Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to +202 578 6089.
The making of a modern hero
reviews Egyptian historians' views of Mohamed Ali Pasha
Not long before Henry Dodwell's The Founder of Modern Egypt: A Study of Mohamed Ali appeared in 1931 (Cambridge University Press), Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafie published 'Asr Mohamed Ali (The Age of Mohamed Ali). Appearing in December 1930, this latter work featured what has become the most widely circulated portrait of Mohamed Ali and beneath it the caption: "The founder of the modern Egyptian state and the initiator of its revival and independence."
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Slave emancipation document issued by the Sawakin slave emancipation department, dated March 1870...
The essential difference between these two works is one of motivation. Dodwell's was written in response to an appeal from King Fouad I to him and other European historians to enhance the image of the Mohamed Ali dynasty, which was then under attack by nationalists in Egypt for having paved the way for and then lent itself to the perpetuation of the British occupation. Al- Rafie's, by contrast, was the third volume in his exhaustive study of The History of the Nationalist Movement and the Evolution of Government in Egypt. The first two volumes in this series were "The Age of Egyptian Resistance to the French Expedition" and "The Development of National Life between the Expulsion of the French and the Rise of Mohamed Ali to the Egyptian Throne by the Will of the People".
Although Al-Rafie readily recognised Mohamed Ali as the founder of the modern state and lauded his reign as a formative phase in the nationalist movement, he nevertheless criticised many aspects of Mohamed Ali's policies and style of rule. Perhaps it was this that prompted the palace to invite foreign historians to produce works that would cast Mohamed Ali and his successors in a glow of patriotic greatness and valour.
Before Al-Rafie's book appeared, Mohamed Ali was not a common subject for independent historical investigation. Apart from the contemporary chronicles of Abdel-Rahman Al- Jabarti , Ajiab Al-Athar fi Al-Tarajim wa Al- Akhbar (Amazing Testimonies of Lives and Events), the fourth volume of which covered the period from the French expedition to 1821, there were only two other works in Arabic that treated Mohamed Ali at any significant length. The first was Tarikh Misr min al-'Asr al-Othmani ila Qoubil al-Waqt al-Hadir (The History of Egypt from the Ottoman Conquest to just before the Present, September 1916), by Omar Al-Iskandari and Selim Hassan; the 120-page second chapter of which was dedicated to the age of Mohamed Ali. Shortly after it appeared, the Ministry of Education placed this book on the curriculum of secondary schools and the Dar El-Ulum. The second book, which was also made required reading in secondary schools, was Tarikh al-'Asr al-Hadith (The History of the Modern Age) by Mohamed Sabry (nicknamed the Sorbonni in reference to his studying at the Sorbonne in Paris). If both these early 20th century works were quite cautious in their criticisms of Mohamed Ali, Al- Jabarti was unreserved in both his criticism and his praise.
In addition to the foregoing, there were a few foreign-language works on Mohamed Ali by Egyptians abroad: one dealing with the history of the relations between Egypt and the Supreme Porte from the 19th century to 1841 by Youssef Aslan Cattaui (Paris 1919), L' Empire egyptien sous Mohamed-Ali by Mohamed Sabry (Paris 1930) and The Beginnings of the Egyptian Question and the Rise of Mehemet Ali by Shafik Ghorbal (London 1928). In contrast to Sabry's more critically objective work, Ghorbal's and Cattaui's fall squarely in the panegyric category.
If Al-Rafie's The Age of Mohamed Ali can be said to culminate the studies on this leader up to the early 1930s, the following decade brought a new wave of studies, written to coincide with the centennial commemoration of Mohamed Ali's death in 1849. The first of these was Mohamed Fouad Shukri's Bina' Dawlat Misr Mohamed Ali: al-Siyasah al-Dakhiliya (The Construction of Mohamed Ali's Egypt: Domestic Policy, Cairo, 1948). Shukri states in his introduction to this work that his purpose was to focus in detail on Mohamed Ali's domestic policies, in contrast to other authors who tended to prioritise his foreign policies. As though to underscore this point, Shukri includes an appendix featuring the translation into Arabic of a large collection of reports by the foreign consuls who were in Egypt at the time of Mohamed Ali. In 1949, Ghorbal produced Mohamed Ali al-Kabeir (Mohamed Ali the Great), a monograph treating the personality of Mohamed Ali "as prominent 13th century AH Islamic figure, in spite of the fact that he was oriented towards European civilisation, ... for Egypt is part of the Dar Al-Islam." Not surprisingly, this book appeared as part of a series on "great Islamic figures".
