An officer and an Ottoman gentleman
Khaled Fahmy, , Monday 15 Jan 2018
Khaled Fahmy questions the similarities between Gamal Abdel-Nasser and "Mehmed Ali"

Two significant anniversaries in modern Egyptian history recently coincided. 11 July was the bicentenary of an Ottoman firman appointing Mehmed Ali (more commonly transliterated from Arabic as Muhammad 'Ali) as governor of Egypt thus inaugurating his long tenure as Egypt's ruler and launching an unprecedented period of social, cultural, economic and military reform. 23 July was the 53rd anniversary of the Revolution that brought Gamal Abdel-Nasser to power, a leader who managed through his social and economic policies to change Egyptian society in very significant ways.

In spite of the many differences between Mehmed Ali and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, both men are often compared to each other and some even see Nasser as following in Mehmed Ali's footsteps. This article critiques the popular argument that sees both men as belonging to one grand project of national development and presents an alternative reading of Mehmed Ali's career within an Ottoman, rather than a purely Egyptian, context.

Mehmed Ali and Nasser are often seen as great reformers who had grand visions for Egypt. It is insisted these visions were set in motion through well thought- out and integrated plans. Education was a central pillar of both Mehmed Ali's and Nasser's social reform policies. Mehmed Ali opened schools throughout the country, sent educational missions to Europe and launched an impressive translation project. Similarly, educational reforms are often singled out as the most significant of the July Revolution's policies. Mass education was a government priority and free education was guaranteed to all up to the university level.

Mehmed Ali and Nasser showed remarkable similarity in their economic policies. While both men are depicted as paying attention to agriculture, industry also attracted their attention. Mehmed Ali is famously seen as founding the first industrial establishments in Egypt. State monopolies of agricultural products also tightened its grip over the economy and are seen as a necessary component in a well-integrated economic policy. Similarly, Nasser's socialist decrees of the early 1960s brought the country's industrial establishments under government control and helped the regime adopt an import substitution policy aiming at self sufficiency in everything "from the needle to the rocket." Behind this conviction, it is assumed, was a realisation that the surest and quickest way to "catch up" with the advanced West was for the state to lead the process.

Most significantly, both men are viewed as being acutely aware that for their projects to succeed, Egypt had to be firmly integrated into its surroundings, and to be bold enough to assert its right to defend, and even create, its strategic depth -- its lebensraum. Thus Mehmed Ali is described as expanding into the Sudan, Arabia, Crete, Syria and parts of Anatolia. The fact that most of these areas were inhabited by Arabic-speaking subjects of the Ottoman sultan, it is usually argued, was not accidental, as both father and son had a vision of founding their hard-won empire on Arab nationalist grounds, an argument first made famous by George Antonius in his 1939 classic The Arab Awakening.

Similarly, Nasser famously propagated the three circles -- the Arab, the African and the Islamic -- in which Egypt moved, and which formed its strategic depth. His rigorous pursuit of Arab unity is seen as an integral part of his domestic policy in addition to being driven by a deep conviction of the shared heritage and destiny of all Arabs.

While the popular argument connecting Nasser to Mehmed Ali readily admits that both projects encountered some problems, it insists that these were minor and that the two respective projects would have overcome these problems had it not been for outside intervention. A collusion between an imperious Europe and a defunct and weak Ottoman Empire is blamed for Mehmed Ali's defeat, whereas a parallel collusion first between Israel and the old colonial powers of Britain and France and later between Israel and the new superpower, the US, is blamed for Nasser's defeat.

Britain, so the popular narrative goes, was determined to frustrate Mehmed Ali's grand designs because his monopolies policy effectively closed large markets in the orient to British goods. This hostility is seen as personified in Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary who despised Mehmed Ali, and who was determined to defeat him. When Britain failed in doing so in the first round in 1827, after Mehmed Ali had recovered from the sinking of his entire fleet in the Bay of Navarino by a combined British-French-Russian fleet, it was determined that he would not get away next time. In 1840 Palmerston convened a conference in London where all major European powers dictated to Mehmed Ali a series of ultimatums which effectively robbed him of his territorial acquisitions and denied him the results of his military victories. The settlement of 1840-1841 is seen as a way to ensure that Mehmed Ali close down his factories thus bringing the whole experiment to a halt.

