Preferred Citation: Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.

Chapter 4 After We Have Captured Their Bodies

The Social Order

The nationalism that emerged during the later nineteenth century in Cairo, in its cafés and in the newspapers young men read there, in the salons of the new landowning families and government officials, in officers' quarters and in the open street, has often been understood as an 'awakening'. The image depicts a community that suddenly became self-aware, usually because prompted by Europeans. This awareness, it is said, was then gradually articulated, until it grew by the end of the First World War into anti-colonial revolt. The image of national awakening is problematic - not only because it has always implied that people were previously unawake and unaware (yet Cairo never lacked an active and resistant political life), but because there seems to follow from this the implication that nationalism always exists, as a singular truth about 'the nation' waiting to be realised. It is something discovered, not invented.[98]

Nationalism was not a singular truth, but a different thing among these different social groups. My concern here is with those who secured new wealth and political power under the British, and maintained it as the British withdrew. Their political writings were concerned with the threatening presence of the mass of working and unemployed Egyptians. This threatening presence took most often the form of the crowd. Somehow this crowd was to be ordered and made obedient and industrious. Its individuals were to be formed into an organised and disciplined whole. It was this obedient and regulated whole that was to be imagined under the name of the 'nation', that was to be constructed as Egyptian 'society'. And the word for this political process of discipline and formation was education.[99]

It was in terms of education that the notion of 'society' or 'social form' had first been introduced in the writings of the 1870s. 'The proper state of the education of individuals (both male and female), and its spread among them, Tahtawi had written, 'organises the proper state of the education of the collective form, that is, the community in its entirety.'[100] The formation of individuals was to be the means to the formation of a 'collective form'. Several such attempts were made to find a particular phrase or word for this collectivity that was to be organised by the discipline and instruction of indi-


viduals. Phrases such as al-intizam al-umrani (social organisation)[101] and al-jam`iyya al-muntazima (organised association)[102] were used, but the sort of phrase that became common was al-hay'a al-mujtama`iyya - hay'a , meaning 'form' itself, in the sense of visible shape or condition, qualified with the adjective from the word mujtama` , collective. Tahtawi in this case glossed the unusual and awkward expression al-hay'a al-mujtama`iyya (the collective form, society) by explaining that it stands for 'the community in its entirety'.

The Pasha in The Tale of Isa ibn Hisham had encountered this new expression in the midst of his encounter with the crowd. After his argument with the donkey driver and his night in gaol, he had found himself before the state prosecutor, amid 'a crowd of litigants'. 'Who is this servant-boy', he asked, 'and what is this crowd?' His companion explained that the young man, from a peasant family, was the prosecutor. According to the new order he was responsible for prosecuting criminals, 'on behalf of society (al-hay'a al-ijtima`iyya )'. What, asked the Pasha, is 'society'? It is the whole community (majmu`at al-umma ), he was told.[103]

The neologism was explained but the Pasha's confusion concerning the new order remained - 'that people should be ruled over by a peasant, the community represented by a ploughboy!'[104] His confusion reflects the difficulty of imagining this new object called society. It was new in several respects. Its order was not a hierarchy of personal status, for peasants now appeared as equal members with gentlemen. Its membership was not a pattern of kinship extending outward, however distantly, from one's own connections. 'Society' was something encountered above all in the form of crowds. Somehow the strangers crowded together in the courtroom were to be conceived as parts of a social whole to which one belonged, even though nothing seemed to connect the Pasha to the crowd except their occupying the same space at the same moment. To conceive of these connections, and to construct them into a social whole was not necessarily a matter of extending one's horizons or enlarging one's imagination. It was more a matter of adopting new political and social practices, which brought a new set of assumptions. Certain practices involving self and space, order and time, body and mentality were to be adopted, of the kind I have been describing in this book, so that the dimensions of space and time and mentality appeared to stand apart as a conceptual structure, a whole; and it was to be forgotten that they were mere appearances.

In Europe in this period one finds the same attempt underway to envision 'society' as both a political and conceptual structure existing apart from people themselves, the same connection with the process of schooling and the same fears of the crowd. In order to bring out the peculiar nature of the connections between the crowd, the school and the conception of an object called society, it may help to recall the writings of a major European social


theorist from this period. The work of Emile Durkheim, who trained as a school teacher in Paris in the 1880s and later lectured there on education and social theory, laid the base on which was built much of the twentieth century's scientific study of this new object, society. Durkheim's importance to social science was that he established society as something with an 'objective' existence, as a mental order independent of the individual mentality, and showed how this imaginary object might be studied.

Durkheim demonstrated that the social realm had an existence independent of particular individual minds by referring, in the first place, to the behaviour of the individual who joins a crowd. 'The great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousnesses', he wrote in The Rules of Sociological Method , published in 1895. 'They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves ... Thus, a group of individuals, most of whom are perfectly inoffensive, may, when gathered in a crowd, be drawn into acts of atrocity.'[105] The tone of this passage already indicates what was to be politically at stake in establishing the object of social science. The problem of the potentially unbounded violence of the crowd is associated with an unbounded individual nature. Modern liberalism's originary fear of what any one of us might do 'in spite of ourselves' is a fear at the heart of liberal social science.[106] From the fear of the unbounded and undisciplined subject arises the need to know and to strengthen the objective existence of society.

The counterpart to the objective nature of society, in Durkheim's work as in all liberal social theory, was the necessity and the universal nature of education. Education, Durkheim wrote, is 'the means by which society perpetually recreates the conditions of its very existence'.[107] If society was an object existing apart from the individual, as a conscience collective , it required a mechanism for recreating its collective morality in the individual. This morality was a system of discipline, based on 'regularity and authority', and it was such discipline that schooling in the modern state was to inculcate. 'The child must learn to coordinate his acts and regulate them ... He must acquire self-mastery, self-restraint, self-domination, self-determination, the taste for discipline and order in behaviour.' The coordination of individuals to form a nation-state depended upon this common discipline. In his lecture courses on 'The teaching of morality in the primary school', Durkheim explained that the purpose of universal secular state education was to make the child 'understand his country and times, to make him aware of its needs, to initiate him into its life, and in this way to prepare him for the collective tasks which await him'.[108]

A number of Egyptians attended Durkheim's lectures on education and social theory at the Sorbonne, including the writer and future education


minister Taha Husayn. But the works on education and social theory that Taha Husayn and others chose to translate into Arabic were not those of Durkheim. They chose instead the writings of a better known contemporary, who in 1895, the same year as The Rules of Sociological Method appeared, published a famous work on The Crowd .

Chapter 4 After We Have Captured Their Bodies

Preferred Citation: Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.