, and papers like Al-Watan, edited by ‘Abdallah Abu al-Su‘ud (1866), and Al-Watan, edited by Mikha’il ‘Abd al-Sayyid (1877), were issued. The helped form public opinion and established a base of readers with political interests. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the growth of cultural institutions, scientific societies, and literary salons where political ideas were exchanged. There appeared, for instance, the Knowledge Society (1868), the Geographic Society (1875), the Islamic Benevolent Society (1878), the Higher Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (1872), and the National Library (1870).

During the first half of the nineteenth century there were attempts to modernize some sectors of Egyptian society, notably the army and governmental administration, by utilizing European expertise. This began a flood of European ideas into Egypt that put the traditional political and social structure in jeopardy. Repercussions occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, with European political ideas being absorbed into the Arab-Islamic tradition along with Coptic reformism. Although some rejected the European intellectual influence and held to their traditional culture, others enthusiastically adopted Western ideas.

From this variety of attitudes emerged political thought based on certain specific attitudes, the most outstanding of which were the liberal trend, the democratic trend, the religious-political trend, and the socialist trend.

The National Liberal Trend

This represents a response, though limited at the beginning, to the flow of European thought into Egypt after the French invasion. Among the first Egyptians to accept this thinking was Hasan al-‘Attar (1766-1835), who greatly influenced Rifa‘ah al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), who was considered the real initiator of the modern renaissance. In his books Hasan recorded his observations in France and made valuable comments on the state, the constitution, the ruler’s jurisdiction, and the citizens’ rights. It was from such works that Egyptian liberals drew many of their ideas.

In his books al-Tahtawi presented the ideas of the French Enlightenment, including those of Voltaire, Condillac, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Al-Tahtawi’s new ideas inspired the next generation through his pupils, who established their liberal ideas in the press and in their literary works, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This movement was followed by the liberal ideas of Jamal al- Din al-Afghani (1838-1897). Husayn al-Marsafi’s Epistle on the Eight Modes of Speech (1881) also introduced new concepts of nationalism, politics, and social justice. Mikha’il ‘Abd al-Sayyid, a Copt, also established (1877) his daily newspaper Al-Watan where he reflected the nationalistic attitude before the British occupation (1882) and after. Adib Ishaq, a Syrian orthodox Christian living in Egypt (1882), issued the first organ named Misr, which dealt with nationalistic principles and advocated freedom of thought. Writing in a simple, popular style, ‘Abdallah al-Nadim (1845-1896) came forth with a campaign against autocracy and foreign interference, calling for national unity and the Egyptianization of new ideas.

‘Abdallah Fikri combined the idea of Egyptian patriotism with educational rather than political reform.

The generation that emerged after the British occupation included such names as Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963), who advocated political democracy and a secular state based on national rather than religious laws (Shar‘ah). He influenced a whole generation through his newspaper Al-Jaridah (1907). After World War I, his followers preached his ideas in varying forms and degrees. Qasim Amin, however, was preoccupied with the problem of modernizing society by reviving it intellectually and scientifically. He was a reader of Rousseau, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and others. Ultimately his studies led him to advocate a change in the status of women and in their freedom in society. His Tahrir al-Mar’ah (Liberation of Women; 1899) and Al-Mar’ah al- Jadidah (The New Woman; 1900) express his philosophy.

Another contemporary was Ahmad Fathi Zaghlul, who espoused the cause of transplanting European culture to Egypt in certain fields and advocated political democracy, new methods of government, a free economy, and secularism in legislation. He meticulously translated some of the works of Jeremy Bentham, such as An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1892), part of Camille Desmoulins’ Oeuvres (1900), and at least two of the treatises of André Lebon, including Modern France (Story of the Nations) (1913). Most of the Egyptian writers of this generation belonged to party, whose members enriched Egyptian political thought with liberal patriotism.

These writers were also contemporaries of such leaders and political thinkers as MUSTAFA KAMIL (1874-1908) and Muhammad Farid (1868-1919), who were not so much theorists as practical politicians. They patriotically played their roles in combating the British presence in Egypt. They stood for Islamic unity, in spite of the concept of secular patriotism detectable in their writings as members of the National party (established in 1907). SA‘D ZAGHLUL emerged as a political leader after World War I. He led the 1919 revolution on a national basis—actually a continuation of the practical politics expounded by the National party. After the 1919 revolution, the political unity of the country was fragmented into such as the WAFD and the Constitutional Liberals, as well as the National party.

