Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Beth Baron

Committee Members

Samira Haj

Emily Greble

Eric Weitz

Mandana Limbert

Subject Categories

Anthropology | History of Religion | Intellectual History | Legal History | Political Theory | Social History


intellectual history, Middle East history, social history, secularism, law, religion


This dissertation is a conceptual history of Egypt’s national formation between the 1880s and the 1930s. This period involved the convergence of nationalism, colonial rule, missionary activity, and new modes of governance at the national and international levels. Drawing on state and missionary archival material, periodicals, legal compendia, laws, and parliamentary transcripts, and adapting methods developed by Reinhart Koselleck, I trace shifts within Egypt’s socio-political lexicon through processes of translation and demonstrate their effects upon social experience and political aspiration. I focus on a set of liberal-secular concepts critical to national politics—religious freedom, public interest, nationality, and the minority—as they appeared in Egypt and were adapted by jurists, colonial officers, parliamentarians, and “ordinary” Egyptians in ways that advanced their respective interests. Following the fluid, contextual, and contingent process through which these concepts accumulated meanings, I show that each had a distinct genealogy linked to its conditions of translation and reinterpretation. This finding challenges understandings of the nation-state as a fixed form that, originating in Europe, was replicated across the globe.

As Egyptian legislators gradually entered the concepts under study into Egypt’s expanding modern legal system—top-down, rigid, and disciplinary—they fixed their meanings in text in ways that enhanced the regulatory capacities of the state. The Egyptian state’s articulation of religious freedom and public interest enabled it to wield increasing power over religion and to gradually dismantle Egypt’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, whose more flexible legal structures had sustained the common good through bottom-up cultivation of morality. Meanwhile, its definition and ascription of nationality and minority status linked religious groups to emergent national categories along a grid of loyalty and disloyalty to the Egyptian nation. Rather than opening space wherein religious divisions could be overcome through the convergence of equal citizens, these liberal-secular transitions established new forms of difference based on flattened notions of identity. Against automatic associations of secularism with tolerance and boundless possibility, I argue that the unfolding of liberal-secular law in Egypt introduced unprecedented discord and delimited the country’s religious and political horizons. As Egypt enhanced its sovereignty in the 1920s and 1930s, law proved an essential tool of the state to produce a homogenous and governable population. Muslims and Copts emerged as the two essential elements of the Egyptian nation, while other non-Muslim groups, including Armenians and Jews, were subjected to the gaze of suspicion and novel forms of exclusion.