Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (589)
To mark the 200th anniversary of the year Mohamed Ali became exclusive ruler of Egypt, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk begins the first of a nine-part series on the life of the founder of our modern state, starting with his ascension
For several weeks now the Al-Ahram history centre has been exploring a question that we knew would be asked by anyone interested in modern Egyptian history: How should we commemorate the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali Pasha's assumption to the throne in Egypt? The date on which this occurred -- 13 May 1805 -- marks a turning point not only in the history of Egypt but in the history of the entire region. For Egyptians in particular it was when their country started to make the transition from the middle ages to the modern era.
After having considered several ideas for commemorating this occasion, our attention was serendipitously drawn to a set of very relevant back issues of Al-Ahram. In November 1949, Egypt was commemorating the centennial of Mohamed Ali's death. Al-Ahram 's contribution at the time was to gather the greatest amount possible of new and pertinent information on this unique figure and to solicit the contributions of prominent historians, intellectuals and literary figures of the period. The result was a full-scale portrait of the "Founder of Modern Egypt" and his times. We have taken the occasion of the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali's assumption to the throne to present today's readers pieces of this portrait as it appeared in Al-Ahram over half a century ago, intervening as little as possible for the purposes of clarification.
The epithet was first coined by Henry Herbert Dodwell, author of The Founder of Modern Egypt: A Study of Mohamed Ali (Cambridge, The University Press, 1931).
Al-Ahram 's first article in its Mohamed Ali series -- "How he ascended the throne" -- was the work of the newspaper's editorial staff. Their account opens during that brief respite following the end of the Napoleonic expedition, a year and a half after the evacuation of French forces on 3 July 1801 and three months before the final evacuation of the British forces that had helped drive out the French, the last phase of which was completed on 5 March 1801 in accordance with the Treaty of Amiens.
"In January 1803, Egypt was divided into three areas of influence: Alexandria, which was occupied by a British force of 4,430 troops; the rest of the Delta and Cairo, which were controlled by a 10,000-strong Ottoman army; and Upper Egypt, which was controlled by the Mamelukes whose forces consisted of 3,000 cavalry men, 6,000 tribesmen and 80 French artillery soldiers who had deserted the French occupation army and joined the Mamelukes. In any confrontation between Mameluke and Ottoman forces, the latter were routinely defeated because they did not trust and hence obey their leaders. The viceroy of Egypt at the time was Mohamed Ali's sworn enemy, Mohamed Khusraw Pasha, who later became the grand vizier in Istanbul."
This is one of the rare references to the desertion of French troops to Mameluke forces. It is not clear what prompted these soldiers to refuse to return to France with the rest of the expedition. Conjectures have varied from the personal -- the soldiers may have taken Egyptian wives for example -- to the political -- that they had volunteered to remain the eyes and ears of France in Egypt. Regardless, it is interesting how readily they could be absorbed into the Mameluke armies. Perhaps this is because of the heterogeneous nature of these forces in contrast to the Albanian forces, for example, which were bound by national-ethnic affiliations. Of course, it helped that the French artillery officers had useful skills to offer.
"In late June 1803, the Egyptian people, aided by the Mameluke beys in Cairo, rose up against and killed Taher Pasha, commander of the Ottoman garrison in Cairo, while Mameluke and Albanian forces under Mohamed Ali took Mohamed Khusraw prisoner. In July, Ali Pasha was appointed governor. Although he had curried favour with the British, he was disliked by other European powers and the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, the Albanian troops began to demand their arrears, threatening to leave Egypt if they did not receive it. In order to induce them to stay, Ali Pasha offered to conclude an alliance with them against the Mamelukes. However, the Mamelukes learned of this conspiracy, rose up against the governor and exiled him to Jaffa."
Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti relates a different version of the assassination of Taher Pasha. According to his account, after being appointed commander, he refused to meet the janissaries' demands for their back pay, in response to which a group of them "attacked him with their swords and one of them cut off his head and threw it from the window into the courtyard."
Prior to this, the Ottoman governor waged several campaigns against the Mameluke forces ensconced in the Delta. After having suffered numerous defeats at their hands, he agreed to place himself under the protection of the Mameluke emirs, which provoked the surprise and scorn of the Egyptian people.
