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 email@example.com or faxed to +202 578 6089.
Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)
Restructuring Egyptian society
traces the effects of Muhammad Ali's policies on Coptic notables and bureaucrats in the 19th century
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Anti-clockwise from bottom left: A document dated 27 June 1793 granting the Coptic notable Girgis Gohari the right to a rizqa ihbasiya
Al-Ahram Weekly continues the Muhammad Ali series to be published fortnightly until 10 November to coincide with the international symposium to be held in Cairo and Alexandria commemorating the bicentennial of the Pasha's ascendancy to power
Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti's famous chronicle records the end of a flourishing age for eminent Coptic administrators. It documents their diminishing social status and is a good source for the history of the last prominent Coptic notable, Mu'allim (Master) Girgis Gohari (d. 1810), and his disappearance from the political scene:
"When his brother [Mu'allim Ibrahim Gohari] died during the age of the leadership of Egyptian emirs, he was appointed in his place as the head of administrators and clerks. He was influential and powerful in all Egyptian provinces; he was commanding and highly esteemed. He was high-minded and generous, and when Ramadan approached he distributed gifts of honey candles, sugar, rice, clothing and coffee to all the eminent personalities. He built several houses in Al-Windik Alley and Ezbekiya. Guards and servants stood at his door. He remained like this until Mu'allim Ghali appeared and his standing fell and he was plagued with illness until he died at the end of the month of Shaaban."
Mu'allim Girgis was the last Coptic administrator in a chain of prominent 17th and 18th century notables to have reached a high social and professional level. Some Levantine Catholics were apparently delighted by his fall as his temporary substitute was the Coptic Catholic Ghali Sergius.
The setting of Mu'allim Girgis Gohari's star had a strong influence on Copts both in religious and civil terms. The Coptic Patriarch Pope Butrus Al-Gawali (1809-1853) wrote a treatise responding to gloaters and calming the fears of Copts. He gave it the title: "To those who say that God has defeated the Coptic sect before the ruler of the times in His anger." Yet the missing element in his rhetoric and that of his contemporaries -- whether vicious critics of the Copts among other Christian sects who had arrived in Egypt during the 18th century, Coptic clergymen or Copts in general -- is that the matter had nothing to do with the anger of God or the inclinations of the new ruler. Rather, the matter had entirely to do with the reshaping of Egyptian society and the restructuring of its social forces in conformity with the new status quo.
Though changes affected various areas of life in Egypt in the 19th century, the most dramatic of these were the social transformations that occurred. And while interpretations of Muhammad Ali's policies and goals may differ, their positive social effects are undeniable. However, the fruit of these changes were only borne in the second half of the 19th century as policies matured and local social forces, put in place by Muhammad Ali, began to assume their natural positions and undertook the formation of Egypt's present and future.
There are numerous approaches to understanding the effects of Muhammad Ali's policies on the restructuring of social forces. One such approach is comparing the criteria according to which a particular group gained prominence in the period prior to Muhammad Ali's reign, that is during the 18th century, with those of the 19th century. I believe that studying the prominence of Coptic personalities in both administrative and personal capacities is an appropriate approach to determine the extent of social change wrought by the Pasha's policies. For the conditions and standards for social mobility in the second half of the 19th century differed completely from those in the 18th.
Explanations for the rising social prominence of certain Coptic personalities starting in the mid-17th century and throughout the 18th can be found in the context of the political system and the new conditions it produced for social mobility. The decentralisation of the Ottoman state at the end of the 16th century under numerous internal and external influences allowed the Ottoman governor in Egypt wide-reaching powers. Yet the pasha's power also became symbolic with time, and diminished to the degree that it was subsumed by other centres of power in Egypt. From the 17th century onwards, a genuine power transformation took place in Egypt to the benefit of the Janissary military corps. They continued to compete with the emirs of the Mamluk households in a power struggle until the balance swung in favour of the Mamluk emirs, who had gained the upper hand by the mid-18th century.
After taking control of Egypt, the Janissaries and leading emirs began to lay their foundations and develop their own resources at the state's expense. The interests of the influential emirs were coincided with those of the leading religious scholars who added legitimacy to their actions. Coptic administrators collected and managed their wealth, and relied on the emirs and religious scholars in their strive to gain social prestige. The considerable wealth of some Coptic notables was a significant factor in imposing their control over the Coptic community; it increased their influence among laymen and clergymen alike.
