Eve Powell’s controversial book, A Different Shade of Colonialism, addresses the position of Egypt as both, the subject and the object of imperialism, and challenges many of our common perceptions about imperialism and nationalism. Using the framework of race, Powell shows how the highly politicised writings of Egyptian bureaucrats such as Muhammad al-Tunisi, Selim Qapudan, Rifa‘ah Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, and ‘Ali Mubarak shaped Egyptian views and policies about the Sudan as far back as Muhammad ‘Ali’s reign (1805-1848)1. Powell also reads in juxtaposition to these texts the works of Egyptian intellectuals like Ya‘qub Sanu‘a, ‘Abdallah all-Nadim and Islamic thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. What is refreshing about Powell’s work is that it sets itself apart from recent historiography and canonical texts of imperial studies such as Laura Ann Stoler’s Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power and Edward Said’s Orientalism by focussing on not European creation of the category of race but instead on the racial thoughts and policies of a non-European political entity. In fact, Powell explicitly criticises Said for reinforcing the Self-Other binary despite attempting to bring nuance the Other. Drawing from a wide range of materials ranging from literary texts, newspapers, and travelogues, Powell identifies a distinctly imperialist tone in Egyptian nationalist rhetoric. Admittedly, the thoughts of early Egyptian intellectuals were influenced heavily by the Europeans, but most historiography of decolonisation has chosen to analyse anti-imperial activities of the colonies rather than the adoption of European imperial practices.
Powell argues that her actors, the bureaucrats and the intellectuals, all served to create and emphasise a colonial discourse between the Sudan and Egypt that was similar to the one between Egypt and Great Britain. A literary analysis of some of the contemporary plays, pamphlets, and poetry, argues Powell, demonstrate the paternalist attitude of Egyptians to the Sudanese. The latter are portrayed as fearful, docile, and simple, while the former usually play the role of benign masters. However, the Sudanese are seen as the doorkeepers of Egypt against foreigners. Sudan was thus the internal Other, as memoirs of Egyptians from the Sudan clarify. Citing the memoirs of Ibrahim Fawzi, an Egyptian soldier responsible for the administration of the Sudan under the British but captured and imprisoned for fourteen years after the Mahdi Revolt of 1884, Powell tries to show how Egyptians saw themselves as white in comparison to the black Sudanese. In the case of Fawzi, this was an implicit reference to hierarchy, an acceptance by the Sudanese of his superiority as blackness was associated with slavery. Thus, Powell also points to the ways that the intellectual and political elite distinguished themselves as racially and ethnically superior to the Sudanese, in much the same way that the British colonials distanced themselves from their Egyptian subjects. Thus, Powell brings into discussion racism and slavery without an imperial referent into decolonisation discourse, presenting a complicated mosaic of a “colonized colonizer” that challenges our understanding of imperial power structures.
As Powell reveals, the Sudanese people were portrayed by Egyptians at once docile domestic servants and barbarians who had to be enslaved to be civilised. This view gained strength towards the dawn of the twentieth century. Egyptian Islamic scholars attempted to explain to British abolitionists the nature of slavery under Islam. According to Islamic law, slaves had rights and were not subject to the brutalities experienced by American slaves. Thus, Egypt’s relationship with the Sudan, a relationship projected back to Ramses II was historically a civilising mission3. In the literature of the period, the Sudanese were portrayed as a people requiring Egypt’s benevolent guidance. The British rejected the Egyptian claims, partly influenced by the abolitionists and partly by their greed for expanding their empire into the Sudan. British officials chose to emphasise the differences between the Egyptians and the Sudanese, thus, stirring up nationalist sentiments amongst the Sudanese against the Egyptians. In response, some Egyptian nationalists changed their rhetoric. Most famously, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid began to argue through his newspaper, al-Jarida, that the Sudan was not an Egyptian colony but an integral part of it. This idea gained strength in many quarters in the immediate aftermath of World War I when the British dismantled the Ottoman Empire and tightened their grip on Egypt and Sudan as two separate political entities.
Powell thus explains the critical role Sudan played in Egyptian nationalism. Although the Egyptian views of Great Britain and of themselves had changed over the nineteenth century, their image of the Sudanese had barely changed. Powell argues that this image had persisted from before Muhammad ‘Ali’s invasion of the Sudan due to the odd relationship that characterised the Egyptian-Sudanese power discourse. Powell’s study shows that while on one hand Egyptian nationalists projected an image of Sudan a part of the One Nile Valley community, on the other, they sought the annexation of Sudan and the continuation of Sudanese slavery. Powell’s important contribution to the historiography of nationalism, imperialism, and Middle East Studies is therefore a problematisation of the concept of race, the consideration of the issue apart from its European incarnation, and its regional associations, the application of which would be fruitful to the study of other colonised regions.
1: Egypt invaded the Sudan in 1820 and ruled it until 1882, when Egypt itself fell to the British. During this period, Egypt occupied a curious space as a province of the Ottoman Empire while acting like an independent nation.
2: This included the Ottomans as well as the British. It also included the Egyptians in service of the Sultan, the rulers of Egypt.
3: Although the Egyptian Pharaohs had conquered the Sudan during the reign of the XVIII Dynasty, ironically, Egypt’s XXV Dynasty was Nubian. Egyptian nationalists interpreted this as further proof of the closeness of Egyptian and Sudanese cultures, and therefore the inseparability of Egypt from the Sudan.