Muhammad Ali Of Egypt: The Founder Of Modern Egypt

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Muhammad Ali by Jean-François Portaels, 1847

Muhammad Ali Pasha was born March 4th 1769, in Macedonia, Rumelia Eyalet of the Ottoman Empire to Ibrahim Agha l, unit commander of the Ottoman force and Zeinab, the daughter of the ruler of Kavala. At a tender age, he lost his father and had to live with his uncle where he was raised.  His diligence in his uncle’s household led to his reception of the Bolukbashi rank, enabling him to collect taxes in the Kavala Township. After successfully playing the role of Bolukbashi, he was made the second-in-command of the Albanian Volunteer Contingent’s mercenaries.

Muhammad Ali’s birthplace in Kavala, now in northeastern Greece.

In 1801, his unit was among the Ottoman forces which was deployed to reoccupy Egypt after the French and Napoleon’s evacuation. The Ottoman Empire met heavy resistance from the Mameluke, who once held power over Egypt. Whilst the struggle was on, Muhammad Ali formed an alliance with Umar Makram, Egypt’s leader and grand Imam. He carefully positioned himself in a way which garnered the liking of the Egyptian populace.

Massacre of the Mamelukes at the Cairo citadel by Horace Vernet

In 1805, the prominent ulema of Egypt demanded the Sultan of Ottoman to appoint Ali as viceroy, which the sultan honoured. In his new role as viceroy, Muhammad became a recognized leader in Egypt but the Mameluke insurgents still existed.  In order to deal with this, he invited the Mameluke leadership to a celebration in honour of his Tusun Pasha at the Cairo Citadel on March 1st, 1811. As the celebration went on, Ali’s troops circumvented the Mamelukes and slaughtered them. He then deployed the troops to vanquish the remnant Mamelukes throughout Egypt. After this event, Muhammad Ali Pasha consolidated power and became the true ruler of Egypt.

An 1840 portrait of Muhammad Ali Pasha by Auguste Couder

Now, having total power and with the Ottoman Empire breathing heavily on his neck, he had to strengthen his position within Egypt and to increase his revenues. Muhammad Ali instituted sweeping changes.

By 1815, most of Egypt’s agricultural land had been converted into state land, and profits from agriculture became available to the ruler. He built dams and canal which improved Egypt’s irrigation system to ensure an all year round availability of water, on which its agriculture depended. New crops, such as cotton, sugarcane and indigo which promised high cash returns were introduced in Egypt, and he managed to convince the peasant farmers to cultivate the crops.

There was a reorganization of the administrative structure of the government to ensure strict control of the economy by appointing of his relatives and friends to key offices. He also attempted to construct a modern industrial system to process Egypt’s raw materials. Disbanding his mercenary army entirely made up of undisciplined soldiers who engaged in mutiny regularly, he created an army of Egyptians conscripted from the peasant class but was commanded by Turks and others recruited from outside Egypt. This was the largest and most powerful and technically advanced military in the East and by 1826, its numerical strength was approximated at 90,000.

Muhammad Ali established a navy on Egyptian waters…

Beside an army, Muhammad Ali established a navy on Egyptian waters. To supply services for his armed forces, he created Western-style schools to train doctors, engineers, veterinarians, and other specialists. Ali also introduced formal education in Egypt, which was the first secular education system in an Islamic state. A Ministry of Education was commissioned, which abolished the old convention of only children between six and thirteen years receiving formal education. A primary, secondary and technical level were created to suit the entire youth group. Institutionary specialities like accounting, medicine, chemistry, engineering, military and navy were also established.

Later during his rule, he would try to industrialize Egypt but would not be successful, largely because Egypt lacked sources of power, a native managerial class, and a trained working class. Even the agricultural sector declined ultimately because of administrative mismanagement, excessive taxation, military conscription of the peasantry, and his monopolization of trade.

By the mid-1830s, Muhammad Ali’s policy of turning Egypt into a massive plantation for his own benefit had reached a point of diminishing returns. Furthermore, his financial requirements had greatly increased because of his military campaigns.
Muhammad Ali died on August 2, 1849 in Alexandria and was buried in a mosque at the Cairo Citadel.

Video credits: Keystone History

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