A third work was Rene and George Cattaui's Mohamed Ali wa 'Oropa (Mohamed Ali and Europe), appearing originally in French in 1949 and translated into Arabic by the Egyptian Royal Society for Historical Studies. Mohamed Ali in this work is again cast in a heroic light, while certain of his policies and actions that would have jarred with a mid-20th century Egyptian nationalist spirit were defended in terms of the standards and needs of his age.
By and large, the works cited above shaped the image of Mohamed Ali and his era in the minds of successive generations of Egyptians who studied them in secondary school and university. This applies in particular to the works of Shafik Ghorbal and Mohamed Fouad Shukri, both professors of history at Fouad I University. The generations of students whom they mentored emerged with a glorious image of that period, generally untarnished by Al-Rafie's more critical nationalist opposition perspective.
Ghorbal, in particular, was especially keen to encourage his students to publish their studies on the Mohamed Ali era in a range of social, economic and political periodicals. The following are a mere sampling: The Egyptian Peasant in the age of Mohamed Ali (MA thesis, 1934), The history of the Boulaq Press (MA thesis, 1936), The history of education in the age of Mohamed Ali (MA thesis, 1936), The Egyptian conquest of Sudan in the Mohamed Ali era (MA thesis, 1939, The history of the Egyptian press: 1798-1882 (MA thesis, 1940), Egyptian rule in the Arabian Peninsula (MA thesis 1943), Egyptian trade in the Mohamed Ali era (PhD thesis, 1946) and The development of Egyptian agriculture in the first half of the 19th century (PhD thesis, 1946).
The dominant views on Mohamed Ali's role in history varied greatly, even if for the most part they fell within the range from unqualified praise to cautious admiration with some critical reservations. In spite of this diversity, all concur that it was Mohamed Ali who demolished the economic-socio-political structure that had existed for ages and erected upon its ruins a new structure that permitted for the rise of new social classes and forces entirely different from those that had prevailed under the Mameluke-Ottoman order. Mohamed Ali strove to elevate Egypt to a unique status among the Ottoman Arab provinces. Towards this end he expanded its geographical horizons through the annexation of Sudan and the Levant, thereby furnishing a strategic depth for Egypt's national security, and he re-introduced the monopoly system whereby the state supervised and controlled all fields of economic activity. Mohamed Ali's drive to build an autonomous economic power in the Eastern Mediterranean was bound to bring him into confrontation with Western Europe, then on the move to expand its foreign markets in order to compensate for the relative narrowness of domestic markets. That he had closed the Egyptian market to key European exports in order to safeguard Egypt's budding industrialisation project was one of the main incentives behind the European-Ottoman collusion to destroy Mohamed Ali's national project. That collusion famously culminated in the Treaty of London of 1840.
Against this brief historical background, let us now turn to the views of those Egyptian historians on the landmark events of the Mohamed Ali period. First and foremost among these is the massacre of the Mamelukes in the Citadel on 1 March 1811, which he arranged for the eve of his son Tousson's departure to the Hijaz to put down the Wahabi revolt. It is important to recall here that the Mamelukes, since Ali Bek Al-Kebir (1763) had asserted their autonomous rule over Egypt in defiance of the Ottoman viceroy and that following the expulsion of the French in 1801 they moved to reestablish their grip on power. Although in 1805, Mohamed Ali had successfully maneuvered himself into the viceroyship, the Mamelukes remained a constant source of trouble for the country and a constant threat to Mohamed Ali's control.
The Cattaui brothers held that the Citadel massacre should not be perceived out of context. It was a legitimate form of self-defence and the only and most definitive way to end the chaos that this tenacious military caste wrought. Nor could Shafik Ghorbal avoid mention of it, although he quickly passed over it as an understandable albeit bloody end to the struggle. Ghorbal goes on to say that Mohamed Ali himself was not fond of thinking back over those years.
Al-Rafie, on the other hand, could not conceal his repugnance for the Citadel massacre. He regarded it as a black mark in Mohamed Ali's history, "because treachery is abhorrent to humanity... and because it would have been better for him and his reputation to continue fighting them face to face until he finished them off in the arena of battle." He adds that this act could not be justified on the grounds that such intrigues were commonplace in those times. Nor did he accept the argument that the Mamelukes were conspiring against Mohamed Ali. Worse yet, to Al- Rafie's mind, was that the massacre "stifled the spirit of democratic life for a long time to come and instilled among Egyptians a terror of their rulers."