Similarly, external factors are stressed to explain Nasser's demise. Britain and France, troubled by his anti-imperial agitations in their spheres of influence, conspired with Israel, which was alarmed by the prospect of his uniting all the Arabs against it, and launched a tripartite aggression in 1956. When Nasser came out victorious after this confrontation, "reactionary forces" colluded again with "colonialism" and Egypt was lured into another trap where it suffered a serious "setback" ( naksa ) in 1967.

Presented in this way it is difficult not to see the parallels between both men. In this popular view, Egypt's sincere efforts to develop its economy and its society and catch up with modernity were frustrated by a diabolical combination of European/American imperialism and its proxies. Accordingly, both men appear as tragic heroes whose failures were the result of forces over which they had little control.

Though seductive, this narrative suffers from serious inconsistencies and misleading comparisons. It is also based on a simplistic and shallow understanding of complex characters and is obsessed with fitting them into a neat progression of events. While collusions and conspiracies abound in Egypt's relationship with the West, to reduce its modern history to a series of conspiracies is dangerously simplistic as it offers a shallow reading of this history, flattening out the "West" and exonerating local players from historical responsibility.

Rather than dwelling on how this narrative misreads the Nasser era (which it does), I would like to point out how faulty its reading of Mehmed Ali is. To see him as a precursor to Nasser as an Egyptian or Arab nationalist hero is to impose a modern logic on a period in which nationalism, Egyptian or Arab, was an alien concept. Similarly, to argue that his policies were inspired by a mercantilist logic that necessitated territorial expansion is to misconstrue the logic of his military activities and to fail to characterise the connection between the economy and military expansion. Finally, arguing that Britain's animosity towards Mehmed Ali was motivated by a concern over competition with Egyptian industry is to misread Britain's true interests in the region and to characterise its deep hostility towards Mehmed Ali. Above all, this narrative fails to understand Mehmed Ali's intentions in Egypt and bestows on his actions a logic they lacked.

No understanding of Mehmed Ali will be complete without taking seriously the Ottoman context in which he operated. The insistence on this Ottoman context does not stem only from the fact that Mehmed Ali himself spoke Turkish and understood little or no Arabic (hence the preference for the Turkish spelling of his name), or that he saw himself more as an Ottoman pasha than an Egyptian notable (whatever that might mean). Rather, it is primarily because Mehmed Ali came to power through a firman of investiture by Sultan Selim III appointing him as governor of Egypt with the rank of pasha. During the preceding months, it is true, the leading Azhari shaykh s and a number of large merchants chose Mehmed Ali as their leader and evicted one governor after another sent by Istanbul to control the unruly province. Mehmed Ali was not the sultan's first choice, moreover; the sultan tried in vain to remove him from this important province and sent this firman only in recognition of a fait accompli. Nevertheless, that firman was Mehmed Ali's only source of legitimacy and its annual arrival from Istanbul renewing his tenure was received with great pomp and ceremony. As for the Egyptian leaders who had elected him and who could have formed an alternative source of legitimacy, he either exiled or "eliminated" them or confiscated their property and wealth.

Mehmed Ali realised that while he controlled things on the ground, his position could only be secure if he received a sultanic firman bestowing legitimacy on him. The 11 July 1805 firman thus translated his hard-won position in this wealthy province to an uncontested legal reality. However, this did not come without its own problems. For one thing, as was the custom with provincial investitures, it was renewed annually. Second, there were powerful men in Istanbul who were suspicious of Mehmed Ali and who conspired to have him removed from Egypt, chief among whom was Husrev Pasha (a.k.a. Khesrow Basha) who had been appointed as governor of Egypt back in 1803 and whom Mehmed Ali and his Albanian troops evicted from Cairo. Third, unlike other previous governors sent from Istanbul for whom the governorship of Egypt was an important step in their bureaucratic advancement, Mehmed Ali came from outside these government circles. Istanbul therefore looked upon him with extreme suspicion and apprehension, and tried to evict him from Egypt many times.

