By the late 1830’s, Mehmet Ali (Muhammad Ali Pasha) was at the peak of his power. For an ethnic Albanian, hailing from a provincial Ottoman city on the coast of Greece, who had first set foot in Egypt with 300 men and very little military experience, Ali had succeeded beyond all expectations except his own. He had achieved the impossible by taking Egypt from a dismal backwater of the Ottoman Empire to a reformed and rejuvenated, quasi-autonomous state. This made him more powerful than the Sultan in Istanbul. With his son Ibrahim leading Egyptian forces in Syria to a crushing victory over the Ottoman Army at the Battle of Nezib in June 1839, the Ottoman throne was now within Mehmet Ali’s grasp. Ibrahim wanted to march on Istanbul and take the Ottoman capital. Mehmet hesitated. He was more interested in seeing what concessions he could get from Sultan Mahmud II (1808 -1839), including territory and complete autonomy for Egypt. Forcing the Ottoman Sultan to agree on his terms would be the crowning achievements of Ali’s three-and-a-half-decade long struggle to build Egypt into a regional power whose wishes could not be ignored.
Dreams Deferred – A Negotiated Settlement
Mehmet was on the verge of breaking Egypt completely free of external influences, but he also knew that the Great Powers of Europe – particularly Britain – wanted to stop him from growing more powerful than the Ottoman Sultan. Following the Battle of Nezib it looked like Mehmet Ali might get everything he wanted. The entire Ottoman fleet defected to his side and Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) died. The Ottoman Empire could either collapse or become a plaything of Mehmet Ali. From the perspective of Britain, if either of these occurred than the entire European security architecture that had existed in the post-Napoleonic era would be threatened. It was in there interests along with several Continental powers to prop up the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Ali was forced into negotiations. This was what he had wanted, but with the Ottoman Sultan. Instead, he would have to deal with the Great Powers who would defer many of his dreams forever.
The truth was that Mehmet Ali had become too powerful for his own good. If he had been the Ottoman Sultan, then the Great Powers would have dealt with him as an equal. Instead, they felt the need to put him in his place. Ali was a danger to their interests, especially British ones, as well as the balance of power. His military could not be allowed to control Syria because it could render British plans to develop alternate access routes to India null and void. While Ali was more than the Ottoman sultan had been able to handle, he could not stand up to Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, all of whom were backing the Ottomans. When the British and Austrian navies blockaded the Nile Delta in 1840, Ali was forced into an agreement he had little choice but to accept. He would pull Ibrahim and the army out of Syria. The army would also undergo severe cutbacks. A force that had numbered up to 130,000 would be reduced to 20,000. This was enough to allow Ali to keep his grip on power in Egypt, but nothing more than that.,
Dynastic Cycle – The Long Goodbye
Despite those setbacks, he was able to win several major concessions. The Ottoman Sultan was forced to recognize Ali and his heirs as the leaders of Egypt. The province would now be an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, enjoying virtual independence. Unfortunately for Ali, this independence had its limits. He was entangled by the British in an Ottoman-Anglo trade agreement that opened Egypt up to cheaper British imports and powerful industrial entities. There was no way Egypt could compete with British trade and industry. This would have ramifications for government revenue. Ali’s power was weakened by his agreement with the Great Powers, but his greatest achievement was still intact, Egypt now enjoyed virtual independence. His heirs would rule over it until the mid-20th century.
By the late 1840’s, Egypt was sinking into debt and Ali into senility. There were disagreements with Ibrahim and wild fits of temper, signs of a once great leader losing his mental acuity. Ali’s cognitive decline worsened to the point that Ibrahim traveled to Istanbul and received the Sultan’s blessing to take over as ruler of Egypt. Tragically, a guilt-ridden Ibrahim succumbed to despair and failing health. He soon died of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Ali’s health continued to worsen and his grandson Abbas I became Viceroy of Egypt. In 1849, Ali died in Alexandria. Abbas, who had little use for Ali, did not even declare a period of mourning in Egypt. The man who had brought Egypt into the modern age was an afterthought. This slight did nothing to reduce Ali’s remarkable historical stature which grew with each passing decade. While Ali built up Egypt to consolidate his grip on power and out of self-interest, those actions modernized the country.
Lasting Monuments – Mehmet Ali & Modernity
It is hard to believe just how far Egypt came under Mehmet Ali’s leadership. Prior to Ali assuming power in 1805, Egypt was at its lowest historical point in thousands of years. The country suffered from a wide range of ills. By the time Ali died, Egypt was autonomous, administered by educated bureaucrats and contained a professional army led by a highly trained officer corps. Ali was responsible for bringing order and prosperity to Egypt. The dynasty he created would live on into the mid-20th century. It helped pave the way for independence in 1952 when the last leader of Ali’s dynasty was overthrown. Even with the rise of nationalism, Ali still held his place as the founder of modern Egypt.
Anyone who might wonder about Ali’s importance to Egyptian history should look no further than the skyline in its greatest city, Cairo. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali can be seen from most vantage points in the city. Its twin minarets rising above domes and piercing the sky. The mosque is located at the summit of Cairo’s famed Citadel, much of which was rebuilt by Ali. His mosque and the Citadel are lasting monuments that remind Egyptians of his greatness. Modern Egypt would not be the same without Mehmet Ali. As a matter of fact, it might not exist at all.