History can seem predictable sometimes. We know how it turned out, so we assume that the countries that are powerful today had somewhat predictable paths to power. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the countries we’ve come to expect to have done well, did well. No surprises there. The story of Egypt’s 19th century provides a counterpoint to that complacency. There was a lot about its story that was quite similar to the stories of the Japanese and German world-beaters we are more familiar with. In the 1830s, an African country was, quite successfully, intervening in Europe. If a few things had gone differently, Egypt might have ended up as one of the world’s great powers.
It all went wrong of course. And the British had a lot to do with this. But too some extent, it was also just bad luck. There was nothing to guarantee that Japan or Germany would be successful countries. There wasn’t even anything guaranteeing that the United States would have been as successful an experiment as it has been. It’s all much more up in the air than we might think. This is a little terrifying, but also a little exciting. Today’s video on Egypt talks about what could have been.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. On July 1st, 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt at the head of a large French army. Napoleon won a series of impressive victories across Egypt and Syria, before abandoning his army to disease and capture. The disastrous expedition ended in 1801, without too much impact on political events in Europe. But those three years were a political, social and religious earthquake for the Middle East. Comfortable ideas about Islamic superiority were blown away, as a succession of Ottoman and Egyptian armies failed to dislodge the French, until another European military, the British, came to their aid.
What the Egyptians did next was extraordinary. Egypt’s 19th century provides one of history’s greatest missed opportunities. In the aftermath of the infidel invasion, a soldier arrived from Ottoman Europe to help reestablish that empire’s control of Egypt. Muhammad Ali would go on to found one of the most promising dynasties of the 1800s. For a while there it looked like Egypt might join the ranks of the world’s great powers. Instead it ended the century subjugated to the British Empire. Today we ask, what happened?
With a major exception we will get into, for the century between 1805 and 1914, Muhammad Ali’s dynasty actually represented a reassertion of Ottoman power in Egypt. In 1517, The Ottomans had conquered the territory from the Mamluks, a military caste. Over the course of the 1700s, however, as the Ottomans Sultans floated away on a cloud of decadence, their grip on the territory got weaker. Egypt’s incredible story in the 1800s is very much wrapped up with the Ottoman Empire’s frantic but failed attempt to save itself. Even when Egyptian soldiers were defeating Ottoman armies, and after Istanbul’s Sultans had conceded a degree of Egyptian independence, many of the Egyptian people still saw themselves as loyal Ottomans.
Muhammad Ali was a truly epic reformer, on the level of Turkey’s Ataturk or Japan’s Meiji restoration. In the chaos after Napoleon’s invasion, he had the freedom to reorder Egypt’s society and economy in ways that Ottoman Sultans would only be able to pull off decades later, if at all. Muhammad Ali’s story was not a democratic one. Though the reforms he put in place allowed those aspirations to grow in later decades, he was an authoritarian leader, focused on a modernized military above all else.
Egypt was well positioned for his project. The waters of the Nile had made the region an agricultural breadbasket for millennia. Egypt had fed Rome in ancient times, and was still feeding Istanbul and other parts of Southern Europe in the 19th century. Dynamic leadership was all that was necessary to turn the region’s wealth into power, and that’s what Muhammad Ali provided.
Textile mills were booming across Northern England, making cotton the petroleum of the 19th century. Muhammad Ali and his successors shaped the country to take advantage of this resource rush. Unlike his successors, Muhammad Ali set up factories as well, and refused to let foreign merchants manage the trade. Ali built canals, roads and other infrastructure. He set up Egypt’s first modern educational institutions as well, and introduced a professionalized bureaucracy. Above all else he put together a modernized army and navy, with munitions and ships manufactured in Egypt. All accounts agree that the country’s transformation during this era was impressive. Over the course of Muhammad Ali’s reign, one estimate holds that the population of Alexandria, Egypt’s main port, went from 8,000 to 110,000. British businessmen were clamoring for protection from Egypt’s low cost high quality manufacturing. To be clear, this was more a successful reign than a happy one. It wasn’t quite as brutal as what the United States was up to at the time, but Muhammad Ali’s successes were built on the ruthless centralization of power and extensive forced labor. Muhammad Ali’s conquest of Sudan in the 1820s set what is now 2 countries on an unstable path, and his prioritization of the military above all else remains an obstacle for Egypt in the 2020s.