To the Cattaui brothers, Mohamed Ali merely wanted to drive home a powerful lesson to any future potential conspirators or insurgents. In contrast, Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti confined himself to narrating the event, without conveying either his approbation or disapprobation. He would not be so dispassionate on the subject of Mohamed Ali's abolition of the Iltizam (tax farming system) and his implementation of state monopoly, which policies affected Al-Jabarti personally.
Mohamed Ali abolished the tax farming system in 1814 and instituted a total state monopoly over the economy in 1816, even though monopolies over certain activities had existed since 1809. In November 1816, Al-Jabarti remarked that Mohamed Ali had now devoted all his attention and energies "to amassing money by cutting off people's sources of income and placing all these under his total control." Al-Jabarti goes on to relate that all produce had to be rendered to the warehouses before any of it was consumed; that any peasant caught eating beans, or chickpeas, or fenugreek before harvest were to be severely punished; and that livestock had to have their mouths muzzled before being allowed out into the fields.
While the Citadel massacre stirred Al-Jabarti neither to praise or censure, the decrees of 1814 and 1816 aroused his harshest condemnation. They were grossly unjust, but then as a former tax farmer himself he was a victim of this injustice. This, in turn, put him in something of a quandary with respect to his judgment on Mohamed Ali, caught as he was between his admiration for him for having brought an end to the threat of the Mamelukes and restored security to the country, and his resentment for having his source of income cut off. He said, "If God endowed Mohamed Ali with a measure of justice equal to his resolve, power to command, valour, organisation and fortitude he would be a miracle of his times and a paragon among his contemporaries."
Writing more than a century later, Mohamed Sabry stressed that Mohamed Ali only placed a monopoly on cotton, rice and glue, or on produce that were needed either to promote the development of local industry or for export. Most of the other grain yields he left to the farmers to dispose of as they wish. More importantly to him, the monopoly on land ownership and trade aimed to ensure government supervision of national resources so that they could best be channeled to the benefit of all, "even if such a policy is not conducive to the steady progress of a nation." When Mohamed Ali placed Waqf (religious trust) lands under his personal supervision, Al-Iskandari and Selim Hassan argued that such an act was justified "on the grounds that he was so authorised by the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph, who was responsible of the affairs of all Muslim peoples."
In Al-Rafie's opinion, the abolition of the tax farming system should have given rise to private land ownership, which it did not. He takes issue with the claim that this policy was necessary in order to boost agricultural production: "It does not follow that the improvement of agriculture and the introduction of new crops requires state ownership of all agricultural land."
Fouad Shukri takes a different tack. He speaks in terms of Mohamed Ali's mercantilism, an economic system that prevailed throughout Europe from the end of the feudal era until the beginning of the industrial revolution, and that entailed a range of strongly protectionist policies and centralised state control over the sources of production and trade. Shukri argues that as Egypt had not entered the phase of industrialisation, which would permit for the relaxation of the state's grip over the economy, it was virtually inevitable that Mohamed Ali pursue mercantile/monopolist policies. It was also only natural, given its setting, that his administration of this policy would be patriarchal in tenor, rendering Mohamed Ali "the only farmer, the only manufacturer and the only merchant."
Egyptian historians converge again in their admiration for Mohamed Ali's educational policies. "He had engaged the ignorance of the people in battle until he put an end to superstition and odious customs," write Al-Iskandari and Selim Hassan. Ghorbal extolled the spread of enlightenment among the public and the creation of technicians "among the Mohamed Ali aristocracy which took on a considerable share of the burden of manufacturing power, steel, science and money."
Al-Rafie saw in the educational missions Mohamed Ali sent abroad "a concept that furnished proof of one aspect of Mohamed Ali's genius." Mohamed Ali realised how important the transmission of European knowledge and know-how to Egypt was, if Egypt were to catch up and vie with Europe in the domain of scientific and social progress. "His genius here resides in the fact that in that epoch no other oriental ruler, including the Ottoman sultan himself, had so much as thought of creating such student missions."
The Cattaui brothers saw in Mohamed Ali the model of a Muslim ruler who proved that Islam with its intrinsic tolerance could absorb the Western civilisation and its arts and sciences without arousing sensitivities.
In this regard, Shukri picked up on a point that escaped the others. He believed that Mohamed Ali's educational policy and openness to the West in general were in keeping with his personal magnanimity and open-mindedness. Mohamed Ali, argued Shukri, was not prejudiced against those who differed with him in nationality, language or creed, and his tolerance was manifested in his abolishment of all the degrading prohibitions that had been instituted against Christians until that time; such as the ban against their riding horses, wearing colours that were designated for Muslim dress, building monasteries, ringing church bells and conducting mass openly.
