Hussam R. Ahmed, The Last Nahdawi: Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Hussam R. Ahmed (HRA): This book, which is based on my doctoral dissertation, is a social biography of one of the most iconic figures in the history of the Arab world, the intellectual and educator Taha Hussein (1889-1973). Known as the “Dean of Arabic Literature” for his remarkable contributions as a writer and a literary critic, Hussein has also been a major influence on generations of Arab intellectuals. His legacy continues to provoke heated debates in Arab and Western circles, especially between secularists who idolize him and consider him the symbol of an unfinished battle for freedom of thought and expression, and Islamists who demonize him and accuse him of having westernized the Arab-Muslim mind. For someone who matters so much to generations of Arabs and whose ideas fuel passionate debates half a century after his death, there was a curious lack of scholarly single studies of him in English or French. Even studies that deal with Hussein have often been susceptible to a narrow focus on some of his published work and literary debates. After some preliminary research, it became clear to me that exploring Hussein’s understudied career in politics and the civil service would fill an important gap in the scholarship, including scholarship in Arabic, and allow for a critical reassessment of his overall legacy by focusing on his history as a social actor, and not just his ideas.

Central as Hussein is to this book, he is not its sole focus, however. A social biography helps us gain a greater understanding of particular institutions and forms of social change by analyzing how they had been understood and negotiated by particular individuals, allowing us to work with and against the grand narratives that usually fail to match the experience of individuals on the ground. In that way, I wanted to use Hussein’s life and work as a lens to understand some of the important social and cultural transformations that occurred in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. At the time, Egypt was witnessing many changes, such as the introduction of a new secular university, a burgeoning press, and intense public debates over nationalism, the role of religion, women, and education in making a modern nation. Hussein was a catalyst for all of these debates and experienced these transformations firsthand. The book is therefore built around this double-focus: Taha Hussein and his sociopolitical context.

In the introduction, I describe the book as the story of the life and death of an alternative Egyptian history, the story of what modern Egypt could have become, and I wanted to tell that story. Whether we agree or disagree with Taha Hussein’s vision for what modern Egypt should have become or should become, the questions to which his project tried to respond are still pertinent. This is because he grounded his project in people’s daily lives, expectations, and demands—demands that sound eerily familiar and which we continue to hear in different parts of the Arab world today, demands for freedom, justice, and human dignity.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HRA: In the book I shift the focus away from Taha Hussein the Dean of Arabic Literature and turn to Hussein the lesser-known politician and civil servant. Drawing on documents from the Egyptian National Archives, the Archives of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in France, the archives of Cairo University and the Ministry of Education, as well as Hussein’s private papers, the book is a careful reconstruction of Hussein’s sociocultural project, its development in the period between Egypt’s nominal independence from Great Britain in 1922, and his eventual marginalization in the early 1960s. Hussein was an institution builder and his commitment to institution building was a result of his belief that only strong educational and cultural institutions could develop the necessary national leadership and an educated, politically active, and modern citizenry, strengthen the country’s political independence, and open the way to a versatile and open culture deeply rooted in the Arab-Islamic tradition but also integrated with, and a contributor to, contemporary Western culture. Hussein tried to extend and deepen the Arab Nahda project by insisting that proper, state-funded higher institutions, like secular universities and the Arabic Language Academy were needed to provide the modern teaching and research methods necessary to engage critically with the tradition and the challenges of the present. Scholars would then use this knowledge to design a sophisticated national curriculum to be disseminated in primary and secondary education, which Taha Hussein made free in 1944 and 1950 respectively.

Reading these sources closely allowed me to look beyond Hussein’s familiar published work and instead to follow him in his meetings and understand his executive responsibilities as a senior civil servant and how he had to navigate a complex state bureaucracy and work within a network of intellectuals and statesmen to build and restructure these institutions. As he implemented his project, Hussein mocked clear-cut distinctions between thought and action and between culture and politics, despite his own public claims that art and culture should remain above political motives. The book shows that Hussein was a practical thinker who developed his ideas in tandem with concrete policy debates and decisions. Thus an intellectual history relying solely on his published work is reductive, and it is essential to consider his long political career to produce new, contextually rich readings of his ideas.

With its focus on educational and political reform, the book builds on existing scholarship that has examined reform efforts during Egypt’s parliamentary period (1922-1952) focusing on how women, the family, the peasantry, and education were to contribute to creating a modern nation. Whereas scholars have often emphasized the problems and frustrations of this period, the book accounts for important achievements in culture and education, such as introducing free education, opening Egyptian universities to women, making classical Arabic more accessible to teachers and students, and resisting French cultural policies in North Africa. By tying Hussein’s institution building efforts to the emergent democratic practices of the parliamentary period, the book situates Hussein’s campaign for institutional reform and universal education within serious attempts made during his period to promote state accountability and renegotiate the social contract by convincing Egyptian voters that the state was there to serve them and provide the education and dignified life they demanded.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HRA: Broadly speaking, I am interested in the history of the relationship between culture and politics, and in exploring the role of the humanities, or adab, in the making of modern Egypt, particularly in relation to the ways in which cultural and educational institutions developed both as state bureaucracies and as arbiters of political ideology. Studies of cultural and literary production in the Arab world often focus on individual works and their canonical creators. This analysis rarely considers the history of state and private institutions with which Arab educators, writers, and journalists negotiate constantly. My research focuses on the history of these institutions and the logic by which they articulated different visions for the state, religion, culture, and society. Such institutional histories allow us to understand figures like Taha Hussein and others, not as great men and women whose ideas float above their political, economic, and personal circumstances, but as historical actors whose thoughts and actions were deeply embedded in human struggles and specific societal structures and constraints.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

HRA: I hope that anyone interested in modern Egypt, the Arab world, and the humanities would find this book of value, especially scholars of the Middle East, of course. I tried to make the book accessible to non-specialist audiences so that readers would be in a position to understand the complex colonial context in which Hussein and his generation worked. I hope readers would be able to learn about an Arab-Muslim encounter with modernity in which reformers like Hussein faced the challenge of the West with self-confidence and believed that embracing what these reformers saw as the new (the secular university, new kinds of knowledge, new research methods) did not mean giving up their own traditions and literary heritage, but rather continuing them. They were embarking on a project of natural synthesis based on an active critical appropriation rather than a passive reception of ideas coming from Europe.

The book, however, neither tries to redeem Hussein and his generation nor claims that they did everything right. Rather, it is an attempt to understand them in their own context and not through the lens of all that has come since. As political events since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time made their project of natural synthesis impossible, history was rewritten in Egypt itself in a way that lumped these intellectuals together on one side or the other, for example “culturally authentic” or “westernized.” Taha Hussein is a prime example of such an intellectual who remains trapped in these binaries, which overlook the context in which he wrote and the bureaucratic and institutional constraints in which he made decisions—whether by Islamists or equally by their opponents. This has also been paralleled by postcolonial literary scholars in the West who draw on select passages in public writings by Hussein and his generation to create an image of them as uncritical intellectuals who were infatuated by European culture.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

HRA: My second book project explores the evolution of Egypt’s cultural and educational institutions under Nasser’s authoritarian rule (1954-1970). While Hussein’s free education policies and the institutions he established continued under Nasser, a rupture occurred in the relationship between these institutions and the state. Hussein implicitly expected the multiparty system and a free press to regulate the state’s involvement in education by holding governments accountable and pushing for transparency in budgetary allocation and decision making. In the transition to a more authoritarian state, the checks and balances of the parliamentary system Hussein had envisaged became untenable. In my new project, I therefore examine Nasser’s cultural and educational policies in order to assess their impact on intellectuals and cultural production more broadly.


Excerpt from the book (from Introduction, Taha Hussein’s Anti-Colonial Project, pp. 24-28)

Besides ignoring the actual reform program in favor of analyzing the introduction, most debates involving The Future of Culture in Egypt overlook the exceptional political circumstances to which Hussein was responding. His work should be read in the context of the interwar period and the euphoria surrounding the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936, the ending of the Capitulations, and joining the League of Nations in 1937, the hallmark of independence at the time. While Egyptians successfully wrestled these concessions from European powers, the continued presence of British forces in Egypt was a constant reminder of the deeply rooted presumption among colonial powers of colonized peoples’ inability to rule themselves. Hussein’s book was an intervention calling on Egyptians to vindicate themselves and to prove they could handle the responsibilities of their independence. Much like David Scott’s thoughtful reading of C.L.R. James’ account of Toussaint Louverture’s revolutionary struggle against the French in Black Jacobins (also written in 1938), Hussein’s call for vindication took the form of a “romantic” story of an anti-colonial liberation struggle that was supposed to end in victory and enlightenment. Unlike Louverture’s armed struggle, however, Hussein’s solution was institutional, and he proposed building an integrated Egyptian system of knowledge production that was to achieve intellectual parity with Europe and place Egypt on equal standing with the more “advanced” nations of the world. This romantic mode of history writing, in which Hussein drew on Egypt’s long historical interaction with the Mediterranean world and on Greek philosophy’s influence on Islamic thought, was triggered by a political necessity, and was a mode of writing he deemed necessary to shatter notions of inherent incompatibility between Egyptians and Europeans, and thus assert Egypt’s right to self- determination. In our reading of works by anti-colonial figures such as James and Hussein, Scott reminds us that they were writing at a “present” triggered by a different “horizon of expectation,” and that their political thought was governed by a “problem- space” animated by different disputes and questions, the understanding of which becomes necessary to make sense of their intellectual production and political maneuvers, especially in what Scott sees as our “postcolonial nightmares,” in which cynicism has replaced the optimism of “anticolonial utopias.” Independence was one of the most pressing concerns at the time, and as Elizabeth Thompson’s recent research has shown, in the Middle East, “sovereignty was viewed as the primary prerequisite for justice and rule of law.” For Hussein, independence was the priority, and with independence came the— now defunct— assumption that once the colonizers left, everything would fall into place.

