This chapter examines Hussein's efforts, as minister of public instruction between 1950 and 1952, to create Egyptian cultural institutes and university chairs in the Mediterranean region and situate Egypt as the guardian of Arabic and Islamic studies. Setting the stage for the rest of the book, this chapter presents the reader with an unfamiliar Taha Hussein who tried to fight French colonial policies in North Africa. The details of his little known conflict with France over the creation of such institutes in the Maghrib tell the story of Egypt's official transregional involvement in the Maghrib, years before Nasser's pan-Arabism and Egypt's rising cultural influence in the region. Despite Hussein's controversial claim that culture should transcend politics, the details of his negotiations with the French reveal that for him, the cultural was always in fact political and constituted the cornerstone of his anti-colonial project.
This chapter establishes the links between Taha Hussein, the nahda, and the Egyptian University. It shows that the private Egyptian University had internalized one of the Arab nahda's central tenets prescribing a revival of Arab-Islamic classical thought into which new European ideas and research methodologies would be integrated. Hussein's was a complex intellectual outlook. The chapter situates his lifelong commitment to building the Egyptian University and his fierce defense of classical Arabic within the larger framework of the nahda and calls by earlier nahdawis for reviving and engaging critically with the classical humanist adab tradition. This chapter also shows that the humanities program of the private university, with its novelty and limited career options, and the university's financial difficulties, proved formidably challenging, resulting in the end of the private initiative and the beginning of state control of the university.
Chapter 3 explores how Hussein positioned the Faculty of Arts as the driver of the nahda and the cornerstone of Egyptian democratic life. He saw the university as providing the intellectual leaders capable of diagnosing the country's problems, proposing adequate solutions, and designing the national curriculum necessary to create a modern politically active citizenry. This chapter analyzes Hussein's response to the challenges of Egypt's parliamentary system, within which he advocated and implemented his project through his alliance with the Wafd party. Hussein was conscious of the shortcomings of Egypt's partisan politics, and this chapter reveals how he created technical councils to shield technocrats and policymakers from the rapid turnover of political power. Finally, the chapter analyzes how Hussein implicitly predicated the success of his entire project on the existence of a parliamentary system holding accountable what he believed was an inevitable and necessary state role in promoting culture and education.
Chapter 4 looks at the role Hussein played, as a member and then president of the Arabic Language Academy (1940–1973), in diversifying authority over classical Arabic and breaking al-Azhar's monopoly over it. For Hussein, classical Arabic was at the heart of his reform project, and the means to create the desired continuity between past and present while ensuring stronger communication among all Arabs. In a period of intense debates about modernizing the language, he strongly resisted calls to impose colloquial usage or to Latinize the alphabet, following the Turkish example. He believed the Faculty of Arts and the Arabic Language Academy were better prepared than al-Azhar to meet the challenges of keeping the language relevant and making it more accessible, with new terms, simpler grammatical rules, modern dictionaries, and trained Arabic language teachers.
Chapter 5 looks at Hussein's relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser and his eventual marginalization. Hussein's calls for a return to parliamentary life waned as he hailed Nasser's anti-colonial foreign policy. He remained silent on Nasser's domestic policies, which undermined the two institutional pillars of Hussein's vision for the nahda: parliament and the university. The chapter explores Hussein's public disagreement with Nasser's policies, which Hussein believed undermined the study of the humanities and dismissed important pre-1952 cultural achievements. Hussein's refusal to endorse "committed literature," which distanced him from the younger generation of writers and intellectuals, his shock at the French violence in Algeria, and the general anti-Western atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s left him isolated and made it impossible for him to promote his synthesis of the "old" and the "new." Finally, Hussein was dismissed from the daily newspaper al-Jumhuriyya in 1964.
This chapter sums up the main findings of the book in terms of Taha Hussein's focus on institution building and the success of his project, and on the Egyptian parliament, in enacting enduring institutional reforms and policies, such as free pre-university education and expanding Egyptian cultural influence abroad, this despite all the difficulties and frustrations of this period. The conclusion also emphasizes the ways in which the political changes that took place in the 1950s and '60s undermined the two institutions that were the pillar of Hussein's project—the university and the parliament—and left him disappointed and marginalized.