A letter from the past

Samir Sobhi
Saturday 28 Sep 2019

Samir Sobhi imagines a letter from Egypt’s early 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi today

History is usually mixed with imagination. And successful politics are nothing but a mix of an original ideology, a fertile imagination and a strong will to change. 

This is how I imagine the contents of a letter that Mohamed Ali Pasha, Egypt’s early 19th-century ruler, might have sent to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The pasha might begin by writing, “Dear Egyptian President Al-Sisi… First of all, I’d like to announce my deepest support for your policies, which I have been following over recent years. That’s why I will say that you are the best successor to me as your best ancestor.”

“Now, let me ask you why the older generation usually resents the newer one. We usually find the older generation to be highly critical of everything new. On the other hand, the arrogance of the newer generation deepens the rift between the two. The new generations believe that they have original ideas that never crossed the minds of their ancestors. For them, they are the future and they are tomorrow, and those who preceded them no longer have any role to play. Such arrogance provokes the anger of the older generations.” 

“How can we find a reconciliation between the two? First, there is no generation that is better than another. Every generation is a reflection of its age. The young employee who was once ready to give up a promotion that required him to move to Aswan no longer exists. Now we have young people who are willing to leave their country and emigrate in search of better living conditions. The girl who once waited for a matchmaker to find her a spouse has also disappeared. In a word, purely local citizens have been replaced by those who are more interested in space exploration and computer technology. It is true that each of the two generations has its own way of thinking. But both have the same target in the search for peace and stability. Let me remind you of some of the things that happened in my lifetime. I believe that society is like a masked ball in which every citizen wears a mask to hide his true personality.”

“Do you remember the party at the Cairo Citadel to which I once invited all the Mameluke leaders? The attendants took off their masks, and the massacre began. Getting rid of the Mamelukes was the beginning of Egypt’s awakening and reform. Frankly speaking, doing the same with those coming from the West at the same time would have been better. However, if they had been true and honest, I would without hesitation have joined hands with them. It was no secret that they surpassed us in science and in physical and astronomical discoveries. So, I decided to hold the stick from the middle.”

“From here came my idea of cultural mixing by sending scientific missions to France and England. These missions helped Egyptians to rediscover the more distinguished aspects of their character. The educated class in Egypt at the time, represented by Sheikh Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, offered the best example of such distinction. I know that you have an Egyptian man of genius, Mustafa Al-Said, today who has discovered a treatment for cancer using nanoparticles. Why do you swamp him in bureaucracy instead of letting him and his great discovery save people everywhere?”

“The best historian who has written about my rule was Shafik Ghobrial. Many writers have accused me of violence. Others have gone further in praising me. But Ghobrial was the one who gave the most balanced assessment of my rule. Talking about the position that Egypt had during my rule, Ghobrial said that I had set the basis for national independence by founding the country’s modern army, navy, culture and being responsible for scientific and economic progress. It was an age of independence, civilisation and urbanisation, he said. The prominent geographer Gamal Hemdan later described me as being the ‘first of the new Pharaohs,’ saying that I had come to the throne by means of a military coup covered up by public will. I had founded a political, economic and social system derived from a mixture of the pharaonic and Mameluke eras, he said.”

“Let me remind you that I came to power following a three-year French campaign that awakened Egypt and helped the country to rediscover itself. The Description de l’Egypte, written by French scholars, saw Egypt as the foundation stone of world civilisation. The French campaign left few effects on Egypt’s culture, however. Leaving Egypt in 1801, the French invaders took back the printing works they had brought with them, leaving me to import another one from Italy. The process of building our culture started by my sending people on cultural and scientific missions to France. It was an amazing process. Much later, the Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy told the French people when he was in Paris that ‘Mohamed Ali provided French culture with young people who became scientists and thinkers.’ By the way, I would like to thank him very much for his accurate analysis.” 

“Every year, you now celebrate the anniversaries of 30 June and 23 July, days when the Egyptian people ousted their former rulers and called on you to take over. History repeats itself. Similar events took place in 1805, specifically on 9 July when I was made Egypt’s governor. There is a historical coincidence that many Egyptians may view as a good omen. The story began with political leader Sheikh Omar Makram leading angry people from Egypt’s villages in revolt at the deteriorating living conditions in the country following the departure of the French campaign. Makram handed Egypt to an Albanian officer, Mohamed Ali, on a silver platter, and this Albanian officer, a member of the Ottoman army that had come to Egypt to expel the French, accepted the present.”

“I swore that I would never make decisions without consulting the ulema [men of religion]. I also pledged not to impose further taxes upon Egyptians. However, it seemed that the throne was something different. I was obliged to exclude Makram from the political scene and to exile him to Damietta.” 


At the end of his letter, Mohamed Ali Pasha wrote that “I am still dreaming of a pharaonic Egypt, with its engineering sciences, digital technology and sharp minds, heading on its way towards prosperity.”


*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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