Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (591)
In this third of a nine-part series marking the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali's assumption to the throne, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk collects some of the statements and views of modern Egypt's founder
If we were to speak of Mohamed Ali's memoirs, readers would think we were pulling their leg. After all, Mohamed Ali only learned how to read and write when he was 45. However, Al-Ahram 's commemorative edition on Mohamed Ali, parts of which we are reproducing here, never claimed that he wrote his memoirs himself. He dictated them; and the newspaper cited the evidence to support this or at least give it credibility. The following article appeared under the headline, "Mohamed Ali dictates his memoirs":
"Were we to take a close look at the books published by the Boulaq Press by order of Mohamed Ali we would find translations into Turkish of many foreign works on the lives of such figures as Alexander the Great, Napoleon I and Katherine the Great. It might strike one as odd that Mohamed Ali would commission these publications at a time when Al-Matab'ah Al- Amiriya (the government printing press) was unable to keep pace with the demands for schoolbooks. But the Egyptian ruler was keen to disseminate such histories among educated circles, particularly civil servants, because he personally had a passion for history and was convinced of its edifying influence. Among our evidence of this passion is the following letter dated in 1833 from the consul of Greece and friend of Mohamed Ali, to the Greek Orthodox patriarch:
"'Your Holy Reverend, His Highness Mohamed Ali has asked me to write to you in the hope that you possess in the patriarchal library a book on the life of Alexander the Great. His Highness would like to borrow such a book, if possible, in order to have it translated into Turkish. If this book is not in your possession, do you know whether he would be able to obtain it from the library at St Catherine's or from Istanbul?'
"Mohamed Ali sought wisdom from the teachings of history and he sought inspiration from the great and worthy projects undertaken by Egypt's ancient rulers. In a directive to the Ministry of Finance in 1829, he noted that he had learned from his readings of history that the founder of the Ashrafiya Canal, which was slated for renovation, was Alexander the Great and his entourage of Greek wise men. This canal had eventually fallen into decay but was renovated following the Kurdish takeover of Egypt at the command of Sultan Al-Ashraf. Later the canal had fallen into decay again and today he charged the engineer Shaker Effendi with the task of reopening it.
"Clearly, then, in spite of his many concerns and duties, Mohamed Ali found time for the study and contemplation of history. This interest, moreover, prompted him to sponsor a history of his age entitled Rodat Al-Umran (The Garden of Urbanisation), towards which end he sent memorandums to various government departments. An example of these is the one addressed to the provision stores inspector asking him to compile an inventory of the types of wax in the stores, their methods of fabrication and their purposes and to send this inventory to the citadel so that it can be included in the history that was currently being compiled under the title Rodat Al-Umran.
"As the work progressed, a committee was formed consisting of Mukhtar Bek, Kani Bek, Artin Effendi, Youssef Effendi and Estafan Effendi to translate what had been completed into French. But was this history ever published? We think not, for we have been unable to unearth a copy, to our great misfortune for certainly this book would have shed light on many details from this period that still remain unknown.
"At the same time, we must ask whether there was a relationship between Rodat Al-Umran and the political memoirs that Mohamed Ali dictated to his personal secretary. We have numerous references to the fact that he was engaged in this task and felt it important. In 1831, he is reported to have told the Russian consul: 'My many activities have not prevented me from recording the details of my political life. Historians who have written of me since my ascendancy to the Egyptian throne until now have made many mistakes'.
"To a British tourist, he said, 'I do not treat the judgment of history lightly. The clearest proof of this is that for some time now I have been engaged in chronicling my life. Whenever I have a moment's time free from my attention to public concerns I call in the secretary who I have commissioned with this task and dictate to him my memoirs, which he records without altering a single word I say'. On the substance of these memoirs he added, 'I have had a full and eventful life. I will speak of my childhood and youth before coming to Egypt. I will describe the condition of the country when I arrived and all the events that occurred during the conquests of Nubia, Sinar Kordofan, the Hijaz and Syria no matter how great or small. It is a momentous task and my spare time is limited'.
