Muhammad Ali Palace
Muhammad Ali's Palace
The Period of Muhammad Ali | Back to Index

muhammad aliOne person among the many who have lead Egypt through its 5000 hears of history is Muhammad Ali Pasha. An unusual visionary who new how to use the talent and advice of his advisors, his leadership expanded Egypt's influence and its agricultural technology into the surrounding countries. (76)

The Founder of Modern Egypt

Muhammad Ali Pasha (Arabic: اشاب يلع دمحم ) or Mehmet Ali Paşa (Kavalalı Mehmet Ali Pasha in Turkish) (c. 1769 - August 2, 1848), was a viceroy of Egypt and is often cited as the founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali was born in the town of Kavala (in present day Greece) in an Albanian family. After working for a time in his youth as a tobacco merchant, Muhammad Ali took a commission in the Ottoman army.

Ali spent the first years of his rule fighting off attempts to unseat him and extended his personal authority over all of Egypt. In one of the most infamous episodes of his reign, Ali definitively broke the power of the Mamluks by massacring their leaders. Having worn down the Mamluks for years with raids and skirmishes, he invited their amis in 1811 to a feast to celebrate his son Tosu Paşa’s appointment to lead the army being sent against the Wahhabi rebellion in Arabia. As the procession of Mamluk princes made its way through a narrow gated alley in the Citadel, Ali's men shut the gates, trapping all the Mamluks and his rival Kadeem, as the soldiers positioned in the buildings facing the alley opened fire from above. When the shooting ended, soldiers on the ground finished off any Mamluks still living with swords and axes. In the following days, he ordered his men to kill any other Mamluks they could catch.

Industrialization and modernization

The reign of Muhammad Ali and his successors over Egypt was a period of rapid reform and modernization that led to Egypt becoming one of the most developed states outside of Europe. It also led to massive government expenditures, that ended up bankrupting Egypt and eventually led to it 65 falling under control of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Muhammad Ali executed one of the greatest land grabes in history. He confiscated the feudal farms of the Mameluk grandees and stripped Cairo’s religious institutions of their 600,000 prime acres of landholdings. Thus decapitating Cairo’s medieval order and Egypt was now the viceroy’s private plantation. With the help of the French, Muhammed Ali set about making changes. He ordered wide-scale planting of a new strain of cotton, which was to be the cash crop that would finance the economic revival.

Since British textile manufacturers were willing to pay good money for such cotton, Ali ordered the majority of Egyptian peasants to cultivate cotton at the exclusion of all other crops. At harvest time, Ali bought the entire crop himself, which he then sold at a mark-up to textile manufacturers. In this way, he turned the whole of Egypt's cotton production into his personal monopoly. He also experimented with textile factories that might process cotton into cloth within Egypt, but these did not prove very successful.

He created state monopolies over the chief products of the country. He set up a number of factories and began digging in 1819 a new canal to Alexandria, called the Mahmudiya (after the reigning sultan of Turkey). The old canal had long fallen into decay, and the necessity of a safe channel between Alexandria and the Nile was much felt. The conclusion in 1838 of a commercial treaty with Turkey, negotiated by Sir Henry Bulwer (Lord Darling), struck a deathblow to the system of monopolies, though the application of the treaty to Egypt was delayed for some years.

Efforts were made to promote education and the study of medicine. To European merchants, on whom he was dependent for the sale of his exports, Muhammad Ali 66 showed much favor, and under his influence the port of Alexandria again rose into importance. It was also under Mehemet Ali's encouragement that the overland transit of goods from Europe to India via Egypt was resumed.

The needs of the military likewise fueled other modernization projects, such as state educational institutions, a teaching hospital, roads and canals, factories to turn out uniforms and munitions, and a shipbuilding foundry at Alexandria, although all the wood for ships had to be imported from abroad. In the same way that he conscripted peasants to serve in the army, he frequently drafted peasants into labor corvées for his factories and industrial projects. The peasantry objected to these conscriptions and many ran away from their villages to avoid being taken, sometimes fleeing as far away as Syria. A number of them maimed themselves so as to be unsuitable for combat: common ways of self-maiming were blinding an eye with rat poison and cutting off a finger of the right hand, which usually worked the firing mechanism of a rifle.

He died in August 2, 1849. He had done a great work in Egypt; the most permanent being the weakening of the tie binding the country to Turkey, the starting of the great cotton industry, the recognition of the advantages of European science, and the conquest of the Sudan.

Muhammad Ali's Successors

On Ibrahim's death in November 1848 the government of Egypt fell to his nephew Abbas I, the son of Tusun Abbasad. Abbas put an end to the system of commercial monopolies, and during his reign the railway from Alexandria to Cairo was begun at the instigation of the British government. Opposed to European ways, Abbas lived in great seclusion. After a reign of less than six years he was murdered in July 1854 by two of his slaves.

He was succeeded by his uncle Said Pasha, the favorite son of Mehemet Ali, who lacked the strength of mind or physical health needed to execute the beneficent projects which he conceived. His endeavour, for instance, to put a stop to the slave raiding which devastated the Sudan was wholly ineffectual. He had a genuine regard for the welfare of the fellahin, and a land law of 1858 secured for them an acknowledgment of freehold as against the crown.

The pasha was much under French influence, and in 1854 was induced to grant to the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps a concession for the construction of the Suez Canal. Lord Palmerston was opposed to this project, and the British opposition delayed the ratification of the concession by the Porte for two years. To the British, Said also made concessions to the Eastern Telegraph Company and another in 1854 allowing the establishment of the Bank of Egypt. He also began the national debt by borrowing 3,293,000 from Messrs Fruhling & Gbschen, the actual amount received by the pasha being 2,640,000. In January 1863 Said Pasha died and was succeeded by his nephew Ismail, a son of Ibrahim Pasha.

The Suez Canal

The reign of his son Ismail, from 1863 to 1879, was for a while hailed as a new era into modern Egypt. He attempted vast schemes of reform, but these coupled with his personal extravagance led to bankruptcy, and the later part of his reign is historically important simply for its compelling European intervention in the internal affairs of Egypt. Ismail re-established and improved Mehemet Ali's administrative system, which had fallen into decay under Abbas's uneventful rule; he caused a thorough remodeling of the customs system, which was in an anarchic state, to be made by English officials; in 1865 he established the 68 Egyptian post office; he reorganized the military schools of his grandfather, and gave some support to the cause of education. Railways, telegraphs, lighthouses, the harbour works at Suez, the breakwater at Alexandria, were carried out by some of the best contractors of Europe. Most important of all, the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.

The American Civil War Helps

Early in Ismail's reign Egypt took advantage of vastly inflated cotton prices, caused by the American Civil War. Once that conflict ended Ismail had to find new sources of funding to keep his reform efforts alive. Thus the funds required for these public works, as well as the actual labor, were remorselessly extorted from a poverty-stricken population. (76) .

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