Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 October 2005
Issue No. 764
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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 or faxed to +202 578 6089.

Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)

Industrious beginnings

Among his other accomplishments, the "founder of modern Egypt" launched the country on an ambitious programme of industrialisation. Or did he? Pascale Ghazaleh* revisits the manufacturing debate

Click to view caption
THE PASHA's PROJECTS: Detailed sketch of the building and machines used in Muhammad Ali's new gun-powder store in Rodah, Cairo (above); Overview of the saltpetre manufactory built in 1818-1819 outside Cairo on the ruins of ancient Memphis (top).
The two sketches were drawn by the French architect Pascal Coste who lived in Egypt between 1817 and 1827 and worked for Muhammad Ali designing and documenting numerous construction projects. The sketches are in the collection of the Bibliotheque municipale du Marseille

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

In 1801, the French Expedition left Egypt. Never has such a brief military incursion left such a deep and lasting mark--not so much on the country it sought to subjugate as, perhaps, on the retelling of its fleeting stay.

Conveniently enough, the Expedition ushered in the dawn of the 19th century. Soon after its departure (a few minor Anglo- Ottoman skirmishes aside), an Albanian soldier whom many Egyptians know as Muhammad Ali, defeated contenders for the title of Ottoman viceroy and took over the province, which he ruled in his sovereign's name for much of the following half-century. Because chronology is an expedient tool, and Muhammad Ali was a remarkable man, the years 1805-1849 are indelibly associated with his name until today. Not so long ago, indeed, that very name was subject to controversy: E. Toledano's article "Mehmet Ali Pasa or Muhammad Ali Basha? An historiographical appraisal in the wake of a recent book," suggests the tenor of the debate.

The first half of the 19th century, then, is a fundamental time in the history of Egypt, the Ottoman Sultanate's largest Arab province. It draws its aura of exceptionality largely from the sheer quantity of information it produced: from the Description de l'Egypte, seemingly envisioned by its authors as an encyclopaedia providing readers with everything they had never suspected they wanted to know about Egypt, to the abundant documentation that the viceroy's nascent administration began to produce, shortly after his accession to power, in a self-perpetuating and self-justifying exercise in statehood. Egypt's flora and fauna, manners and customs, irrigation and taxation systems, commerce and industry, births and deaths, marriage and inheritance practices: all these came under scrutiny and classification, first through the grid imposed by the colonial savants on France's possession, of which exhaustive knowledge was necessary if rigorous administration and exploitation were to be made possible, and then through the regime of assessment, extraction and production put in place by the governor from Kavala.

Between the French army and Muhammad Ali, the Ottomans had also undertaken some regrouping and reorganising. When the French left in 1801, the sultan's troops reoccupied the country and went about renewing the links that had tied Egypt to Istanbul, with diminishing strength throughout the last quarter of the 18th century. By conscientiously renewing the bonds that subordinated Egypt to Ottoman domination, the imperial administration explicitly restated power relations that all parties were supposed to acknowledge, but which had been challenged most obviously by the grave crisis of the French occupation. When Muhammad Ali took over as governor of Egypt, he did so as Istanbul's representative (even if the sultan's consent was granted reluctantly and after the fact); and much has been made of his desire to emancipate himself from that bond, or, on the contrary, to gain his suzerain's approval.

Whatever the psychological dimensions of the governor's relationship with the sultan, he was not long in placing the concrete bonds that tied the province to the imperial capital under a considerable amount of pressure. Tribute was paid to Istanbul; but at the same time, Muhammad Ali embarked on a series of reforms based in great part on the elimination of local elites, whom he replaced with his own men, and on the creation of institutions that broke the privileged connections Egypt's notables had enjoyed with the Topkapi. These reforms were often couched in terms that emphasised their unprecedented character, and their implementation was justified by reference to the viceroy's ambitions regarding the country and its people. Perhaps this is why Muhammad Ali's personal intentions, on one hand, and the manifestly national scale of his projects, on the other, have allowed historians to see him, in Henry Dodwell's famous phrase, as "the founder of modern Egypt" with no apparent qualms at the contradiction in terms.

