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The Crisis of the Law in Colonial Egypt: Violence, Ideals of Humanity, Colonial Governance

A lecture by Samera Esmeir, UC Berkeley

This paper explores the characteristics of the liberal regime of governance in colonial Egypt in relation to the question of violence: of the state, the law and Egyptians. The paper reads a series of documents around questions of rebellion, martial legalities and the bandits’ commissions. This reading traces the production and realization of a split world between the ideal elements of law, humanity and non-violence, on the one hand, and the material practices of violence on the other. The efforts to distinguish the law from the violence of rebellion, vengeance and criminality, only contributed to the fragility of this split world, with its reoccurring crises and reaffirmations. The liberal distinction had violence appear as a transgression of humanity that, in turn, was defined in terms of its own ideals. Colonial law facilitated this distinction: it “idealized” humanity,” that is, turned it into a set of ideals, and factualized violence. By reading with and against the archival record, this liberal distinction is complemented by another relationship: humanity and violence manifested an indefinite, open-ended constitutive relationship. Both the split world and its impossibility were constitutive of colonial law. Together, it is argued, they constituted a technology of colonial rule. It follows that the crisis of joining humanity and violence should not be criticized from the grounds of non-violence, for the ideal of non-violence was in part responsible for this crisis. Rather, in colonial Egypt, we can only understand the world from its sites of a crisis, where humanity, non-violence and violence were always conceived of through each other, inside and outside the law.

Samera Esmeir is an assistant professor in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her present research focuses on British rule in Egypt, particularly on the role played by imperial colonialism in the constitution of “universal humanity” and in the ways in which the human became inscribed within the teleology of modern law. Professor Esmeir’s research interests also span issues around violence, war and the security state in regards to the contemporary Middle East, and legal history, including the history of the colonial legal profession in Egypt. The book manuscript she is finishing is titled Losing the Human: The Rise of Juridical Humanity in colonial Egypt. In addition to the book, her recent publications include “The Violence of non-Violence: Law and War in Iraq” (Journal of Law and Society, March 2007), “On Making Dehumanization Possible” (PMLA: The Journal of Modern Languages Association, October 2006), “ and “1948: History, Memory, Law” (Social Text 75, Summer 2003). Professor Esmeir worked as a lawyer in East Jerusalem and then received a Ph.D. in Law and Society from New York University.

For more info please contact:
Johanna Romero
(310) 825-1455

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