The Last Nahdawi
Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt
Hussam R. Ahmed



ON JANUARY 25, 2011, thousands of young Egyptians took to the streets in peaceful protests demanding freedom, justice, and human dignity. Escalating events marred by state violence quickly fixed the world’s eyes on Tahrir Square, lying at the heart of modern Cairo, on the east bank of the River Nile. Tahrir Square quickly became the symbol of the Egyptian Revolution that was to topple President Husni Mubarak’s regime on February 11, 2011, after thirty years in power. Until General ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi deposed the democratically elected President Muhammad Mursi on July 3, 2013, the square continued to attract protesters angry with successive military and civilian governments. Ruling the country with an iron fist, Sisi reclaimed the square in the name of stability, as he skillfully diverted attention from citizens’ demands for justice to the survival of the Egyptian state during the so-called Arab Spring, arguably the most devastating period in modern Arab history, with millions of casualties and displacements.

Historian Leyla Dakhli has described how the protesters in Tunisia who triggered the Arab Spring in late 2010 drew upon a legacy of Tunisian social movements. She remarks that only some of those protestors saw a continuity with earlier battles fought by their parents. In the absence of what she describes as “handbooks of the struggles of 1968, 1978, or 1983,” protesters waved old combat flags and chanted fiery slogans without realizing their historical meaning.1 Similarly, most Egyptians in Tahrir Square saw the 2011 revolution as an unprecedented protest, and not as one in a series of historical moments in which generations of Egyptians had demanded freedom and accountability. Such moments are often obscured by a potent nationalist narrative pitting the nation against conspiring foreign powers and their local collaborators while infantilizing citizens and dismissing their ability to fathom, let alone deal with, challenges facing the country.

Ironically, as protesters gathered in the square in front of the headquarters of the Arab League and the square’s five-star hotel, demanding involvement in decision making, they did not realize they were standing in front of the site where there should have been a new Egyptian Parliament building. The story of that unrealized project goes back to the massive demonstrations that broke out in 1946 demanding an end to British occupation. In the aftermath of those demonstrations, Britain returned Qasr al-Nil barracks, an all-time constant symbol of British occupation in the heart of the capital, to Egypt in 1947. In the same year, Muhammad Dhulfiqar proposed revamping the square to be the showpiece of modern Egypt’s state and cultural prowess, and a constant reminder of the supremacy of the people over the executive. He proposed building new headquarters for the Council of Ministers, Cairo Municipality, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several museums, which would adjoin the already existing Museum for Egyptian Antiquities. In his sketch shown here, Dhulfiqar assigned this prime location on the Nile to a new parliament, a gigantic neoclassical design inspired by the Capitol building, to be dedicated to the sovereignty of the people.2 The post-1952 regime discarded the proposal, however, and the Egyptian Parliament remains tucked away between Qasr al-ʿAini and Sheikh Rihan Streets, impossible to see from the square.

Demonstrators in front of the British barracks in 1946 would have recognized the iconic writer and educator Dr. Taha Hussein (1889–1973). By the mid-1940s, he had written dozens of literary classics and hundreds of articles. His stature as the “Dean of Arabic Literature” and leading intellectual in the modern Arab world was, and still is, beyond dispute. Yet, these demonstrators would have also known him as a fearless public voice calling for full independence, sound democracy, and social justice. The well-respected academic was also a senior civil servant and an active politician associated with Egypt’s most popular nationalist party, the Wafd. In 1950, his decision as the Wafd’s minister of public instruction to introduce universal free secondary education would go down in history as one of his greatest achievements. As this study will show, this famous executive decision was one of many such that he made and was the culmination of a much larger, coherent three-decade project of institution building, the implementation of which mocked clear-cut distinctions between thought and action, and between culture and politics, despite Hussein’s public claims that art and culture should remain above political motives.

FIGURE 1. Sketch for the redesign of Ismailiyya (Tahrir) Square. Source: Al-Musawwar, no. 1173 (April 4, 1947): 8. (Creative Commons - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Hussein restructured and built the institutions he believed were necessary to engage with both the Arab-Islamic classical tradition and new western ideas, produce the knowledge required to achieve intellectual parity with Europe, and force European powers to recognize Egypt’s full independence. All these institutions, including universities, a language academy, and several technical councils, persisted under the postcolonial state, pointing to significant continuities between parliamentary and Nasserite Egypt. After Hussein’s exclusion from decision-making circles in the 1950s, critics and scholars considering the earlier period focused exclusively on his thought, and his reception today continues to be overdetermined by passages in some of his published work in which he pushed for a deep intellectual cooperation with Europe while idealizing culture as more noble and more enduring than politics. This book shifts the focus to Hussein’s action and his role in building Egypt’s educational and cultural institutional infrastructure within a challenging colonial context. Understanding his political career is essential not only to making proper sense of his extended and often controversial legacy but also to opening up an important moment in modern Egyptian history, a pertinent precursor to 2011.

