Desert Borderland
The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya
Matthew H. Ellis


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Rethinking Territorial Egypt
chapter abstract

The Introduction lays out the book's central argument about territoriality. I argue that Egypt constitutes an important case study given that it assumed more territorial definition as a modern nation-state in the late nineteenth century despite the absence of demarcated borders or clear-cut cartographic evidence. I seek to challenge prevailing historiography on territoriality that emphasizes the salience of border treaties and authoritative representational practices such as mapping, by showing instead the range of mechanisms that undergirded the projection of centralized territoriality in the nineteenth century. This argument has implications well beyond Egypt: territoriality as practiced—which we can glimpse by uncovering the lived experience of territoriality across the variegated domains of state space—was always a multilayered process of negotiation between an array of state and nonstate actors.

1 Legal Exceptionalism in Egypt's Borderlands
chapter abstract

This chapter opens with a brief overview of the historical geography of the Egyptian West, highlighting the diversity within the region's human and physical landscapes. It then moves on to illustrate the uneven political geography of the Egyptian nation-state in the late nineteenth century by highlighting two salient themes: the persistence of legal exceptionalism in the western oases and other desert territories, even after Egypt's state-wide judicial reforms starting in the 1870s; and the state's fraught efforts to standardize its policy vis-à-vis Egypt's bedouin population around the country. Both these themes illustrate the emergence of Egypt's borderlands as enclaves of exceptionalism within the emergent Egyptian nation-state. Accordingly, the chapter questions prevailing notions of territorial sovereignty in the nineteenth century and argues against normative Euro-centric top-down frameworks for understanding the process of state-building in the period.

2 Accommodating Egyptian Sovereignty in Siwa
chapter abstract

This chapter takes us to Siwa—the westernmost oasis in Egypt, which acquired an almost mythic status as Egypt's final frontier during the nineteenth century. The chapter zooms in on the Siwan political scene in the 1890s, when the Egyptian state intensified its efforts to unify its ruling authority across its various territorial domains. In contrast to the normative accounts of state centralization and local resistance, the chapter explores how a variety of local, nonstate actors—the Sanusiyya, foremost among them—played a crucial mediating role in the Egyptian government's effort to exercise sovereignty over Siwa in this critical decade. The chapter illustrates this dynamic by focusing on the local negotiations of power between state and nonstate actors in Siwa that resulted in the formalization of the traditional Siwan elite's customary authority.

3 'Abbas Hilmi II and the Anatomy of a Siwan Murder
chapter abstract

This chapter advances the book's argument about territoriality by examining the layers of contested sovereignty in Siwa after the Khedive 'Abbas Hilmi's historic visit to the oasis in 1906. In part through his Da'ira Khassa (the administration of the Khedivial properties), the Khedive mobilized a network of political operatives to serve his own political designs and project his sovereign authority and legitimacy far and wide. In Siwa, this took the form of buying up local property, building a grand new mosque, and providing employment for the Siwan population at large. The Khedive also successfully integrated his private network into the traditional hierarchy of local shaykhs in the oasis. This allowed him to garner sovereignty legitimacy where the colonial Egyptian government failed—a development that is thrown into relief with my careful reconstruction of a little-known Siwan murder case in 1909.

4 Cultivating Territorial Sovereignty in the Western Desert
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 explores the relationship between territoriality and economic development in late-nineteenth-century Egypt. It argues that this period witnessed a raft of projects aimed at what, in the French colonial context, was called mise en valeur—the reclamation of barren, unprofitable land. After surveying a number of such projects undertaken under the auspices of the Egyptian government, the chapter then turns its attention to the Khedive's own grand development schemes in the Egyptian West. Foremost among these was the Maryut Railway, which he intended to run from the outskirts of Alexandria all the way to the Libyan border. The Maryut Railway functioned as one of several projects through which the Khedive sought to transform the Egyptian West into a more personalized realm of territorial sovereignty. In this regard, the Khedive strove to outdo the British Residency at its own logic of "economism" as a doctrine of ruling legitimacy.

5 The Limits of Ottoman Sovereignty in the Eastern Sahara
chapter abstract

This chapter documents the emergence of the Eastern Sahara as a contested borderland zone, marked by a nascent political rivalry between the Ottoman state and the "autonomous province" of Egypt. The view from the borderland allows us to glimpse fundamental limitations in the Ottoman exercise of sovereignty in the Eastern Sahara, particularly as Egypt acted increasingly as an independent centralizing state in its own right. Through its analysis of bedouin mobility across the invisible Egyptian-Libyan border, the chapter demonstrates that the tribes stood to gain a great deal by negotiating the onset of state power, alternately claiming or ignoring the existence of a border depending on their particular needs and interests at a given moment. Territorialization in the Eastern Sahara was thus a direct consequence of bedouin spatial practices, which threw into relief the vacuum in state authority at this marginal space between Ottoman Libyan and Egyptian sovereignty.

6 The Emergence of Egypt's Western Border Conflict
chapter abstract

This chapter documents the emergence of a bona fide "border crisis" in the Eastern Sahara in the decade prior to the Italian occupation of Ottoman Libya. Through a nuanced investigation of a range of primary sources, the chapter illustrates the interactive and multilayered process through which a sharper sense of borderland territorialization—a sense of there being distinctive Libyan and Ottoman territorial spheres—emerged in these pivotal years. Bedouin spatial practices were again central, drawing the Ottoman and Egyptian states deeper into political-diplomatic rivalry, while the Italian state seized upon the instability caused by the bedouin unrest to stake its own territorial claims. In this decade of heated inter-imperial rivalry and contestation, Egyptian sovereign capabilities emerged as ascendant in the region, to the deep chagrin of local Ottoman officials.

Conclusion: Unsettling the Egyptian-Libyan Border
chapter abstract

The conclusion uses a variety of archival materials to document the fraught diplomatic negotiations that took place between the Italian and Egyptian governments from the end of World War I until 1925–26, when a border delimitation agreement was finally signed. At the same time, however, the chapter illustrates the limitations of this agreement—how it actually left much unsettled in the borderland in terms of national citizenship and belonging. The book ends with a meditation on how the mechanisms of territorial nation-statehood still seem elusive in this region, which again wrestles with the mobility of the local population as a destabilizing force.