[Book Review] Aaron Jakes, “Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism” | Reviewed by Kylie Broderick

Aaron Jakes. Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism. Stanford University Press, 2020. 376 pages, $30 paperback. 

What was the relationship between colonialism, economism, and political thought? Aaron Jakes’ Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (2020) explores this question through a theoretical intervention that challenges common conceptions of the purpose and self-justification that the British colonial project in Egypt fabricated for itself.

According to Jakes, historians have long considered the British intervention into Egypt that began in 1882 to be a continuation of an earlier indirect political, economic, and ecological project that primarily sought to transform Egypt into a dependent cotton plantation. Jakes argues, however, that something more subtle was afoot. Predicated on resolving the debts that Khedive Egypt amassed as a semi-autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, Britain’s occupation of Egypt in actuality sought to achieve a particular idea of economic modernization dependent on the multiplication of financial instruments intended to both yield profit and “tutor” Egyptians. Jakes convincingly argues that Britain’s project recast Egypt as a material-producing vehicle in three ways.

First, they informed the specific policies that Egypt’s ‘advisers’ pursued and altered the institutions of the Egyptian state in significant and lasting ways. Second, they created conditions for a massive, if short-lived, financial boom and thereby changed the character of material interests themselves. Third… they made Egypt the arena for a sprawling debate about the relationship between economics and politics (3-4).

In effect, the British occupation of Egypt sought to understand how the political, economic, and implicitly racial worked together to produce modernity, and they did so by fabricating discourses on who is capable of achieving modernity, and how, within newly-conceived fundamental laws of nature.

“Jakes argues that much like how arising ideas of social Darwinism categorized peoples into inalienable and globe-spanning racial hierarchies, economism defined which parts of human nature were particular to certain populations and which parts could be extracted as “universalist.””

Jakes argues that much like how arising ideas of social Darwinism categorized peoples into inalienable and globe-spanning racial hierarchies, economism defined which parts of human nature were particular to certain populations and which parts could be extracted as “universalist.” In essence, European empires determined that liberal politics could only be practiced by precious few “civilizations” (i.e., white-European populations), but liberal economics could take root both within and outside Europe. In order to be successful, however, these populations would need to be tutored, as colonized people allegedly lacked the natural ability to calculate fiscal policy beyond simple profits and losses. So arose the concept of colonial economism, which “was distinctive in that its truth claims were resolutely particular, not universal… proponents described the economic determination of politics as a defining feature of specific human populations that rendered them unqualified to govern themselves and thereby made political tutelage both necessary and legitimate” (5). In essence, the British argued that implementing the organs of financial capitalism – i.e. a credit system, stocks, bonds, and shares – in Egypt would impart economistic maturity on Egyptians. The legitimacy of the British occupation was further bolstered by Egypt’s economic boom in the 1890s, which they claimed occurred because of their financial tools, although such a claim would be challenged by the bust in the early twentieth century. Both of these ideas – the idea of civilizational hierarchies and the idea of European imparting economism via colonial tutelage – would more widely manifest under the League of Nations mandates post-WWI.

Jakes also examines the Egyptian response to these British interventions through fragmented newspapers in which Egyptian intellectuals worked collaboratively to contest the conditions of their age. Far from accepting British-European arguments for why colonial economism would be necessary to birth Egypt into modernity, Egyptians via their press and, later, nationalist demonstrations sought to produce resistant, critical theories, particularly following the 1907 crisis. They argued that reformatting the Egyptian economy to become amenable to foreign investment, and in effect totally degrading Egyptian sovereignty, had proven Britain’s occupation to be illegitimate. However, because of the totalizing manner in which the British had tied Egypt to an expanding, world-spanning economy – one which was undergoing a collective crisis by the early 20th century – these Egyptian intellectuals came to believe that political independence alone would not solve their British-caused economic problems. Instead, they argued that Egypt must also achieve economic nationalism, in which their own economic institutions would be protected by the political realm.

“Over ten chapters, Jakes charts the long arch of these thoughts – both the origination and implementation of British colonial economism in Egypt and the Egyptian intellectual and physical resistance to it.”

