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Egypt's forgotten revolution
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 09 - 2005

Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary [email protected] or faxed to +202 578 6089.
Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)
Egypt's forgotten revolution
What role did Egyptians play in Muhammad Ali's coming to power? Fred H. Lawson* revisits the roles of indigenous actors on the political scene of 1804-05
Four major revolutions have shaped the course of modern Egyptian history. Three of these are comparatively well- known, and have been studied extensively by historians and social scientists. The Urabi revolt of 1881-82 precipitated the occupation of Egypt by the armed forces of Great Britain, initiating 70 years of direct and indirect European rule; the 1919 revolution both reflected and furthered the consolidation of a broad-based nationalist movement that openly challenged the structures and principles of British imperial governance; and the 1952 revolution overturned the monarchy and ushered in two decades of fundamental change in Egypt's political, economic, social and diplomatic affairs.
But long before these three pivotal moments, Egypt experienced an equally significant episode of popular mobilisation and institutional transformation. This generally forgotten revolution took shape in 1804-05, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic interlude. It marked the demise of a complex political-economic arrangement, whereby provincial governors appointed by the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul and the commanders of military formations nominally attached to the Ottoman administration collaborated with the heads of locally-based Mamluk households and senior members of the religious establishment ( 'ulama ) to govern the country for their mutual benefit. This heterogeneous regime was by no means static, and the rival forces that made up the dominant coalition jockeyed with one another almost continuously for power and wealth.
By the last quarter of the 18th century, rivalry among the dominant forces in Egyptian society had grown intense. Various Mamluk factions fought against each other more frequently and destructively, even as the number of armed retainers in the service of the households declined. Military discipline steadily deteriorated as free-born Anatolian and Balkan soldiers of fortune ( sarrajun ) took the place of Georgian and Circassian slave-conscripts in the ranks of Mamluk units and Ottoman regiments ( 'ujakat ) alike. Daniel Crecelius points out that growing tensions among Mamluk households accompanied a marked unwillingness on the part of younger retainers, who often came from much different ethnic and social backgrounds, to obey the orders of their aging superiors ( beys ) as the 1700s came to a close.
Domestic conflict heightened as a direct consequence of what André Raymond calls "the crisis of the final years of the eighteenth century." Internal and external trade became more and more uncoordinated; an overall decline in agricultural output led to a drop in rural tax revenues and persistent disruptions in tax collection in the countryside; and a disastrous combination of inadequate Nile floods and outbreaks of plague created severe shortages of food and labor, which sharply raised the market price of both commodities. Artisans and shopkeepers who made their living producing and selling textiles, ceramics, metalware and other industrial goods found themselves rapidly losing ground to richer import-export merchants ( tujjar ). By the time Napoleon's army landed in 1798, the level of economic inequality in Cairo was greater than at any time since 1625.
Meanwhile, forces outside the regime started to mobilise to defend and promote their own interests. The guilds of butchers, of fruit and vegetable sellers and of grain carriers turned out to be particularly active in orchestrating a wave of popular protests and uprisings that took shape during the last years of the 18th century. Leaders of Cairo's craft and trade associations raised funds and collected small arms to outfit a network of popular militias that played a key role in resisting the Napoleonic invasion. These militias re-emerged just as soon as French troops evacuated the city in July 1801.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT is poorly understood, and merits closer and more systematic attention. The conventional story is relatively easy to summarise, and has been recounted in an admirably succinct fashion by Khaled Fahmy in the second volume of The Cambridge History of Egypt (1998). After the French left, Ottoman regiments and Mamluk households engaged in almost continuous battle, while at the same time regularly extorting money and supplies from tradespeople in the cities and farmers in the provinces. Senior Mamluk commanders proved to be particularly rapacious and inept, as a result of "the continued divisiveness of their new leaders, their lack of insight, and their tragic failure to learn from past mistakes." But the newly-arrived Ottoman military formations turned out to be every bit as unruly and destructive, not least a small unit of comparatively well-trained Albanian soldiers that took up positions in the metropolis in the wake of the French evacuation.
