Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (593)
In part five of a nine-part series marking the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali's assumption to the throne, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk traces Egypt's gradual societal shift from individualism to one of collective behaviour
Professor Mohamed Shafik Ghorbal Bek
The Al-Ahram editors of the Mohamed Ali memorial edition that appeared in 1949 were fully aware of the impact the great pasha's policies had on the nature and structure of Egyptian social relations. They were therefore naturally keen to identify these changes, which they did primarily by citing several directives that Mohamed Ali issued to government officials and categorising these under various types of reform trends. More important, however, was the study, "Mohamed Ali and Egyptian Society" by Professor Mohamed Shafik Ghorbal Bek.
Ghorbal received his BA in history from the University of Liverpool in 1919 and his MA from the same university in 1924. His thesis for the latter -- The Beginnings of the Egyptian Question and the Rise of Mehemet Ali -- was supervised by the eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee. Ghorbal's analytical approach to historiography was evidenced in all his major works, from his seminal Tareekh Al-Mufawadat Al-Misriya Al-Britannia 1922-1936 (History of Anglo-Egyptian Negotiations: 1922-1936) to his monographs Mohamed Ali Al- Kibeer (The Great Mohamed Ali) and Takween Misr (The Formation of Egypt).
Al-Ahram clearly proceeded in this spirit, presenting first the facts of that landmark edition, and then the Ghorbal analysis on the following pages. Readers, thus, were clearly to understand that the two pieces were to be seen as complementary, and we see no reason to depart from this principle.
ON MOHAMED ALI'S POLITICS, Al-Ahram editorial staff wrote: Many imagine that the actions being undertaken by the ministry of interior and social affairs to alleviate hardship and protect society against ills are modern innovations. Nothing could be further from the truth. A cursory glance at the measures undertaken by Mohamed Ali a century and a half ago is sufficient to realise the inroads he had made towards elevating the people's material and moral standards of living. The following are only a few of such measures that were issued to this effect during Mohamed Ali's reign, as reported by Abdel Rahman Al-Jabarti in Aja'ib Al-Athar fi'l-Tarajim wa'l-Akhbar :
Fighting unemployment: Al-Jabarti wrote (in 1817), "Waterwheels, said to be more than a thousand, were constructed upon the orders of the Pasha [Mohamed Ali] in the territory known as Ra's Al-Wadi in Sharqiya Bilbis. Orders were then issued throughout the province of Sharqiya to send unemployed peasants who have no land to farm to settle in the above mentioned wadi in villages that would be constructed to accommodate them. The peasants were to service the waterwheels and the irrigation of the farms. They were also to learn silkworm breeding and the manufacture of silk, and experts were brought over from Syria and Lebanon to instruct them in this. Funds were allocated to cover the expense of all of this until the project bore fruit, after which they would become partners entitled to a quarter of the yield".
Providing shelter and employment to beggars: "Issued in 1837, a royal decree stated that a memorandum submitted by Clot Bek proposed assembling all beggars in the insane asylum and engaging the capable among them in useful employment. He also recommends allocating the hospital revenues to support the mendicants after the hospital's current patients are transferred to the ward that is currently being constructed in the Royal Hospital. The decree continues, 'Having been apprised of the substance of this memorandum and approving it thoroughly, I hereby ask you to implement this project, which is to assemble all able-bodied mendicants and employ them in workshops, factories, construction and similar activities (In the Ottoman era, beggars had their own officially recognised guild)'".
Substituting Egyptians for foreign employees: "As you know, we have engaged an English craftsman who specialises in the masonry for manufacturing rifle triggers to teach this craft using the rock quarried from the Muqattam Hills. We must have Egyptian craftsmen with the foresight, qualifications and readiness to be apprenticed to this specialisation so that they may receive instruction in this craft. Please dispatch a persuasive representative to encourage Egyptian craftsmen by telling them, 'Those among you who are quickest to learn and demonstrate their proficiency at this craft shall be promoted to master craftsman, with the commensurate salary and the attendant prestige and influence'. Such enticements should offer potential apprentices the necessary incentive to acquire this craft, after which we will be able to dispense with that Englishman".
Facilitating food provisions for the people: "In an order to the chief steward, Mohamed Ali wrote: 'In the financial council which was held three years ago and in which you, Sir, were present, it was decided to include meat, bread, ghee, oil and other such daily foodstuffs in the pricing policy, but not vegetables and fruit. I have recently learned these two latter categories have also been entered into the pricing policy lists. As this action is a devious way to steal people's money, I want to know who is responsible for the inclusion of fruits and vegetables in the price lists in spite of their explicit exclusion in the above-mentioned decision'".
