Confronting Fascism in Egypt: Dictatorship versus Democracy in the 1930s

Confronting Fascism in Egypt: Dictatorship versus Democracy in the 1930s

by Israel Gershoni

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Confronting Fascism in Egypt offers a new reading of the political and intellectual culture of Egypt during the interwar era. Though scholarship has commonly emphasized Arab political and military support of Axis powers, this work reveals that the shapers of Egyptian public opinion were largely unreceptive to fascism, openly rejecting totalitarian ideas and


Confronting Fascism in Egypt offers a new reading of the political and intellectual culture of Egypt during the interwar era. Though scholarship has commonly emphasized Arab political and military support of Axis powers, this work reveals that the shapers of Egyptian public opinion were largely unreceptive to fascism, openly rejecting totalitarian ideas and practices, Nazi racism, and Italy's and Germany's expansionist and imperialist agendas. The majority (although not all) of Egyptian voices supported liberal democracy against the fascist challenge, and most Egyptians sought to improve and reform, rather than to replace and destroy, the existing constitutional and parliamentary system.

The authors place Egyptian public discourse in the broader context of the complex public sphere within which debate unfolded—in Egypt's large and vibrant network of daily newspapers, as well as the weekly or monthly opinion journals—emphasizing the open, diverse, and pluralistic nature of the interwar political and cultural arena. In examining Muslim views of fascism at the moment when classical fascism was at its peak, this enlightening book seriously challenges the recent assumption of an inherent Muslim predisposition toward authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and "Islamo-Fascism."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In Confronting Fascism in Egypt, Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski succeed remarkably in overturning the perception of interwar Egypt that has prevailed for decades in the realm of Western academia . . . No study of interwar Egypt—or of interwar Arab public opinion for that matter, given the central importance of Egypt in that regard—can afford to ignore this landmark book from now on."—Gilbert Achcar, Arab Studies Journal

"This impressive work is refreshing in its scope and yet attentive to the rich details of the Egyptian experience. It makes the powerful case that no transfer of Nazi ideology occurred in Egypt in the 1930s and details how Egyptian thinkers, including leaders of the Muslim Brothers, watched, appalled, as Hitler's regime pursued its racist programs. The authors know Egyptian history inside out and their use of Arabic periodical sources is dazzling." —Heather J. Sharkey, University of Pennsylvania

"Gershoni and Jankowski refuse to accept simplifications in describing intellectual positions in Egypt of the 1930s. This book proves that an overwhelming majority of opinion leaders in Egypt held on to liberal, anti-fascist principles. The authors document the genuine, creative voices of those who struggled to come to terms with the challenges of the colonial world, and they put into question the conventional image that Arabs were naturally inclined towards totalitarianism. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in gaining a sound picture of political and intellectual trends in the Arab world." —Peter Wien, University of Maryland

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Stanford University Press
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Confronting Fascism in Egypt

Dictatorship versus Democracy in the 1930s
By Israel Gershoni James Jankowski

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6344-8

Chapter One

The Historical Setting

Egyptian Politics in the Later 1930s

EGYPTIAN ATTITUDES TOWARD DEMOCRACY and dictatorship in the later 1930s must be situated in two contexts. One is the international arena-the increasingly fraught ideological rivalry and political confrontation between the liberal democracies and the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships, and how this rivalry and confrontation were read and refracted in Egypt. The other is the Egyptian internal scene-how domestic developments in Egypt made debate over the respective merits of fascist dictatorship versus liberal democracy a progressively more meaningful and vital subject for Egyptians. The external and internal contexts were intimately related; both played an essential role in conditioning Egyptian views of fascism and liberalism, dictatorship and democracy.

In their modern forms, both the liberal democratic and the fascist authoritarian models of political order were European in origin. For Egyptians in the 1930s, liberal democracy was exemplified primarily by Great Britain and France and more remotely by the United States. Authoritarian rule, on the other hand,reached its apotheosis in the two states of Italy and Germany where Fascism and Nazism had emerged and taken power, and in the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. When Egyptians reflected on the relative merits of democracy and dictatorship, the strengths or weaknesses of these foreign exemplars usually provided the raw material for their arguments pro or con.

