Mohamed Ali was not the first ruler of Egypt to attempt to extract the country from the Middle Ages and usher it into modernity. At the end of the 18th century, several of the last Mamelukes who had previously ruled the country, most notably Ali Bek Al-Kebir, had spearheaded notable changes.
But Mohamed Ali was nevertheless the founder of modern Egypt.
He was the first ruler of the country in over four centuries not to be appointed by an Ottoman sultan. The withdrawal of France from Egypt in 1801 after its three-year campaign in the country had proven a failure that created a power vacuum in the country. It also stirred frustrations and aspirations.
The ease with which French general Napoleon Bonaparte and his army had managed to conquer Egypt at the end of the 18th century had revealed the shocking differences in development between Egypt (and with it the rest of the East) and France (and with it the West). This was a key reason why many Egyptian notables – sheikhs from Al-Azhar, traditionally Sunni Islam’s most revered seat of learning, as well as wealthy Cairene and Alexandrian merchants – wanted a complete overhaul of how the country was ruled.
Mohamed Ali was their choice to fill the vacuum. This mid-ranking officer in the Ottoman army had built a reputation during the years of the French campaign as smart, pious, and concerned about the future of the country. This was certainly at least in part an act. In fact, he had ambitions to take over Egypt, and so he positioned himself smartly, cultivated connections, and bided his time.
The Egyptian notables effectively forced the Ottoman sultan’s hand into accepting Mohamed Ali as his viceroy in the country. For many, particularly in Istanbul, Mohamed Ali was a surprising choice. But the real surprise was that the Egyptians had had a choice of ruler at all. It was the first time in many centuries that the Egyptians had had any say in who was to govern them.
Mohamed Ali was also the first non-Mameluke in over five centuries to rule Egypt. It is true that since the Ottoman conquest of the country in the early 16th century, there had always been an Ottoman ruler in Cairo. But he had almost always been a figurehead, with real power residing with the country’s senior Mamelukes.
Mohamed Ali ended that situation first by cutting all the trappings that had connected Egypt with the Ottoman Empire and second by cutting off the heads of the most senior Mamelukes in a meticulously executed massacre that followed a sumptuously prepared dinner at the Cairo Citadel.
Eliminating the Mamelukes was the first step in a determined and ruthless campaign. Following the Mamelukes came the turn of the most important notables who had campaigned and lobbied to put Mohamed Ali on the throne. Some of them were imprisoned, some disappeared, others got the message and retreated from public life.
After the Mamelukes and the notables came the land. Mohamed Ali confiscated the entirety of Egypt’s land, including the religious endowments traditionally managed by Al-Azhar. This effectively made him the sole landowner in Egypt at a time when landownership was the only determinant and reservoir of wealth.
Sole and supreme ruler of Egypt, Mohamed Ali then began to create the country he had envisioned.
He started with the armed forces, where the changes were not merely in armaments, personnel, and logistics, but primarily in meaning. While serving in the Ottoman garrison in Egypt, Mohamed Ali had observed the French army and understood that modern armies were not merely fighting forces. Instead, they were elaborate organisations under sophisticated command structures drawing on agrarian and industrial production systems.
This understanding ushered in the beginning of modern industry in Egypt. Factories producing weapons, clothing, and vehicles, among other military requirements, were built in the first few decades of the 19th century.
Villages and later towns appeared around these factories. A new irrigation system was introduced, and within a decade tens of thousands of acres had been added to Egypt’s cultivated land. The new towns, the irrigation network, and the expansion of cultivated land transformed the Nile Delta, perhaps more than any previous wave of change had done since the settling of the Arabs in the area almost 13 centuries earlier.
At the beginning of his reign, Mohamed Ali relied on the French officers, engineers, and advisers who had stayed in Egypt after the French army had left. But as his changes gained momentum and modern Egypt began to take shape, he increasingly poached talented administrators from different European capitals as well as from the Ottoman court. An elaborate, largely Turkic and Circassian, but also international, power structure began to take shape round Mohamed Ali.
Here was the essence of the Pasha’s project: the modern state that he built was in Egypt, but it was not Egyptian. Mohamed Ali, an Ottoman by upbringing, experience, and way of life, mixed his immense ambition to create a dynasty of his own with his desire to fashion a modern, strong, and developed state anchored on Ottoman culture.
Years later, as will be seen in the next article in this series, when the army led by his son, Ibrahim, was on the verge of entering Istanbul and vanquishing the Ottomans, Mohamed Ali was aiming not at destroying the Ottoman Empire as at taking it over, modernising it, and bringing its various provinces under his family’s control.
Mohamed Ali’s project had given rise to modern Egypt; at heart, however, there was very little of and about Egypt that was in the Pasha’s project. This was a reason why Mohamed Ali never worried about the notion of legitimacy or the consent of the Egyptian people.
The Pasha held unflattering views of the Egyptians. Although he was the first to institute programmes to send promising young Egyptians to Europe to be educated (primarily in science), his governing structure remained until the very end of his reign in the mid-19th century largely devoid of Egyptian people.
Mohamed Ali’s state was Egyptian by name, but its rulers, managers, and the thinking and culture that shaped it were detached from the heritage of the land that Mohamed Ali had come to control and upon which he built his state.
Mohamed Ali died peacefully, having spent the last years of his life between two of his most charming, yet far from most opulent, palaces in Cairo and Alexandria. In his last years, he became increasingly detached, and according to some telling stories, his mind was past its prime. But his reputation as by far the most successful ruler the Mediterranean had seen in the first half of the 19th century was all but secured for eternity.
In one of the most-penetrating portraits of the Pasha a few years before his death by Belgian painter Jean-Francois Portaels, Mohamed Ali exudes the confidence of a man who had transformed a backwater Ottoman colony into a strong modern state, unrivalled in the East.
He remains a rare example in Egyptian history of a leader who had vast ambition, wide vision, an iron will, tremendous energy and an impressive work ethic, all mixed with the ability to execute and implement what he wanted to achieve with firmness and often ruthlessness. It was also always done in ways that rose above the ignorance that had prevailed in the country before him.
Mohamed Ali not only forced Egypt to wake from its long and lethargic sleep, but he also turned its face towards Western modernity. This was the first step in a long journey that, as this series will show, would last over 150 years.
But because Mohamed Ali’s project was essentially non-Egyptian, the body of the country remained for a long period fixed in its place and hardly moving with the head. This created a set of problems that would haunt the Mohamed Ali Dynasty and Egypt for decades.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.