"The Mamelukes demanded that Khurshid Pasha, governor of Alexandria, be made viceroy. At this time, too, Alfi Bek returned from England. Disturbed by this development, Othman Al-Bardisi Bek summoned Mohamed Ali, commander of the Armenian regiments, to discuss the subject. They concluded their meaning by agreeing to an alliance.
"On 20 February, in the dead of night, Mohamed Ali and his soldiers crossed the Nile at the banks of Old Cairo, and launched a surprise attack on Alfi Bek's horsemen who had camped near Giza, although Alfi the younger managed to flee. Mohamed Ali seized control of the village of Giza and then pursued the remnants of Alfi's forces all the way to Manouf. Nevertheless, he was unable to capture Alfi the elder.
"These campaigns broke the back of the Mamelukes, which cheered the Albanian forces and helped Mohamed Ali's star to rise. The Albanian commander immediately contacted the French consul and asked him to mediate on his behalf with the sultan so that he could be granted the governorship of Egypt. The consul hastily penned a letter to his government stating, "I can assure you that Mohamed Ali has not concealed his determination to reach power. However, in spite of that commander's sympathy towards France, I am not certain whether he possesses the necessary ability to devise and implement a comprehensive programme.
"In March, Mohamed Ali held a frank exchange with the French consul. He told him point blank that he intended to break the power of the Mamelukes. Then he shouted, "How can you put your trust in those men who betrayed your brother, your colleague and your friend? As for us, their sworn enemies, we expect nothing from them but treachery and destruction."
The acting governor of Cairo: Like other Mameluke emirs during their short control of the capital, he was rapacious in his levies of taxes and duties, triggering popular protests led by Al-Azhar ulama and in which the protesters cried, "what can you take from my empty purse, Bardisi?"
This account establishes that Mohamed Ali, who took over command of the Albanian forces following the assassination of its former commander, had his eyes trained on the Egyptian throne quite early on. It contrasts sharply with the customary narrative according to which the young commander initially expressed reluctance when approached by Egyptian leaders with an offer to make him their ruler.
"Soon afterwards, Mohamed Ali met Khurshid Pasha secretly and concluded a pact with him to attack the Mamelukes. On 11 March, the Albanian forces assaulted the homes of Othman Bek and Ibrahim Bek, forcing them to flee with their wounds. The Albanians then occupied the Citadel. When Khusraw Pasha and Ali Pasha learned of the Albanian victory, they fled to Istanbul."
"Everything had gone to Khurshid Pasha's satisfaction. However, as he had assumed power without the authority of a firman from the sultan, Mohamed Ali proclaimed that Khurshid's rule was illegitimate and seized control of the army. When Ahmed Al-Jazzar, the governor of Akka, learned of this development, he sent an armed force to Arish to strike a treaty with Mohamed Ali. Fearing the consequences of such a pact, the sultan hastened to dispatch the firman Khurshid Pasha required; however, Ali Pasha died a few days later."
These events illustrate the extent to which Istanbul's control over its provinces had weakened; it could do little but assent to de facto realities. They also establish a precedent for the events of 13 May 1805 when Egyptian leaders effectively handed Mohamed Ali the governorship.
"Then Alfi Bek advanced at the head of his forces to Cairo and offered a truce to Khurshid. Now mistrustful of Mohamed Ali, Khurshid agreed and Alfi Bek secured himself inside the Citadel. Mohamed Ali was aware of the precariousness of the situation. The Mamelukes had surrounded the capital and threatened to starve the population while the Albanian troops were growing restless over not having received their arrears."
"It was not long, however, before the Mamelukes fell into dispute over what military strategy to adopt against the Albanians. Mohamed Ali hastened to take advantage of this opportunity to deliver an unanticipated strike, attacking the forces of Alfi the younger that were camped between Tura and Old Cairo and seizing four cannons. Then, on 23 July he seized Shalqan. At the same time, the Nile floods forced the Mamelukes to end their siege and withdraw again to the Fayoum. Mohamed Ali hastened into pursuit and put the forces of Al-Bardisi and Ibrahim Bek to flight into Upper Egypt."
