Fahmy, assistant professor of modern Middle East history at Cornell University, offers a rigorous historical study of Egyptian nationalism "through the lens of popular culture" beginning in the 1870s, through the 1882 British occupation, and culminating with the 1919 revolution.
The author challenges constructions of Egypt's history centering on elites by demonstrating that despite the intelligentsia's historical role, real social progress requires the participation of the middle and lower classes. Since the impact of these groups went unrecorded in official narratives, Fahmy examines popular media to show that—through poems, songs, jokes, theater, and satirical press (especially those printed and recorded in colloquial Cairene dialect rather than Modern Standard Arabic [MSA])—these classes contributed to modern Egyptian identity.
Fahmy successfully demonstrates how the Cairene dialect, and the popular media that used it, served as building blocks enabling new manifestations of Egypt's national identity and ultimately facilitating the 1919 revolution. He goes on to suggest a state of "duality and confrontation" that still exists today between forces represented by Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian colloquial. The former, he maintains, represents pan-Arab and Islamist ideologies while the latter epitomizes nationalist ideologies, framing an "identity crisis" that "will resolve itself only if … cultural and linguistic duality ends, with … eventual dominance of one form of the language over the other."
The problem with this view of an "identity crisis" is that current events seem to have upended it. In the 2011 Tahrir Square uprisings, Egyptians used colloquial Arabic in new and unprecedented ways, through text messages and social networking, while also using MSA to establish solidarity with neighboring revolutionary Arab brethren. This complement of MSA with colloquial Arabic exemplified not an "identity crisis" but rather a simultaneously nationalist and pan-Arab identity.
Fahmy has created a powerful and timely book, ably documenting the historical impact of the lower classes; he shows that Egypt's 2011 revolution is, in many ways, not new at all. The social activists who toppled Mubarak's regime simply resumed the struggle of their early-twentieth-century predecessors. The themes of 2011 parallel those of 1919: An elitist regime articulates hegemonic imperatives out of touch with ordinary Egyptians. In the aftermath of the recent Arab uprisings, observers who may wish to examine whether social networking played a causative role in those revolutions should turn to Fahmy's elucidation of pre-1919 popular culture as a potential model for such studies.