That important moment was Egypt’s parliamentary period, between its nominal independence from Great Britain in 1922 and the army coup in 1952, which ended the rule of the Muhammad Ali dynasty (1805–1953). As it ushered in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s authoritarian rule (1954–1970), the coup betokened the end of serious attempts to configure a durable Egyptian democracy. An overly familiar colonial trope describing Egypt’s soil as inhospitable to democracy then became an enduring postcolonial one. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour in 2011, ʿUmar Sulayman, Mubarak’s chief intelligence officer and vice president, warned that Egyptians did not have what he called “the culture of democracy” and cautioned that chaos might arise if Mubarak were to make a hasty departure (despite his thirty years in power).3 The military coup in 2013 and the toppling of Muhammad Mursi seemed only to confirm that democracy was foreign to Egyptian society. International media, using what veteran historian Thomas Philipp has described as “hyperbole,” sensationalized these events by describing Mursi as “Egypt’s first freely elected president in 5,000 years,” ignoring, as Philipp points out, that “the rule of law and constitutionalism have been debated, developed, and even temporarily implemented in the Middle East for over 200 years,” and that in the 1920s and ’30s, “Egypt established a fully-functioning freely elected parliament with well-organized parties.”4 Taha Hussein was actively involved in this parliamentary system. To develop his projects and ensure the efficient operation of various institutions and policies, he successfully won voters to his views and insisted all governments must be held accountable to parliament, the legitimate representative of the Egyptian people. This book is the story of institutions of culture and education and their ties to emergent democratic practices in Egypt’s parliamentary period, viewed through the life and work of Taha Hussein.

Taha Hussein

Taha Hussein was born on November 15, 1889, in the village of ʿIzbat al-Kilu, near the town of Maghagha in the Upper Egyptian province of al-Miniya. He lost his eyesight at the age of three, due to a maltreated ophthalmia. While his blindness caused him much distress throughout his life, it also added an aura of heroism and even genius to his exceptional intellectual accomplishments. His disability did not stop him from pursuing his studies at the village kuttab (elementary school), in a traditional educational system that had long accommodated the blind. He had memorized the Qurʾan by the age of nine, and in 1902, went to continue his studies at the prestigious mosque-university of al-Azhar in Cairo, where, mostly through his brother Ahmad and Ahmad’s friends, he came under the influence of the religious scholar and modernist reformer Sheikh Muhammad ʿAbduh. It was also at al-Azhar that he was introduced to the classics of Arabic literature by Sheikh Sayyid ʿAli al-Marsafi (1862–1931). Disappointed with al-Azhar’s teaching methods emphasizing memorization and verbal analysis, however, he was among the first students to register at the new Egyptian University, which opened its doors in 1908. He was also the first to earn a doctoral degree from the new university, in 1914, with a dissertation on the blind Abbasid poet and philosopher Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri (973–1057), famous for his pessimism and for having described himself as “a double prisoner” of blindness and solitude. Hussein then went on a scholarship to France, first to Montpellier then to Paris, where he earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne, writing his thesis on the social philosophy of Ibn Khaldun. While in France, he also met and married Suzanne Bresseau, and in 1919, she returned with him to Egypt, where she lived until her death in 1989. The family photograph displayed on the next page shows them with their two children, Amina-Marguerite and Moenis-Claude. Back in Cairo, Hussein started teaching ancient history and then Arabic literature in the Faculty of Arts at the Egyptian University. His long academic career overlapped with a steadfast commitment to writing as he authored dozens of books and articles on Islamic history and Arabic literature. His work enjoyed wide readership throughout the Arab world, and his readers followed his avid participation in the intense and often controversial debates animating a lively Egyptian literary scene in the first half of the twentieth century.

A few months after Hussein’s death on October 28, 1973, the Egyptian Marxist critic Ghali Shukri (1935–1998) wrote:

I do not believe there is a single intellectual in the last four decades in Egypt, or in the Arab world in general, who has not been influenced by Taha Hussein. This was, and will continue to be, what sets him apart from the rest of his generation. Some will say they have been influenced by al-ʿAqqad, Salama Musa, or al-Mazini, but in addition to their favorite writer, you will find that they have all been influenced by Taha Hussein.5

FIGURE 2. Taha Hussein’s family. Courtesy of the Taha Hussein family.