"Another British tourist who was present at the meeting, asked the Egyptian viceroy why he did not commission one of his senior officers to write the history which would be of enormous value to future generations. Mohamed Ali responded, 'I am tending to this matter personally. I have a scribe and for many years now I have been dictating my memoirs to him in my free time. His task is to record my account of the developments of my life and the state of Egypt when I assumed power'.
"It is truly regrettable that military and political events consumed all of Mohamed Ali's time, rendering him unable to complete the recording and publication of his memoirs. In 1839, he said to Sir John Bowring, author of 'Report on Egypt and Candia", Parlimentary Papers, Reports from Commissioners (1840), 'I have been advised to study history in order to learn how to rule my country. However, now I find myself advanced in years and sadly unable to continue my studies'".
APPARENTLY THE EDITORS of the historical commemorative edition of Al-Ahram feared that the original title that the author had given his article was not clear enough, for they added a subtitle of their own: "The history of the age of Mohamed Ali in the words of Mohamed Ali". Beneath this caption, the author explained that whenever a foreign politician or eminent guest emerged from an interview with the famous Egyptian Pasha, he would race home to record the conversation and dispatch this in a report to his government. One cannot help but admire this writer's scholastic integrity, for he hastened to stress that Mohamed Ali only spoke Turkish and therefore had to rely on translators -- generally Armenians -- whom some of the foreigners suspected were not as faithful as they should have been in their translations. He points out, secondly, that because these foreigners had published their citations from Mohamed Ali without first having submitted the text to him, the quotes could not be considered official. He further cautioned that for political reasons Mohamed Ali was frequently excessive in his praise of foreign powers. In spite of these reservations, the author could not help but acknowledge the historical value of the recorded statements of Mohamed Ali. "Taken as a whole, they form a vivid portrayal of Mohamed Ali's reactions when surprised by an embarrassing question or when conversing at length in a confidential and convivial atmosphere," he wrote. Readers will be able to ascertain this for themselves as they peruse some of Mohamed Ali's sayings -- said when talking to foreign officials and visitors -- that appeared in the Al-Ahram memorial edition on him and which we have arranged topically:
Mohamed Ali as viceroy of Egypt
"Every nation can attain greatness and every army can ensure victory if each has someone who knows how to lead it on the correct path". (1837)
"It is sufficient for future generations to know that Mohamed Ali did not attain his achievements through imitation or the mediation of others, but by virtue of his own efforts". (1837)
"Having aged, I can no longer afford to progress slowly, as is the case with those younger than myself. Therefore, I have to make haste in order to achieve what I would like to accomplish". (1838)
"Do not judge me according to your level of education but weigh me against the ignorance of my environment. We cannot apply to Egypt the methods you use in England, as we need centuries until we attain your current standards. You have a multitude, with the discernment to comprehend your rulers and assess their projects, whereas I have only a handful who are capable of understanding me and implementing my recommendations. I might frequently be the victim of deception, but I know when I have been deceived". (1838)
"I did not have the good fortune to have received an education when I was young. I only began to learn to read and write at the age of 47. Nor have I ever been to a country with a greater level of civilisation than mine. Therefore, I do not expect to be able to do what you do or to reach the level of advancement you have reached". (1838)
"You have told me some brutal truths today. But, I do not reproach you for that, for I like people to speak to me frankly". (1838).
On domestic reforms
"I want to introduce major reforms, establish numerous factories, and create a large national army, because the army is the backbone of permanent and stable power. In short, before I die I want to establish and strengthen the principles of progress and civilisation in my country. It will then be up to my son, Ibrahim, to follow in my footsteps and elaborate on my plans. He is devoted to these principles, which should bring great benefit to my country, and his reputation has been built on disseminating these principles". (1824).