This change in Egypt's political system during in the 17th and 18th centuries also altered the concept of the establishment, transforming it into a framework with no real content. Even state institutions and structures suffered a similar fate. The military establishment was penetrated by individuals with no connection to the military, thereby disassociating it from the practical concept of army troops. With these transformations a new space opened up for the rising prominence of the individual.
It was within this framework that another change also took place in the definition of the Coptic sect. The Ottoman administration had at first dealt with Copts as a religious sect headed by the Patriarch. But this attitude started changing in the mid-17th century and the door was opened to top administrators to penetrate the Church's establishment and make their way up to the leadership of the community. The representation of the Coptic community before the Ottoman government thus took a civilian rather than a religious form, thereby mirroring political transformations in society at large. The legitimate representative of the community -- the Patriarch -- took on a symbolic role, while real power was transferred to Coptic lay notables. They became responsible before the government for community affairs while the Patriarch and the religious establishment disappeared completely even from official state rhetoric.
The administrators themselves established a custom similar to that of the village chief system and one that was used by the emirs of that time. Their custom was to select one of the notables (all prominent administrators) to serve as their head. If there were several prominent men with the same degree of influence and standing, selection took place by custom rather than through nomination and election. One can trace a list of successive leaders of the community from the mid-17th century until the end of the 18th. Arabic state documents and church sources agree on describing the leading notables as the heads of the community and its representatives before the government. The transfer of leadership of a "religious sect" to the hands of laymen can be viewed as one of many manifestations of a civil transformation in Egyptian society as a whole.
Furthermore, the close relationship between leading Coptic administrators and leading Muslim sheikhs also influenced the social prominence of Coptic personalities. It appears that the attitude towards the "other" was to a large degree positive and that religious and sectarian resentments had disappeared. Even Church sources provide an overall judgment of sectarian issues during this period, stating: "They lived throughout this period with their Muslim brothers in the best form, sharing with them the good and the bad." There were no obstacles to Coptic prominence in society.
The keenness of leading Coptic administrators on appearing at public social occasions, especially at large Islamic moulids or saint festivals, might indicate the extent of the general acceptance of Coptic notables. The fact that Mu'allim Nayruz Nawar built a sabil (public drinking fountain) in Ezbekiya also suggests that society was accepting of the prominent role of Coptic notables. Similarly, the initiatives some Copts took in public works is typical of the behaviour of prominent social figures.
So what happened during the reign of Muhammad Ali?
Muhammad Ali was able to dramatically reshape the active forces in society, thus restructuring relationships of interest and influence as well as the conditions for social mobility.
As for the ruling Mamluk households, who were plagued by in-fighting, Muhammad Ali did away with them altogether, first through enticement and then by assassination at the infamous Citadel massacre. He then pursued the scattered remnants of their army that had fled as far south as Sudan, and thus became the sole overlord and the centre of all power. The end of Mamluk influence, and the transfer of their enormous wealth to the Pasha's coffers, diminished the role of the leading Coptic administrators. The income they received for managing the Mamluks' wealth was cut off, just as the moral support the Mamluks had offered them was severed.
As for the Muslim religious establishment, Muhammad Ali was able to penetrate it to the core, employing shrewd tricks to break down its power. He was able to spread, or exploit, the spirit of envy between Umar Makram, head of the ashraf (Prophet Muhammad's descendents), and the Shaykh Al-Azhar, dividing their ranks and dealing with each separately. Al-Jabarti wrote of his plan:
"The Pasha conspired to separate them and embarrass Al-Sayyid Umar because of what he harboured against [the Pasha's] goals and his opposition in most matters, [for] he feared his power and knew that the subjects and common people were under his control, if he willed he could unite them and if he willed he could separate them. And he was the one who assisted him and united the elite and the commoners, even in the provinces, and if he wanted to do the opposite, he could." And thus the second source of support for leading Coptic administrators fell into the hands of the Pasha and the old alliance dissipated.
