Theses Doctoral

Universalizing Egypt: Suez Canal, Debt, Corvée, and the Rise of Modern Government

Elhoudaiby, Ibrahim

This dissertation offers a new interpretation of the middle decades of nineteenth-century Egypt, which were decisive in forming Egyptian modernity. This period is usually understood as merely the precursor to the direct colonial rule that followed. Instead, this dissertation argues that the reigns of Sa‘īd (1854-1863) and Ismā‘īl (1863-1879) were defined by Egypt’s unique legal status.

During this period, Egypt was neither a sovereign state, nor directly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, nor annexable to any other empire. This peculiar legal status led to the emergence of Egypt as an object of “the universal.” This term is taken from the unusual name of the “Universal Company” that was created to build and operate the Suez Canal. The term denoted a new commercial domain, external to Europe and shaped by, yet equidistant from, the continent’s competing empires.The attempts to develop European capital outside the existing empires necessitated the construction of a new legal and political order. Taking the construction of the Canal as a vantage point through which to explore the consolidation of this new order, the dissertation focuses on three aspects.

First, I show how both Ottoman-Islamic and European precedents contributed to the formation of the universal. I outline social and legal changes, spanning the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that allowed the extension of the European company-form to the Ottoman world in the nineteenth century; trace the rise of Egypt as a pivotal link of imperial communications in the first half of the nineteenth century; and investigate the implications of the political tensions between the Ottoman Sultan and his viceroy in Egypt in the 1830s.

Second, I explore the consolidation of the universal legal domain in Egypt. I argue that the inter-imperial dispute over the construction of the Suez Canal led to the emergence of the company as the object of the universal, and that, in the following decades, the company’s directors catalyzed the entrenchment of a “universal” commercial domain in Egypt in the period between 1868 and 1876. Finally, I explore the implications of the universality of Egypt on the rise of modern government. I focus on the legal transformations, including the formation of the Mixed Courts, that foreshadowed the establishment of modern courts; changes in the command of labor that gave rise to Egyptianness as a collective identity; and the indebtedness of the government that precipitated the emergence of an independent (non-Ottoman) state apparatus with compromised sovereignty.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Mitchell, Timothy P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2022