Compassion for peasants: "In 1835, Mohamed Ali sent the following order to the general inspector of industry: 'My benefactors are two: the first is the Sultan Mahmoud and the second is the peasant. My intent in so saying is that you do not regard the peasant with hostility, for every honour we obtain, receive and bestow we owe to the peasant. It is the peasant who provides for us all and we, therefore, must devote extra attention to the welfare and advancement of this daily labourer'".
Prohibiting hashish cultivation: "The following directive was issued in 1836 to the revenues director: 'The viceroy is aware of the harm that comes to the people from the consumption of hashish. He is further aware that most government employees consume this substance and that the work of government is hampered as a result. He has therefore ordered the abolition of all revenues deriving from hashish cultivation and all directorate chiefs to prohibit its cultivation'".
On nightspots: "In May 1842 Mohamed Ali issued the following directive to his minister of finance: 'The British consul has petitioned on behalf of his subjects for permission to open entertainment houses (cabarets) in certain areas of Boulaq. You may grant licenses for these establishments on the condition that they are located away from neighbourhoods inhabited by Muslims'".
Prohibiting the sale of intoxicating beverages: "In February 1844, the police commissioner issued a bulletin reiterating the recently promulgated decree prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages in Muslim markets and residential quarters".
Identity cards: "The Russian consul reported the following to his superiors in November 1829: 'Two months ago the government of Egypt introduced a system whereby every adult male must carry an identity card which he is required to show whenever entering or leaving a city or village. Every peasant must also obtain such a card so that the government can certify the address of his place of residence should he decide to relocate (The purpose of this measure was to regulate the increasing migration of fellahin, or farmers)'".
Compassion for wounded soldiers: "In 1818 the taxation bureau was instructed to allocate suitable pensions for soldiers resident in Egypt who had suffered battle wounds that rendered them unable to earn a living. To soldiers desiring to return to their homelands, the bureau was to offer set remunerations for their services". Thus ended Al-Ahram article of 1949.
MOHAMED ALI AND EGYPTIAN SOCIETY: In his Ahram article, Mohamed Shafik Ghorbal, author of The Beginnings of the Egyptian Question and the Rise of Mehemet Ali, wrote: "Egyptian society as we know it today bears the imprimatur etched by Mohamed Ali over the course of half a century of rule. In view of the intensive and varied discussion that is currently taking place on the formation of our society and because the participants in this discussion are unarmed with the pertinent knowledge and therefore rely for the most part on historical or sociological works that deal with the emergence of social classes or strata either theoretically or as case studies of specific countries (such as India) or as analyses of a certain epoch in European history (such as the feudal or industrial age) with the result that their descriptions of Egyptian social phenomena are loose approximations founded upon comparisons with their counterparts or similar phenomena outside Egypt, I felt that the best contribution I could make to Al-Ahram 's commemoration of this great man of Egypt was to offer a brief account of the effect of his policies in shaping modern Egyptian society.
"Mohamed Ali did not begin etching on a blank slate. The society over which he assumed control in 1805 was an ancient one, its origins rooted in the soil of this valley for thousands of years. However, there is no doubt, too, that he had a powerful impact upon it, that he remolded it by changing some things and adding others and by releasing forces that were until his time pent up, and harnessing others that until his time ranged freely.
"Across the many generations of human habitation in the Nile Valley, this society had evolved into a cohesive whole that divided labour within itself to meet its corporeal and moral needs. Its aim was to enable the Egyptian person to live a good life in this ephemeral world and the eternal hereafter", says Ghorbal.
"The response to the tangible needs of life took two forms. One was a sort of 'defiance' that took circumstances and bent them to the benefit of mankind; the other a type of 'reconciliation' between condition and circumstance. Both processes entailed a 'leadership' in the sense of a class of people that assumes the vanguard of the group entity and steers it to a better life. We do not know exactly how this came about or why. But we do know that for the most part in history leadership classes do not emerge from within the group, but rather arrive as conquerors and then strive to perpetuate their supremacy as a separate and distinct entity. However, the evidence we see in Egypt leads us to believe that the leader class arose from within the group, for its style of command and its policies were not those of tyrannical invaders. Or, even if they were such to begin with, within a very short space of time they evolved into an innovative national elite at the helm of a real nation. Whatever the case, it is clear that Egypt was shaped by an outstanding leadership class and that Egyptians themselves acknowledged this.