Mehmed Ali was aware of these efforts and was always eager to put an end to his ambivalent situation in Egypt. This, and not any phantom project of national rejuvenation or grand modernisation, was his prime goal to which he devoted his inexhaustible energy; namely, to transform his shaky position, a position dependent on the sultan's wish and intrigues in the imperial capital, into a permanent legal reality. This explains his elimination of the Mamluk amir s, his summoning of friends and family members to Egypt and forming of them a loyal elite dependent on him and him alone, his attempts to lobby powerful personalities in Istanbul, and, most importantly, his founding of a modern, standing army based on conscripting Egyptian peasants which could frustrate any attempt to dislodge him from Egypt by force.

The longer he stayed in Egypt, it is true, the more difficult it was to dislodge him. Yet in spite of his increased security Mehmed Ali could not cast off the Ottoman garb altogether. Realising that he was, technically and legally, an Ottoman governor, he obeyed his sultan's firman s and continued to refer to himself in his dispatches to Istanbul as a "humble servant of the Sublime State". The turning point in this tense and fraught relationship came exactly mid-way in his long tenure. Soon after founding a modern army, the sultan asked him to lend a helping hand against the Greek rebels. Mehmed Ali reluctantly complied sending 17,000 troops to the Peloponnesus. After initial successes, disaster hit on 20 October 1827 when the combined European fleets sank his fleet in the Bay of Navarino. Rather than seeing it as a sign of a European conspiracy, Mehmed Ali realised that this disaster was the result of his subservience to the sultan and determined to change the nature of that relationship. For three years he set out to repair the damage; in the winter of 1831 he launched a swift land and sea attack on Syria, the province from which any land attack against him might be launched.

Leading the campaign was his son, the military genius Ibrahim Pasha, and soon all major Syrian cities fell after Ibrahim had managed to inflict heavy defeats on the Ottoman army. While everyone knew that the sultan's troops were weaker than those of his nominal vassal, Ibrahim's success on the battlefield dazzled all including Mehmed Ali himself. Sending his son to establish a buffer zone between his power base and that of the sultan in Anatolia, he was surprised when Ibrahim crossed the Taurus mountains, inflicted a heavy defeat on the Ottomans in Konia at the heart of Anatolia, and marched further west stopping only at a day's march away from Istanbul.

The Ottomans were at a loss as to how to save their empire, and in desperation the sultan swallowed his pride and asked his arch-enemy, the Russian czar, for help. This was the first time in its long history that the Ottoman Empire asked a European power to help with an internal problem. The Russians were only too eager to oblige, and soon the Russian fleet docked in Istanbul. The ensuing negotiations between sultan and rebellious vassal did not result in a permanent settlement; rather, a truce was reached through Russian and French mediation whereby the Sultan granted Mehmed Ali the provinces of Egypt, Hijaz and Crete. The Syrian provinces were given to Ibrahim Pasha. However, and much to Mehmed Ali's disappointment, this settlement had to be renewed annually and was thus open to the whims and intrigues of the courtiers in Istanbul.

This "no-peace, no-war" situation continued for six more years until 1839. Once again, Mehmed Ali came out victorious when Ibrahim inflicted another heavy defeat on the Ottomans in the Battle of Nezip in June. Given the scale of the defeat, and the defection of the Ottoman navy to Alexandria, Europe considered Mehmed Ali's military expansions a serious threat to the stability and survival of the Ottoman Empire, and all European powers were eager to avert the chaos and warfare this would entail. Palmerston convened a conference in London in 1840 which sent Mehmed Ali a series of ultimatums the gist of which was that the Sultan, backed by Europe, would be willing to recognise him as governor of Egypt and the Sudan for life and for this governorship to be inherited by his progeny, if he agreed to give up other areas and return the Ottoman fleet to his suzerain. After serious consideration, Mehmed Ali acquiesced, realising that this was what he had been struggling for all his life. The following year Sultan Abdèl-Mecid sent a firman laying out the details of the deal.