How could an individual found a country -- especially if that country, due to a great degree of geo-political continuity, seemed always to have existed? If one takes the nation-state as one's primary unit of analysis, then Muhammad Ali's merit is to have recognised Egypt's greatness, not as an Ottoman province but as a former and potential great power in its own right: one that had languished beneath the yoke of Ottoman rule for three centuries, but awaited only the right man to rouse it from its slumber. In seeking to establish the strong army he needed in order to make manifest Egypt's regional prominence, according to this version of events, the viceroy gave the country a powerful push on the road to modernity: he imposed monopolies in agriculture, industry, and commerce; built schools and hospitals; imported European experts and the latest technology. His troops came within striking distance of Istanbul and generally proved if not a major threat then at least a significant nuisance to the established order.

In 1848, the viceroy's career came to an end. His son and successor, Ibrahim, predeceased him; thereafter, his policies were revised almost entirely. The commercial treaty the Ottoman sultan had concluded with England in 1838 had already put in place the conditions for fragmentation: state monopolies were farmed out then abolished; tariffs were amended in favour of European merchants and the goods in which they traded. The army was reduced and, in 1841, a second treaty removed from Egypt's control the territories it had conquered, with the exception of Sudan. According to individual preference or ideological persuasion, then, the viceroy's half- century either stemmed the inexorable tide of European dominance, which washed over Egypt most thoroughly under Sa'id (r. 1854-1863) and Isma'il (r. 1863-1879), or, on the contrary, paved the way for Egypt's integration -- as a subservient, peripheral supplier of raw materials -- into the world market.

It is not difficult to see why this view of the Muhammad Ali period, reduced to its bare essentials, continues to arouse so many strong emotions. National autonomy, achieved through military strength, import substitution policies, a solid educational and health infrastructure, or some mixture of these elements, is still a burning question -- some would say justifiably so, since nation-states, at least in this region, have rarely seemed more fragile. Whether or not that is a good thing is subject to much debate, which tends to disregard the conditions under which many of these nation-states were born, and the way in which they managed to survive. At any rate, even if most people now agree that private enterprise and competitive advantage are far more interesting than etatism, nationalism is far from being outmoded, and reinterpretation of Muhammad Ali's policies tends to be perceived as an attack on Egypt's last moment of greatness.

Besides, recent historiography has done little to invalidate this view of the viceroy and his achievements. Yet perhaps that is because, with a few notable exceptions, it has approached the same questions from different angles, rather than seeking to study change and continuity on different scales and during periods that slip free from the conventional chronology. The question of industrialisation is a case in point. According to the standard view, Muhammad Ali built the first factories to supply his army with equipment and uniforms. The others developed on an ad hoc basis: to produce garments, cloth was necessary; to weave cloth, looms were necessary; to build looms, wood was necessary... Up and down the production line, establishments mushroomed so vigorously, according to some scholars, that Egyptian goods -- particularly textiles -- came to rival British and French commodities at a time when the industrial revolution was creating an imperious need for new markets overseas. Others argue that these factories never amounted to much more than glorified workshops, soon dismantled under the more conservative policies of Abbas (r. 1848-1854). There seems little evidence as yet to support either contention: the truth probably lies somewhere in between the dithyrambic reports of the pasha's allies and the snide remarks of the European consuls.

One reason it is so difficult to ascertain the impact of reforms in manufacturing is that many questions remain unanswered. Did the manufactories produce new goods, or centralise production of existing ones? What was the total volume of output? How many workers were employed by the new establishments? Were they recruited from within the existing guild system, or rounded up on the streets, as were the soldiers for the Pasha's army? Primary sources -- for instance, the financial records kept by private manufacturers and merchants like the wealthy and influential owners of sugar refineries and oil presses whose estate inventories André Raymond studied in his pioneering work Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIe siècle -- are too scarce to inform even the barest sketch of the situation obtaining at the time the first state establishments began operations. There are, then, precious few concrete figures with which to compare the account registers of the first manufactories. On the other hand, these account registers do give us an idea of how the state manufactories worked.

