What does it mean to write about a historical moment, a historical event, that was as complex and emotional as decolonisation? This was a moment that changed the world and created contemporary politics as we know it. But just as importantly, it was a moment very much created through the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of people across the world – people who, for the longest time, had been struggling with the weight of European empire. The other side of hope is, of course, defeat, and disappointment, failure and defeat are equally part of the story of decolonisation. Given the complexities of the moment, and the emotional investments of so many people, what does it mean to write about and produce knowledge about it?
This question has preoccupied me since I began writing a book on decolonisation and anticolonialism in Egypt. Finishing it and sending off the manuscript left me feeling uneasy, and I began to explore that feeling and why it had suddenly become so overwhelming. In trying to stay away from two extreme positions – romanticising Nasserism and broader anticolonial projects on the one hand, or announcing them as failures that had never aimed to do anything but amass power into a few hands on the other – I found myself charting an uneasy path away from these two positions. To me, anticolonial state-led projects were both liberation movements and anti-democratic. This contradiction does not need to be, and ultimately cannot be, resolved by us now by reflecting back on that moment. Instead, I am more interested in sitting with this contradiction, unpacking it, thinking with it, and ultimately, letting it be.
The moment was a complex one. It is difficult to overstate the pressures facing new nations such as Egypt. The response from the UK, France and Israel to the nationalization of the Suez Canal is just one example of how intent colonial powers were on maintaining an empire by other means. And so I have always been uncomfortable with narratives about Nasserism that write of the entire project as disingenuous, mistaken, and the worst thing to ever happen to Egypt. Nasserism as a project, after all, very much built on and then co-opted broader anticolonial energies in Egypt, from students and workers to feminists and communists. The anticolonial moment, then, was never just about Nasser as a figure, although he certainly became intensely symbolic. And while there is little doubt that Nasser’s project was an anti-democratic one, to write it off also means dismissing important changes that took place in the 50s and 60s, not least nationalisations, material and ideological solidarity with Africa and the rest of the postcolonial world, a shift away from European capital and influence, and the opening up of social services to millions of Egyptians.
To me, a more important critique of Nasserism – one that could be made of many anticolonial state-led projects – is instead centered on capitalism on the one hand, and what Julietta Singh calls “mastery” on the other. Although a discourse of Arab socialism was central to Nasserism, the continuation of state-led capitalist development at a moment during which there was such a large global outpouring of hope for a different economic way of being was a clear betrayal of the anticolonial spirit. Alongside this, the move by many postcolonial nations to govern through “mastery” – over nature, over population, over the self, and so on – represents a clear continuity with colonial modes of governing, rather than an embrace of an anticolonial politics. To me, these are the damaging and violent legacies of the anticolonial moment – or what I call the anticolonial afterlives – that we have to live with today.
All of the above points to why I believed it was important to write about Egypt’s anticolonial project through its contradictions, and to situate it within global politics at a time when there seemed to be some kind of opening, the possibility, at last, that things could change.
But once I began to dig deeper, it seemed to me there was something else that was part of the unease, something to do with language, representation, and academic writing. It felt as though there was always some form of injustice being done in trying to represent such a complex and highly emotional moment. I wonder, still, if academic writing is the best way of capturing politics that are so tightly interwoven with hope, despair, disappointment, and fear? I found myself cringing at parts of the text where I said things like “this shows that…” or “they failed to…”
On the one hand, I think it matters that we make claims to knowledge based on anticolonial and decolonial perspectives, given how marginal these are, especially in Area Studies. And so I don’t think that the answer is to remove such claims. But I do also see how they work to concretize something that was not concrete; to solidify and fix into place things that were fluid and expansive. This hit me when I re-read Arwa Salih’s memoir recently, where she so evocatively paints a picture of the Left under Nasser and then Sadat. A memoir perhaps opens up more space to delve into what it means to live with the afterlives of such momentous political times. The book is a reckoning, a call to think about the political projects we support without thinking through what that may mean for the future. Here I remember again Singh’s reminder that projects built around mastering something – anything – are projects that have not extracted all colonial residue from within themselves.
There are also so many things I simply don’t know about anticolonialism in Egypt, so many questions I still have. It haunts me in the way it haunts Egypt – it is a moment we know matters very deeply, but we can’t always express how, or why. How do we speak to the ghosts, and what might they want?
I have already noted a shift in how I write. I say ‘explore’ or ‘think through’ instead of ‘argue’ or ‘demonstrate.’ Instead of ‘using’ scholars or theories I think alongside them. And instead of trying to tone down the centrality of emotions to politics, I centre them. 2011 was another reminder that it is not just that the way we feel is political, but that feelings create politics. The two are always intertwined. I am also less interested in making things legible to audience X, whether that is sociologists, American sociology, policy-makers, a wider British audience, etc (all things I’ve been asked to do recently). Making things legible is an injustice because that mode of translation is never politically innocent. Anticolonial work already has an audience, and to me, that is the only audience that really matters.
These disparate reflections are the product of an on-going attempt by me to sift through feelings I’ve been feeling for a few years now. I have had so many conversations with friends about my anxieties about mis-representing this period of Egyptian history, or being read in certain ways. Ultimately, though, it helps me to think about this work as a process of reflection and thinking-through rather than resolving old questions or representing a particular moment. Anticolonialism as a moment in Egypt can never really be represented, and certainly not in an academic book written in English. It affected so many people, and had so many contradictory effects, that it would be too much to cover in any piece – or even body – of work. Instead, it seems to me that what could be important is to draw connections, between then (1952) and now (2011), between theorists who aren’t always read together (in this case, Fanon and Gramsci), and between hopes, dreams, and disappointments that colour different moments in ways that sometimes collapse the time between them.
Avery Gordon writes, “To be haunted is to be tied to historical and social effects.” To write stories of exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories. Ghosts represent loss, paths not taken, alternative roads never traveled down. In a sense, this means that they can also—at the same time—represent hope, and future possibilities. As Samah Selim writes:
Legacies are ambivalent things. The hundreds of thousands of young men and women who took the streets in 2011 were also haunted by the ghosts of the past; their language, their songs and symbols, their remembering of bygone battles all drew on a history rich with the struggle for freedom.
Nasserism haunts us precisely because we are tied to its historical and social effects – both the productive and destructive ones. Ghosts are there because they represent unresolved tensions. They point to holes in the social fabric, suggest moments in our neat nationalist histories that are not as pristine as we like to think. 2011 may have been an attempt to confront the ghosts of past revolutions, but it, in turn, has created its own ghosts. Revisiting decolonisation, then, is less about resolving debates or old questions, and more about meeting these ghosts, and thinking about what they could represent.