Historiography Series Continues with Discussion of Sovereignty in Egyptian History

Historiography Series Continues with Discussion of Sovereignty in Egyptian HistoryThe Opening Session of the Egyptian Parliament, 1924. (Photo: Bnf, Gallica: Rol, 90904)

The Historiography of the Middle East lecture series featured Professor Adam Mestyan as Winter Quarter guest lecturer on "A Sovereign Local State? The Meaning of the Ottoman Khedivate for the History of Twentieth-Century Egypt."

By Kaleb Herman Adney

In a comprehensive discussion of the historiography of modern Egyptian history, Dr. Adam Mestyan discussed the challenges of writing global legal history and historical sociology in the period after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Primarily concerned with the issue of sovereignty in the post-Ottoman period and the concept of post-imperial politics more broadly, Dr. Mestyan explores the incorporation of “sovereign local states” into the imperial-international world order created by the League of Nations. The integration of the world system both economically and politically have often undermined historians’ ability to properly contextualize and conceptualize local political entities that do not cohere with the nation-building projects and nationalist movements that dominate the international state system now. As such, Mestyan’s terminology of the “sovereign local state” allows for a deeper understanding of the multiplicity of social and political forces at play in shaping the nation-state. The historical example of this that dominates Mestyan’s current research is the transition from the Egyptian khedivate, a subordinated Ottoman polity, to the Kingdom of Egypt, a sovereign local state under renewed British occupation in the 1920s. The khedivate was at once contiguous with Islamic institutions from the medieval and the early modern Ottoman periods and reflected new political ruptures associated with the expansion of European influence (both formal and informal) and the growth of nationalist movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The intervention of Dr. Mestyan’s research builds on and responds to a number of historiographical trends. Chief among these is the historical literature on the interwar period which seeks to understand the “post-imperial” world and the political ramifications of the fall of empires. According to Mestyan, the invocation of the imperial past in post-imperial politics often seeks to either claim continuity with that past or to rebel against it. However, with the case of the transition from the (Ottoman) khedivate to the (British) Kingdom of Egypt, Mestyan demonstrates the many innovative ways that political actors sought to recycle aspects of the imperial past in a process that he calls bricolage, or re-assembly. This genealogical approach to the history of Egypt allows Mestyan to make explicit comparisons between the post-Ottoman Middle East and the experience of the post-Habsburg lands and post-imperial China amongst other global regions. In this sense, the legal concept of sovereignty is presented within Mestyan’s work as a global process and a global political project. This is significant at our own historical juncture given that we have recently commemorated a century since the completion of World War I, the Treaty of Sèvres, the establishment of League of Nations, the establishment of British and French mandates in the Middle East, and the independence of Egypt (albeit nominal) after the British protectorate. Simultaneously, we are approaching the centennial of the Treaty of Lausanne, the establishment of the Turkish Republic, and the Greek-Turkish population exchange. In short, there has been no better time to reconsider the concept in historical context as Adam Mestyan has done and continues to do in his recent and forthcoming book projects.

The khedivate, or the subordinated Ottoman governorate of Egypt, is especially interesting for historians interested in legal transformations of the political system and changes to the normative expectations related to sovereignty in the pre-World War I period. Likewise, the post-khedival period demonstrates the importance of political economy to the development of the Egyptian polity. In terms of military power, legal practices, and infrastructure, Egypt was shaped by its Ottoman past and its contemporary British occupation during and directly after the First World War. The country’s legal practices and institutions including its awqaf (pious endowments), its shariʿa court system, and its muftis were not indications of national independence but reflected the “sovereign local state” in Egypt as a legal reality distinct from both full independence and the British colonialism in South Asia and West Africa. In this sense, the construction of the Egyptian local polity reflected the process of repurposing imperial institutions to fit within the post-imperial new world order.

As has been the case for over a decade, the historiography series continues to offer public access to expert knowledge of Middle Eastern history. The work of Adam Mestyan is no exception and the Center for Near East Studies is pleased to host such an excellent series of talks that benefit scholars of the region, graduate students, and the general public.

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Published: Thursday, April 21, 2022