Considering that he had landed in Egypt forty years earlier from a remote corner of the Ottoman empire as a poor, young man, that he had no prior connection to the land, that he had to deal with powerful contenders in Egypt and Istanbul, and that there had been no precedent to a hereditary Ottoman governorship, this was no meager feat. The 1841 settlement was the crowning achievement of Mehmed Ali's career and he spent the remaining years of his life basking in its glory and devoting his still unlimited energy to making Egypt even more profitable for himself and his family.

GIVEN THESE MAIN DEVELOPMENTS of Mehmed Ali's long career and his relationship with Istanbul, we can now revisit the comparison between him and Nasser. By placing Mehmed Ali's career within an Ottoman context I can think of ten sharp differences between him and the young general who dethroned his progeny from Egypt a century after his death. For one thing, whereas Nasser was the quintessential nationalist leader, it would be misleading to use nationalism as a tool to understand the Pasha's policies. His was a dynastic struggle through and through; he did not even pretend that what he was striving for in Egypt was for the benefit of the Egyptians.

Second, in contrast to 1967 when Nasser was soundly defeated and his dream of Arab unity and Egyptian prosperity was brutally killed, 1841 was Mehmed Ali's moment of glory in which he succeeded in extracting from the Ottoman sultan what no other governor had managed, a hereditary governorship, with unanimous European backing.

Third, whereas Suez (1956) represents a textbook conspiracy by old colonial powers against a young Third World leader partly to punish him for his anti-imperialist policies, Navarino (1827) was the unintended result of European powers coming to the assistance of a subject people (the Greeks) who had risen against what they saw as their alien, oppressive rulers. More significantly, while 1956 showed Nasser clearly the ugly face of European colonialism and its gunboat diplomacy, 1827 was a turning point in Mehmed Ali's strategic thinking not about Europe, but about the Ottoman Empire.

Fourth, while Britain in the person of Anthony Eden opposed Nasser for his firm stance against old fashioned imperialism, more than a century before and in the person of Palmerston it opposed Mehmed Ali because of his imperialist/dynastic wars of expansion. For Palmerston's intense animosity to the Pasha was not due to any anxiety about the feeble industrialisation attempts but rather it was his monopolies policy that alarmed Britain as it allowed him to siphon off profits from the agricultural and commercial sectors to the military. This enabled him to expand territorially thus bringing the Ottoman Empire close to collapse. In opposing Mehmed Ali Britain was defending its imperial interests against an aggressive, militaristic imperial drive coming from within the Ottoman Empire rather than against a nationalist, popular movement as Nasser's is typically seen.

Fifth, whereas Nasser's defeat by Israel could be partly due to his failure to understand the true nature of Zionism and his continued dismissal of Israel as a ploy of "colonialism", Mehmed Ali had a thorough understanding of the Ottoman context in which he operated, of his main rival, Husrev, and of the "men of Istanbul."

Sixth, Nasser was a truly charismatic leader who reached the masses and mobilised intellectuals to shape the consciousness of a generation into completely identifying with al-rayyis, the "chief" or "boss" as he was endearingly known. Thus when he abdicated on 9 June 1967 following the catastrophic and humiliating defeat by Israel, millions took to the streets in a state of shock and, as Sherif Younis has recently illustrated in al-Zahf al-Muqaddas ( The Holy March ), paradoxically pleaded with him to stay in power. When he died three years later, four million Egyptians marched in a massive unprecedented funeral. By contrast, Mehmed Ali's policies, while appealing to many Egyptians of later generations, had no appeal to contemporary Egyptians who saw him as a tyrant who had viciously used them to achieve his goals as no previous Ottoman governor had done. His funeral was a pathetic, somber parade in which a handful of European consuls and some bemused onlookers marched while most Egyptians avoided it.

Seventh, while it is true that clear problems with Nasser's project could be detected even before 1967 when the second five-year plan could not be launched, and while 1967 could be seen as the true date of Nasser's death, it is difficult to belittle the role played by his successor, Anwar El-Sadat, in sealing the lid on Nasserism's coffin. His so-called "rectification revolution" ( Thawrat al-tasshih ) was effectively a palace coup in which he got rid of Nasser's cronies; his "Open Door" policy ( al-Infitah ) reversed many of Nasser's economic policies; and his trip to Jerusalem in 1977 was his way of saying that this is what Nasser should have done ten years earlier.

