Cover of Egypt
Egypt's Occupation
Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism
Aaron G. Jakes


376 pages.
from $30.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503607194
Paperback ISBN: 9781503612617
Ebook ISBN: 9781503612624

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Winner of the 2021 Middle East Political Economy Book Prize, sponsored by the Political Economy Project.

Winner of the 2021 Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title, sponsored by the American Library Association.

Honorable Mention in the 2021 Roger Owen Book Award, sponsored by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

The history of capitalism in Egypt has long been synonymous with cotton cultivation and dependent development. From this perspective, the British occupation of 1882 merely sealed the country's fate as a vast plantation for European textile mills. All but obscured in such accounts, however, is Egypt's emergence as a colonial laboratory for financial investment and experimentation. Egypt's Occupation tells for the first time the story of that financial expansion and the devastating crises that followed.

Aaron Jakes offers a sweeping reinterpretation of both the historical geography of capitalism in Egypt and the role of political-economic thought in the struggles that raged over the occupation. He traces the complex ramifications and the contested legacy of colonial economism, the animating theory of British imperial rule that held Egyptians to be capable of only a recognition of their own bare economic interests. Even as British officials claimed that "economic development" and the multiplication of new financial institutions would be crucial to the political legitimacy of the occupation, Egypt's early nationalists elaborated their own critical accounts of boom and bust. As Jakes shows, these Egyptian thinkers offered a set of sophisticated and troubling meditations on the deeper contradictions of capitalism and the very meaning of freedom in a capitalist world.

About the author

Aaron G. Jakes is Assistant Professor of History at The New School.

"Egypt's Occupation offers a richly researched study of finance, racism, and popular politics and an insightful account of the fraught relationship between capitalism and democracy in the colonial and post-colonial world. With this book, Aaron Jakes makes an important intervention in our understanding of the history of capitalism."

—Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University

"Aaron Jakes gives us a masterpiece of historical interpretation. Weaving together stories of global finance, imperial rule, the devastations of cash-crop agriculture, and anti-colonial politics, Egypt's Occupation is a rare synthesis: a finely crafted regional study that grasps the worldwide movements of capital and empire at every turn. With elegant prose and extraordinary narrative power, Jakes's insights on modernity's webs of power, capital, and life left me reeling. We will be debating and synthesizing these arguments for many years to come."

—Jason W. Moore, Binghamton University, author of Capitalism in the Web of Life

"An important and engaging rereading of the history of British colonialism in Egypt through the revealing lens of 'colonial economism.' The voices of classic figures, both British and Egyptian, are heard anew as Aaron Jakes guides us smoothly through a forest of thoughts and policies about matters economic and political in British-occupied Egypt."

—Judith E. Tucker, Georgetown University

"Aaron Jakes has written a definitive study of the British occupation of Egypt.[A] magisterial account."

—Robert L. Tignor, Middle East Journal

"Jakes's book is a much-welcomed contribution, reflecting a renewed interest in political economy analysis—and critical political economy as such—that reunites the study of economic theory and interests with that of colonial politics."

—Relli Schechter, Mediterranean Historical Review

"Jakes has produced a well-written, rewarding reinterpretation of Britain's occupation of Egypt from 1882 to WW I in 1914 that will engage serious readers... Egypt's Occupation skillfully ties together important economic and political themes and may become the definitive analysis of Britain in Egypt. Highly recommended."

—B. Harris Jr., CHOICE

"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,

"Jakes' powerful merging of economic and intellectual history advances the U.S.-dominated field of 'histories of capitalism' and provides a detailed account of the impact of colonialism on economic underdevelopment through an authoritative study of the British occupation of Egypt. The book adds important new dimensions to this crowded field of scholarship by relying on novel Egyptian archival and press sources to approach the subject through the eyes of the Egyptian population. Jakes argues that the British aimed to improve the fortunes of the ordinary peasant farmer in order to cement their control over Egypt. In a strategy he terms 'economism,' Jakes traces how the British promoted light taxation and increased access to irrigation for cotton cultivation while expressly avoiding efforts to reform the country in the European model, a choice they justified on culturalist grounds. In the end, these policies worsened the fortunes of the fellahin and enhanced the position of large landholders, leaving Egypt in far worse shape than when they originally took over."

—Committee for the Roger Owen Book Award, sponsored by the Middle East Studies Section

"In its theoretical and empirical exposition of the relationship between colonial governance and economism, this ambitious book's reach goes far beyond Middle East studies. It is about the modern global structures of domination and subordination wrought in and through the instantiation of capitalist relations across the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This history is a past, but it has not passed. Those structures—remade as they continuously have been over the last century—continue to shape our world, albeit now with China joining in the global movement toward "formless dismembering" and with economism wedded to culturalism in as potently poisonous a discourse as ever. In mining Egypt's past, Jakes's book contributes hugely to this critique of our present."

—Rebecca E. Karl, Arab Studies Journal

"Given its theoretical breadth and analytical specificity and sophistication, the book's compelling re-examination of the purpose and native reception to Britain's occupation promises to be applicable beyond Egypt and the field of Middle East studies and succeeds in being a fascinating read that deftly weaves together a wide range of subjects."

—Kylie Broderick, Maydan

"Some books are scholarly works of the finest type, impressively researched and crafted, whereas others are altogether groundbreaking in how they push the boundaries of knowledge and elicit novel ways of looking at things, reinterpret, and conceptualize previously seldom questioned categories and notions. Aaron G. Jakes's latest book definitely belongs in the latter category. Radically revisiting and critically engaging a long tradition of the economic and social history of colonial Egypt, Jakes has written an arresting history of the British occupation of Egypt from 1882 until the proclamation of the country's independence in 1922 through the prism of colonial economism, a discourse prioritizing economic development over political reform in the context of the imperial civilizing mission."

—Francesca Biancani, International Journal of Middle East Studies