From the 1920s to the 1940s exponents of the liberal national trend dominated the scene. Some thinkers advocated the abolition of religious courts, the modification of marital laws, and the dismantling of certain social institutions. They also championed the use of Western techniques in the field of literature, as expounded in Taha Husayn’s Al-Shi‘r al-Jahili on pre-Islamic poetry (1926). The writings of Tawfiq al-Hakim and Taha Husayn, the sculptural works of Mahmud Mukhtar, the novels of Najib Mahfuz and Mahmud Taymur, and the writings of Salama Musa (a Copt), Louis ‘Awad (another Copt), Mahmud ‘Azmi, and others called for the Egyptianization of foreign ideas in all areas. In the 1930s some of those writers turned their thoughts to Oriental Islamic topics, as in the Islamic writings of Taha Husayn and Muhammad Husayn Haykal.

The Democratic Trend

It might be an overstatement to say that Egypt was acquainted with democratic thought before al-Tahtawi. It was not until the reign of Isma‘il (1863-1879) that a parliamentary council, the Shura al- Nuwwab, was established as the first representative body in Egypt. Sharif Pasha’s cabinet was made up of those loyal to the 1879 constitution. Recognizing the supremacy of the people, the cabinet tried to issue a basic code for the council and another for elections.

During the same period, another revolution in thought occurred, promoting more freedom and more constitutional rights, in the writings of Adib Ishaq, a Copt who advocated the establishment of a senate house that would be a link between the Shura al-Nuwwab and the government, while Mikha’il ‘Abd al-Sayyid, another Copt, launched a campaign to open the council members’ eyes to matters of rule and politics.

The ‘Urabi revolution (1881-1882) marked a new stage in Egyptian democratic thought. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani had played his part in paving the way for its advent through the old National party (see POLITICAL PARTIES); ‘Abdallah al-Nadim played a distinguished role in this period. He made a social analysis of the nature of representative councils and advocated that their membership should represent all social classes. He often reiterated that democracy is a practice in which the people should be trained. Later on, Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) emphasized his claim that the representative-council manifesto should mention its part in helping the and in sharing the rule of the country by supervising its activities and work.

After the British occupation, emerged as one of the political thinkers who linked the claim for independence to that of rule by the people through their representatives. He borrowed his ideas of political democracy from Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes. Together with his in the Ummah party, he succeeded in bringing about a democratic trend on a wide scale. This trend was manifest when Egypt obtained a limited degree of independence after the February 1922 declaration.

At that time, a committee was set up to write the 1923 constitution, which marked the start of a constitutional monarchy in Egypt. That constitution played a part in creating parliamentary life from 1924, thus letting the common people participate in ruling the country. On that occasion a number of thinkers tried to deepen the democratic concepts and fight autocracy. Outstanding among those were Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Mahmud ‘Azmi, and Salama Musa.

The Religious Political Trend

In spite of the rise of religious reform movements such as Wahhabism, Senusism, and Mahdi’ism prior to the twentieth century, their supporters in Egypt never constituted a majority. Perhaps religious reform had a revolutionary political impression that was precipitated by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897). His emergence represents a turning point in the history of religious reform. His were acquainted with European political and administrative institutions, economic systems, and thought.

Some of them advocated a compromise between the of the Islamic faith, on the one hand, and the sciences and Western concepts and institutions, on the other. Such views represented the Islamic reaction to Western hegemony. Though religion was a fundamental element in Afghani’s system, it treated the secular and religious elements equally. He was also known for his advocacy of Pan- Islamism.

Muhammad ‘Abduh clarified and analyzed his teacher’s ideas and then developed them further. He called for a return to authentic Islam and to the freedom of religious thought from the shackles of tradition and conservatism. He launched an onslaught on the al- Azhar, the oldest Islamic university in Cairo, and he advocated an understanding of the religious guidelines expressed by the earliest Muslims before sectarian differences developed. He claimed that the spirit of modern civilization and Islam are not contradictory; indeed, one of his basic objectives was to prove the possibility of a compromise between Islam and modern thought. However, he did not deal with the relationship between religion and the state as much as was later done by a number of his disciples.

