EUME Berliner Seminar
Wed 12 Jul 2023 | 17:00–18:30

Political Imagination and the Postcolonial in Contemporary Egypt

Fouad Halbouni (EUME Fellow 2021-23) in conversation with Ismail Fayed (independent reseacher)

Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin

In this seminar, Ismail Fayed and Fouad Halbouni, explore the different forms of political-ethical criticism of Nasserism that emerged from within the works of Egyptian intellectuals in response to the downfall of Nasser’s modernization project following the war of 1967. The presenters, more specifically, will focus on the criticism of authoritarianism in postcolonial Egypt as found in the works of Tarek El-Bishry (1933-2021), the renowned jurist, historian and Islamic political thinker, Ahmad Sadik Saad (1919-1988), Marxist intellectual of Sephardic Jewish origins, and lastly Louis Awad (1915-1990), Coptic writer, literary critic, and historian of Egyptian political thought. The criticisms, above all, aimed at resolving the paradoxes of the post-independent nation in which the Nasserist regime advocated political aspirations such as national liberation, political unity, and freedom, while creating authoritarian institutions and practices in the name of historical necessity (and in the name of safeguarding those very same aspirations).  In various works, Awad, El-Bishry and Sadik Saad, envisioned forms of political community and deliberative democratic spaces that could accordingly fulfill the promise of national liberation on the one hand, and address the historical failures that resulted from Nasser’s authoritarian legacy on the other. The researchers engage with those reformative visions of political community and deliberative politics as a problem-space, that is, placing them within the political horizons of their time while highlighting the relevance of these pressing questions to our present, a decade after the Arab revolutions with its own questions concerning the meaning of freedom, nationhood, and national belonging.

Fouad Halbouni, in his presentation, examines the short (and nearly explosive) exchange that took place between Ahmad Sadik Saad and Tarek El-Bishry following the publication of the latter’s book Muslims and Copts in the Framework of National community (1981). As a critic of El-Bishry, Sadik Saad examined the pregiven concepts of tradition and national community on which the deliberative democratic framework rested. Both men, however, differed over the definitions of tradition as well as its role as a vital force that secures communal and political cohesion for postcolonial societies. In this presentation, their different visions of tradition and its significance for political community are explored from within the larger framework of their works and their political commitments. Alternatively, Ismail Fayed focuses on Awad’s critique of Nasser’s authoritarianism by historicizing citizenship as a concept and political practice in contemporary Egyptian history, and particularly, from within the context of anticolonial struggle during the first decades of the 20th century. In a series of works such as The Papers of a Lifetime (1989), Seven Masks of Nasserism (1976), and Freedom and the Critique of Freedom (1971), Awad engaged with Nasserist legacy over questions of minority belonging in the newly independent nation (what it meant to be a Copt before and after 1952). Fayed takes a genealogical approach to Awad’s relation to the political legacy of Nasserist authoritarianism tracing the sharp ebbs and flows of anticolonial struggle, the promises of founding a new society, to the drastic effects of 1967 war to the neoliberal policies under Sadat.

Fouad Halbouni is a postdoctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien and the "Beyond Social Cohesion: Global Repertoires of Living Together" (RePLITO) research unit, the Berlin Free University for the academic year of 2023. He received his PhD in cultural anthropology from Johns Hopkins University in 2019. His current research project, titled “Exercises in Survival”, examines the search for a meaningful moral life among Coptic activists following the January revolution in Egypt and its aftermaths of state repression. Fouad has taught several courses at Johns Hopkins University and the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CILAS) that reflect his current research interests in diverse sub-disciplines such as anthropology of youth movements, anthropology of ethics and lastly, the anthropology of revolution.

Ismail Fayed is an independent art critic, journalist, and researcher, based in Cairo. His critical writing focus on contemporary art practices in Egypt and the Arab world since 2007. He was the associate editor for the MoMA's publication, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents (2018). He has contributed to regional and international platforms and publications such as Nachtkritik, Manshoor, Mada Masr, Aperture and many others. Together with Fouad Halbouni, he co-founded the History and Cultural Memory Forum (2016), the forum seeks to examine the realities of the Arab world post-2011 and to explore new terrains for thinking and discussions of contemporary cultural and social issues that might instigate a new way of reading of Egyptian social and cultural history.


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