The manifest failures of the Western democracies in the 1930s-mired in economic depression early in the decade, wracked by the partisanship seemingly inherent in pluralist political systems, and late in the decade apparently impotent in the face of Italian and German expansionism-had a powerful impact on Egyptian opinion. Correspondingly, the internal unity and vigor, the economic dynamism, and the ability to undertake bold international initiatives visible in the cases of Italy and Germany over the same period made an equally strong impression on Egyptians. The domestic difficulties of the Western democracies and the apparent achievements of the Fascist and Nazi regimes in the 1930s certainly played a role in Egyptian evaluations of both systems. But most salient for Egyptians over time were the international repercussions of the democratic-fascist rivalry, and most important, the possible implications of their international confrontation for Egypt itself. Indeed, the potential implications for Egypt of the international challenge of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to an international order previously dominated by Great Britain and France eventually came to bulk largest in the Egyptian debate over liberal democracy versus fascist authoritarianism.

The External Context: Fascist and Nazi Propaganda Activities in Egypt, 1935-1939

Egyptian attitudes toward Fascism and Nazism did not evolve in a vacuum. There is abundant evidence that first the Fascist regime in Italy, and subsequently its Nazi German counterpart, made strenuous efforts to influence Egyptian public opinion in the later 1930s. The available evidence also indicates, however, that it is questionable whether Fascist and Nazi propaganda endeavors in Egypt were worth the effort.

Through the mid-1930s, Fascist Italy took the lead in efforts to influence Egyptian public opinion in a favorable direction. Italian propaganda aimed at the Middle East, Egypt included, became more aggressive from the early 1930s onwards, as Italy prepared for the expansion of its empire in East Africa. A benchmark in Italian propaganda activity in the Middle East was the inauguration of Arabic-language broadcasts by Radio Bari in May 1934. Accessible across most of North Africa and along the Red Sea, Radio Bari's blend of entertainment and news has been credited with attracting a growing audience of listeners, especially in public venues such as cafes. An Arab Propaganda Bureau was created in Rome to establish contacts with Arab intellectuals and to disseminate Italian propaganda in the Middle East; the Ministry of Popular Culture sent an increasing flow of publications intended to burnish Italy's image to Italian legations and agencies in the region.

Within Egypt, Italian propaganda activities from 1935 onward were carried out both by officials of the Italian Legation and by Ugo Dadone, the recently appointed director of the Italian news bureau Agence de l'Egypte et de l'Orient, a quasi-official entity operating under the supervision of the Italian Legation in Cairo. Issuing daily press releases, and also presumed to be paying for pro-Italian news coverage in the Egyptian press, the agency was regarded by the British as "the major instrument of Italian propaganda activity in Egypt." During the Ethiopian crisis of 1935, British assessments referred to "Italian efforts to corrupt the Egyptian press and politicians" in the hope of assuring a favorable or at least a neutral Egyptian stance in regard to the conflict between Italy and Ethiopia. A January 1936 assessment of recent Italian propaganda efforts in Egypt cited several probable but unconfirmed methods used by Italian agents to influence Egyptian opinion, including providing subsidies to Egyptian newspapers, "prompting students to form groups on Fascist lines," and working through subsidies to students from Libya to influence opinion at al-Azhar. A follow-up report of March 1936 cited both official and non official sources that "all confirm the existence of bribery" of the Egyptian press carried out by Dadone and other Italian agents in Egypt.

