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Book Review: Tariq El-Bishri rediscovers Muhammad Ali

Tariq El-Bishri's new book highlights his loyalty to a hypothesis that understanding Muhammad Ali comes within the context of the renewal and revival of the Ottoman Empire

Karem Yehia, Sunday 3 Aug 2014
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Muhammad Ali wa Nizam Hukmh (Muhammad Ali and His Regime) by Tariq El-Bishri, Al-Shuruq Publishing, Cairo, 2014. pp.73

The intellectual and historian Tariq El-Bishri's book titled Muhammad Ali and His Regime doesn't answer directly questions such as: Was the collapse of Muhammad Ali's project and his defeat inevitable? Is it possible to rely on the emergence of another Muhammad Ali in the twenty-first century to rebuild the state and push Egypt forward towards a modern renaissance? Is it necessary that rebuilding the currently ailing Egyptian state be done by the hands of the army and the military establishment?

Despite all this, the book's limited number of pages denotes the author's loyalty to a hypothesis that says that understanding Muhammad Ali comes in the context of the renewal and revival of the Ottoman Empire not from without.

What's most significant in Tariq El-Bishri's history books, concerning the number of pages, is that it indicates that there are two major projects that preoccupy the intellectual historian. The first is in writing the history of building the modern Egyptian state with its institutions, formations and organisations. The second is related to the cultural aspects in shaping modern Egypt, especially what the author believes as Islamic roots and inclinations and its influences on the Egyptian legislation. Undoubtedly, reading a highly condensed book about Muhammad Ali remains open to the preoccupations of its author regarding his two major projects or maybe the intellectual project of writing which combines the two projects into one project.

The book comprises a preface and five chapters which are predominated by a eulogistic language towards Muhammad Ali and his project in the way of ruling and the region, to the extent that there is almost no criticism of the way the Pasha built his state which he passed to his sons and his grandsons. The reader may wonder about the reason behind the book's neglect to discuss the contributions of a historical school that shows through research in recent years the exorbitant cost of Muhammad Ali's project on behalf of the Egyptian peasants, artisans and even Al-Azhar elite of religious scholars. We mean exactly All the Pasha's Men by Khaled Fahmy and The Pasha's Peasants by Kenneth Cuno. El-Bishri's book also misses discussing what the writings of historians who reread the history of Ottoman Egypt in a way that slightly reduces some of the fascination of Muhammad Ali's modernising feats, such as the works of Dr Nelly Hanna, Peter Gran and others who benefited from the archives of the Sharia courts and other archives in the centuries preceding Muhammad Ali's era. To make things clearer, the shock of the French Expedition and the modernising project of the Governor neither sprout up in a dead land and nor create a renaissance from nothing.

Anyway, our book was concerned with extracting the European Westernising characteristics from Muhammad Ali's project, and was keen to place the Governor and his state in an Islamic Ottoman civilisation context. It presents a reconciling vision from within the Islamic movement with Muhammad Ali. While the Islamist writings attacking and dispraising the project of the ruler of Egypt between the years 1805 and 1848 from the perspective of Muhammad Ali's bias towards westernising the state and the society and crushing the "Islamic society's" organisations and symbols long established before his arrival to rule the country.

In this context, the author concludes in the first chapter dealing with the accession to power, with refusing the notion that the deposition of the Ottoman governor Khurshid Pasha and the appointment of Muhammad Ali by the Egyptians reflects an Egyptian nationalist movement seeking to secede from the Ottoman Empire. He even asserts that it was a "movement revolving within the Ottoman framework." The book continues further, "Perhaps Muhammad Ali is the only governor who ably executed the Ottoman political line completely in aborting the British influence menacing Egypt and totally eradicating the political existence of the Mamluks. Despite of this or because of this, the book pointed out that the Egyptians who fought the British Expedition led by Fraser, defeated and repelled it and not the Governor's soldiers neither his Mamluks nor the Mamluks going against him. The book records – without stopping to comment – Muhammad Ali's denial and casting aside the Egyptians and their historical role. Thus, he quoted Al-Jabarti, the contemporaneous historian to Muhammad Ali, what Ali said after the British evacuation: "The country's subjects mustn't go out to fight; they just have to assist by money for buying fodder for the soldiers' mules."

However, the Pasha withdrew from this remark after 15 years and began to use the Egyptians' sons of the peasant subjects as soldiers and then as junior officers in his army. Our book doesn't stop long before the suffering of the peasants or their revolutions against the Governor because of the high taxes and the brutality of conscription. But he devotes a chapter titled Muhammad Ali's Wars where he asserted that "the army was the power engine for development at this age." He concluded that "all [these wars] took place in order to execute Ottoman policies" starting from the Wahhabi Wars 1811-1819, including his expedition in Sudan starting from the year 1820. Even his wars against the Ottoman Caliph in the Levant and beyond, remain in El-Bishri's view: "He was wrestling the Sultan within the framework of the Ottoman State. His act was the act of rebels not the act of those seeking secession and independence."

Perhaps one of the most entertaining chapters in the book is the one the author devoted to building an administrative apparatus for a central state. He displayed an understanding based on study, observation and analysis of how did Muhammad Ali created seven bureaus and Egypt's administrative divisions. In this context, he rediscovered the concept of the sovereignty institutions extended throughout the modern Egyptian state history. El-Bishri says: "Muhammad Ali didn't only create production institutions only or services institutions only, but he created sovereignty institutions which everything else revolves in its orbit. This is the most important legacy of Muhammad Ali's entities until today." But it is noteworthy to mention that the author didn't pay due attention to the elements of this administration and institutions i.e. Egyptians and others. He also didn't tackle the roots of tyranny, slackness, corruption and alienation in the creation of "bureaucracy" in Egypt. Maybe the absence of a critical vision towards Muhammad Ali's project drove the author to a certain degree of selectivity in his last chapter titled The Cultural Form of the Group. After tackling the educational missions to European countries, educational curricula, translation and legislation, he concluded by saying, "the Islamic intellectual and cultural hegemony predominant among the group continued". This book may have the merit of shedding the light on one of the concealed facets, but there remains a legitimate question to raise about the boundaries of this facet and the extent of uniformity or diversity in the concept of the "predominant culture".

Undoubtedly, the intellectual and historian Tariq El-Bishri's book is overcome by a celebratory outlook towards Muhammad Ali as a great reformist within the Ottoman system. It is a book worth reading nowadays for a number of reasons, some of which the book doesn't answer directly anyway, especially in the absence of a critical perspective.


 

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