HISTORY / Bob Feldman : A People’s History of Egypt, Part 3, 1805-1849

Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ottoman ruler of Egypt. Painting by Auguste Couder, 1841 / Wikimedia Commons.  

A people’s history:
The movement to democratize Egypt

Part 3: 1805-1849 period — The autocratic rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha.

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | July 21, 2013

[With all the dramatic activity in Egypt, Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog “people’s history” series, “The Movement to Democratize Egypt,” could not be more timely. Also see Feldman’s series on The Rag Blog.]

Nearly two years after Muhammad Ali began ruling the Ottoman Turkish Empire’s Egyptian province, UK troops landed in Alexandria in March, 1807, and attempted to establish a permanent military base in Egypt.

But “when the British sought to extend their control…the result was fiasco” and “many British soldiers were killed” by Muhammad Ali’s troops; and the remaining UK troops in Egypt were compelled to withdraw from Egypt after September 1807, according to Jason Thompson’s A History of Egypt.

Then, according to the same book, in 1811 Muhammad Ali ended the remaining influence of the neo-Mamluk military elite in Egyptian society in the following way:

…Muhammad Ali held a celebration in the Citadel [royal palace] on Mar. 1, 1811… He invited all the principal people of Cairo, including nearly 500 Mamluk amirs. Afterward, as the Mamluks were leaving through the Citadel’s descending Interior Road…they found the exit locked… Sharpshooters [of Muhammad Ali’s loyal troops] appeared on the walls and shot them dead. Another thousand were hunted down and killed in Cairo over the next few days…

Egyptian Pasha Muhammad Ali next confiscated “the vast estates” of the slain Mamluks and the 20 percent of all Egyptian agricultural land that was owned by the religious endowments, or waqfs, and revised the Egyptian tax structure, so that “almost all of Egypt’s land came under state ownership” and he “could decree what to plant, then purchase the produce at a low price set by the state and export it for cash,” according to A History of Egypt.

Instead of just subsistence crops being grown on Egyptian agricultural land, more cash crops that earned foreign exchange — like the cotton that became Egypt’s major export crop in the years after it was introduced in Egypt in 1821 — were now grown on the state-owned land; and Muhammad Ali used the foreign exchange income to attempt to modernize Egypt’s economy by “building…factories and canals,” according to The Rough Guide To Egypt.

Muhammad Ali’s public works program of constructing 32 canals, 10 dikes, and 41 dams and barrages with conscripted Egyptian workers brought large amounts of new agricultural land into cultivation. In addition, as a result of his public works program of building factories in Egypt that produced textile, sugar, munitions, ships, and other manufactured goods, “Egypt became the leading industrial nation in the eastern Mediterranean” by the late 1830s, according to A History of Egypt.

By also conscripting Egyptian peasants into his military force, Muhammad Ali increased its size to 250,000 men and used his military force to occupy Sudan in the 1820, and “Egypt became the major military power in the eastern Mediterranean, making Muhammad Ali much stronger than his nominal master, the sultan in Istanbul,” according to the same book.

But after “the pasha became impatient with recognizing the sultan as his master” and “decided to move for independence” for Egypt in 1838, “a British force anchored at Alexandria” in 1839 and compelled him to reduce the size of his Egyptian military and no longer seek Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire of Turkey (which the UK government then supported), according to A History of Egypt.

Large numbers of Egyptians who were also drafted to work on Muhammad Ali’s various public works projects, however, lost their lives while working on the canal construction projects. As A History of Egypt,  recalled:

One of the canals, the Mahmudiya, ran for 72 kilometers between Alexandria and the western branch of the Nile. It was constructed between 1817 and 1820 with…labor of as many as 300,000 conscripted workers (of whom between 12,000 and 100,000 are said to have died, according to widely varying accounts)…

And the same book also reported how large numbers of Egyptians suffered under Muhammad Ali’s undemocratic rule and his “modernization” policies:

Muhammad Ali’s accomplishments came at a heavy price to the Egyptian people. The degree of control that the pasha exerted in Egypt was probably unprecedented since ancient times… Every productive strip of land, every palm tree, every donkey, everything that could represent value was assessed and taxed at the maximum it could bear… The people complained incessantly, but they obeyed, for the pasha’s authority was absolute. A simple horizontal motion of his hand meant execution…

Although an “outbreak of bubonic plague in 1834-35 carried away as much as a third of Cairo’s population” during the years that Muhammad Ali undemocratically ruled people in Egypt, according to A History of Egypt, some improvement in Egypt’s health care system was achieved by the end of this pasha’s rule in 1848 (when he became insane) and his subsequent death in August 1849.

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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