Ibrahim Pasha, Mohamed Ali’s eldest son, never officially ruled Egypt, though he was regent for a few months when his father’s health deteriorated. For two decades, however, in the 1820s and 1830s, Ibrahim was his father’s ruling partner with total control over military matters.
Ibrahim brought the Hijaz, today the western province of Saudi Arabia, under his family’s control. He also led the campaign in the Levant that subjugated the entire region from its southern borders with Sinai to its northern ones with Turkey.
This campaign ended Ottoman rule in the Levant, and although the Ottomans returned after Ibrahim was defeated in 1840, their expulsion from the region at his hands marked the end of their dominance. In the second half of the 19th century, the European powers, particularly France, began to build pockets of influence in the Levant that eclipsed Ottoman authority in the region.
Ibrahim’s campaign also ended the political structure that had prevailed in the Levant for two centuries before him, in which gangs of bandits controlled towns and districts and extracted taxes in return for protection.
Ibrahim installed order, divided the region into governorates, and introduced central policing and taxation. His system of governing, based on place of residency and not on religion or sect, gave rise to the emergence of autonomous political entities, most notably in Mount Lebanon.
Ibrahim also undertook major reforms in healthcare, education, and public services from the organisation of municipalities to the extracting of customs. Within a decade and throughout the 1830s, Ibrahim transformed the Levant from a backwater of the Ottoman Empire to a modern province of the growing Mohamed Ali empire based in Egypt.
The campaign in the Levant was Ibrahim’s main life’s work, but his fame was secured years earlier when in carrying out the orders of the Ottoman sultan he crushed the Greek revolution against the Ottomans. He was ruthless in his military campaigns in the Peloponnese, and his success in ending the uprising after repeated Ottoman failures to do so proved his capabilities. Many in the Ottoman court took notice of this new leader.
There was a meeting of minds. As discussed in the previous article in this series, Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim harboured the grand ambition of not destroying the Ottoman Empire, but of taking over and modernising it and bringing its various provinces under their family’s control.
Some in the Ottoman court believed that this would be the only way in which the Empire could be saved, especially in the face of a then hostile Russia, a voracious Europe, and of rebellions from within. Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim were encouraged to advance towards Turkey. In a shocking development, the admiral of the Ottoman navy sailed with his fleet to Alexandria to put it under Mohamed Ali’s control.
Ibrahim crossed from northern Syria into Turkey, defeated the Ottomans, and came only a few hundred miles away from Istanbul. For a moment, it seemed that Mohamed Ali was on the verge of realising his grand ambition.
But for the European powers, chief among them Britain, aiming to inherit the possessions of the Ottoman Empire, this was a step too far. Britain defeated Ibrahim in 1840, ending his campaign in Anatolia and acutely weakening his army’s presence in the Levant.
The political structures that Ibrahim had created in the Levant quickly began to fall apart. Many of those who had served him, such as the effective founder of modern Lebanon, Bashir Al-Shehabi, realised that their attachment to Ibrahim’s rule had become a burden. The returning Ottomans and the newly arriving French and British found a warm welcome in the region. The House of Mohamed Ali lost the Levant.
Ibrahim never recovered emotionally from the defeat, and he died a few years later in Egypt.
Ibrahim has long fascinated historians. His military achievements were notable, consisting of two decades of almost no defeats and continually expanding borders. He was also a strategic thinker. From the little we know about his thinking, some of which is still buried in the memoirs of the generals who served him and that remains in private collections, Ibrahim realised that the Mohamed Ali empire must have natural borders, which was why he insisted on Egypt’s retaining almost the entirety of the Sudan, which his armies had conquered in the 1810s.
For Ibrahim, the Sudan served as a natural border with the Ethiopian hills and the lush sub-Saharan plains. He saw the desert in the centre of the Arabian Peninsula, today the Najd region around the Saudi capital Riyadh, as an expanse that separated the Hijaz, which he saw as an integral part of his family’s empire, from the small sheikhdoms on the Gulf.
In the North, the Taurus Mountains and their extension in the Alpide Mountains served as natural barriers separating the empire from the Caucasus. Primarily, however, it was the eastern Mediterranean that Ibrahim viewed as being the heart of the Mohamed Ali empire.
Ibrahim created an effective bureaucracy. Although he put in place a centralised command structure to administer the Levant, he delegated its actual administration to a nascent form of civil service modelled on that of France. It was this civil service that trained scores of promising young Egyptians and Levantines who were later to play leading roles in their countries in the mid and late 19th century.
His defeat marked a transformation in the House of Mohamed Ali. He had counted on France, a close ally of his father’s, to resist Britain’s determination to annihilate his family’s budding empire. When France subtly endorsed Britain’s decision, however, the message was clear – that the Mohamed Ali family’s fascination with European modernity and their various friendships with members of European royal families and notables did not alter strategic calculations.
For some, such as the khedive Abbas I, Ibrahim’s nephew who ascended to the throne of Egypt upon the death of both Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim a few months of each other, the message was that Europe felt an inherent condescension towards the Ottomans and Arabs and that it would not allow an oriental power to rise and challenge European interests in the region.
The defeat of Ibrahim came at a moment when trade with the Far East was at its height. Britain had established highly lucrative commercial interests in India and China, and the link between Europe and the Middle East and Asia was becoming particularly valuable.
This was also a time when various strategists in Britain and France were assessing the value of a canal that would connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and open up the Indian Ocean and Asia. Many merchant houses in Europe were eyeing establishing presences in Egypt and the Levant. The defeat of Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim opened the doors for these houses to operate in the region on their own terms.
The defeat also returned Egypt to its previous status as an Ottoman province. As was the case in the Levant, however, the Ottomans never regained the influence they had had in the country before Mohamed Ali came to power. But political legitimacy in Egypt was again a function of the Ottoman sultan’s blessings.
There was also a psychological change. The defeat sapped the energy of the Mohamed Ali family. Many of its leading figures left politics and focused on commerce instead. A telling memoir by one of Ibrahim’s grandsons evokes a Proustian sense of promise lost that would never be regained.
Ibrahim symbolised the promise of the House of Mohamed Ali to evolve into an empire. His statue in Opera Square in Downtown Cairo, seated on his horse, his arm extended, and his finger pointing in the direction of Istanbul, is a reminder of his and his father’s grand project.
But Ibrahim’s was not the last of the projects of the House of Mohamed Ali. As we will see in the next article in this series, Ibrahim’s son Ismail was to lead another project, vastly different in its goals and scope from that of his father, but no less in its ambitions.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.