Muhammad Ali created a modern navy with the ability to compete European countries

How did Muhammad Ali modernize Egypt?

When Muhammad Ali was Wali(Viceroy), Muhammad Ali tried to modernize Egypt. For doing this, he initiated dramatic reforms in the military, economic, and cultural spheres. He began the violent removal of the Mamluks and strengthening his rule over Egypt.

Before we know more about the reforms by Muhammad Ali to modernize Egypt, we need to know about Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali of Egypt and Sudan

Muhammad Ali played an important role in modernization of Egypt
Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha, known as Muhammad Ali of Egypt and Sudan was the Albanian Ottoman governor and the de facto ruler of Egypt from 1805 and 1845. He is also considered the founder of modern Egypt. He controlled Lower EgyptUpper EgyptSudan and parts of Arabia and the entire Levant.

Muhammad Ali was a military commander in an Albanian Ottoman force. He was sent to Egypt to recover it from a French occupation under Napolean.

After the withdrawal of Napolean, Mohammad Ali rose to power by political tactics. In 1805, he was named Wali(Viceroy) of Egypt and attained the rank of Pasha.

Modernization of Egypt by Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali saw the requirement to modernize Egypt. But, he saw some difficulties on the way to achieving this goal.

What he learnt from Sultan Selim III

Sultan Selim III
Sultan Selim III

Like Muhammad Ali, Sultan Selim III also recognized the need to reform and modernize the Ottoman Empire. He focused on the modernization of the military, to ensure that his army can compete with the European military.

Salim III faced powerful opposition from local and rooted clergy and military, especially from the Janissaries, the Ottoman infantry formed from the devshirme system. Consequently, Selim III was removed and finally killed in 1808.

But unlike Selim, Muhammad Ali dispatched his chief rivals. It gave him a free hand to attempt reforms.

Muhammad Ali Goal

The goal of Muhammad Ali was to leave the Ottoman Empire and be ruled by his hereditary dynasty. To achieve this goal, he needs to reorganize Egyptian society, streamline the economy, train a professional bureaucracy, and build a modern military.

Growth of Economy under Muhammad Ali

To secure a revenue stream for Egypt, Muhammad Ali ‘nationalized’ all the Iltizam lands of Egypt, thereby officially owning all the production of the land. 

The new taxes were intentionally high. When the tax-farmers could not extract the demanded payments from the peasants who worked the land, Muhammad Ali confiscated their properties.

He also imposed a tax on waqf endowments, which was previously tax-free. Through these arrangements, personal income can be set aside for schools or other charitable purposes. Along with raising revenue to fund his new army, this tax drew revenue from local nobles, Mamluks, and Ulama, weakening Muhammad Ali’s opposition to reforms.

In practice, Muhammad Ali’s land reform had a monopoly on trade in Egypt. All producers are required to sell their goods to the state. The kingdom, in turn, sold Egyptian goods within Egypt and in foreign markets, and maintained a surplus. 

This practice proved very profitable for Egypt with the cultivation of long-staple cotton, a new cash crop. To help improve production, they expanded the land used for agriculture and uprooted the irrigation system, which was largely completed, or forced peasant laborers. The new profits also increased individual farmers, as the average wage increased fourfold.

Reforms in Industries

Muhammad Ali built an industrial base for Egypt. In beginning, he put effort to build a modern military. So, he focused on the production of weapons. Factories based in Cairo produced muskets and cannons. He built a shipyard in Alexandria, he began the construction of a navy. By the late 1830s, Egyptian war industries had built nine 100-gun warships and were replacing 1,600 muskets a month.

Muhammad Ali established a textile industry, to compete with European industries and to produce greater revenues for Egypt. While the textile industry was unsuccessful, the entire effort employed thousands of Egyptians.

Muhammad Ali used contracts called concessions to build cheap infrastructure. Foreign European companies would raise capital, build projects, and collect a major portion of revenue but would provide Ali’s government a small portion of that revenue.

Ali also permitted Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin to build technical schools modeled after the Ecole Polytechnique. He hired European managers to introduce industrial training to the Egyptian population. 

To staff his new industries, Muhammad Ali employed a corvée labor system. The people opposed these selections and many ran away from their villages to avoid being taken, sometimes fleeing as far away as Syria.

A number of them injured themselves to be unsuitable for combat: common ways of self-maiming were blinding an eye with rat poison and cutting off a finger of the right hand, to be unable to fire a rifle.

Reforms in Military and Bureaucracy

Muhammad Ali with his official
Muhammad Ali with his officials

Muhammad Ali sent promising citizens to Europe to study. His efforts were to build an army that can compete with Europian. Students were encouraged to learn European languages to translate military manuals into Arabic

Muhammad Ali used educated Egyptians and European experts to establish schools and hospitals in Egypt. 

All these things build a professional bureaucracy. This was essential for the success of Muhammad Ali’s other reforms. When he will destroy the Mamluks, he had to fill the position that the Mamluks had previously held.

Destruction of the Mamluks

To remove the Mamluks from Egypt, Muhammad Ali kept all central authority for himself. 

He partitioned Egypt into provinces responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining order. Muhammad Ali put his sons in the most key positions. 

Read about Great Achievements of Abbasid Dynasty

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