Virtual chaos gripped Cairo for three long years as Mamluk households and Ottoman regiments fought for control of the city and its agricultural hinterland. Successive governors sent from Istanbul found themselves incapable of restoring public order. Kaleidescopic patterns of shifting tactical alliances among Mamluk beys, Ottoman officers and local notables, including prominent 'ulama and tujjar, formed and dissolved in complicated ways. At last, the city's notables approached the commander of the Albanian troops, one Muhammad Ali of Kavala, for relief. They offered their whole-hearted support to this particular officer, Fahmy claims, in the hope that he would rescind "the high taxes the Mamluks were levying to pay their soldiers and placate the Albanian troops" under his supervision. As soon as he gained control of the local administration, Muhammad Ali took a series of steps that effectively "broke the revolutionary coalition that had brought him to power" and "then undermined the leadership of the ashraf (notables) represented in the person of Umar Makram who had been instrumental in the crucial months of 1805."
SEVERAL THINGS seem puzzling about this story as it stands. Why was it that the Mamluk households, which had not only survived for almost three centuries under Ottoman rule but actually succeeded in gaining influence relative to the imperial administration and 'ujakat during the course of the 18th century, failed to re-establish themselves following the French withdrawal? Even if their ranks had come to consist entirely of incompetent dolts, one might ask why such a cohort of consummate bumblers arose at this particular time. Moreover, in light of recent archival research carried out by Nelly Hanna, it is impossible any longer to see the Mamluk beys as unsophisticated brutes, interested primarily in warfare and extortion. The beys not only collected sizable libraries, but also invited the general public to consult the broad range of books that these collections contained.
Why did it take four whole years for the widespread disorder that followed the French occupation to come to an end? Fahmy points out that the ill-fated Ottoman officials who attempted to govern the country from 1801 to 1805 carried out a series of experiments in military organisation and administrative practice, yet none of these managed to stabilise the situation. Perhaps, as the contemporary historian Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti insinuates, this was due to the fact that the new forms of governance were derived from alien, European models and therefore represented inherently illegitimate innovations. But such reforms were clearly in the wind throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and ended up being implemented in Egypt itself with a good deal of success in the period after 1805.
More intriguing still is the question of why Cairo's long- suffering populace turned to the Albanian regiment under the command of Muhammad Ali for assistance. The soldiers that made up this particular unit, Fahmy reports, were "known throughout the empire for their fierce, rebellious behavior." In fact, in April 1803 "the Albanian troops, living up to their rowdy and rebellious reputation, mutinied over delayed pay." It was precisely in order to appease the Albanians that the extraordinary taxes were imposed, sparking the widespread popular resentment that provided the impetus for the 1804-05 revolt. One might have expected the city's residents deeply to distrust, and perhaps even to despise, such an "insubordinate" bunch of mercenaries.
In a similar vein, one wonders why the loose coalition of Albanian troops and Mamluk cadres that took charge of the local administration in the summer of 1805 fell out so quickly with the popular forces whose activities had been largely responsible for its victory. There may be an easy and obvious answer to this question: once in charge, the new leadership was reluctant to share power with the crowd. Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot sensibly remarks that Muhammad Ali ordered two influential guild leaders, Hajjaj al-Khudari and Ibn Shama, to be put to death due to the fact that they "were dangerous men to the new governor because they were capable of rousing the masses and galvanising resistance at a time when the establishment of law and order was of paramount importance." Nevertheless, numerous studies of revolutionary situations and their divergent outcomes in a variety of countries, across a wide range of historical eras, demonstrate that there is much to be learned from tracing out in detail the process whereby post-revolutionary leaderships manage to establish themselves in power.