This laudatory remark from Shukri stands out against the background of intense debates that had pitted Hussein against many young leftist intellectuals in the 1950s and ’60s. These debates echoed across the Arab world and distanced Hussein from younger intellectuals like Shukri, Mahmud Amin al-ʿAlim, ʿAbd al-ʿAzim Anis, Raʾif Khuri, and others. Faced with a new generation of writers who promoted “committed literature,” Hussein defended his views calling for the total freedom of writers to choose both the literary form and the content of their work. Hussein, by then a veteran who had championed the cause for social justice under the monarchy in his literary works and political chronicles, disheartened the enthusiastic leftist writers, who had expected his encouragement and blessings. Believing that literature must support the new anti-colonial struggle and become a vehicle for decolonization and social change, they saw Hussein as a “bourgeois and liberal” intellectual, a defender of “art for art’s sake,” and a representative of an older generation of writers that failed to grasp the new role literature had to play in society. Their critique of Hussein was part of their overall discontent with Egypt’s parliamentary experiment between 1922 and 1952. In support of the new regime, these leftist critics argued that a corrupt monarchy and petty partisan politics had destroyed the potential of Egypt’s 1919 revolution and failed to achieve full independence or the necessary social reforms.6 Nevertheless, during and after the debate, Shukri, Amin, Khuri, and others never hid their admiration and respect for Hussein. Shukri, for example, emphasized the impact Hussein had had on the intellectual formation of several generations of writers and critics, including the younger ones who were now challenging him. Shukri even credited Hussein’s famous periodical al-Katib al-Misri (1945–1948) with having introduced Shukri’s generation to Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka in the first place.7 In Shukri’s view, the influence of Hussein’s ideas, and his long fight for intellectual freedom and critical scholarship, could not be denied.8

Yet, promoting critical thinking and subjecting the canonical works of the Arab-Islamic tradition to academic scrutiny earned Hussein many enemies over the years. Decades after his death, he is glorified by some and vilified by others as if he were still alive and as if his work had just been published. In November 2016, for example, the media reported that al-Azhar had suspended the scholar Yusri Jaʿfar, professor of philosophy and theology in the college of the principles of religion, for three months. Among several other allegations, he was accused of “adopting Taha Hussein’s critique of al-Azhar’s curriculum and reviving Muhammad ʿAbduh’s thought.”9 The media did not elaborate on what the critique and the thought in question were. Yet, readers implicitly understood that if Jaʿfar’s work was associated with ʿAbduh and Hussein then it must have been deemed unorthodox and controversial. Ironically, around the same time, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, praised Hussein, saying that he was “extremely polite with the Islamic heritage, with the Prophet, and [with his companions] Abu Bakr, ʿUmar and ʿUthman.”10 Al-Tayyib’s measured statement, however, does not reflect the opinion of other religious groups and their followers. As I explain later, they blame Hussein for having westernized Egyptian thought and for having collaborated with Orientalists and missionaries. Some go even further and accuse him of having secretly converted to Christianity and of undermining Islam from within.

Hussein also has his ardent supporters in these debates. One of the many protests that paved the way to the 2011 revolution was the peaceful demonstration organized by the Writers and Artists for Change Movement in downtown Cairo in August 2005, in which the protesters held banners calling for political change. Some of these banners carried images of Hussein as the symbol of a long and still unfinished battle for freedom of thought and expression.11 In addition, following Mubarak’s overthrow, some leftists forgot the “art for art’s sake” debate and appealed to other aspects of Hussein’s legacy as they addressed Egypt’s volatile political situation. For example, writing in 2012, during the battle that raged between religious and non-religious political parties over drafting a new Egyptian constitution, leftist Nasserist journalist Majida al-Jindi argued that the road Hussein had charted for freedom, culture, and education in his classic book The Future of Culture in Egypt (Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr, 1938) was more relevant now than ever.12 In a more recent statement, the poet Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Sinna called for adopting that book in its entirety as the official program for reforming the country’s ailing educational system.13

Abu Sinna’s statement speaks to another heated debate on the economic viability of free education in Egypt. In recent years, free education has come under sharp criticism. Recent local and international reports on the declining quality of Egyptian public schooling are fueling debates over the utility of costly state support for these schools and universities. Leftists use Hussein’s name and his famous view of education as a fundamental right for every citizen to counter arguments by neoliberals who insist education is a commodity for which people must pay.14 References to Hussein abound in Egyptian public life, and the passage of time has so far denied him the dispassionate debates granted to most intellectuals of his generation.