The third reason for the isolation of the leading Coptic administrators was Muhammad Ali's policy of dealing with Egyptian society through institutions rather than individuals. The traditional structure of the Coptic community, headed by the Patriarch (in his capacity as the legitimate representative), was reshaped through this policy in a way that largely diminished the role of the notables. At first the Church establishment itself was not comfortable with this new setup, as the notables enjoyed a lofty status among the Coptic community and provided a source of pride and sense of influence that could protect the community from upheavals. Yet the Church soon moved on and pushed its bishops and clergymen to take on the role once played by the leading administrators. Thus fell the final defence shielding the leading Coptic administrators and allowing them to take on social roles.
In fact, state centralisation and the consolidation of wealth in the Pasha's hands prevented the prominence of individuals in Egyptian society as a whole. New rules were devised for advancement and appointment to prestigious posts, the primary bases for which was merit. The opportunity for individuals to gain prominence didn't arise again until the second half of the 19th century following the formation of new social forces.
Different social groups were keen on sending their children to the new schools, indicating increasing mobility among lower social groups, the effect of which would become clear during the second half of the 19th century. For example, statistics for Cairo show that the percentage of children aged six to14 enrolled in schools represented the expected growth of these groups. In 1846 the statistics were as follows: 53.4 per cent of the children of servants were enrolled in school, as were 41.8 per cent of the children of water carriers, barbers, and ironers, 33.8 per cent of the children of guards, and 28.5 per cent of the children of donkey drivers, camel drivers, and coachmen.
During the same period a new intelligentsia began to form. The Copts did not have any presence in it to speak of; in 1846, 100 per cent of doctors, engineers and technicians were Muslims. Top military posts and administrative positions were likewise filled by Muslims and some non-Coptic Christians. Copts at that time were concentrated in mid- level positions; they represented 47 per cent of servants and clerks, nine per cent of those employed by the administration of religious endowments and neighbourhood sheikhs, six per cent of merchants of mid-level consumer goods and five per cent of employees in the administration and service sectors.
When Tewfik Iskaros, the Coptic intellectual, set out, in the early 20th century, to compile a book about Coptic personalities of the 19th century, Nawabigh al-qibt wa mashahirahum fi al-qarn al-tasi' 'ashr, it seems he was taken by surprise to discover that he had given it the wrong title. He couldn't find any Coptic personalities (outside of the Church establishment) during the first half of the 19th century worthy of consideration. The first part of his book thus revolves around two patriarchs who reigned between 1796 and 1852, and one of the prominent senior bishops in the first half of the 19th century. He was then forced to go back to the 18th century in order to draw on its most important personality, Ibrahim Gohari. Iskaros dedicated most of the second part of his book to one of the most famous patriarchs of the Coptic Church, Pope Kyrollos the Fourth (1853- 1862), and one of the most famous bishops of that century, Anba Basilsos the bishop of Jerusalem. He then went back once more to draw on some of the personalities from the end of the 18th century: Mu'allim Girgis Gohari and Mu'allim Malti.
The rapid development of the education sector and its connection to the needs of the state, as well as the establishment of Coptic schools during the reign of Pope Kyrollos the Fourth (1853-1862), produced a large number of Copts qualified to take on government posts. The circumstances of the age and the new systems that accompanied it transformed all Egyptians into equal citizens in terms of their rights and duties. This created a new reality, and the door was opened wide to many Egyptians to gain social prominence and accumulate wealth, especially after land ownership rights were extended.
The second half of the 19th century thus saw the return of many Coptic personalities with high posts to social prominence, albeit in keeping with the new standards, the foremost of which was competence. The most famous of these Copts were Dumian Gad, Tadros Basili, Maqqar Abdel-Shahid and Butrus Ghali. Once again this group sought to take control of the minority, and once again a struggle broke out, fiercer than ever, between the clergymen who had established themselves during the first half of the century and the Coptic notables who had made important social gains within society. These struggles finally ended with the issue of a royal decree in 1874 to establish a religious minority council, Al-Majlis Al-Milli, to undertake its affairs. The council was held back by Pope Kyrollos the Fifth (1874-1927), only to be re-established by another royal decree in 1883, while the struggle remained fierce between the two groups.
Regardless of Muhammad Ali's intentions -- a point of continuous disagreement among scholars -- there is no doubt that the profound changes that Egyptian society underwent in the 19th century have their roots in the policies the Pasha instituted.
* The writer is a historian with published work on Coptic history during the early modern period