introduction
T
his book is about liberalism in the context of imperial domination in the
modern Middle East. It describes Egypt’s liberal experiment during the
1920s and 1930s, a vibrant period whose political leaders and literary figures
drew inspiration from European liberal political and philosophical thought.
The book focuses on why and how the Egyptian liberal reformers felt com-
pelled to degrade local cultures and identities to accommodate liberal princi-
ples. The liberal experiment ultimately failed, and the book underlines the
problems of cultural incompatibilities. But rather than confirming the fa-
miliar tensions between local cultures and customs and liberal universal
values, this book reveals liberalism’s own cultural prejudices and parochial-
ism in an imperial context. This finding is significant because current de-
bates and policies about exporting democracy to the Muslim world continue
to misread and misrepresent the role of culture and therefore fail to com-
prehend why a poor people might be willing to die for asserting who they
are, but not for an alien political system that promises good schools and
hospitals. There is a long history in the region of ‘‘noble’’ Western interven-
tionism that stretches from the French ‘‘civilizing mission’’ in Egypt in 1798
to Operation ‘‘Iraqi Freedom’’ in 2003. Yet despite di√erent international
power relations, di√erent personalities and war technologies, and dissimilar
local social and economic conditions, the justifications, language, and fool-
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