But Hussein’s legacy does not stop with the intellectual disputes it continues to stir. Visitors to Cairo University and Egypt’s Ministry of Education are visually reminded that Hussein, more than any other intellectual in Egypt’s modern history, is associated with the country’s modern secular educational system. Visitors see busts of the Dean of Arabic Literature, in his familiar glasses, sternly scrutinizing both institutions whose names remain invariably tied to his. Students and employees attend classes and hold meetings in various classrooms and conference halls bearing his name, not only at the university and the ministry but also at the National Council for Translation. His ministerial oak desk (shown in the photo here) is the only desk on public display at the museum of the Ministry of Education, a statement to his long career as Cairo University’s Dean of Arts (1928, 1930–1932, and 1936–1939), a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Public Instruction—first as controller of general culture (1939–1942), then as technical advisor to the minister of public instruction (1942–1944), and finally as minister of public instruction himself (1950–1952)—and also a member and then president of the Arabic Language Academy until his death (1940–1973).

In these polarized and passionate debates, Hussein’s political career and the context in which he wrote his books are usually absent. Compared to his better-known career as a writer and critic, Hussein’s role as a statesman, politician, and civil servant has received little attention. Unlike many intellectuals who were active between the two revolutions, such as Salama Musa (1887–1958), Ibrahim al-Mazini (1889–1949), or Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898–1987), Hussein had a long and dynamic political career. The 1919 revolution had triggered Great Britain’s unilateral declaration of Egypt’s nominal independence in 1922, followed by the adoption of the nation’s constitution in 1923, and the beginning of its parliamentary life in 1924. While the independence of 1922 was famously hampered by four reservations maintaining Great Britain’s political and military control over Egypt, education was one of the areas over which the Egyptian government reassumed full control.15 This period thus became dominated by reform efforts and by political debates on how to turn nominal liberty into full independence, and Hussein became actively involved. For him, the real battle for full independence was about building strong institutions of learning and knowledge production. His political activities began in a serious way when he aligned himself with the popular Wafd Party in the 1930s and used the Wafd as a platform to pitch his ideas on culture and education while responding to his adversaries on the pages of widely read journals and periodicals. In this book, Hussein’s under-studied public career becomes a lens for understanding not only the history of the institutions he fought for, which exist to this day, but also the history of the parliamentary era in which he was a main player.


1. Leyla Dakhli, “The Autumn of the Nahda in Light of the Arab Spring: Some Figures in the Carpet,” in Arabic Thought beyond the Liberal Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda, ed. Jens Hanssen and Max Weiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 357.

2. Al-Musawwar, no. 1173 (April 4, 1947): 8, cited in Khaled Fahmy, “Maydan al-Tahrir,” Reflections on Egypt, the Middle East, and History (blog), last accessed December 24, 2019, /ar/2011/09/11//.

3. ʿUmar Sulayman, “Omar Suleiman on the Crisis,” interview by Christiane Amanpour, ABC News, February 6, 2011.

4. Thomas Philipp, “From Rule of Law to Constitutionalism: The Ottoman Context of Arabic Political Thought,” in Arabic Thought beyond the Liberal Age, ed. Jens Hanssen and Max Weiss, 143.

5. Ghali Shukri, Madha Yabqa min Taha Husayn? (Beirut: Dar al-Mutawassit, 1974), 6.

6. Ibid., 24.

7. Ibid., 8. In an interview I conducted in Cairo on April 6, 2013, with the late Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, he described al-Katib al-Misri as a landmark in the history of Egyptian periodicals. He especially praised the books the periodical published regularly, which he described as “exemplary” in terms of content and quality of translation. He said that as editor in chief of Akhbar al-Adab, he tried to do as Hussein had done, and asked his friends around the world to write for Akhbar al-Adab to provide Egyptian and Arab readers with access to new and different ideas.

8. Shukri, Madha Yabqa min Taha Husayn?, 13.

9. ʿAzza Kamil, “Limadha Yakhsha al-Azhariyun Muhammad ʿAbduh wa-Taha Husayn??,” al-Misri al-Yawm, November 7, 2016.

10. Muhammad Shihta, “Shaykh al-Azhar: Taha Husayn Shadid al-Adab maʿa al-Turath wa-Sahabat al-Nabi,” Sada al-Balad, November 11, 2016.

11. Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2008), 2.

12. Majida al-Jindi, “Al-Tariq ila Misr Qawwiyya kama Khattahu al-ʿAmid,” al-Ahram, October 28, 2012.

13. Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Sinna, “Tarh Ruʾyat Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr,” al-Yawm al-Sabiʿ, December 15, 2016.