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.
Muhammad Ali: A view from the new world
How far can one man be credited with the development of a modern nation? Roger Owen*
evaluates the impact of Egypt's Pasha
Click to view caption|
Clockwise from left: Muhammad Ali's statue in Alexandria; his son Ibrahim; his son Toussoun
A nation is known by its heroes. And in the Egyptian case there can be no doubt that the choice of Muhammad Ali Pasha as the founder of modern Egypt says many things about how Egyptians chose to understand themselves in the 20th century. Although neither born in Egypt nor a speaker of Arabic, he can readily be identified as someone who strove to defend the country against outsiders, to build up its power and to develop its economic and administrative resources.
As a result, and regardless of how the enterprise may be judged, the Pasha can rightfully be identified as the creator of the cotton economy and all that went with it in terms of an improved system of irrigation, of large agricultural estates and of the creation of a foreign-dominated Alexandria as Egypt's commercial capital. He can also be seen as the author of a centralised system of administration with powers to influence, and often to control, the lives not only of Egypt's urban population but also, through via the medium of the village sheikh or umdah, the country's rural population as well.
Just as important each of these initiatives had an inbuilt logic by which, even in his lifetime, had carried them further than he himself could possibly have imagined. One example would be the way in which the need for personnel to run the new bureaucracy and to staff the lower rungs of the military and the police far beyond the capacity of the Turco-Circassian ruling class to supply, encouraged the employment of more and more native-born, Arabic speaking Egyptians. Such development set in train a process of Egyptianisation, the consequences of which were powerfully represented in the events leading up to the Urabi movement of 1881-82. Another would be the wonderful census of population and, in the case of Cairo at least, buildings, of 1846/8 which, though no doubt carried out on the basis of the ailing ruler's own initiative, represented an administrative capacity to count, to evaluate and to record by a bureaucracy with rapidly developing skills, procedures and esprit de corps all its own. Given that so much was created in such a relatively short space of time, it is perhaps inevitable that many later historians should have wished Muhammad Ali to have created even more, notably a modern factory industry and, in some accounts, an empire. This remains a controversial subject. In my own work I have argued that, if by modern industry is meant the ability to use and maintain steam-powered machinery, the facts themselves, as related by Ali Al-Giritli and others, indicate that this difficult task was far beyond the country's technical capacity at that time.
Nor is this at all surprising. In Britain, France and New England the local industrial revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th century were based on a dense history of engineering and mechanical innovation which most of the rest of the world lacked. Moreover, these same industrial revolutions also took place in a free enterprise, highly competitive environment far from the state- centred, over-regulated, highly subsidised Egyptian experiment more characteristic of the early 20th century Soviet Union.
As the facts also show, this particular experiment can be seen to have failed almost as soon as it had begun. And certainly some years before the Anglo-Ottoman commercial convention of 1838 with its attack on Egypt's protected local market which is usually seen as administering the coup de grâce to the fledgling industrial system.
One reason why so many historians of Egypt may have been so willing to imagine the possibility that the country could have industrialised at such an early stage is their misunderstanding of the nature of technical transfer in these same years. While some European-type products and practices could quite easily be replicated in Egypt in the first half of the 19th century, for example the manufacture, equipment and then deployment of 50 or 60 gun sailing ships, others already required a particular type of managerial and engineering skill, as well as techniques of organising an industrial labour force.
As for the empire, Muhammad Ali's attempt to expand Egyptian influence into the surrounding region took place in two decades after the end of Napoleonic wars when the major world powers of the time, notably Britain, had no immediate East Mediterranean interests to pursue, leaving a vacuum which Egypt, and more particularly, its new army was well placed to fill. Indeed, even in modern terms, Muhammad Ali's ability to project his military power far outside his country's borders seems quite extraordinary and considerably beyond the capacity of most Middle Eastern countries today. Nevertheless, once Britain, France and Russia, were drawn back into the so-called "Eastern question" in response to the possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt's ruler was unable to sustain his own ambitions, a fact of which he himself was obviously well aware. Hence his renewed willingness to create an empire in the south after the Treaty of London of 1840 had effectively prevented Egyptian expansion elsewhere.
Fortunately, significant anniversaries allow for something more than simply the rehearsing of old arguments, important though this may be. Ideally, they should also provide an opportunity to ask new questions, to open up new perspectives and, in this global age, to put Egypt's history during the Muhammad Ali period back into its larger international perspective. I would like to do this under four headings. These relate to the questions of Muhammad Ali's personal responsibility, to his motives, to the different phases his long rule and, finally, how to place him in a global context.
It seems reasonable to suppose that a great deal of what took place during the period 1805-1848 was at Muhammad Ali's personal initiative. It is also clear that he was a man of quite considerable intelligence with, even before 1805, a wide experience of military, administrative and commercial affairs. Just as important was his ability not only to learn on the job but also, like the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, to use his powerful position to provide himself with information and advice from men who knew more about the larger world than he did.
Nevertheless, there are also many reasons for supposing that most contemporary observers were so over-awed by his energy and his shrewd approach to government as to portray his rule as simply a one man band. On the one hand there was the administrative role, still largely unexplored, of the his sons and the other members of a large family. On the other, he clearly relied enormously on experts and advisers, of both local and foreign origin, many with well- developed interests of their own.
