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Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism

Author(s):Aaron G. Jakes
Reviewer(s):Johan Mathew, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University

Published by EH.Net (September 2021).

Aaron G. Jakes. Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020. xvii + 352 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-5036-1261-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Johan Mathew, Department of History, Rutgers University.


The British occupation of Egypt is well-trod ground for scholars. The impact of colonialism in Egypt has been fodder for historical debate since before we could speak of occupation in the past tense. When other regions of the Middle East or Africa or Asia are woefully neglected by scholars, there must be a high bar to justify yet another monograph on colonial Egypt. Thankfully, Aaron Jakes’s Egypt’s Occupation clears that bar with room to spare.

Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism masterfully weaves together intellectual history, global history, financial history, and political economy to interrogate the ways that colonial rule was justified and the ways it was contested. It is also, perhaps most potently, a history of capitalism as it coursed up the Nile River, across the fields and through the minds of Egyptians and their occupiers. In eight densely argued chapters, the book moves from the beginning of British occupation in 1882 through to 1914 when the veiled protectorate is sundered with formal colonization at the onset of the First World War. Through this analytic/chronological narrative we see how colonial policy and economic development unfolded in tension with local challenges and global crises.

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the many subtle insights and arresting details that Jakes provides to bolster his arguments so I will limit myself in this review to what I understand as the main conceptual contributions of this work. Egypt’s Occupation convincingly details how colonial officials represented Egyptian peasants as a caricature of homo economicus: able to rationally calculate their economic self-interest but unable to comprehend the collective public good and thus incapable of self-government. This caricature justified indefinite colonial rule, but over several decades it also materially transformed Egypt such that those peasants were now inescapably entangled in the web of global capital flows and forced to constantly react and respond. But in this gloomy narrative, Jakes finds a glimmer of hope in the economic thought of Egyptian nationalists, who were able to diagnose this convoluted predicament and offer possibilities for escaping it. Thus the book as a whole is a powerful argument for intellectual history as economic history.

Another important thread that runs through the work is Egypt’s location in a global process of economic transformation. This is not simply about Britain’s occupation of Egypt, but rather how Egypt served as a laboratory whose experiments were circulated and reproduced in the Philippines, India, and elsewhere. Moreover, the capital wielded by the City of London roamed the globe looking for the highest returns. Egypt became a preferred destination for financial investment because it offered some of the highest returns and imperial power mitigated most of the risks. Egypt, in all its diversity and complexity, was thus reduced to a rate of return easily comparable to India, Ireland or Iowa.

Jakes’s unique take on this important story is to follow the ways that this commensurability was harnessed by critics of colonial rule. The 1907 financial crisis became a moment of stark clarity in which the underlying realities of colonial capitalism were exposed in the Egyptian press. We see how the easy appraisal of Egypt against other sites of investment made it possible for Egyptian intellectuals to appraise the comparative failures of colonial economic policy. A financial crash initiated by an earthquake in San Francisco had crushed the Egyptian fellahin (peasantry) because of the misguided colonial economism of their British rulers. The very commensurability of Egypt as a financial security thus became the whetstone on which anti-colonial critiques could be sharpened. In the process, Egypt’s Occupation shows that the seemingly derivative ideas of anti-colonial thought, held the seeds of innovative economic frameworks that would come to flower decades later in the Soviet Union or Latin America.

Certain readers of this review may find it frustrating that there is little in the way of quantitative analysis of the issues presented. However, I hope that more quantitatively inclined readers will appreciate Jakes’s argument that statistics on the Egyptian economy were created to justify colonial rule and instantiate colonial economism. That being said, there is a possibility that creative statistical analysis, or even traditional modes of labor history might have mitigated an absence of which Jakes is only too aware. For all the power of intellectual history, it ultimately renders the Egyptian fellah at the center of this study a mute object for English and Egyptian elites to ponder. Subaltern studies has demonstrated the acute challenge of recovering the intellectual life of such peasants. Nevertheless, one longs for a better sense of how these new ideas and momentous changes were experienced in the fields of the Nile Delta.

One should not fault a book for not being a different kind of book, but I am pushed to do so because there is so little within these arguments to critique. The laser focus on this carefully defined period of Egyptian history means that there are few holes to poke in the argument or the evidence. But in the sheer precision of the argumentation one wonders whether Jakes is selling some important ideas short. The concept of colonial economism would seem to have tremendous value for understanding post-colonial Egypt, or the contemporary efforts of international institutions and authoritarian rulers to manufacture political consent through economic development. Such claims would be messier, subject to greater qualms, and require a more accessible style of argumentation. Yet in getting churned through wider debate these ideas might gain the kinds of attention they deserve beyond the ivory tower.

Like the finest Egyptian long-staple cotton, Egypt’s Occupation is an ideal union of strength of argumentation and beauty of prose. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of Egypt or the history of economic thought. It will be of great interest to intellectual historians, colonial historians, and scholars of Middle East Studies and political economy. It deserves to be read by anyone concerned with the inequities and contradictions of global capitalism.


Johan Mathew is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. His publications include Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (University of California Press, 2016) and “On Principals and Agency: Reassembling Trust in Indian Ocean Commerce” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2019).

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII