Before you read this I would like to warn you Muhammad Ali is a more complex figure than my article leads you to believe. Many people believe he exploited native Egyptians and completely undermined the culture in pursuit of his own political power. He is a complex guy. For my history class at Amideast, I needed to write a report about him using either a negative or positive lens, however I encourage you to research more about him as he is super interesting.
Born March 1, 1789 of Albanian descent somewhere in current day Macedonia, Muhammad Ali always aspired to win the good favor of the Ottoman court. Beginning his career collecting local taxes, he proved to be a strong authoritative figure, one that to his uncle’s standard (his uncle an Ottoman general), was strong enough to succeed the French military withdrawal from Egypt and begin the work of Ottoman reoccupation of the country.
After Napoleon and the French colonial government withdrew from Egypt, it first fell back into the hands of Mamluk warlords, much to the discontent of the Ottomans. After strategically working his way up the social hierarchy of Egyptian society, Ali was appointed governor in 1805 by the Ottomans. The Mamluks continued to be an impediment to Ali’s leadership. In 1811, Ali made a brash decision to assassinate the Mamluk leaders in a surprise attack at a dinner party he was hosting at the Cairo Citadel in honor of his son who was going off to battle in Arabia. Ali trapped the leaders between two sets of gates and had them shot and then ordered the killing of other Mamluk soldiers not present at the Citadel. The attack successful, Ali was able to consolidate his power and take full control over the Egyptian government.
Ali was asked for a small favor from the Ottomans to fight the war in Arabia in 1811 to which he was sending his son. The Ottomans were concerned that the Wahhabist tribe of current Saudi Arabia had obtained control over the holy cities Mecca and Medina and was moving further inland into the Gulf. With most of the Ottoman groups tied up in Europe, they called on Ali once again to set things straight. By 1812, Ali’s son completed a successful military campaign and obtained all of their military objectives. Muhammad Ali was revered in the Ottoman royal court and looked on with much esteem.
Ali, aware of the Ottoman Empire’s slow decline, worked to build up Egypt into a separate powerful empire, though politically he did not cut ties with the Ottomans as he was doing this. He began rebuilding Egypt from the ground up in the hopes to uniquely strengthen Egypt into a powerful and stable military regime. To do this, Ali began taking steps to reclaim government land from the Mamluks and large landowners and created land taxes for the rural farming population. He planted cotton as a cash crop on government land and promoted and coerced the planting of cotton as a cash crop by peasant farmers as well. Through sales of cotton, he was able to garner money for his administration and for the development of his military. This was the key to the development and industrialization of Egypt and the key to his consolidation of power.
With the influx of cash through this trade, Ali was able to introduce effective new weaponry from the west and support his military with the highest standard of training. His students of highest academic standing were sent to study at some of the finest universities Europe had to offer, immersing themselves in language, medicine, and philosophy. These skill sets were put to practical use running the bureaucracy of the new powerful central government.
Though Ali made great strides developing Egypt’s economy, he was not in good favor with the people of Egypt. He monopolized profits from cotton and grain sales. Important government positions were allocated to his sons, proving to be a convenient authoritarian military strategy, but polarizing him from the Egyptians. Most importantly to the poor, he forcefully conscripted them into wars he fought to gain territory and into labor.
Ali was out of touch with his nation; after all, the official language of the court remained Turkish even though the majority of people spoke Arabic. Despite not being universally loved by the Egyptian people, Ali did pave the way for many of the country’s great achievements, such as introducing the first printing press.
Towards the end of his career, Ali began to identify less with the greater Ottoman Empire and started focusing on perpetuating his own legacy. Egypt had expanded all the way down to northern Sudan. To this day, you can see the reaches of Ali’s empire through the military and political bureaucracy he left behind.
Ali died a quiet death in 1849 with little formalities; however, the legacy he left behind was so much greater. Though culturally he never actually identified with the people of Egypt, through his half-century of rule, he was responsible for the early development of Egyptian society as the vibrant nation we know today. The political bureaucracy he put in place was the defining factor that truly separated Egypt from the rest of the Levant up north and ensured Egypt’s stable succession of governance, not withstanding the current day struggle for democracy. Though Ali may never have formally left the Ottoman Empire, he set Egypt on a course of industrialization, modernity, and political autonomy, which continued to help Egypt as it grew into the future.