Muhammad Ali of Egypt

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This article is about the viceroy of Egypt. For other people named Mehemet Ali, see Mehemet Ali (disambiguation).
Muhammad `Alī
Muhammad `Alī

Muhammad `Ali Pasha (Arabic: محمد علي باشا) (many spelling variations, including Turkish Mehmet Ali (Kavalalı Mehmet Ali Paşa), are encountered) (c. 1769 - August 2, 1849), was a viceroy of Egypt, and is often cited as the founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali was an ethnic Albanian born in the village of Kavala, in what is now part of Greece. After working for a time in his youth as a tobacco merchant, Muhammad Ali took a commission in the Ottoman army.


Rise to power

In 1798, Napoleon invaded the Ottoman province of Egypt and destroyed the Mamluk rulers' army at the Battle of the Pyramids, but soon thereafter withdrew from the country in order to pursue other military ventures, leaving behind a portion of his occupation forces who would withdraw from Egypt several years later. The Ottoman Sultan sent a military expedition to re-conquer Egypt, but the ethnic and political divisions within the ranks prevented them from operating effectively for very long. When the troops' salaries were delayed, some of them mutinied, and many turned to banditry, which the scattered Mamluks were unable to control. With the Mamluks out of power, the French army decamped to other lands, the Ottoman troops despoiling the countryside, and no local authorities assuming control of matters, Egypt was thrown into a power vaccuum. Muhammad Ali, a young officer who had come to Egypt with the Albanian contingent of the expeditionary forces, stepped in to fill this vaccuum by establishing a local power base of village leaders, clerics, and wealthy merchants in Cairo, and by killing or expelling three successive governors sent from Istanbul. With no one else able to hold the office in safety, he was appointed Ottoman viceroy (wali; Arabic: والي) of Egypt in 1805.

Muhammad Ali spent the first years of his rule fighting off attempts to unseat him, and extending his personal authority over the whole of the province of Egypt. In one of the most infamous episodes of his reign, Muhammad Ali definitively broke the power of the Mamluks by massacring their leaders. Having worn down the Mamluks for years with raids and skirmishes, in 1811 he invited their amirs to a feast to celebrate his son Tusun Pasha's appointment to lead the army being sent against the Wahhabi rebellion in Arabia. As the procession of Mamluk princes made its way through a narrow gated alley in the Citadel, Muhammad Ali's men shut the gates, trapping all the Mamluks inside, and soldiers positioned in the buildings facing the alley opened fire from above. When the shooting ended, soldiers on the ground finished off any Mamluks still living with swords and axes. In the following days, he ordered his men to kill any other Mamluks they could catch, plunder their houses, and rape the women therein.

The modern army

Muhammad Ali recognized that the sort of military force from which he had arisen — expeditionary recruits assigned to units based on shared ethnic or regional identity — was not a reliable force in the long term. Moreover, he knew that there was a superior style of combat in the field: the disciplined fighting style he had seen the French army follow. This drilled style of combat had proved highly effective against less disciplined, more individuated forces such as the Mamluks; an additional advantage was that it could provide an alternative to raising entire military castes, such as the Janissaries and the Mamluks themselves; such military castes tended to accumulate enough power to challenge the authority of their ostensible lords. Another influence on this decision was the short-lived attempt of Sultan Selim III at creating a similar force to replace the Janissaries: the disciplined troops, trained by a German officer, had performed well, but the Janissaries realized the implications of this new force, and responded by deposing Selim. In 1823, Muhammad Ali began to conscript peasants from Upper Egypt to train under a French officer he hired, Colonel Sèves (Suleyman Pasha), in the Napoleonic fighting style. Muhammad Ali called his new troops the nizam jadid (Arabic: نظام جديد) (literally, 'new system'). These troops performed very well in battle, putting down insurrections in various parts of Egypt, including one in the vicinity of their home districts. This was important: the nizami troops were demonstrably loyal to the viceroy, and not to their village affiliations, as most troops at the time were.

In 1827, at the request of Sultan Mahmud II, Muhammad Ali sent his nizami troops against the Greeks in the Greek War of Independence, under the command of Muhammad Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha. He also raised a navy, at a huge cost, since all the ships had to be purchased abroad. This engagement led to a falling-out between Mahmud II and Muhammad Ali. Great Britain, France, and Russia had all taken the side of the Greek rebels, and an enormous fleet of their combined naval forces lay anchored in Navarino Bay, awaiting the Ottoman navy. Muhammad Ali recognized that his naval forces could not hope to defeat the combined European fleet, and he pleaded with the Sultan to recognize Greek independence and allow the Austrian Empire to mediate a negotiated peace. The Sultan, though, refused to consider giving up so much imperial territory, and insisted that the opposing fleet was just an empty bluffing tactic. Muhammad Ali reluctantly followed orders and sent his navy against the European fleet, and in the Battle of Navarino on 20 October 1827 almost the whole of the Ottoman navy was destroyed in only a few hours of fighting. This marked the last time that Muhammad Ali undertook a major military engagement on behalf of the Sultan.

In the aftermath of the Greek War of Independence, Muhammad Ali had the chance to review the strengths and weaknesses of his troops in a major engagement. The land troops had performed well, but the campaign revealed that many of the Ottoman officers were inadequate to the job of commanding the new infantry forces in the field. Moreover, the nizam jadid did not yet extend to naval forces; the viceroy had had to rely on a far less disciplined navy during the campaign in Greece.