Abbas, Mehmed Ali's successor, by contrast, was no Judas. He struggled to preserve the main achievement of his grandfather. Only if we insist that Mehmed Ali had a blueprint for national rejuvenation aiming at enlightening the Egyptians would Abbas appear as the maniac oriental prince depicted by British and French contemporary observers, or as a reactionary. It makes more sense to think of Abbas as leading a faction within the ruling family that preferred to slow down the pace of reform (not reverse it) as they realised only too well the price paid by the peasants in the process. If Mehmed Ali's prime goal was to achieve dynastic rule for himself in Egypt, then Abbas can be seen as loyally protecting his grandfather's legacy, firmly resisting the Porte's attempts to extend its prerogatives of executing convicted criminals who had committed their crimes in Egypt. In short, Abbas deeply appreciated Mehmed Ali's efforts to establish dynastic rule in Egypt and strove to protect Egypt's semi-independence within the Ottoman Empire.

Eighth, Nasser was a true champion of the Egyptian middle classes, and his policies of free education, land reform, and guaranteed employment in the public sector aimed to benefit the Egyptian bourgeoisie and placate its most politically significant faction, the intelligentsia. By contrast, and as Muhammad Abduh wrote in al-Manar on the occasion of the first centenary anniversary of Mehmed Ali's coming to power, the great Pasha had decimated the Egyptian middle class and killed any possibility of a proud spirit developing among the inhabitants of Egypt.

Ninth, based on the above, we can pose the following crucial question: was the outcome of both "experiments" inevitable? With regard to Nasser, I think the most important moment in this respect is 1954 when it was still possible for the military to return to its barracks and to pursue a genuine democratic path. However, given that the officers decided to give up democracy in lieu for some social and economic "gains" that were given as a present to the people, this necessitated holding on to a revolutionary legitimacy at the expense of a constitutional one and adopting haphazard populist policies which prompted the "people" to follow a "holy march" down to the abyss.

With regards to Mehmed Ali, the comparable moment is 1805 when it was possible for him to establish a local, indigenous source of legitimacy. But since he decided to get rid of the popular leadership, and to rely instead on the legitimacy represented by the firman arriving from Istanbul, this necessitated inviting friends and relatives to settle in Egypt in order to have a local power base that would be both the means and the goal of establishing a dynastic rule in Egypt.

The main difference in this respect is that Nasser could have pursued his project in Egypt even if he had opted for democracy in a manner similar to Ataturk in Turkey. By contrast, Mehmed Ali did not really have many options in this regard as his aim was to establish dynastic rule, which necessitated getting rid of the local popular leadership and to relying instead on his own kinsmen and friends.

Tenth and last, given his defeat in 1967 Nasser can be seen as a young tragic hero who tried his best to manage forces beyond his control. For some, he appears a visionary with lofty ideas who inspired millions of people in Egypt and beyond. For others, these lofty ideals do not exonerate his reluctance to allow Egyptians a free say in running their own country, a choice that many see as having been fatal. But irrespective of these important differences about Nasser's legacy, most would admit that he died young with frustrated dreams and unfulfilled visions.

Mehmed Ali, by contrast was a shrewd, skillful and, above all, successful statesman. In spite of his humble origins, he seized control of one of the wealthiest provinces in the Ottoman Empire. Nearly half a century after he landed in Egypt as a young, foreign adventurer, he managed to achieve what no governor had ever succeeded in doing before, transforming the temporary post of Ottoman governor into a permanent and hereditary one. There is little doubt that when he died at the age of eighty, he was a content, satisfied man. And, indeed, for a hundred years after his death his progeny ruled Egypt, just as he had hoped. Until, that is, Nasser staged his coup-cum- revolution. The rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

* The writer is associate professor of history at New York University and the author of All the pasha's men: Mehmed Ali, his army and the making of modern Egypt (Cambridge, 1997).

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly