Mohammed Ali

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Mohammed Ali

An Ottoman pasha of Egypt, Mohammed Ali (1769-1849) was often known as the father of modern Egypt because of the economic, social, and political changes set in motion during his almost half century of personal rule.

Mohammed Ali, the son of humble Turkish parents, was born in the Aegean seaport of Kavalla in Macedonia. His father was a town watchman. The young Mohammed Ali worked as a tax collector and tobacco merchant before becoming an officer in an Albanian regiment which the Ottoman sultan sent to Egypt in 1799 to repulse Napoleon's invasion and occupation.

Mohammed Ali, with the support of his Albanian troops, acted skillfully and shrewdly in balancing his Ottoman and Mamluk rivals for power in the several years of anarchy following the withdrawal of the European troops. He secured the support of native Egyptian religious, notable, and guild leaders, had himself proclaimed pasha in 1805, and left the reluctant sultan with little alternative but to recognize him as governor of Egypt.

Reforms as Pasha

The new pasha, however, was no Egyptian nationalist. He sought to utilize the country for his own political ambitions for power in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt was important for what it could do for him, and yet his efforts to unify, strengthen, and modernize Egypt have made Mohammed Ali one of its greatest rulers.

Mohammed Ali effected his control over Egypt by eliminating his Mamluk opponents in a massacre, justified with contrived reasons, in 1811, by centralizing government administration in Cairo, and by building a new army. The army played a crucial part in his other political plans and ambitions; most of the resources he squeezed out of Egypt and its fellahin (peasant farmers) went to the training and modernization of the army. He assumed titular ownership of all the land, controlled the buying and selling of all agricultural products, and directed the collection of all rents and taxes.

This vastly increased the money available for Mohammed Ali's plans but at the same time improved the fellahin's existence by reestablishing law and order and by eliminating tax farmers and many rapacious landlords. His agricultural policies added a million acres to cultivation, cleaned and improved the vital canal system, and encouraged production of long-staple cotton. Mohammed Ali also took an interest in modern factory methods, particularly in using local cotton for military uniforms, but it proved frustrating and very costly with the little experience and few skilled laborers at his command.

Mohammed Ali relied heavily on the loyalty and military skill of his talented eldest son, Ibrahim Pasha. Brilliant campaigns in the Sudan, western Arabia, Greece, and Syria demonstrated the value of the French-trained Egyptian army and the potential power of Egypt under its new pasha. He was successful only to a point, however, since his efforts to boost the importance of Egypt (and hence himself) could only be at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, already unstable and in decline. On several occasions the major European powers intervened to check Mohammed Ali and to prop up the weak empire. The British in particular feared the further development of a powerful state in such a strategic area, one which would be pro-French and might also restrict British commercial interests in favor of its own.

Hereditary Pasha

Following Ibrahim's overwhelming defeat of the Sultan's supposedly new army on the border of Anatolia in 1839, the European powers, except France, forced Egyptian withdrawal from all of Syria, which Ibrahim had occupied and ruled for a decade. The Treaty of London of 1841 recognized Mohammed Ali's aim for the position of pasha as hereditary in his family. It still left Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty and with definite restrictions on the Egyptian army so that it could not again threaten Ottoman integrity. Mohammed Ali died in Cairo on Aug. 2, 1849, just after the death of Ibrahim, who in fact had ruled as pasha in place of his apparently tired and senile father for the last year.

Mohammed Ali had begun the transformation of Egypt from a traditional to a modern society, but it was still administered primarily by and for nonnative Egyptians. He had built up the strength and virtual independence of the country, but he left a potentially dangerous situation to his less capable successors which in the context of increasing European imperialism led to British occupation in 1882.

Further Reading

The best books on Mohammed Ali are Henry H. Dodwell, The Founder of Modern Egypt: A Study of Muhammad Ali (1931), and Helen Anne B. Rivlin, The Agricultural Policy of Muhammad Ali in Egypt (1961). For his ambitions outside Egypt see Richard L. Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 1820-1881 (1959). Tom Little, Modern Egypt (1967), and John Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Relations, 1800-1956 (2d ed. 1965), provide good background information on 19th century Egypt. □