Leaking Empires: The Struggle over Information in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1870–1952

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This is a history of information and its control as a political battleground. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the explosion of mass media and communications connected people across much of the world and made it possible to transmit more information across longer distances than ever before. But in many places, the same period witnessed the reimagining and retrenchment of official secrecy. This dissertation investigates this apparent paradox from the vantage point of Egypt. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt lay at the center of global networks of trade, transport, and technology. Coveting an empire of its own in East Africa, it was enmeshed in the Ottoman Empire and, after 1882, in the British Empire, too. Between the 1870s and the 1950s, a series of challenges to imperial governance, each tied to war or its specter, brought a pair of contentious questions into focus: What did the public have the right to know? And what was the state entitled to conceal?

When the nineteenth century began, states did not share basic details of how they functioned, such as the scale of debts and revenue, or the size of their armies, with people outside government. By the century’s end, a vocal “public” was demanding to know more. In Egypt, a conception of information about the state as a public good—about a public “right to know”—crystallized in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This was due to the confluence of three main factors. First, and most important, was a political environment riddled with frictions due to Britain’s semi-colonial rule, which foreclosed Egypt’s own imperial project and independence. The second was the widespread use of telegraphy, a technology on which the state relied heavily but did not fully control. The third was the expansion of the Arabic press, which attracted dissidents from across the Ottoman and Mediterranean worlds to Egypt and gave public demands a prominent platform.

Demand for more information about affairs of state provoked a backlash with long-lasting consequences. At first, authorities were ill-prepared to provide a rationale for secrecy. This changed in the decade before World War I, when high-profile assassinations prompted them to link the circulation of information to political violence. A corresponding shift from policing deeds to policing ideas took tighter hold amid the nationalist revolution of 1919, as colonial officials feared collusion between their Egyptian colleagues and a wider hostile society. When British officials began a gradual retreat following Egypt’s nominal independence in 1922, the compartmentalization of information within organs of state entrenched a renewed culture of concealment. In 1948, the Arab defeat in Palestine drew scrutiny to the secrets and silences this climate had nourished, and popular anger at the absence of information that convincingly explained the loss contributed to the ouster of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Yet rather than leading to a new era of trust and transparency, the narrative that emerged in the gap between the propaganda people were fed and what they believed to be true was seized on by the military regime that took its place and helped to sustain it in power.

Publisher's Version

Last updated on 07/14/2022