Regardless, Muhammad Ali turned Egypt into a force to be reckoned with. His armies spent the 1810s crushing Wahhabi fanatics in Arabia, and restoring the Ottoman Sultan’s control there. In the 1820s he sent his navy to suppress a revolt in Greece, which his son Ibrahim did very successfully until the British intervened and sunk all of Egypt’s ships at the Battle of Navarino. Without Egyptian help, the Ottoman Empire was forced to let Greece go. In the 1830s, out of contempt for Ottoman weakness, or perhaps out of rage at the loss of his Navy, Muhammad Ali sent his armies against the Sultan himself.
This dynamic, of a more successful province taking on a region’s historic but decayed imperial center, is one we see over and over in the modernization process. This is how many of the world’s richest and most powerful countries got started. In the 1600s, the Netherlands won their independence from the Habsburg super state through mercantile innovation and the power of freer institutions. Japan was never officially subject to China, but it’s emergence as a military and industrial power in the latter 1800s and early 1900s was very much at China’s expense. Prussia, the country that forged modern Germany, used its hyper professionalized army to cannibalize the ancient Austrian Empire for over a century. These countries all managed to achieve battlefield success while also shaking up their regions and forcing massive progress. In the 1830s, with its attack on the Ottomans, Egypt was doing all of this.
So why didn’t Egypt end up like these other countries, as one of the wealthiest societies on the planet? Well, there are a number of reasons. Egypt was significantly poorer than these other places, and it’s people had yet to attain a high degree of literacy. Also, dating back at least as far as the Mamluks in the 1200s, Egypt had been governed by foreign Circassian and Turkish elites, and Muhammad Ali’s dynasty was no different. Islam formed an important bond, of course, but Egypt may have lacked some of the solidarity that helped make thoss other miracles possible. But the most important thing Muhammad Ali didn’t have… was the British.
British support wasn’t as important in the 1600s as it would be later, but the Dutch certainly had it against the Habsburgs. Japan was a full treaty ally of the United Kingdom between 1902 and 1921, a period of rapid Japanese expansion into the Chinese sphere of influence. Without British support the Prussian state that became Germany would not have survived the 1760s or the 1810s. The Egyptians never had the support of the British. Especially after helping the Greeks win their independence, the British wanted to keep the weakened Ottoman state propped up to block other European powers.
The British certainly weren’t interested in a resurgent Muslim power in the region. But between 1831 and 1833, that’s what they got. Egypt’s armies rampaged across the Middle East, more than fulfilling the dreams of later Arab nationalists, and pushing deep into the territory of modern Turkey itself. Responding to British and Russsian pressure, Muhammad Ali pulled back to the Arab superstate he had created. 6 years later, when the Ottomans sent an army to take the territory back it was annihilated. The Sultan’s fleet actually defected to Egypt. The Ottoman world could see where the more promising future lay. But the British refused to let it happen. They used their naval superiority to blockade the region, and they occupied Beirut and Acre.
Muhammad Ali had French support, but as we covered earlier in this series, by the mid 19th century that was worthless. The Egyptians were forced to back down, and a promising future for the Middle East evaporated. Instead it got another 70 years of Ottoman chaos followed by foreign subjugation. Muhammad Ali learned that struggling against the British was hopeless, so in the third quarter of the 19th century his successors decided to see what they could get through cooperation. As we will cover next time, this did not go well.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and if you want to learn a whole lot more about what the British did to all of us in the 19th century, you can read my book, Avoiding the British Empire, available now on the Amazon kindle and in paperback form.