Whereas al-Afghani was associated with the Pan-Islamic movement, Muhammad ‘Abduh concentrated on the Islamic political revival and modernization of its legal theories. Some of his assumed a secularizing attitude. Among them were Lutfi al-Sayyid, Taha Husayn, and ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq. Others, led by Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) and his Manar school, interpreted his views on the basis of early Islamic thought. Rashid Rida agreed with his mentors al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh that Islam could constitute a worthy national entity capable of opposing the secular tendencies of modern European thought.

Immediately after his arrival in Egypt in 1898, in his articles in Al- Manar, his monthly journal, Rida issued a proclamation calling for the constitution of a Pan-Islamic society under the Ottoman caliph’s flag. His main objective was the unification of all Muslims under one legal system based on Shari‘ah, the code derived directly from the Qur’an under the leadership of the caliphate, as against the Western concept of nationalism promoted by Kemal Atatürk after his suppression of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. This was followed in 1925 by ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s (1888-1961) famous work Islam and the Principles of , in which he denied that the caliphate was a basic institution of Islam. He made it clear that the Prophet’s leadership was religious and that it ended with his death, when his authority was taken over by lay political power.

Conservative thinkers objected to his ideas, and a reactionary religious movement flared up, ending with the rise of the Muslim Brethren, whose ultimate objective was the reconstruction of society on the basis of a modern Pan-Islamic front derived from the Qur’an against secular European trends.

The Socialist Trend

Cultured Egyptians had read and heard about socialism from the middle of the nineteenth century in organs such as Al-Muqtataf magazine. In fact, socialism did not come from a vacuum but was the outcome of social, economic, and cultural developments manifest in the development of Egyptian society during the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali. The first group of socialist advocates was inspired by Saint-Simon, whom Muhammad ‘Ali invited to Egypt. Shibli Shumayyil (1860-1917), a Christian Syrian who went to Egypt in 1885, engaged himself in writing literary commentaries instead of practicing medicine, and socialism was one of his chief topics. He was followed by another Syrian Christian, Nicola Haddad, who was a prolific author in many fields, including socialism.

In the meantime, an Egyptian teacher by the name of Mustafa Hasanayn al-Mansuri contributed a valuable study of socialism in his own writing or in translations from European literature. Together with the aforementioned writers, he aimed at carrying his theories into practice by the establishment of a socialist party in 1909.

The project was doomed to failure until it was assumed by the real pioneer of socialism in Egypt, SALAMAH MUSA (1887-1958), who had studied in England and France and had become acquainted with Britain’s Labour party. A prolific writer, he fell under the influence of socialist thinkers such as George Bernard Shaw, and his book on socialism may be considered the first consistent work on the subject to be published in the Arab world.

Generally, socialist thought was regarded as a European idea that had infiltrated into Egypt on a wide scale since the middle of the nineteenth century. With the outbreak of the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Third International in 1919, which marked the beginning of Russia’s interest in the East, cultured Egyptians became acquainted with the new socialist trend.

Joseph Rosenthal, an Egyptian Jew, called for the establishment of an Egyptian socialist party that would speak for workers’ unions, instead of being restricted to a membership consisting mainly of foreigners living in Alexandria. Rosenthal induced a group of progressive Egyptians to join him, Salamah Musa, ‘Ali al-‘Inani, Muhammad ‘Abdallah ‘Inan, and Mahmud Husni al-‘Arabi being the outstanding figures in that group.

They signed a manifesto establishing the Socialist party in 1921. Although successive governments tried to suppress the party, it carried on its activities and attracted hundreds of workers, who were very often encouraged to go on strike. On the political front, ‘Aziz Mirhom led the labor movement for some time. However, the party ultimately splintered because of disagreements about ideological principles. In 1922 one of its factions that joined the Comintern called itself the Egyptian Communist party. It persisted through the 1930s and 1940s when Marxist circles became active in many secret ways, until the July 1952 revolution.


  • ‘Abd al-‘Azim Ramadan. Tatawwur al-Harakah al-Wataniyyah fi Misr, Vol. 1, 1918-1936. Cairo, 1968.
  • Mahmud   Mitwalli.    Misr    wa    al-Hayat    al-Hizbiyyah    wa    al- Niyabiyyah qabl Sanat 1952. Cairo, 1980.
  • Tariq al-Bishri. Al-Harakah al-Siyasiyyah fi Misr: 1945-1952. Cairo, 1972.