By: Sameh Fawzy
Khaled Fahmi, a graduate of the American University in Cairo and holder of a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is currently an assistant professor at New York University. As Egypt celebrates 200 years since Mohamed Ali ruled, an occasion honoured by a three-day seminar last week in Cairo and Alexandria, Watani Forum hosted Dr Fahmi to speak on Mohamed Ali as founder of modern Egypt.
Rereading Mohamed Ali
Dr Fahmi began by saying that he had his own reservations about the common perception that Mohamed Ali was the founder of modern Egypt. That would imply he had an ambitious plan to develop the country, and if that were true then why did the plan fail?
A quick answer says that the West did not allow Egypt to develop. The strategic situation of Egypt made Great Britain unwilling to allow the development of Egypt, and Mohamed Ali’s scheme was aborted during the 1840s, to be followed 40 years later by the British occupation of Egypt.
“I differ with these ideas, either totally or in detail,” Dr Fahmi said.
“I think it necessary to reread Mohamed Ali’s experiment.”
Engine of development
Dr Fahmi said he considered the Egyptian army the key to Mohamed Ali’s experiment. The army was a development leader and influenced other sectors, such as advanced technology and services like education, health and publishing. Dr Fahmi conducted research on his hypothesis in the UK and read references in the original language, Turkish, to learn how far Egyptian peasants had benefited from Mohamed Ali’s experiment and his army. He found that relations between the peasants and their Turkish rulers were far from smooth. Egyptian soldiers did not consider Mohamed Ali’s army an Egyptian army, and neither did Mohamed Ali nor his son Ibrahim, see the army as a national force defending Egypt. Rather, they used the army to expand their authority outside Egypt.
Like no other
It must be understood that Mohamed Ali was a mere viceroy of the Ottoman state, who reached that position by means of a firman issued in July 1805. Although in the beginning he enjoyed the popularity of the Egyptian middle class and received the acknowledgement of national leadership, he soon ousted the ruling class either by deportating or dismissing them. Mohamed Ali, an Albanian by birth, depended mainly on his fellow Ottomans to control the country.
Following his regional military victories of 1841 Mohamed Ali was compelled by Britain, Russia, Austria, France and the Ottoman Sultan to withdraw from the areas he had conquered in return for his, and his sons after him, being granted sovereignty of Egypt and the Sudan.
“Such an agreement, described by some as a defeat for Mohamed Ali’s grand ambitions, was in my opinion an achievement that no other Ottoman ruler in the history of the Ottoman State ever attained,” Dr Fahmi said. I believe Mohamed Ali got more than he expected or desired.”
When the floor was thrown open to discussion, Emad Khalil asked Dr Fahmi: “You said Mohamed Ali was seeking personal glory, but if that were so, how can we explain the educational missions he sent to the West for benefit of scientific development?”“Rulers in general seek to attain personal glory, and Mohamed Ali was no exception,” Dr Fahmi replied.
“The educational renaissance began from the top, to serve his urgent military requirements.” Nevertheless ordinary people did benefit, and to a high degree, from education and health reforms such as fighting epidemics.
Robeir al-Fares asked how Copts fared under Mohamed Ali. Dr Fahmi replied that he had not made an adequate study of the Coptic topic. What was known, however, was that Mohamed Ali soon came to notice a reluctance among the peasant classes to attend military service, from which Copts were originally exempt. Muslims adopted many ploys to hinder their admission, such as cutting off their fingers, or tattooing a cross on their arms. Mohamed Ali decreed that military service should be served by all citizens, Muslims and Christians.
Nader Shukry asked what would have happened had Mohamed Ali not come to be ruler of Egypt? It was hard to answer a question beginning with “if”, Dr Fahmi said, but he referred to an article by Mohamed Abdou which stated that the Egyptian people benefited from the institutions established by Mohamed Ali; if he had not ruled Egypt its history would have been quite different.There had been a long struggle for authority among the Mamluke rulers who preceded Mohamed Ali. An amicable agreement was reached with the Egyptian peasants based on the reasonable imposition of fees and taxes. “In the meantime there was a class of landowners and prominent people which constituted the beginning of a middle class, and which had the power to face the French forces and later the British. Yet this category was undermined by Mohamed Ali,” Dr Khaled said.
Adel al-Dawwi indicated that a modern State had been an Egyptian dream since the days of Mohamed Ali, and asked what could have hindered it. Sameh Fawzy commented that Mohamed Ali did have his own scheme, yet his policies had led in the long run to deep changes in the Egyptian social infrastructure.
Citizenship concepts emerged, as well as political institutions and civil community in the second half of the 19th century.“Many people tend to make a comparison between Mohamed Ali and the Nasser era, and believe there was a scheme in each era,” Dr Fahmi said. “While agreeing that both were great leaders who introduced important reforms, I still say that Egyptians deserve more.”