The historian Amin Sami estimates that the manufactories set up throughout Egypt between 1816 and 1835 numbered twenty- two and produced goods ranging from looms to cotton, rope to sails, soap to glass, copper to indigo, and blankets to wax. The first evidence pertaining to centralisation of the urban economy in general, and to these institutions in particular, comes to us from the chronicler Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, who reported that in 1810, a Greek Christian exporter of snuff suggested to the viceroy's lieutenant that he gather all the snuff grinders in one place and auction off the right to sell them the tobacco they used at a fixed price. They, in turn, would be able to sell the processed tobacco only to the tax farmer, also at a fixed price. These practices were enforced, and soon spread to other sectors. In late 1816, the market inspector (who had traditionally enjoyed great authority over Cairo's merchants and vendors) began to receive a fixed salary from the state in lieu of the taxes he had previously collected from craftsmen and tradespeople. The following year, a candle factory was set up in the Saddlemakers' Quarter, receiving a monopoly on grease from the slaughterhouse. Candles made privately in glass moulds were confiscated and their production was banned. Most importantly, looms and a variety of textiles were requisitioned and inventoried by state officials later that year.

Although the centralisation process comes across as fairly linear and irreversible -- especially judging from Jabarti's dour description -- these establishments were often in a state of flux. As Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot remarks in her authoritative work Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali, when direct government supervision began to appear too costly in the late 1830s, the state "merely supplied the entrepreneurs with the raw materials and received the finished product." Primary material backs this statement up: the Silk Bureau's sales department closed its accounts with a note that the year 1826 marked "the end of administration by the government," which ceded operations to private individuals. The state farmed out some concerns to concessionaires on a temporary basis, only to resume control if revenues dropped.

Just as state monopolies, far from constituting an all-encompassing, virtually totalitarian system, seem to have been piecemeal moneymaking ventures, at least in the urban economic sectors (even textiles, by far the most strategically important), so also were individual manufactories often an amalgamation of different modes of production and administration. At least initially, they drew their labour force from forced recruitment such as only the state could command: in 1818, neighbourhood headmen had to recruit 4,000 young men for work in the first textile manufactory, at wages of one to three piastres a day. Ghislaine Alleaume has pointed out that similarly forceful conscription techniques were applied to fill the new schools with pupils as well: throughout the country, village chiefs designated children to make up the quotas required by the administration.

At the same time, however, some manufactories seem to have employed teams of labourers, each made up of a master craftsman and his apprentice, and very possibly recruited from within the guild framework. According to one manufactory's account books, dating from the year 1823, these pairs of workers were hired for very limited periods and paid a daily wage. Within the same establishments, other day workers were organised in groups very reminiscent of the guilds and classified according to profession and origin (local, Turkish or foreign). Besides these artisans -- who were, strictly speaking, wage labourers as well, thus blurring the classical distinction between the craftsmen who owns his tools and raw materials, on one hand, and the worker alienated from the means of production, on the other -- the manufactory employed a large administrative and supervisory staff, salaried by the state on a monthly basis. If the manufactories took over the hierarchical organisation and apprenticeship methods of the guilds, merely gathering them within a single space, therefore, they also incorporated state supervision and control of production and distribution.

Rather than focusing on hesitation, innovation and adaptation, however, the debate over "industrialisation" in Egypt during the first half of the nineteenth century has had to bear a disproportionate burden by serving as a metaphor for a normative, prescriptive debate that pits etatism (state intervention in the economy) against laissez-faire. However historians have evaluated the manufactories' track record -- whether they have scorned attempts to industrialise as misguided and doomed to failure, or adulated them as pioneering efforts tragically cut short by poor European sportsmanship -- they have rarely looked more closely at how they actually worked. In fact, protoindustrialisation may well be a historically accurate term for the processes taking place in Egypt as well as several parts of Europe until the second half of the century. In Europe, with the likely exception of Britain, mechanisation and mass production only became the norm after a protracted time of transition, when entrepreneurs frequently rented out their machines to workers, or workers collectively purchased and used a single machine, which would have been too costly and cumbersome for an aspiring capitalist to acquire alone. Even in those sectors where state control was tightest in Egypt, furthermore (textiles, again, provide the most obvious example), the manufactories were unable to respond adequately to demand generated by the state alone: in 1835, state manufactories in the provinces produced only a fraction of the 6.5 million pieces of cloth that the army required. It is highly probable that a flourishing "external" market made up the difference. Such glimpses as these should incite historians and policymakers alike to revisit entrenched views of an unassailable dichotomy between the state and the private sector.

* The writer is assistant professor of history at the American University in Cairo. This article draws on her monograph, Masters of the Trade. Crafts and Craftspeople in Cairo, 1750- 1850 (Cairo, 1999).

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