Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Comparisons and more

Rania Khallaf reviews the debates that emerged during last week's three-day conference on Muhammad 'Ali organised by the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC)

In 13 sessions and three round tables the speakers at the conference organised by the SCC marking the 200th anniversary of Muhammad 'Ali's coming to power in Egypt reflected a broad range of political and historical perspectives on the young officer who came here from Albania, established a local power base of village leaders, clerics and wealthy merchants in Cairo and who, after killing or expelling three successive governors sent from Istanbul, was eventually appointed Ottoman viceroy, or wali, of Egypt in 1805.

Raouf Abbas, head of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies, focused on Muhammad 'Ali's role in changing the structure of Egyptian society, arguing that his achievements in the early 19th century are "comparable to Gamal Abdel-Nasser's in the mid- twentieth century". In arguing for such a comparison Abbas foregrounded the role of Egyptians in supporting the ambitious Albanian soldier and, by extension, imposing their own choice of leader on the Ottoman Sultan. "When we study the Muhammad 'Ali era we study a unique confluence of the intellectual elite, labourers, artisans and soldiers," said Abbas.

Gaber Asfour, secretary-general of the SCC, sought other comparisons. He drew out several common elements in the biographies of Napoleon and Muhammad 'Ali, seeking to underline the Nahda argument that it is Muhammad 'Ali who, after an initial awakening of the country by Napoleon, "ushered Egypt into modernity". Asfour cited the oft-quoted evidence backing this argument, namely institutions such as the print house, education and scholarships, and the establishment of technical schools. Given the links Asfour was attempting to reinforce with his initial comparison his subsequent emphasis on Rifa' Rafi' Al-Tahtawi's Takhlis Al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (recently translated into English under the title An Imam in Paris ) as the first channel of a seminal dialogue between Egypt and Europe hardly came as a surprise.

In the first session historian Ahmed Rashad Moussa set out to trace the reasons behind the failure of Muhammed 'Ali's industrial project in the second half of the 19th century, concluding that "the main reason for the failure is that Egypt's developmental project was literally a one man show... When Muhammad 'Ali's rule was diminished by the Ottoman decree in 1841 the whole project was aborted." The 1841 treaty imposed by Britain and the Sublime Porte, he continued, in curtailing Egypt's expansionist project, deprived Egyptian industry of a major source of raw materials, as well as demand for its products.

Controversy raised during the conference was not limited to Muhammed 'Ali's achievements and legacy but also occasionally focused on the personality of the man. Khaled Abdel-Mohsen, a professor of psychology at Cairo University, drew on the methodologies of sociology, history, and psychology in a paper aimed at analysing the character of Muhammad 'Ali. His praise of the Albanian seemed at times unstinting -- "there is no doubt that Muhammad 'Ali, with his singular intellect, psychological make-up and organisational genius is one of the most creative leaders of his time" -- though it was not without criticism. "While his emphasis on reform and self-reliance enabled him to pursue a developmental project that aimed at restructuring Egypt," Abdel-Mohsen argued, "this does not mean I am painting an ideal picture of Muhammad 'Ali. His achievements, in the end, represent a balance drawn between reform as a goal in itself, and reform as a kind of Machiavellian mask disguising personal ambition."

Khairiya Kassimiya, professor of history at Damascus University, sees in Western critiques of Muhammed 'Ali an attempt by historians "to impose their own democratic codes on a different era, and on different historical circumstances." Any attempt to pass judgment on the character of the man, she believes, is inherently flawed since it depends on the perspectives of those passing judgment. "Although Muhammad 'Ali was illiterate, he had a vision of Egypt as occupying a unique position and understood that the time was ripe for developing the country," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It is true," she continued, "that he was stubborn and sometimes dictatorial, but democracy at the time was an unfamiliar thing even in Europe. When we view him in context we must conclude he was a shrewd ruler. It was his ambition and his independence that provoked clashes with Europe and the Ottoman Sultan. But it would be unfair to belittle Muhammad 'Ali's achievements just because you do not appreciate system of rule."

Among the more controversial papers was that of Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at New York University and author of All the Pasha's Men, which questioned conventional views of Muhammad 'Ali as the founder of modern Egypt. While allowing that Muhammad 'Ali worked to establish a potentially modernising infrastructure, Fahmy argued that in doing so "his main concern was to secure his own fragile position in Egypt." The aim, in other words, was not to implement a comprehensive development of the country but minimise threats to his own rule, to which end he brought his relatives and assistants from Cavalla and established a powerful army comprising Egyptian peasants to defend his position by force.

"Muhammad 'Ali, founder of modern Egypt," contended Fahmy, is little more than a slogan that obscures the ruler's real aims. "Nor is it true," he continued, "that Muhammad 'Ali was supported by the Egyptian people. His only legitimate source of power was the Ottoman decree, renewed annually, that granted him... [his title]. He even got rid of the followers who initially recommended him by exiling them or confiscating their properties." It is important to note, continued Fahmy, "that the Boulaq press, one of Muhammad 'Ali's great achievements, rejected books that criticised his rule, the most distinguished example being Al-Jabarti's Aja'ib Al-Athar fi Al-Tarajim wa Al-Akhbar." In confrontational mode, perhaps, Fahmy cited an article about his work where the author acerbically described him as one of those Arab researchers who work in Western universities and whose scholarship is skewed towards the biases of western political tendencies."

In his paper Mohamed Hakem discussed the problematics of the epistemological paradigm underpinning most of the scholarship on Muhammad 'Ali. For almost 200 years, Hakem asserted, historians have tended to concentrate on the second half of Muhammad 'Ali's reign, ignoring the first period. In concentrating on specific institutions they ignore the history of enormous constituencies within Egypt who are not represented in these institutions. Yet, Hakem also cited a few scholars, including Fahmy, whose work seems to subvert this paradigm, thus constructively pointing out alternative, less traditional approaches to Muhammad 'Ali scholarship.

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