"Our ancient Egyptian society as a system affirmed the disposition towards social cohesion and stability. But, although there was little emphasis on individualism we should not take this in the sense that has commonly been propounded by Egyptologists who have claimed that the individual in ancient Egypt was entirely or almost entirely submerged by the group. The facts refute this. All the arts and literature that remain from ancient Egypt testify to the existence of the concept that the physical and spiritual welfare of the group required individuals with the moral temperament to be creative and innovative and that such a spirit can only thrive when individual personality can develop and flourish. Nor should we dwell excessively on the sharp stratification in that society and the difficulties of mobility across the divides. In all societies throughout history, including modern times, it is difficult for individuals to move from one class to another in the absence of laws prohibiting such mobility or other such obstacles. It is the common disposition to maintain the status quo, and social stratification only becomes problematic when pervaded by divisions on the basis of victor versus conquered or the accepted versus the outcast, and these become more acute when they acquire religious sanctification", continues Ghorbal.
"Throughout the entire length of Egyptian history I do not know of any instances of prolonged and sharp separation of a social class apart from two: the peasants and the military. The former stems from the need to safeguard agriculture, the backbone of survival in Egypt. This required the ruler to pursue all available means to promote the cultivation of the land, from restricting control over agricultural land and regulating its use and development to enforcing various measures to prevent peasants from changing their occupation or place of abode. Among the latter was the prevalent tendency not to recruit peasants into the army and to create a military force using suitable local or alien elements whose recruitment would not debilitate the country's economic life.
"Nor am I aware of instances of the supremacy of a conquering or external class except in those periods when Egypt was assimilated into a larger entity, such as the Macedonian, Roman, Arab or Ottoman empires. But even then, the attempts of the Roman, Arab or Turkish newcomers to prolong themselves as a distinct and privileged class ultimately proved futile, for after a period of time these classes merged into the greater social body due to the eventual predominance of the forces of cohesion and other such formative factors of Egyptian society.
"Having thus laid out the essential features of Egyptian society we may now take the reader to the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, when Mohamed Ali came to power. What happened?
"We note firstly that those engaged in agriculture -- the servicing of the soil -- were bound to the land and that the land itself was sufficiently encompassed to permit government control over it. Land ownership was associated with government, military or religious establishments. It could be conferred upon military bodies, such as Ottoman garrison regiments or the sheikhs of tribal war bands, or it could be deeded to high government officials, or it could be linked to a religious philanthropic purpose or a public service and placed under the supervision of officials charged with fulfilling that purpose, or the government could put it to something akin to a public tender thereby guaranteeing the cultivation of the land and a certain income from its proceeds. Because of such forms of land distribution on the eve of the advent of Mohamed Ali there was no class of landed gentry in the customary sense or a class of feudal landlords as was the case in European history", explains Ghorbal.
"Secondly, by the end of the 18th century the Ottoman garrison had fallen into disarray and its men, whose livelihood had depended upon the produce, proceeds and rents of the land, found their sources of income plundered and began to mix with the native populace in their capacity as 'notables'.
"Thirdly, craftsmen and merchants in the cities were organised into guilds. The secret behind this system and its survival was that it served several useful purposes. To the ruler it was a handy tool for maintaining law and order as well as for collecting revenues. To their members it served to safeguard the secrets of their trade and uphold its standards, as membership was excluded to all but those who had received the appropriate training under the supervision of the masters of their craft.
"Fourthly, the ulama were also organised into a guild. There were several reasons for this: the need to record the revenues and disbursements from religiously linked sources of income, regulating the affairs and the training of Islamic teachers, judges and jurists, and the need for religious scholars to establish consensus on religious and moral affairs. However, the ulama guild differed from others both in the relative openness of admissions to it and the facility of leaving it. Of all the guilds, its members were the least concerned with class or national origins. This said, I do not believe that the Sufi or dervish orders can be easily classified in the social order as their members -- apart from perhaps the masters of these orders -- were simultaneously practitioners of crafts and trades and thus also members of those guilds", ends Ghorbal.
The above material from Al-Ahram, be it that of the paper's editors or that of Ghorbal, offers a theoretical picture of Egyptian society at the end of the 18th century. I stress 'theoretical' because that society was subject to the influences of novel historical circumstances. Of particular note in this regard was the 'Mameluke' system, whereby any wealthy individual could purchase slaves, black or white, and train them in the arts of war and form these into a militia for the purposes of personal gain and advancement. This system wreaked havoc in military and governmental hierarchies. At the same time, the Mamelukes cannot be said to have constituted a fixed class. Nor could they rally together over a single issue for anything but short periods of time to counter some fleeting exigency. The only time when there evolved something of a concept of a Mameluke order was in that era in which the sultans of Egypt, India and the Ottoman Empire used them as their instruments of war and government.
