The History and Memory of Banditry in Modern Egypt: The Controversy of Adham al-Sharqawi
Author(s)Ezzeldin, Mohammed Saaid
Contributor(s)Abi Mershed, Osama
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In October 1921 Adham al-Sharqawi was shot dead by Egyptian secret police troops after a manhunt which had lasted for several months. Adham's raids on trains, colonial officials, rural notables and landlords created controversial afterlives. His story, in the following years, oscillated between official and historical narratives (urban newspapers, court records and police reports) which considered him a bandit and outlaw, and the popular memory (especially in peasant's ballads or mawawil) that casted him as noble criminal and folk hero.
The bourgeoisie tendency to marginalize the efforts and participation of the poorer classes in the revolution and to discredit the role of bandits is deeply inculcated in modern Egyptian history. In this thesis I focus on the category of bandit and aim to present a critical perspective on modernity and nationalism in Egypt from a new point of departure: criminal subjectivity. In other words, I am dealing with the questions of how crime is defined, interpreted, lessened, and, more crucially - how criminal subjectivity is created. I argue that the defining, imagining and portraying of criminals plays a critical part in the process of identity formation and the regulation of citizens- those who are the shareholders of an imagined community referred to as the nation. The idea of the nation is always imagined as both a virtuous and pure entity, thus it is based on a number of dichotomies such as, us versus them, law versus crime, order versus chaos and citizens versus criminals.
I trackback to a crucial period in the modern history of Egypt, between the eruption of the national revolution against British colonialism in 1919 and the attainment of quasi-independence after the declaration of the constitutional monarchy in 1923. This time period witnessed a relative upsurge in crime rates, especially in the countryside, and the question of fighting and eliminating crime became, to a great extent, a national concern connected to national security, public morality and the establishment of a modern society.
The rise of bandits' raids on estates and attacks on landlords and police officers became a nationalist concern not only with regards to maintaining order and the rule of law, but also to disciplining the peasantry and to perpetuating their domination by the central state and by urban elites. In addition to the reaction of the state, aristocracy and nationalist intelligentsia to the rural insurgency, the countryside became a cornerstone in the rise of social sciences in modern Egypt. Rural crime reflected the ideological hegemony that permeates the urban discourse of politics, law and sciences.
Instead of examining the biographies of the nationalist elite or studying the records of official negotiations- which are still indispensably important- I will narrate the story of the nation based on the biography of a bandit, as it was documented in police reports, courts verdicts, judges' memoires, colonial commentators eports, national administrative archives and newspapers. Crime plays a twofold role in my argument. On the one hand, I am studying how crime became an object of analysis and observation in the writings of political reformers, police chiefs and criminologists. On the other hand, I will investigate how these political and scientific discourses created crime as an object of knowledge.
Studying the history of crime in modern Egypt sheds light on forgotten stories regarding the nation and its fragments, and about modernity and its discontents. The history of crime completes the missing piece of the history of law and order. Correspondingly, criminal subjectivity was not only considered as being on the social and legal margins of society, with criminals identified as deviants and outlaws, but also on the moral and political margins of the nation as an imagined community.
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