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History, Muhammad Ali

Egyptian peasants, hereditary rule, Ottoman title, subsistence crops, Wahhabis

In 1798 France was at war with Britain, and French general Napoleon Bonaparte led a large-scale invasion of Egypt to disrupt British commerce in the region. Bonaparte quickly established French rule in the Nile Delta and Cairo and set out to conquer lands farther east and south. However, he encountered stiff resistance from the Mamluks in Upper Egypt and the Ottomans in Palestine and Syria. In August 1798 a British fleet destroyed the French fleet as it lay at anchor in Abu Qir Bay near Alexandria. In 1799 Napoleon escaped to France, leaving behind a French army of occupation. British and Ottoman troops expelled this army in 1801, ending the French presence in Egypt.

Neither the Mamluks nor the local ulama and merchants could immediately fill the power vacuum that resulted from the expulsion of the French. In 1805 Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman officer leading an Albanian regiment, seized control. Backed by Cairo’s merchant guilds, he persuaded the Ottoman sultan to make him governor of Egypt. He slowly consolidated power, defeating an invading British army in 1807 and massacring many of the Mamluks in 1811. Between 1811 and 1819 he helped the Ottoman Empire to regain control of Arabia from the Wahhabis, who had seized control of much of it at the start of the 19th century. Starting in 1820, his troops conquered much of what is now Sudan. To maintain the strength of his army, Muhammad Ali began conscripting Egyptian peasants. With the aid of French experts, he transformed his inexperienced peasant soldiers into a powerful army that fought against Greek rebels who rose up against Ottoman rule in the 1820s.

In return for his assistance in Greece, Muhammad Ali demanded that the Ottoman sultan grant him rule over Syria. The sultan refused, and Muhammad Ali invaded Syria in 1831, defeating the Ottoman forces and briefly creating an Egyptian empire that stretched from Crete to Syria and Arabia. Wishing to protect the balance of power in the region, a British-led European force intervened in 1840 to restore Ottoman power and restrict Muhammad Ali to Egypt. Although forced to give up his territories outside of Egypt, Muhammad Ali secured hereditary rule in Egypt. He became viceroy of Egypt and freed the country of Ottoman control in all but name. The descendants of Muhammad Ali ruled Egypt until 1952.

Muhammad Ali and his heirs took the first steps toward modernizing Egypt’s economy. They ordered the construction of new canals, barrages (river barriers), and factories. Egypt could not industrialize on a large scale because of competition from foreign manufactures, but it did modernize its agriculture. A new irrigation method made possible the cultivation of three crops on lands that formerly had produced only one crop, and cash crops such as tobacco, indigo, and especially long-staple cotton replaced subsistence crops in much of the Nile Valley.

In 1848 Muhammad Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha, who had led many victorious military campaigns, assumed power, but he died soon after becoming viceroy. (“Pasha” was an Ottoman title, roughly akin to “Lord”; it was the title used by the viceroys of Egypt.) His successor, Abbas I, tried to undo Muhammad Ali’s reforms and to dismiss his French advisers. Abbas authorized the construction (by a British firm) of the first railroad linking Alexandria and Cairo. His successor, Said Pasha, resumed some of the reforms and also authorized French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps to construct the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas. Completed in 1869, the canal greatly facilitated transportation and trade between Europe and Asia. However, it brought little benefit to Egypt.

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