Our sinister postcolonial present impacts the way we understand Hussein’s project and leads us to find his excitement in 1938 naive and even off-putting. Readers today are often suspicious or even dismissive of Hussein’s firm belief in democracy and institutions. Many readers have been desensitized to the discourse on democracy, people’s rights, and the state’s responsibility toward the people, because for decades, postcolonial states in the region and imperial powers have used the same discourse to legitimize their repressive agendas while suppressing the same rights they claim to defend. Even western democracies are currently facing a dire moment with the rise of right-wing populism. It takes much effort on the part of today’s reader to go beyond what could come across as futile clichés and to read Hussein carefully and critically, and understand that, in Hussein’s present in the interwar period, “promoting true democracy,” “respecting the constitution,” “holding the state accountable,” and “achieving full independence” were all feasible and interdependent goals.

Hussein understood that Europe was setting the terms, and if Egypt were to maintain its nominal independence and turn it into a fuller one, then it had to be practical and play by the rules Europe recognized and imposed on the world. In his thought and action, Hussein accepted the premises informing those European rules: the nation-state, progress, and reason. In recognizing the obligation to build his project in terms set by the modern West, Hussein can be seen as a conscript of western modernity, a term David Scott borrows from Talal Asad and uses to describe Louverture and other colonial subjects who believed they were resisting European colonialism but who were, often unconsciously, obliged to think and act in conditions determined by European modernity. While Asad is more interested in the power differential between colonizer and colonized and how power transforms colonial subjects, this study focuses on Hussein’s agency and creative efforts within that colonial context. Moreover, Hussein was conscious of modernity’s transformative power when he provocatively stated, decades before postcolonial studies, that Egyptians were already leading a European life in both its physical and intellectual aspects. Hussein was in the middle of a battle of emancipatory politics, in which immediate political action was required and in which tough decisions and compromises had to be made regarding the direction in which the country was headed. In his understanding of the way forward after 1936, knowledge-producing institutions had to be implemented along European lines so Egyptian researchers, planners, and policymakers could master the dominant language, the language Europe understood and enforced elsewhere. In that sense of being “conscripted” and having “no choice,” Hussein’s comment that those who preached otherwise were either “deluding or deluded” makes more sense.

This constant negotiation between the universal and the particular informs Hussein’s project for culture and education in Egypt. As this study shows, he did not begin working on institutions in 1938, with The Future of Culture in Egypt, but earlier, in 1922, right after Egypt achieved nominal independence. He repeatedly expressed his view that it was his duty as an intellectual and an academic to explain to the public the importance of reforming Egypt’s educational system, which he believed had suffered under the British administration and was in serious need of reform. Immediately after independence, he called for reforming the Ministry of Public Instruction and ridding it of all British influence, which he believed had been responsible for reducing the number of schools, introducing tuition fees, and favoring the kuttab over higher education. Higher education, and especially the Egyptian University’s Faculty of Arts, quickly became the cornerstone of Hussein’s project, as he hoped the university would create the nation’s much-needed “thinking elite.” Besides the university and the ministry, a third key institution in which Hussein was especially active as member and president (1940–1973) was the Arabic Language Academy. The academy brought together experts, from Egypt and abroad, to work to protect the language and respond to the modern challenges it was facing. Besides his work with these three key institutions, as minister of public instruction (1950–1952), Hussein created several institutes and university chairs for Arabic and Islamic studies around the Mediterranean, hoping to extend Egypt’s “awakening” and its cultural influence beyond its borders. To ensure the proper operation of all these institutions, he created or restructured what he called “technical councils,” bodies that he believed would empower technocrats and shield them from divisive partisan politics. These technical councils included the Supreme Council of Education, the Supreme Council of the Universities, and the technical office of the language academy, all of which still exist today.


This book also explores the end of Taha Hussein’s institutional project and his inability in the 1950s and ’60s to continue promoting critical thinking and academic freedom. The Second World War and the ongoing British occupation showed the futility of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and quickly put an end to his interwar euphoria. His resentment of the ensuing corrupt politics and the failure of successive governments to address the three famous societal ills of poverty, ignorance, and disease became clear in the series of books and articles he published in the 1940s. His support for patient, peaceful, and long-term negotiations with the British came to an end with his full endorsement of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas’ decision to abrogate the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1951, authorizing armed combat against British forces in the Suez Canal Zone. He then supported the Free Officers’ coup on July 23, 1952, and initially saw Gamal Abdel Nasser as a heroic figure who could break the political deadlock and achieve full independence. But to Hussein’s dismay, the sixth principle of the 1952 coup, calling for creating a healthy democratic life, was put on hold. Then the era of decolonization and state authoritarianism in the 1950s and ’60s dealt heavy blows to his project and his institutions. He was also horrified by the crimes committed by the French in North Africa and these colonizers’ double standards, and he was disheartened by young Arab intellectuals whom he accused of having turned literature into a propaganda machine for the state and willingly giving up their freedom in the name of social realism and committed literature. Increasingly isolated, he found it impossible to advocate his project of natural synthesis between the old and the new, and he died shortly after having confided to Ghali Shukri that he was leaving with “much pain and little hope.” By accepting David Scott’s invitation to read the legacy of anti-colonial figures as tragedies instead of romances, this present study tells the tragic story of the life and death of an alternative Egyptian history, the story of what modern Egypt could have become.