Italian propaganda efforts in Egypt at the time of the Ethiopian crisis and war appear to have had limited success. Certainly the tenor of on-the-spot British reports was that they had only a marginal effect upon Egyptian opinion. As the Ethiopian crisis developed in late 1935, the British view was that "public sympathy in Egypt is without doubt overwhelmingly and instinctively on the side of the Abyssinians." A May 1936 assessment of the Egyptian attitude toward Italy engendered by the crisis and war in Ethiopia was that it had passed through several stages: initially one of alarm as the possibility of Italian aggressiveness threatening Egypt, subsequently one of relief as the arrival of British naval reinforcements reduced the prospect of an Italian menace to Egypt itself, and most recently a more pessimistic mood that Great Britain would be unable to defend Egypt successfully in case of Italian aggression. The combination of fear over possible Italian aggression and concurrent apprehension over Great Britain's ability to defend Egypt was to be a recurrent feature of the Egyptian view of the international situation in the Mediterranean for the remainder of the 1930s.

After the extended international crisis over Ethiopia of late 1935 and early 1936, the period of the Wafdist ministry from May 1936 until the end of 1937 was a more placid one in international affairs as far as Egypt was concerned. Italian efforts to stimulate a favorable attitude in the Egyptian press apparently continued through the tenure of the Wafdist ministry. Yet such Italian efforts to influence Egyptian opinion in 1936-37 again had limited success. The same British summaries of the Egyptian press of 1937 report vigorous press criticism of Mussolini's claim to be a protector of Islam and of recent Italian construction projects in Libya that were interpreted as being for military purposes, and numerous Egyptian publications express apprehension over Italian military maneuvers in Libya that were seen as an implicit threat to Egypt. That the Egyptian press was far from a pliable instrument in the hands of Italian propaganda is perhaps best indicated by the fact that in September 1937 both the Italian and German legations in Egypt lodged official protests with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning "allegedly absurd caricatures of the Duce and the Führer in certain Egyptian weekly reviews."

A shift in the relative weight of Italian versus German propaganda activity in the Middle East occurred in 1938 and 1939. Efforts by Italian agents to stimulate anti-British sentiment in the region diminished substantially from early 1938 onward as a result of the Anglo-Italian Rome (Easter) Agreement of March 1938, which resolved the outstanding points of tension between Great Britain and Italy in the Mediterranean and in which Italy agreed to cease its anti- British propaganda in the Middle East. According to a British evaluation of January 1939, "since the ratification of the Rome Agreement open Italian propaganda against Great Britain has largely ceased." Italian charitable and propaganda activities in Egypt continued in 1938 and 1939, but reportedly became less overtly anti-British. The Italian Legation continued to subsidize Libyan, Eritrean, and Ethiopian students at al-Azhar, but apparently with limited political consequences. Rather than seeking to erode the British position, as in the past, Italian efforts to influence the Egyptian press in 1938-39 appear to have been directed primarily toward deterring hostile criticism of Italy's international behavior such as Italian colonization efforts in Libya and its April 1939 invasion of Albania. These efforts at deterrence do not appear to have spilled over into generating a positive opinion of Fascist Italy on the part of Egyptians. By 1939, Italian officials were themselves estimating that Radio Bari was losing local audience for its Arabic-language programming. British estimates of Egyptian opinion in the countryside in 1939 pointed in the same direction. A report on public opinion in Upper Egypt in early 1939 "failed to find any indication of Italian propaganda activity other than the educational and philanthropic work," and went on to say that "Italians are generally disliked" as a result of their brutal behavior in Libya. A diplomat's report on sentiment in Lower Egypt in May 1939 came to similar conclusions: "I could find no marked evidence of Italian activity, and any propaganda they may be indulging in seems to have little effect.... The general feeling seems to be anti-Italian, especially since the invasion of Albania." In her analysis of Italian propaganda efforts in the Middle East in the later 1930s, Manuela Williams concludes by emphasizing "the ephemeral nature of Italy's popularity in the Middle East," and provides the most likely reason for the fading of a positive view of Italy in the region: "[a]s Italy's colonial ambitions became increasingly manifest, mainstream nationalists began to distance themselves from Mussolini's policy in Africa and the Middle East." A recent study by Nir Arielli comes to a similar conclusion: "[w]hile Fascism had a certain appeal in some young nationalist Effendiyya circles," overall Fascist Italy's brutal colonial policies in Libya, its imperialist war in Ethiopia, and its belligerent rhetoric and maneuvers in the Middle East all "alienated public opinion makers in the Middle East. Thus, when Italy joined the war the Italians had very few allies in the region."