Although the historians are also in accord over their praise for Mohamed Ali's military campaigns, their diverse political and ideological inclinations are readily apparent. Were it not for these wars, Egypt would not have preserved its independence and it would have been reverted to direct Turkish rule, states Al-Rafie. "They confirm that Mohamed Ali aspired to create a far- flung, solidly secured Arab Empire," the Cattaui brothers proclaim. "These wars aimed to safeguard Egypt's independence with a wall of 'natural boundaries' from the Levant to the east to Sudan in the south," says Mohamed Sabry.
Of all Mohamed Ali's military campaigns, the "conquest of Sudan" aroused the keenest interest. For the Cattaui brothers, that campaign was needed to bring political unity to the Nile Valley as a geographical unity. That this was Mohamed Ali's aim, they contend, was also indicated by the fact that he contemplated invading Ethiopia. Ghorbal objects to the term "conquest". Mohamed Ali was a Muslim ruler who sent Muslim forces into a neighbouring Muslim land that bordered on pagan African lands. "This was not a form of territorial possession or colonialism, for Muslims do not possess other Muslims... The question was no more than annexing a part of the Dar Al-Islam to the Islamic nation," says Ghorbal.
Al-Rafie seems to agree with the Cattaui view. The Sudanese, he writes, have no cause to feel shamed by that conquest, which, in effect, was a war to support the natural unity of the Nile Valley. He compares it to the British war against and annexation of Scotland, with regard to which he says, "no one can contend that Britain oppressed Scotland or that those wars were cause for secessionist appeals among the Scottish who became loyal British citizens."
Mohamed Ali's territorial expansionism combined with his economic protectionist policies brought him into direct conflict with the Ottoman Sultan and European colonial powers. The first concrete sign of the collusion between Ottoman and European authorities against Mohamed Ali was the 1838 Balta Liman treaty between London and Istanbul in accordance with which European products were to be allowed into Egyptian markets at stipulated customs rates. When Mohamed Ali refused to implement the agreement because of the threat this posed to his nascent industrialisation project, the sultan gave him a year's grace period, after which Mohamed Ali still refused to comply. The Europeans then joined forces with the Ottomans and ultimately inflicted that defeat that compelled Mohamed Ali to succumb to the Treaty of London of 1840, the provisions of which were specifically designed to curb Mohamed Ali's power.
The Cattaui brothers were sensitive to the dynamics at play, having concluded that the Balta Liman was explicitly intended to "cripple Mohamed Ali". They pointed out that the British ambassador to Istanbul drew the attention of the Sultan to the fact that ending Mohamed Ali's monopoly over the Egyptian economy would "undermine his financial base, erode his most important resources and diminish his influence." Although Mohamed Ali initially attempted to resist the Treaty of London, he eventually heeded the French advice to yield. On this, the Cattauis remarked, "the accession of that wise, perspicacious and farsighted man was the best way to save his country from destruction."
To Al-Rafie the London Treaty was tangible proof of the might Egypt had attained under Mohamed Ali, "for this had compelled European powers to join forces against him." Mohamed Sabry was not so forgiving. He faulted Mohamed Ali for thinking that "he was capable of standing up against Europe." Shukri, on the other hand, believes that the impact of the Treaty of London on Mohamed Ali was overstated. In his opinion, it did not adversely affect Mohamed Ali's designs for Egypt's revival, for his reform and development projects continued long after his military projects were put to an end. Mohamed Ali's energies never once flagged between 1840 and his death in 1849, Shukri wrote, "contrary to the claims of many who mistakenly believe that all Mohamed Ali's reforms revolved around a single axis -- the army -- whereas in fact all the activities of the pasha, including his military projects, revolved around an entirely different axis, which was to build the nation."
* The writer is professor emeritus of modern history at Helwan University.
'They sent Ahmad Pasha word of it, and he said: "I was appointed by the sultan and I will not be removed at the command of the peasants. I will leave the Citadel only on the orders of the imperial government." The next morning, people assembled again. The shaykhs, accompanied by a numerous crowd of common folk carrying weapons and sticks, rode toward al-Azbakiya Pond, filling the area...Muhammad Ali Pasha and the shaykhs wrote a letter to Umar Bey and Salih Agha Qush, two supporters of the deposed Ahmad Pasha, mentioning to them that the consensus of popular opinion was to remove the Pash from office, and that their stubborn resistance was untimely since it would cause great strife and destruction in the country.'