The Unintended Consequences of Muhammad Ali

dsc01253The effort to modernize Egypt was led not by an Egyptian, but by an Ottoman-Albanian general, Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849). Muhammad Ali took advantage of a power vacuum left from the French withdrawal and infighting between the Mamuuks to seize and consolidate power in Egypt. He became the self-proclaimed Khedive of Egypt and Sudan and started a dynasty that ruled Egypt in some capacity till 1952. Muhammad Ali built Egypt into a command economy modeled on a European state. Despite the surface success he had, Ali introduced a system that was not sustainable and that led to European control over Egypt.

After Muhammad Ali consolidated his power, he began introducing widespread changes to Egyptian society. His goal was to create a state in the European, rather than African, tradition. To force land reform and destabilize the powerful farm owners, he introduced a massive property tax. When the land owners failed to pay this tax, the government seized the land. With this tactic, the government ended up owning almost all of the land in Egypt. By controlling the agriculture of Egypt, the government was able to raise average wages fourfold. Another one of his major goals was to increase weapons output. He funded factories to manufacture guns and ships for a navy. He built a professional army and sent promising students to Europe to learn military tactics in a Western style.

Despite certain positive outcomes, the mindset Muhammad Ali Pasha introduced to Egypt ended up being disastrous. Wars with Sudan, Greece, and Syria led to massive debts without much territory gain. An attempt at an immense offensive against the Ottoman Empire was stopped when British and Austrian ships set up a blockade and began shelling Egypt cities. The European powers offered Pasha hereditary rule of Egypt if Pasha stopped his military advances and stayed a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Many of Pasha’s programs were ended after his death. However, his mindset and legacy lived on as his grandson, Isma’il Pasha took power. Isma’il Pasha echoed Muhammad Ali when he explained, “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social conditions” (Parsons). Isma’il Pasha learned much from his grandfather: they both wanted expansion, reform, and a European style state. He oversaw the building of the Suez Canal, waged an expansion war with Ethiopia, and introduced economic reform. This vision of a European state came at a heavy price. Egypt became heavily indebted to the British during this time. The British decided to take over Egypt in order to recoup their debt. Isma’il Pasha’s massive spending led to British rule in Egypt for more than 70 years.

Strong comparisons can be drawn between Muhammad Ali Pasha and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s presidency, lasting from 1953 to 1970, was marked by social programs, building projects, and costly wars. Though Pasha wanted to be more like Europe, Nasser sought an Egyptian identity that relied on independence from Western influence. While Pasha envisioned a break from Africa, Nasser believed in a pan Arab approach to bring Egypt onto the global stage. Nasser’s policies had many wide reaching consequences. His hardline against Israel was met with adoration from the Arab world. However, similar to Pasha’s war with Ethiopia, aggression against Israel eventually led to the Six Day War that resulted in massive Egyptian casualties and land loss. His introduction of social programs increased the standard of living for the average Egyptian but introduced a welfare system that was not sustainable in the long run. Both Nasser and Pasha introduced successful programs in Egypt and made great strides. However, many of their policies, especially involving spending, were irresponsible and created long term problems.

The mindset Muhammad Ali Pasha created of massive government spending, large scale building projects, and social projects ultimately led to British control over Egypt. These ideas were properly carried out by Isma’il Pasha and incurred “over 100 million Euros of debt” (Parsons). Despite being known as the “Father of Modern Egypt”, Muhammad Ali Pasha’s ideas ended up being disastrous for Egypt (Lewis). His ideas, while having a tremendous impact on Egypt, had unintended consequences that led to the European rule of Egypt.

Works Cited

Parsons, Neil. Documents on Egypt and Sudan. January 1999. University of Botswana. Accessed December 1 2014. Web.

Lewis, Lowell. The Period of Muhammad Ali. January 2009. University of California. Accessed December 1 2014. Web.