As Italian propaganda activity decreased, Germany in part filled the gap. Germany had given little attention to propaganda efforts in the Middle East prior to 1938. As late as March 1938, the British ambassador in Rome reported that "I have been unable to obtain proofs that there is any concerted move by Germany, either alone or in conjunction with Italy, to develop interests other than commercial in the Mediterranean." A marker of Germany's relative disinterest in the Arab world for most of the 1930s was the absence of a full Arabic translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf. As Stefan Wild has shown, unauthorized partial Arabic translations of Mein Kampf were published in the Arab world before World War II. Yet official German efforts to sponsor an authorized Arabic translation in the 1930s never came to fruition due to bureaucratic infighting over responsibility for the undertaking, dissatisfaction with the quality of the translations under consideration, and ultimately the cost of the project. Within Egypt, we have been able to identify only partial and generally critical translations of Hitler's personal statement of his aims. A 1934 Arabic work written by Ahmad Mahmud al-Sadati, Adulf Hitlar, Za'im al-Ishtirakiyya al-Wataniyya ma'a Bayan al-Mas'ala al-Yahudiyya (Adolf Hitler, Leader of National Socialism, with an Explanation of the Jewish Question), contained a partial translation and analysis of excerpts from Mein Kampf. The translation was unauthorized by the German government: the German Legation in Cairo was taken by surprise when Sadati visited and attempted to present a copy of the work to the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Sadati's book appears not to have been widely circulated, and its public impact is unclear. Another partial and problematic translation of the 1930s was 'Ali Muhammad Mahbub's Kifahi fi Sabil al-Raykh al-Kabir (My Struggle for the Sake of the Greater Reich, 1938). A translation of portions of Mein Kampf, it also contained critical commentary by the author that depicted Hitler as a menace to world peace. The German Foreign Office reacted angrily to the work, demanding that the Egyptian government prohibit its distribution within Egypt.

Only in 1938-39, as tension with the Western democracies increased and as German officials became aware of the prospects of destabilizing the position of Great Britain and France in the Middle East, did Germany undertake systematic propaganda efforts in the region. Once begun, German propaganda efforts in Egypt paralleled those undertaken earlier by Italy. Th e German News Agency [Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro] directed by Wilhelm Stellbogen took the place of the Italian Agence de l'Egypte et de l'Orient as the key orgnization attempting to stimulate pro- Axis coverage in the Egyptian press and in promoting Axis ties with Egyptian organizations. A British press summary of late 1938 claimed "circumstantial evidence" of German efforts to influence the press through advertising contracts and possibly bribery. The same assessment that reported the diminution of Italian propaganda activity in Egypt by early 1939 immediately went on to note that "it has been replaced by German propaganda acting in the interests of both members of the Rome-Berlin Axis." By 1939, the German Ministry of Propaganda was reported to be spending u3,000 a month on propaganda activities in Egypt. Among such expenditures were financial subsidies to the Muslim Brothers provided through the Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro. Like Italian propaganda in 1938-39, these German efforts to sway Egyptian opinion prior to the war appear to have been only marginally effective; a report on the Egyptian press of May 1939 concluded that "on the whole it may be said that the Egyptian press have not yet editorially reflected this [German] propaganda." Overt German propaganda activities in Egypt effectively ended in September 1939, when the Egyptian authorities shut down official German agencies and interned German citizens resident in Egypt.


Excerpted from Confronting Fascism in Egypt by Israel Gershoni James Jankowski Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Israel Gershoni is Professor of History at Tel Aviv University. James Jankowski is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Colorado. Gershoni and Jankowski are frequent collaborators, and have coauthored Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East (1997) and Commemorating the Nation (2004), among other books.

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