"In September 1804, in deference to the desire of this force to return to their country, Mohamed Ali decided to leave Egypt. However, Khurshid Pasha feared that the Mamelukes would take advantage of Mohamed Ali's withdrawal to seize power again and tried to persuade him to stay. Mohamed Ali agreed and took up battle again at the head of some Albanian regiments that decided to remain in Egypt."
"In January 1805, after re-organising his forces to which had been added the Ottoman regiments, Mohamed Ali laid siege to Minia, then a formidable Mameluke stronghold. After two months of ferocious warfare, his soldiers succeeded in taking the city after inflicting an ignominious defeat upon the Mamelukes."
A contemporary source relates that on 13 December 1804 "it was reported that a battle broke out between Ottoman forces and the Egyptian emirs (the Mamelukes) in Minia, during which Saleh Al-Alfi Bek and Murad Bek, two of the new district governors outside Cairo, were killed."
"After this victory Mohamed Ali decided to return to Cairo, bringing all his forces with him and declaring that the forces that were under his command demanded their pay. Fearful of this advance, Khurshid Pasha took precautions to hold out against an attack. Then, as soon as Mohamed Ali crossed the Nile, Khurshid sent a messenger to learn of his intentions. In spite of this, Mohamed Ali marched into Cairo at the head of his forces. Henceforward, the relations between the two commanders were strained. There was no exchange of visits. Instead, Mohamed Ali demanded to see the government accounts dating from the day Khurshid assumed power. He also insisted that the lieutenant and commander of the Citadel garrison be sent to Upper Egypt, while he himself would remain in Cairo. Commenting on the situation at this time, the French consul observed, 'it appears that Mohamed Ali has great influence with both the soldiers and the people. All military and civilian leaders have visited him, in violation of the orders issued by Khurshid Pasha prohibiting this.'"
"The inhabitants of Egypt had grown weary of the climate of tension that prevailed in the country at that time and yearned for stability. In May 1805, the French consul wrote to his government, 'in spite of the rumours to the effect that things have returned to normal and that Khurshid Pasha and Mohamed Ali have resolved their differences, I feel compelled to request instructions from the Foreign Ministry regarding the policy I should adopt in the event that Mohamed Ali seizes power.
"Several days later, the people, led by the ulama, rose up against the Ottoman army which was still perpetrating crimes. Mohamed Ali declared himself ready to defend the people and issued strict orders to his soldiers to prevent crime and defend the rights and safety of the people."
The following account by El-Gabarti underscores the importance of this event whose bicentennial we are celebrating today: "When Monday arrived, they met in the judge's house. A large throng of people had gathered but were prevented from opening the gate which was shut in their face. Therefore, all went to Mohamed Ali and said, 'We do not want that pasha to rule us. He has to be removed from power.' Mohamed Ali asked, 'and who do you want as governor?' They answered, 'we will only accept you. We want you to govern us according to our conditions because we feel you are just and good.' Mohamed Ali declined at first but then accepted. A kaftan was brought in which El-Sayed Omar and Sheikh El-Sharqawi helped him don. By now it was the late afternoon, and the news of Mohamed Ali's investiture was conveyed to Ahmed Pasha. He responded, 'I am invested governor by order of the sultan and I will not be dismissed by peasants. I will only leave the Citadel when commanded to do so by the sultan.' The following morning the people assembled again. The pasha mounted his horse and together with a large throng carrying swords and sticks they went to Ezbekiya Lake.
"On 10 May 1805, Mohamed Ali learned that he had been appointed governor of Jeddah. This appointment had been issued two months earlier, but Khurshid Pasha had concealed the news out of his need for Mohamed Ali's services. However, now that he felt his power threatened by the general commander, he revealed the firman in an official assembly. Although Mohamed Ali declared that he was willing to depart, the Albanians surrounded Khurshid Pasha following the recitation of the firman and demanded their arrears. Khurshid Pasha announced he would levy a tax for this purpose, which provoked the populace to anger.
"Upon leaving Khurshid's camp, Mohamed Ali broadcast the news of his departure to the people. The following day, he gathered his soldiers and notified Khurshid that he must resign his post. The people joined Mohamed Ali's forces, and Khurshid withdrew into the Citadel with a force of 2,000 men."
