Print Regulations in Ottoman Egypt, 1820–1881

By Kathryn Schwartz
Submitted to Session P4853 (Regulating Print in the Late Ottoman Empire: A New Look into the Question of Censorship, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since printing from Cairo developed circa 1820, European contemporaries complained about the way in which Egypt’s state precluded members of their ranks from printing on the governmental presses. And by the time that Egypt’s private printing industry became prolific in the 1880s, Egyptians themselves wrote of Egypt’s press laws with disdain, sometimes because they were too stringent – and most other times because they were not stringent enough in silencing ‘inappropriate’ voices. Scholarly accounts of printing from Egypt lean on these portrayals of print regulation to support wider points about governance, modernity, journalists’ emigration from Beirut to Egypt, activism, and political repression in the public sphere. But we have yet to study how print regulations in Egypt actually worked structurally.

This paper maps out Egyptian print regulations during the period in which local Arabic and Ottoman printing first began, until the British invasion of Egypt. I do this by focusing upon the evolving reasons for why printing warranted regulating, and the various apparatuses that were used to monitor and control the publication of texts. Because the Egyptian printing industry first developed from within the state, print regulations did not need to be formalized. Indeed, the texts produced from the presses themselves indicate what was considered fit for print. The development of Egypt’s private printing industry from the 1850s gave little initial cause for print regulations, since the earliest printers worked alongside the traditional producers and consumers of texts from Egypt, the ‘ulama’, who were themselves part of the establishment. Hence when the first press ordinances were issued in Egypt in 1856/7, they were promulgated from on high by the Imperial Porte and did not reflect the concerns of the Egyptian state. The ensuing disconnect between imperial decree and local need is exhibited by the fact that Egypt’s government began monitoring printings from the 1860s onwards through the office of the Grand Mufti.

Using sources like Filib Jallad’s Al-Qamus al-‘Amm and Amin Sami’s Taqwim al-Nil, the fatwas of the Grand Muftis of Egypt, contemporary accounts of Egyptian print regulations, and the very printings that the industry produced, I argue that despite the generalized way in which Ottoman print regulations have come to be understood, the case of Egypt demonstrates that their implementation varied over time and between cities. The history of this process helps us to understand how to interpret the printed sources that we use to access the past.