"I have governed the province of Egypt for 22 years. In the past six, I have achieved more than in all the years that preceded it. The creation of an army and the systems that support it, and the construction of a fleet are of great advantage to us. If I live another six or seven years I will be able to give lengthy thought to the other projects I intend to pursue so that they will have the most profound possible impact on the country. Do you remember what condition Egypt was in 20 years ago?" (1827).
"There are many projects that must be implemented. As it stands now, my country is more advanced than both Turkey and Greece, and Persia even more so. But, I started late and I do not know whether I have enough time to complete my projects. In all events, I will do my utmost to ensure that I leave matters in the best possible condition before I die". (1832).
"My highest ambition is to introduce the means of modern civilisation into Egypt. Unfortunately, time is short. They tell me that Egypt is now at the level of Europe, but I am certain that is not true. I need 30 years to promote my new policy in the country, but the fact is I doubt that I will live that long; nor do I desire to. My father lived to be a hundred, but then his memory failed him. I hope to die before that happens to me. Therefore, I am taking all possible preparations to ensure a smooth transition after my death. At the same time, my son Ibrahim espouses my policy and the educational spirit that I have instilled in my other sons will ensure that my policy survives". (1832)
"The most difficult part is always at the beginning. When I started in Egypt, I used a needle to dig the earth. Now I use an axe. But I am looking forward to benefiting from all the advantages of a plow". (1838)
"Did you not notice how I treated the patriarch of Crete? I received him with the greatest honours and I exempted him and the men of his court from the payment of exorbitant fees. And the Christians of Syria have never enjoyed as much happiness and freedom as they do today. They have the right to sound their church bells whenever they like. I respect them and I want to save them from the hardship they have suffered". (1831)
"My religion and my code of honour compel me to let every person perform in total freedom the duties incumbent upon him in the worship of God. Therefore, I have abolished all sectarian discrimination in Jerusalem and I put an end to the humiliation the Christians suffered under Ottoman rule. They did not have the right to build churches there before I came. I also applied this policy in Mecca, where the Supreme Porte had levied a 300-piastre tax from anyone coming from Persia". (1833)
On state monopolies
"I know what is going through your mind. But if you were to stay with us for a long time -- and this is my hope -- perhaps you would change your mind. Look at me for a moment. I rule a people inclined to laziness. If I didn't force them to work, they would remain idle because they can live on less than a millime per day. Once they get that money, all they think about is how to spend it -- they stop working, in other words -- whereas the purpose of my policy is to create an industrious people accustomed to effort and exertion. I have taken control over everything, but I did that in order to make everything productive. Who else could do that but me? Who else could supply the necessary funds? Who else can furnish the means of education and push the people to acquire the knowledge and ideas that led to Europe's superiority. Do you think anyone else in this country had thought of introducing cotton, silk and mulberries?" (1833)
On the Suez Canal
"If the idea is to license a group of financiers or entrepreneurs to undertake the digging operations for the canal, I will never approve the project. However, I am fully prepared to meet the wishes of foreign governments, and if they come to an agreement on the matter I personally will undertake the excavation of the canal immediately after completing the barrages". (1847)
On hereditary succession
"Why don't I declare my independence? You know the reason. I want to respect the wishes of the great powers and I would not have remained subordinate to another until now were it not for the fact that I respect the wishes of these governments. Neither the Greeks nor the Belgians have shown you a similar degree of respect. Yet, you rewarded those countries by guaranteeing their independence just as you are determined to punish me by refusing my request for a guarantee of my safety". (1833)
"Why do you want me to remain an obedient subordinate to a state that is weaker than my country in all respects, while I rule a more numerous populace and handle greater financial outlays than the sultan and many kings of Europe". (1834)