Muhammad Ali dealt with these issues programatically. To remedy the problem of officer training, he founded a staff college and hired French officers to train Ottoman personnel in the newly requisite military science. Convinced of the efficacity of the nizam jadid, he dissolved all his old regiments of Albanians and Mamluks, and set about building an entire army of nizami troops. To supply the men for the troops, he instituted conscription of Egyptian peasants.

Industrialization and modernization

To keep up with the constant need for money that military reformation created, Muhammad Ali established long-staple cotton as a cash crop, and re-shaped Egyptian agriculture to orient toward cotton production. Since British textile manufacturers were willing to pay good money for such cotton, Muhammad Ali ordered the majority of Egyptian peasants to cultivate cotton to the exclusion of all other crops. At harvest time, Muhammad Ali bought the entire crop himself, which he then sold at a mark-up to textile manufacturers; by this means, he turned the whole of Egypt's cotton production into his personal monopoly. He also experimented with textile factories that might process cotton into cloth within Egypt, but these did not prove very fruitful.

The needs of the military likewise fueled other modernization projects, such as state educational institutions, a teaching hospital, roads and canals, factories to turn out uniforms and munitions, and a shipbuilding foundry at Alexandria, although all the wood for ships had to be imported from abroad. In the same way that he conscripted peasants to serve in the army, he frequently drafted peasants into labor corvées for his factories and industrial projects. The peasantry objected to these conscriptions, and many of them ran away from their villages to avoid being taken, sometimes fleeing as far away as Syria. To escape military service, a number of them maimed themselves so as to be unsuitable for combat: common ways of self-maiming were blinding an eye with rat poison and cutting off a finger of the right hand (which usually worked the firing mechanism of a rifle).

Rebellion against the Sultan

Like many rulers of Egypt before him, Muhammad Ali desired to control Greater Syria, both for its strategic value and for its rich natural resources. Having built up a sizable nizami army, in 1831 he ordered Ibrahim Pasha to invade Syria, on the pretext of repatriating about 6,000 peasant draft dodgers. Muhammad Ali's army overran Syria, captured Acre after a six-month siege, and then marched north into Anatolia. At the Battle of Konya, Ibrahim Pasha soundly defeated the Ottoman army led by the Grand Vizier; this outcome left no military obstacle between Ibrahim's forces and Istanbul itself. The viceroy, to all appearances, was making a play to overthrow the Osmanli Dynasty and seize control of the Ottoman Empire. This possibility so alarmed Mahmud II that he accepted Russia's offer of military aid, much to the dismay of the British and French governments. From this position, in 1833 Russia brokered a negotiated solution known as the Peace of Kütahia. The terms of the peace were: a) Muhammad Ali would withdraw his forces from Anatolia, b) he would receive the territories of Crete (then known as Candia) and the Hijaz as compensation, and c) Ibrahim Pasha would be appointed wali of Syria.

In 1839, Muhammad Ali, dissatisfied with partial sovereignty over Syria, went to war again against the Sultan's forces: when Mahmud II ordered his forces to advance on the Syrian frontier, Ibrahim attacked and destroyed them at the Battle of Nezib. Echoing the Battle of Konya, Istanbul was again left vulnerable to Muhammad Ali's forces. What is more, Mahmud II died almost immediately after the battle took place, to be succeeded by his sixteen-year-old son, Abd-ul-Mejid. At this point, Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim began to argue which course to follow; Ibrahim favored conquering Istanbul and demanding the imperial seat, while Muhammad Ali was more inclined simply to demand numerous concessions of territory and political autonomy for himself and his family. While they argued, the Sultan and his advisors begged the Great Powers for help, and were rewarded with multilateral European intervention (including the British Navy blockading the Nile Delta coast). After the British landed in Syria and defeated Ibrahim's forces at Beirut, Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim were forced to give up Syria. In 1841, a final treaty was signed, with a great deal of influence from Europe. The treaty dictated that a) Muhammad Ali would give up his territories in Crete and the Hijaz, b) he would give up his navy and limit the size of his standing army to 18,000 men, and c) he and his descendants would enjoy hereditary rule over the province of Egypt — an unheard-of status for a Ottoman viceroy.

Final years

After he secured hereditary rule for his family, Muhammad Ali ruled quietly until 1848, when he was deposed on account of senility. He was succeeded by Ibrahim Pasha, but Ibrahim himself was very ill, and died only a few months later. Muhammad Ali briefly succeeded his own son, until his grandson, 'Abbas, assumed the office. Muhammad Ali died in August 1849, and was buried in the imposing mosque he had commissioned, the Muhammad Ali Mosque, in the Citadel of Cairo.

See also

Wikisource, as part of the 1911 Encyclopedia Wikiproject, has original text related to this article:


  • Fahmy, Khaled. 1997. All The Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, his army and the making of modern Egypt. New York: American University in Cairo Press.
  • Fahmy, Khaled. 1998. "The era of Muhammad 'Ali Pasha, 1805-1848" in The Cambridge History of Egypt: Modern Egypt, from 1517 to the end of the twentieth century. M.W. Daly, ed. Pp. 139-179, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hourani, Albert. 2002. A History of the Arab Peoples. London: Faber and Faber.
  • al-Jabarti, Abd al-Rahman. 1994. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti's History of Egypt. 4 vols. T. Philipp and M. Perlmann, translators. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Vatikiotis, P.J. 1991. The History of Modern Egypt: From Muhammad Ali to Mubarak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Preceded by:
uncertain due to war
Governor of Egypt
Succeeded by:
Ibrahim Pasha
Preceded by:
Ibrahim Pasha
Governor of Egypt
Succeeded by:
Abbas I of Egypt

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