"At the same time, Egyptian sheikhs and notables sent a delegate to Istanbul with a petition to the Supreme Porte to appoint Mohamed Ali governor of Egypt instead of Khurshid. The Supreme Porte sent a delegate to Egypt to investigate the matter."
"On 10 July 1805, the supreme edict arrived from Istanbul and was announced in the Egyptian capital. It proclaimed that, in deference to the will of the populace, Mohamed Ali had been appointed viceroy of Egypt and ordered Khurshid Pasha to depart to Alexandria. When Ali Pasha, Khurshid's master of arms, learned the news he set out from Upper Egypt at the head of a force of 3,000, which was intercepted by Mohamed Ali."
"While the fighting ranged between Ali Pasha and Mohamed Ali, Al-Qubtan Pasha arrived in Egypt and decided to await the outcome of the battle in order to determine what measures to take. The Mamelukes tried to persuade him of the friendship between them and Khurshid. When this failed, they staged a demonstration of their power. On 18 August, 400 Mameluke horsemen marched into the capital, preceded by pipers and drummers in order to create the impression of a victory parade. This, too, ended in failure, for the people rose up against them. Moreover, when the horsemen attempted to take flight, leaving their arms, purses and property behind them, the people intercepted and eliminated them all."
"Meanwhile, Hussein Al- Qubtan, who had formerly commanded a fleet that assisted in the expulsion of the French, became embroiled in internal conflicts between the Mamelukes and the Turks. The Turkish admiral used every means at his disposal to put an end to the 'Egyptian emirs'."
"The admiral only left Egypt when Khurshid Pasha was made governor of Salanik. However, before leaving he expressed his misgivings over leaving Mohamed Ali at the head of the army."
"On 27 June, Qubtan Pasha returned to Egypt, offered Mohamed Ali the choice between the governorship of Salanik or Cyprus. He then declared that Alfi Bek was the governor of Cairo and that Moussa Pasha then governor of Salanik was on his way to Egypt at the head of a powerful army to take control of the government."
"Mohamed Ali told the admiral that he would obey his orders and leave Egypt. However, before departing he insisted that the admiral pay LE100,000 to the armed forces, and threatened that if the admiral refused to do so he -- Mohamed Ali -- would put his own life at risk on behalf of the soldiers and also subject Cairo to severe hardship."
"At this time, the chief magistrate, sheikhs and ulama of Al- Azhar and eminent notables signed a petition appealing to the Supreme Porte to retain Mohamed Ali in Egypt because his rule was more just than the rule of the Mamelukes. Mohamed Ali, for his part, proclaimed to the British consul that he feared no one, certainly not the chief admiral, and that he was capable of repelling any foreign force that attempted to intervene in Egypt to assist the Mamelukes."
"Qubtan Pasha had not yet despaired of his ability to persuade Mohamed Ali to leave Egypt through a negotiated agreement. Only when it was too late that he decided to take the measures to remove him by force."
"When Al-Alfi Bek's forces were defeated at Damanhour, Qubtan Pasha was forced to resume negotiations with Mohamed Ali. On 20 October 1806 he returned to Istanbul taking with him Ibrahim, Mohamed Ali's son.
"However, in 1807, Alfi Bek died. The death of Mohamed Ali's most formidable adversary brought an end to all effective resistance to his rule."
Alfi Bek died of cholera on 10 January 1807. Before that, however, he had succeeded in eliminating his rival Mameluke emir, Othman Bek Al-Bardisi, whom he had poisoned. Nevertheless, Al-Alfi had won considerable admiration among his contemporaries. Even El-Gabarti felt remorse at the passing of the emir whose death he considered the end of an era:
"Oh Egypt! Look at your children around you, fragmented, estranged and outcast, while boorish Turks and Jews and depraved Albanians take over your land and collect your taxes; make war on your children and combat your heroes; destroy your homes and inhabit your palaces; defile your visage and your sight and extinguish your joy and your light."
Clearly, El-Gabarti did not hold out the best hopes for the era upon which he was about to embark. In his account, Al-Alfi said shortly before his death, "Fate has decreed that Egypt be left to Mohamed Ali." One imagines that in conveying these dire sentiments, El-Gabarti is not so much fearful of the advent of an age in which Mohamed Ali would exercise exclusive rule over Egypt as he was mournful of the passing of the age to which he himself had belonged.