"I did not devote my entire life to Egypt and achieve progress beyond the capacities of others only to leave it all to some Turkish ruler. I did not lavish enormous sums of money on constructing vast enterprises, building a great fleet, digging canals and many other deeds only to leave my supporters to face the prospect of destitution. If I had the slightest doubt that they will assume power after me then I would prefer to leave them in a position to prosper. I am an old man and I want to assure myself of the future of my family before I day. I want the power that I established to pass into their hands". (1838)
On Franco-Egyptian relations
"I had twice stated (through Ibrahim Pasha) the reasons that prevent me from fighting alongside France, in spite of my admiration for your country and my sincere desire to be of service to it. I will repeat to you the reasons if you wish. I am the greatest vizier in the Ottoman Empire. However, if I were to agree to the terms you have offered I would lose all the fruits of my efforts and my honour in the eyes of my people and the Muslim people in general. They would despise me and turn their backs on me. Do not imagine that this position is based on religious considerations. I am above such matters. I do not regard myself as Muslim or Christian when it comes to policy. However, my influence derives from the reputation I have acquired and the regard my nation has for me. I tell you therefore if I entered an agreement with you on this I would ruin myself". (1830)
"I know where my friends are and I would be happy to offer France my services. However, I have told you twice the reasons that have compelled me to reject the solution you have offered. Do you want me to cut off my head with my own sword? If I allied with you against a Muslim people I would do myself in. My status, prestige and moral influence would collapse. We have spoken frequently of this alliance and now rumours have begun to spread here and elsewhere".
On the Morea War
"The victories I will achieve in that spot of the empire will strengthen my reputation and prestige. The sultan does not possess sufficient forces to oppose my ventures. I am the son of victory. The people of Turkey speak my name and are profuse in their gratitude for the great deeds I have performed. I have lifted the nation from the depths in spite of the resistance of the Supreme Porte who always attributes everything positive to himself alone.
"I am fully aware that the empire is headed towards collapse and that it will be difficult to save it. So why do I exert so much effort towards sparing something that cannot be saved? I will build a vast empire on those ruins and I have the means to attain that end".
On the Syrian campaigns
"I do not strive to occupy countries beyond Syria. But I need Syria and I must occupy it because I can and I want to occupy it". (1831)
"If I am aware of the circumstances of Europe, how could you believe that I am ignorant of the circumstances of Turkey? I know what the Supreme Porte might do to me and I know what I can do against the Supreme Porte. Who is the commander who will fight against Ibrahim Pasha? Will it be the governor of Aleppo who was an archer some years ago? No. No. Believe me, the Supreme Porte will think a thousand times before coming up against me. I, for my part, believe we will reach a solution.
"I have a standing force of 30,000 in Syria. I also have at my disposal 25,000 Druze and 15,000 men from Nablus. Where is the army that can stand up against a force of this size?" (1832)
"What is your opinion of the Supreme Porte? He had seven months to come to the aid of the governor of Akka, but what did he do? Poor Abdallah was deceived and he lost everything after having sacrificed all that he had for the Supreme Porte. He only had a thousand purses left. After that he preferred to come to me because he no longer trusted the sultan". (1832)
On the administration of Syria
"We have made several mistakes but we have put an end to the abuse of the rulers there. After we withdraw you will not find a single force capable of ruling Syria. If luck turns again in our favour you will see that the Syrians will turn to us again. Next year we will return together to that province and mend many wounds".
"I revived agriculture and commerce and all religions were respected by all. However, in a little while you will find no trace of the few reforms I attempted to introduce". (1840)
"When I was occupying Syria I it was my duty to devote my attention to it. As a result, I was distracted from some concerns in Egypt. However, after the events of 1840 Egypt will have the benefit of my full attention". (1845)
THE PRECEDING STATEMENTS attributed to Mohamed Ali reveal much about the man and his policies in the Arab region. Of particular note are the reasons he offered for his refusal to enter into an alliance with a European power against a Muslim people, the indication that he harboured designs against the Supreme Porte as early as the Morea campaign during which he fought under the Ottoman banner, and the priority he accorded Syria in his strategic calculations -- but then, the Levant has always constituted Egypt's eastern strategic depth.