Unpublished Papers

The Priesthood of Nationalism in Egypt: Duty, Authority, Autonomy

Benjamin Geer, University of London - School of Oriental and African Studies


This thesis considers the effects of nationalism on the autonomy of intellectuals in Egypt. I argue that nationalism limits intellectuals’ ability to challenge social hierarchies, political authority and economic inequality, and that it has been more readily used to legitimise new forms of domination in competition with old ones. I analyse similarities between religion and nationalism, using the sociological theory of Pierre Bourdieu together with cognitive linguistics. Focusing mainly on the similarities between priests and nationalist intellectuals, and secondarily between prophets and charismatic nationalist political leaders, I show that nationalism and religion are based on relatively similar concepts, which lend themselves to similar strategies for gaining credibility, recognition and moral authority. I present case studies of a few nationalist intellectuals, focusing on ones who advocated views that later became dominant. The translator and teacher Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, who was trained as a religious scholar before studying secular subjects in France, brought nationalism to Egypt by blending European nationalist concepts with centuries-old concepts from Islamic religious and literary traditions. In the early 20th century, the nationalism of intellectuals such as Muhammad Husayn Haykal enabled them to compete with men of religion for prestige and political influence, and also served particular class and professional interests. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s concept of the charismatic national leader influenced the young Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became a successful nationalist prophet and military autocrat. Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus articulated the concept of the nationalist martyr, who dies for his country; this concept also contributed to Nasser’s charisma. Both al-Hakim and al-Quddus arguably lost autonomy under Nasser’s regime. Al-Hakim was unable to criticise the regime until after Nasser’s death. Al-Quddus was imprisoned and tortured for advocating democracy, then became one of the most fervent supporters of Nasser’s autocracy.

Suggested Citation

Geer, Benjamin. 2012. ‘The Priesthood of Nationalism in Egypt: Duty, Authority, Autonomy’. PhD thesis, London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. http://works.bepress.com/benjamin_geer/2/.