Over ten chapters, Jakes charts the long arch of these thoughts – both the origination and implementation of British colonial economism in Egypt and the Egyptian intellectual and physical resistance to it. The introduction posits the theoretical framing of the book. Chapter 1 details the first decade of the British occupation, wherein the British began theorizing that it was the rural structures of power, and specifically rural notables, that squandered the “free gifts” of the Nile and therefore produced the consequent bankruptcy of Egypt that justified British intervention. They became the initial targets of colonial economism, whereas religious institutions remained intact to avoid arousing Egyptians’ anger. Chapter 2 focuses on when the British assumed control of the Ministry of the Interior in 1894, which sought to implement agrarian reforms that would both sideline village politics and transform local officials into vehicles of British plans for new agrarian policies. But what the British did not anticipate was a counter critique of colonial economism – “spies” for the Khedive dynasty reported that, although colonial economism was yielding economic gains in the countryside, it was also decaying rural peoples’ morals. The distance between the profitable yields of the occupation for some and the proliferation of peasant inequalities would be further exacerbated by the events depicted in the next chapter. Chapter 3 charts the upswing of European investors in Egypt beginning in the 1890s, as these individuals assumed that Egypt was a safe investment for their “idle capital” based on British assurances that Egyptian peasants were sound and rational, if simple, economic actors (87). All of this yielded an economic boom that nevertheless failed to address worsening rural conditions upon which the British had premised the legitimacy of their occupation. Chapter 4 charts how the nascent nationalist Arabic press sought to resist the British legitimation of the occupation in the face of this economic boom, given it was being used as evidence of the morality of the occupation. According to Jakes, the press repudiated the occupation in two ways: first, by asserting that British economism was not quite as successful as it appeared when subjected to further scrutiny, and second, by arguing that the occupation’s legitimacy should not be distilled down to the “bare calculus of monetary gains” (115). Chapter 5 delves into the decline of the occupation’s self-legitimizing discourses following the 1907 financial crisis, which gave life to a new language of nationalist demands that revealed how closely-tied Egyptian everyday lives had become to the unpredictable throes of the world market. Chapter 6 studies the growth of Egyptian political life, which the British had long dismissed as either nonexistent or irrelevant, and which was also tied to other political uprisings throughout the Ottoman Empire, such as the 1908 Young Turks’ constitutional revolution. Chapter 7 deals with the aftermath of the 1907 bust, which forced the British to transform their agrarian project to deal with “Egypt’s insect problem” (199) wrought by the cotton monoculture, as well as to reinvigorate foreign investment. Britain attributed these failures more to the Egyptian peasants’ (fellaheen) alleged defects than their own policies. The new agrarian regime no longer considered the peasants to be potential partners to agrarian capitalism, but rather obstacles to rationalizing Egyptian farming. Britain therefore subjected the peasants to even more regulatory coercion, deepening rural inequalities. Chapter 8 details emerging thoughts among Egyptian nationalists regarding what must be done to end the British occupation in such a way as to ensure Egyptian national success. No longer did they believe that, once Britain evacuated, the Egyptians would merely be able to refurbish Britain’s political-economic infrastructure by filling the system with Egyptians. Rather, they believed that the occupation’s institutions would have to be entirely uprooted to make way for the creation of national capital and that the movement would have to inaugurate a “sweeping reconstitution of political-economic subjectivities” in order to achieve true Egyptian freedom (165). Finally, the conclusion moves through WWI and the 1919 revolution, wherein the British continued to deny that Egyptians had a legitimate capacity for political thought. The 1919 revolt did not demonstrate Egyptians’ capability for political independence to the British. Rather, if the early occupation’s prosperity had allegedly yielded Egyptian consent to the project, then the Egyptian revolt indicated the extent to which the British had failed to correctly manage the war economy. Colonial economism’s derelictions were therefore attributed to flawed British application, rather than a flaw in Britain’s conceived link between liberal politics, liberal economy, and racial orders.

“The book is essential reading for graduate students and scholars in the fields of Middle East and capitalism studies, as it taps into new directions in the historiography of both fields.”

The book is essential reading for graduate students and scholars in the fields of Middle East and capitalism studies, as it taps into new directions in the historiography of both fields. It intervenes in these fields through Jason Moore’s framework of “world-ecology.” Building on Immanuel Wallerstein’s earlier world-systems theory, Moore argues that the capitalocene has been dominated by the deliberate “cheapening” of gendered and racialized subjects through imperialism, colonialism, and the factory-plantation, as well as nature writ large, in ways that always intersect under capitalism. In that respect, Jakes’ book contributes greatly to evidencing the theory by focusing on the particular commodity of cotton and the particular actor of the fellah.

“While the book does not deeply engage in the environmental consequences to the financialization of cotton production beyond the insect plague, it nonetheless complements already-existing environmental histories of colonial Egypt.”
Cheapening nature and humans alike brought them into a system that they supported through their coerced labor in procuring raw materials – the British occupation of Egypt both transformed Egypt into a cotton plantation and a laboratory in which the British could test new financial experiments in pursuit of allegedly creating a “modern” Egypt. At the same time, the book adds another dimension to his world-ecology theoretical approach by integrating an analysis of finance capitalism in specifically how cheapening nature and humans effected them. It shows how, for instance, the perhaps seemingly contradictory response against the insect plague – a response which often saw native elites agreeing with the British about the necessity of mobilizing coerced Egyptian/fellahin labor against the insects – and the simultaneous rise of a nationalist critique of the British occupation because it was coercive were, in fact, joined in responding to a crisis wrought by financial capitalism.

While the book does not deeply engage in the environmental consequences to the financialization of cotton production beyond the insect plague, it nonetheless complements already-existing environmental histories of colonial Egypt. 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 is a Ph.D. student and Mellon Fellow in modern Middle East history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is also the managing editor of Jadaliyya and a Co-Editor of the Resistance, Subversion, and Mobilization page. At the National Humanities Center, she teaches the Introduction to the Modern Middle East course. Her interests are in the political economy of the Middle East, as well as histories of gender, social mobilizations, and socio-economic class construction in Lebanon and Syria.


*The author first presented this review at the Fifth Annual Graduate Students Book Review Colloquium on Islam and Middle Eastern Studies in 2020 organized by Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University and the Maydan.