To Drink a Cup of Fire: Morality Tales and Moral Emotions in Egyptian, Algerian, and French Anti-Colonial Activism, 1945-1960

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In the 1940s and 1950s, newspapers in Egypt, Algeria, and France debated the behavior of activists who sacrificed themselves for a cause, calling them “hysterics,” “radicals,” “fanatics,” and “terrorists.” Underlying these debates was a core question: what “rational” person would choose to sacrifice himself for a cause?

 To learn how activists answered their critics, and to explore transnational patterns of activist exchange, this study explores two revolutionary moments: the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the Algerian Revolution of 1954–1962. Focusing on four Egyptian clubs (the Muslim Brotherhood, Young Egypt, the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation, and the Workers’ Vanguard); three Algerian organizations (the Front de Libération Nationale, the Mouvement National Algérien, and the Parti Communiste Algérien); and three French anti-colonial networks (the Jeanson network, the Curiel network, and the Mandouze network), the study analyzes data recovered from activist journals, tracts, court cases, police confessions, and memoirs—data gathered through multi-archival research conducted at the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis (Amsterdam), Dar al-Kutub (Cairo), The National Archives (London), and the Service Historique de la Défense (Paris).

 The result is a cognitive and behavioral history of transnational activist movements. Setting aside the motive-based question of why activists made certain decisions, the study surveys how activists made decisions and narrativized behaviors. Three types of stories are examined: stories of affiliation, stories of aggression, and stories about morality. Each set of stories is linked to a research question. How did individuals decide to affiliate with certain clubs over others? How did activists decide to commit violent attacks? And what role did morality tales, moral rationalizations, and “moral emotions” (like disgust, shame, and anger) play in these processes? 

 As the study contends, activists drew on a common toolkit of cognitive and behavioral strategies to make decisions, negotiate behavior, and mobilize support for decolonization—crossing ideological, religious, and national boundaries in the process. Activist storytelling thus highlights the hybridity of Arab and French moral imaginaries, revealing how activists practiced emotions and produced movements. Their stories also foster awareness of how individuals negotiate concepts of right and wrong, both in public and in private.