The desert tribes formed a similar destabilising factor. It is difficult to ascertain the validity of the lineages those tribes that descended upon the Nile Valley over various epochs attributed to themselves. What is certain is that they rallied around prominent clans or sheikhs and that their power was generally contingent upon the personality of the sheikh or circumstances propitious to him, and that once such conditions no longer existed their influence would dissipate. Moreover, the desert tribe only thrived as an operative factor insofar as their circumstances of life in the desert enabled them to sustain their cohesion or if they were charged with a task useful to settled society such as guarding trade routes or collecting certain substances such as alum or natron.
Mention should also be made here of the influence of foreign communities and Egyptian and Ottoman religious minorities that existed in Egypt at the time.
The key to understanding Mohamed Ali's role in history is that he decided to forge iron, knowledge and money. He could not bear to see ruin or things going to ruin around him. The land had to be planted and the money had to be arranged for that and crops that were in demand in international markets had to be found. It was important to take advantage of Egypt's geographical location between continents in order to revive a flourishing trade and there had to be industries that would dispense him from dependency on the products produced by the modern tools and machinery in the West. He also had to salvage the intelligence and hone the minds of his Egyptian subjects by introducing new systems of education and training appropriate to his new needs and circumstances and bringing in the technicians for this purpose. Finally, he needed a powerful military and naval force to protect the country and safeguard its autonomy. For all these purposes there had to prevail a single group spirit, for if not its will would be sapped by the diverse interests of social groups and classes. Towards this end, therefore, Mohamed Ali adopted a policy of abolishing the existing guilds and orders. He thus put an end to the old garrison regiments, the private militias, the craft and merchant guilds, while retaining the 'Mameluke order' as a source of personal guards or candidates for study missions abroad and the desert tribes to patrol certain areas and to perform certain military functions.
The constituent elements of Egyptian society were thus broken down preparatory to reconstituting them in the manner that we see coalesced today. However, before explaining this process we must pose an important question: Did Mohamed Ali have a concrete plan for social reform? Otherwise put, are the conditions or some of the conditions of Egyptian society today the product of his social policies or of other unintentional factors?
Although Mohamed Ali did not develop a comprehensive social policy, he did establish certain principles and goals. Egyptian society as we see it today was both the product of the diverse policies he adopted on the basis of these principles and goals and of extraneous factors. Mohamed Ali's most important principles and goals were the following:
Firstly, to preserve the peasantry as a distinct class, to which testifies the agrarian law, the purpose of which was not only to regulate agricultural affairs but also to establish a comprehensive social order for that sector of society connected to the service of the soil.
Secondly, to place the greater public welfare above the considerations of distinctions between religious affiliations.
Thirdly, to avoid creating an isolated, totally self-sufficient and insular society and introducing change and hybridity in small measure, for he hated nothing more than national chauvinism which he regarded as narrow in potential and in thought.
Fourthly, to create a class of citizens taken from prominent families who had excelled in their studies and to give them the further education in Egypt and in Europe so as to equip them to serve in various military, civil and economic capacities. His aim was to create an elite that would assume the reigns of leadership under his direction and the direction of his successors.
The effects of the policies that were adopted on the basis of these goals and principles are palpably visible. Agricultural land ownership has been liberated from its ancient restrictions giving rise to classes of large, middle and small landholders. Alongside these are the many rural inhabitants who are not propertied, but are nevertheless not subject to a separate code of law but rather to the law that governs all citizens. The same applies to the classes that emerged in the cities: the middle class consisting of the practitioners of the liberal professions and the wage-earning working class. Finally, there also emerged in our country a sector that steers its economic life, with its diverse business enterprises and financial organisations.
Such social phenomena were a consequence of Mohamed Ali's unleashing of Egypt's energies. However, they are not what he had envisioned. He believed in an economy directed by the state towards the realisation of certain social ends. However, neither he nor his successors could protect it from European intervention and colonial expansion. At the same time, it was he who moulded Egypt into a cohesive national entity. If domestic and external factors increased the gap between rich and poor, there is no denying that there exists a vibrant and powerful national spirit that rises above considerations of private interests and guides the leaders of public opinion in their attempts to equitably resolve social problems.