Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

An Ottoman janissary of Albanian origin, Muhammad Ali became the founder of modern Egypt. Following the Napoleonic invasion and short-lived British occupation of Egypt, Muhammad Ali and a number of other janissary forces were sent to reassert Ottoman control in 1802. Muhammad Ali had outmaneuvered rival janissaries for leadership by 1806.

Muhammad Ali then cleverly aligned himself with the weaker of the perennially warring Mamluk factions that had previously governed Egypt to defeat the stronger. He eliminated the remaining Mamluks by inviting them to a celebration at the heavily fortified citadel overlooking Cairo in 1811.

Once the Mamluks were securely inside the high walls of the fort, the janissaries massacred them, leaving Muhammad Ali the sole ruler. Pledging allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, he was appointed pasha of Egypt and began an ambitious program to increase the strength of his armed forces and to build a new navy. The army was conscripted from the Egyptian fellaheen, or peasantry, and ultimately reached over 100,000 men.

To finance military expenditures, Muhammad Ali increased taxes and established government monopolies over the economy. Monopolies controlled the sale of oil, coffee, and Egyptian products including tobacco, grains, sugar, and cotton. He also moved the Egyptian economy toward the production of cash crops, especially tobacco and the highly desirable Egyptian long-grain cotton.

Through government support, Muhammad Ali underwrote the creation of small industries in textile manufacturing, food processing, and some armaments. This began a process of industrial modernization that was largely halted by the British occupation of Egypt at the end of the 19th century.

The irrigation systems were expanded and water and road transport systems were developed throughout the area. Medical care improved, although cholera and malaria remained problems. A new administrative elite was created. The top officials were predominantly of Turkish origins; like Muhammad Ali, they spoke Turkish rather than Arabic.

Muhammad Ali and his officials
Muhammad Ali and his officials

Although he was illiterate, Muhammad Ali valued education and established a military training school and sent students at government expense to European universities. Muhammad Ali made one graduate Rifa’a Rafi al-Tahtawi director of a new School of Languages; the school was responsible for the translation of many European, especially French, political and philosophic works. The Bulaq Press published hundreds of books in Arabic, including many translations from European works. These influenced a new generation of Arab and Islamic reformers in the late 19th century. An official gazette was also issued.

As leader of Egypt, Muhammad Ali was involved in four major wars. At the behest of the Ottoman sultan, he sent his sons Abbas and Ibrahim to crush the puritanical Islamic reformist movement, the Wahhabis, who threatened Ottoman control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Hijaz from 1811–81. The Wahhabis were defeated in their stronghold in the Nejd (in northern modern-day Saudi Arabia). After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad Ali withdrew his troops in 1824, thereby allowing the Wahhabis to regroup and emerge as an even stronger force at the end of the century.

In 1820 Muhammad Ali launched military campaigns into the Sudan. He wanted new recruits and slaves for his army and hoped to obtain gold to help finance his army and navy. Although his troops were militarily successful, most of the army recruits and slaves died of diseases and the gold resources failed to materialize.

In 1822 the ongoing Greek War of Independence threatened Ottoman control in the Balkans, and the sultan again called on Muhammad Ali to use his new navy and army to defeat the Greeks and their allies. Muhammad Ali took the island of Crete in 1824 and met with initial success. But in 1827 his new fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Navarino Bay. Muhammad Ali was ready to negotiate, and he lost Crete to the British in 1840.

He then turned his attention toward Palestine and Syria, where he hoped to enhance his prestige as well as stop the flow of draft dodgers from Egypt who sought to escape the much-hated state conscription. He also hoped to obtain wood to rebuild his navy. Syria had suffered under a long period of Ottoman misrule and initially offered little opposition to Muhammad Ali’s troops, who under Ibrahim’s command took Acre in 1832. Ibrahim advanced to Konya, deep inside the Anatolian Peninsula, and might have advanced to Istanbul, but he was stopped by Muhammad Ali.

Although he wanted further territory, Muhammad Ali recognized that the European powers, who were engaged in a long-term diplomatic rivalry over the so-called Eastern Question, or what to do about the weakened Ottoman Empire, would not allow it to collapse. When Russia offered to support the sultan in the war against Muhammad Ali, Great Britain, which opposed Russian advances in the Black Sea, stepped in to force negotiations.

Under the Kutahya Convention of 1833, Muhammad Ali retained control over Greater Syria in exchange for a small yearly tribute to the sultan. He thereby controlled key trade routes and the Muslim holy cities in Arabia.

Ibrahim was made governor of Syria, but efficient tax collection and conscription led to local dissent and rebellions. Wishing to reassert his authority, Sultan Mahmud II was confident that his newly reformed army would be able to defeat Muhammad Ali.

Ottoman forces attacked in 1838, but at the Battle of Nazib in northern Syria, Ibrahim routed the Ottoman army in 1839. Fearing Muhammad Ali’s mounting power and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain intervened.

Britain rallied the support of Russia, Prussia, and Austria and offered Muhammad Ali control over Egypt for life if he immediately agreed to a settlement. When Muhammad Ali refused, a four-power blockade was put in place, and British marines took Acre in 1840. Recognizing defeat, Muhammad Ali withdrew from Syria.

In 1841 the sultan granted Muhammad Ali and his heirs the hereditary right to rule Egypt as khedives; however, the Egyptian army was limited to 18,000, a huge decrease from its size during the zenith of Muhammad Ali’s power. In 1848 Ibrahim, the presumed heir, died, before his father. Thus when the ailing Muhammad Ali died shortly after Ibrahim, his grandson Abbas succeeded to the throne.

The conservative Abbas halted many of Muhammad Ali’s development projects, but they were resumed after Said, Muhammad Ali’s son and Abbas’s uncle, and later Ismail, another of Muhammad Ali’s grandsons, became khedives. The dynasty established in Egypt by Muhammad Ali survived until it was overthrown in a military-led revolution in 1952.