ENGAGING THE STATE: PEASANTS AND PETITIONS IN EGYPT ON THE EVE OF COLONIAL RULE
|John Chalcraft a1|
a1 John Chalcraft is a Lecturer, University of Edinburgh, IMES, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, United Kingdom; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In spite of many competing views on peasants, their politics, and the state in 19th-century Egypt, the historiography contains certain striking continuities in its understanding of peasant–state political relations. Historians influenced by Marxism, modernization theory, and nationalism alike have usually seen state and peasantry as sharply distinct and conflicting. Peasants have often been depicted as locked in a struggle against the penetration of state agency into a previously autonomous rural domain. Whether seen as a force for benevolent modernization or for the predatory extraction of conscripts and taxes, the state has regularly been viewed as self-propelled and sui generis, reforming or invading the world of an either passive, silently subversive, or violently revolutionary peasantry. The figure of the tradition-bound, submissive, or apathetic peasant simply marks out a terrain for state agency, albeit an agency obstructed by peasant hostility, irrationality, or resentment. The silently subversive peasant, further, who uses James C. Scott's “weapons of the weak,” merely undermines in antagonistic and wordless fashion projects emanating from above. The revolutionary peasant, finally, becomes the self-generating locus of the nationalist or socialist modern and seeks the violent overthrow of the predatory state, transforming the latter into only the negative—albeit treacherous—terrain on which the positive historical agency of peasants and their allies can work. In short, the existing historiography, while varying the historical role, value, and meaning of peasant and state, preserves both as radically distinct, self-creating, and self-defining collective agents involved in zero-sum and often violent antagonism.