Factors such as these then became even more important once a new army with a huge civilian support system was created, a process which rapidly developed far beyond the ruler's ability to understand, let alone control. The same must certainly go for a bureaucracy which, like virtually any other similar organisation, sprouted, and could not be prevented from sprouting, specialised knowledge and complex administrative practices, once again, beyond the ruler's power to comprehend. For every Pasha pressed reluctantly into service as the manager of a factory or similar institution whose processes he only dimly understood, there were doctors, police officials, educators and others with then modern skills more or less equal to most of their European counterparts.
A second, and more tricky subject, is that of motivation. It is my impression that almost everyone who has written about Muhammad Ali, myself included, has ascribed motives to him which cannot be supported directly by written evidence. Where such speculations work best, so it seems to me, is where we can imagine ourselves following the Pasha's own logic, the most obvious train of thought being from the creation of his new army to the need to supply it with a medical and veterinary staff, a commissariat, uniforms and weapons, and so on all the way to military cartographers and a band. The same logic can also be used to imagine his thinking when it moved on from the monopoly of the sale and export of long- staple cotton to the idea of employing some of that same cotton to make locally what the country would otherwise have to import from abroad. And it may not be too fanciful to think of a third type of logic, that of the privatisation of state assets once the monopoly system had been brought to an end in the early 1840s.
It goes without saying, I would hope, that such attempts to impose an order on Muhammad Ali's thought processes should be exercised with great care, the more so when supported only by the testimony of foreign visitors with similar agendas of their own. It should also not be allowed to blind us to other important and less savoury aspects of his rule, notably his apparent desire to control the lives and movements of his subjects by a system of dossiers, branding, identity cards, and the like, usually backed up by quite horrific types of punishment, as Khaled Fahmi has done so much to illuminate.
A third question involves that of periodisation. Although Muhammad Ali ruled Egypt for an unusually long time -- almost half a century -- the full implications of this are rarely spelled out. Clearly his own thinking developed over time as did his instruments of management and control. But just how to build this into the historical record is no easy task. Until the matter is attended to by historians fully conversant not only with the Egyptian but also the Ottoman and foreign records, we will have to make do with something like the present chronology by which the Pasha establishes his power during the first decade of his rule, then moves on to take control over Egypt's major financial resources, and finally puts huge efforts into the more fully- developed military, agricultural and industrial projects consequent upon the creation of his new army and enlarged bureaucracy financed by the sale of long-staple cotton. The result was a period of overstretch, signs of which are obvious before the dramatic events of 1839/40 but which reached its culmination in the enforced retrenchment of the early 1840s when, with his cotton monopoly under attack, Muhammad Ali off- loaded responsibility for management of Egypt's agricultural wealth to those members of his family and the elite with the resources to continue to manage the system he had created.
This is helpful as far as it goes. But, by concentrating so much on the Pasha's perspective itself it misses many other significant trends, for example, the fact that even while his own physical powers were failing in the 1840s, other significant developments were taking place inside the bureaucracy, in the urban landscape, in the irrigation system and on the land with enormously important implications for the country's future. That many of these were directly encouraged and often taken much further by his own sons, including the much-maligned Abbas I, only makes the matter that much more intriguing.
Lastly, and transcending the other questions in present-day importance, is just where to place the Muhammad Ali period in its large global perspective. I will suggest three ways of trying to do this. First, there is the much neglected matter of his place within the Ottoman Empire. For a variety of reasons--the stranglehold of the Egyptian national narrative, the paucity of intellectual exchange between Egyptian and Turkish historians, the shortage of Egyptian academics who can read Ottoman Turkish and of Turkish scholars who can read Arabic--the two histories have developed with remarkably little relation to one another.
For those who can read their records, the two vast archives in Cairo and Istanbul tell quite a different story, one of constant mutual interaction, engagement and influence all the way up to the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, and often beyond. How else can one account for the fact that the two entities passed similar land laws, started borrowing--with many of the same dangerous consequences--and introduced foreign commercial codes at much the same time? How else can one capture some of the most dramatic moments of Egyptian history, for example, the clash of the two almost identical modernized armies at the great Anatolian battles of Konia and Nezib in the 1830s or the dismissal of the person referred to by the Ottoman Sultan as the "ex-Khedive Ismail" in 1879?
A second optic through which to view the reign of Muhammad Ali is as a very early version of one of the great stories of the modern world, that is the forced modernisation of predominantly peasant societies, a process with which we are much more familiar in the tragic cases of China and Soviet Union. The costs are always high involving as they do such a comprehensive attack on rural ways of life. But not all such attempts followed the same path. And there is much that might be gained from comparing the pain and suffering, as well as the increases in agricultural productivity, experienced in Egypt under Muhammad Ali with that, for example, of Ataturk's Turkey a century later, or Reza Shah's Iran.
Lastly, as an economic historian, it seems to me that we still have not exhausted the potential of treating Muhammad Ali's policies as an example of what we would now call state-promoted "development", but which, given the time at which it was attempted, falls more correctly under Adam Smith's rubric of improvements in the "wealth of nations". While certain innovations, for instance the direct collection of taxes and the attempt to define tax-payer responsibility have a distinctly modern ring, others, like the monopolisation and sale of certain crops were very much of their era. Somewhere in between comes the difficult problem of raising sufficient revenue from the land tax alone to finance even a quite minimal list of infrastructural projects like the first Delta Barrage or, few years after Muhammad Ali's death, the first railway. That it was the Pasha's son, Said, who began to borrow money abroad for just such a set of projects within a decade of his father's death is as much part of the Muhammad Ali story as anything else.
* The writer is director of the Faculty of Arabic Studies at Harvard University