Questioning the nature and vicissitudes of the multifaceted relationship between the Albanian-Mamluk forces associated with Muhammad Ali and the popular movement led by Sayyid Umar Makram, Hajjaj al-Khudari and Ibn Shama opens up all kinds of topics that have been almost completely ignored by contemporary scholars. To what extent did the goals of these two camps coincide? What were the most important actual and potential conflicts of interest between them? (Presumably such conflicts existed, since the two parties fell out so quickly and profoundly in the summer of 1805.) Were Muhammad Ali and his supporters able to prevail over Umar Makram and his allies because of significant tensions and incompatibilities among the social forces that made up the popular coalition?
What little we know about the course of the 1804-05 revolution merely whets the appetite for further investigation. During the second week of June 1805, for example, the residents of al-Rumailah quarter intercepted an armed column that was attempting to deliver vital supplies to the Ottoman governor besieged in the citadel. Street fighting dragged on for the next two weeks, then a massive procession took place organised by Hajjaj al-Khudari and Ibn Shama. According to al-Jabarti, the march was joined by a large number of people from all over Cairo, several popular religious figures and their respective followers, and even residents of districts located outside the city. At the head of the procession marched the shaykh of the vegetable sellers clothed in the formal attire of his office, brandishing an upraised sword.
All kinds of important questions jump out of this incident. Why did some urban (and rural) districts rise in armed revolt, while others did not? How was it that some 'ulama led their followers in open defiance of the authorities, whereas others worked assiduously to promote public order and acquiescence, if not obedience, to the rulers of the day? What other symbols and rituals made up what Charles Tilly would call the "repertoire of contention" that the crowd exhibited on this occasion? There is clearly much work to be done uncovering the events of the 1804- 05 revolution, putting them into some sort of coherent form and formulating insightful explanations and interpretations for what happened.
Specifically, it is time to look beyond the confines of Cairo during the turbulent months between the evacuation of the French army and the confirmation of Muhammad Ali as governor-general ( wali ) of Egypt. Professor al-Sayyid Marsot mentions almost in passing that at the height of the 1804-05 revolution the powerful Mamluk commander Alfi Bey launched an assault on Damanhur from his base in al-Fayyum, "but the town had been supplied with arms and food by Umar Makram, and was able to repel the attack." This suggests that popular militias existed in areas outside the metropolis, and were sufficiently trained and equipped to stand up to professional warriors. How many other towns enjoyed the protection of such militias? And what connection did they have with popular leaders in Cairo?
Political and economic links between Umm al-Dunya and the provinces need to be analysed more fully than they have been so far. It is a major part of the conventional story that whenever they got into serious trouble, the Mamluk beys and their retinues fled up the Nile. This not only put them beyond the reach of the authorities in Cairo but also made it possible for them to manipulate the flow of Upper Egyptian grain to the metropolis. On the other hand, as Fahmy observes, fleeing far to the south separated the Mamluk households from some of their most lucrative estates, which tended to be located in the rich agricultural lands of the delta. According to al-Sayyid Marsot, many influential 'ulama and tujjar gained control of rural tax farms ( iltizams ) at the beginning of the 19th century. This trend no doubt accelerated whenever the beys abandoned their iltizams in the northern provinces. Furthermore, it was almost immediately after a corps of Syrian irregular cavalry loyal to the Ottoman governor- designate Khurshid Pasha started to pillage the towns and villages of Lower Egypt that the notables of Cairo rallied around Umar Makram and demanded that Muhammad Ali take whatever steps might be necessary to restore order. This aspect of the 1804-05 revolution merits greater attention.
