Imagined Empires: A History of Revolt in Egypt

Author: Zeinab Abul-Magd
Publisher: University of California Press, 2012
Reviewed by: Adel Iskandar




Imperial projects are conceived and administered transnationally while experienced locally. In this landmark work by Zeinab Abul-Magd, the locale she chose to investigate is neither the center of colonial power, nor an urban magisterial headquarter, but rather a "marginal" city in Upper Egypt. Qina, a city in Egypt’s Al-Sa’eed region was either systematically overlooked or functionally forgotten by scholars and historians for many years, eclipsed by the more cosmopolitan, urban, and dynamic spaces of imperial influence. In another startlingly challenging research decision, Abul-Magd chooses to investigate the history of revolt not administration over a 500-year period. At a time when most records often obfuscated dissent and grandiosely represented instruments and institutions of power, the author here excavates the underbelly of the archives and challenges hegemonic historicism to offer a novel look at the politicization of Upper Egypt. She does this in truly exceptional fashion, irrevocably shifting the scholarly discourse on this region of the country and opening up the area for subsequent study of politics. The uniqueness of both the locale and the scope of the study are what make Imagined Empires a critical contribution to an already scarce literature on the region and the subject matter.


To undertake this research project, Abul-Magd embraced the unenviable task of becoming an historical, political scientist, sociologist, and anthropologist—in one fell swoop. While reluctant to reflexively introduce herself into the manuscript, Abul-Magd is still able to relay the contemporary anti-imperial counter-hegemonic resistance in Qina from an ethnographic (and sometimes subtlely personal) perspective While some may find fault in the telescopic nature of such temporally expansive research, it is, nevertheless, a colossal intellectual project whose ambition to fill a cavernous vacuum in the canon, is not just commendable, but admirable.


In the perennial dismissal of Upper Egypt as a focal point of political and economic contestation extends to contemporary discourses where it is assumed that there region is site of counter-revolutionary complicity or disengaged cooperation with the political status quo. At the height of the 2011 revolution and the ensuing political turmoil, popular depictions of Upper Egypt imply a greater commitment to procedural participation rather than revolutionary dissidence. Abul-Magd not only makes a compelling case that metropolitan bias manufactures this image and is reinforced by a centuries-old imperial modernization project, she also demonstrates the ways in which local resistance is an integral part of the body politic in Upper Egypt. In fact, Abul-Magd goes even farther and argues that the region’s impenetrability to colonial expansion and steadfast resistance to governability made regions like Qina, while economically exploited, beyond the scope of successful societal subjugation from the time of Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha onwards.


The subalterity of Upper Egypt as absent from the national discourse of the state has been a hallmark of the marginalization of places like Qena from a heavily Cairene elite bourgeoisie view of both power and its resolute antagonism.Imagined Empires brings this bias in the problematic conceptualization of an urban nationalist project to a screeching halt. To do so, Abul-Magd meticulously parsed through a daunting amount of archival material to contribute a meta-analysis of research on Upper Egypt and a topical theorization of rebellion precisely in history’s blind spot.


While a serious study, Imagined Empires is an extremely readable manuscript that proceeds through the various eras—from Ottoman to contemporary revolutionary—with fluidity and didactic intrigue. Midway through the book, the reader feels genuinely and organically attached to Qina, intrigued by its predicament, fascinated by its newfound particularities, and curious about its advancements through history to the current moment. The latest chapter in the story is the postcolonial critique of the American imperial project through “market missionaries,” “modernization,” and economic liberalization and how this manifests locally in Qina. While this is the least developed section in the book largely due to its contemporaneity, it nevertheless challenges the notion that Upper Egypt was a spectator to the growing resistance to neoliberal policymaking and a bystander in the ensuing revolutionary mobilization that erupted in 2011.


What Abul-Magd does to the historicization of Qina is akin to what Albert Hourani did to the historicization of the Arab peoples. Political contestation, social unrest, complex confessional relations, competing cultural contours, and deep economic tapestries all come alive in Abul-Magd’s Qina. No serious scholar on Egypt’s political topography can afford to overlook Imagined Empires.

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