Also missing from the story are the powerful Bedouin confederations, particularly the ones that dominated Middle and Upper Egypt throughout the 18th century. In a recent essay, Reuven Aharoni argues that prominent Bedouin chieftains enjoyed a long-standing, symbiotic relationship with the Mamluk beys that was characterised both by mutual advantage and by intrinsic rivalry. The connection was solidified through frequent intermarriage and a broad congruence of gender dynamics inside Bedouin and Mamluk households. Bedouin forces joined different Mamluk factions in fighting against the Ottoman regiments on several occasions after 1801. Most notably, in April and May 1804 Bedouin warriors took part in major assaults on Imbaba and Bab al-Nasr, and then resorted to plundering the countryside throughout al-Sharqiyyah and al-Qalyubiyyah. At the same time, tribesmen across Middle Egypt began to attack the boats that were carrying cereals down the Nile, raising the prospect of widespread famine in Cairo. The upsurge in Bedouin depredations contributed to Khurshid Pasha's decision to retire to the citadel, which left the path clear for Umar Makram and his allies to seize the initiative in the streets below.
On the other hand, a number of important Bedouin formations, particularly ones centered in al-Buhairah province, evidently allied themselves with Muhammad Ali. Just what role such partners played during the turbulent months of the 1804-05 revolution remains to be uncovered.
STUDIES OF REVOLUTIONS tend to follow a clear progression as time goes by. Initial writings highlight the key personalities who "led" the effort to overturn the existing order. Just who these personalities might be in any particular instance is defined by the observed outcome. Thus, in 1804-05, the obvious protagonists are Muhammad Ali, Umar Makram and, perhaps, the unfortunate Alfi Bey, along with Khusraw Pasha, Khurshid Pasha and Kaputan Pasha. Explaining the revolution generally consists of showing how the winners prevailed, or, in rarer cases, what mistakes and inadequacies hampered the losers. Moreover, the individuals and groups who end up prevailing are usually presumed to have possessed a well-defined set of objectives, or even a clear plan of action. In fact, first- generation studies pay little if any attention to episodes of "failed revolution," that is, cases in which a sustained challenge to the regime was defeated by the authorities.
Second-generation studies attempt to spell out the dynamics that characterise revolutionary situations, without privileging the particular actors who end up on top. Such analyses recognise that revolutions are almost always messy affairs, in which a large number of diverse interests and movements clash. The outcome of the struggle is impossible to predict in advance, and often owes a lot to chance. To be sure, some actors have more resources and stand better organised than others, and such individuals and groups are more likely to emerge victorious than actors who are poorly endowed and deeply divided. But it would be a capital mistake to infer which actors were more powerful on the basis of who ended up prevailing. Furthermore, it is possible to learn just as much from revolutionary situations that do not overturn the status quo as it is from revolutions that succeed.
Third-generation accounts go on to analyse the complex process that shapes the emergence, development and resolution of a particular revolutionary situation. Most later studies de-emphasise the political and economic aspects of conflicts between the members of the Old Regime and their diverse adversaries. Instead, social and cultural dimensions are accorded pride of place. Recent work on revolutions has even come full circle and begun to revive a concern for the ideological components of the struggle, usually under the broad rubric of discourse analysis.
For the most part, scholarship on the three Egyptian revolutions that have been most widely recognised remains firmly first-generation. There are of course exceptions to the rule, such as Juan Cole's path-breaking study of the Urabi revolt and a number of writings that offer a reassessment of the events surrounding the 1952 revolution. But most books and articles continue to be devoted to the actions, thoughts and intentions of leading individuals. Debates still rage over what Muhammad Ali, or Ahmad Urabi, or Saad Zaghlul had in mind, and whether actors on all sides had a coherent program or were instead carried along by changing circumstances. Perhaps the bicentennial of the 1804-05 revolution will mark the moment when such studies are complemented, if not superseded, by more sophisticated analyses.
Moreover, the events of 1804-05 merit special celebration, as they represent one of those rare occasions in world history when the common people played an active part in transforming the institutions and mechanisms by which they were ruled. Whether or not Muhammad Ali himself envisaged an independent Egypt, many of the actors who mobilised to create the situation in which he came to power acted out of a desire to end tyranny, promote good governance and expand the life-chances open to themselves and their progeny. Exploring this episode helps us better understand the range of possibilities available to all societies.
* The writer is professor of government at Mills College, Oakland, California and the author of The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism during the Muhammad 'Ali Period.


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