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READ: Egypt's Industrial Revolution

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First read: preview and skimming for gist

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Second read: key ideas and understanding content

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What steps did Muhammad Ali take to modernize Egypt?
  2. European banks loaned lots of money to help Muhammad Ali modernize Egypt. Why was this a bad thing for Egypt?
  3. What are the three explanations for this failure?
  4. How did some Islamic scholars react to Egypt’s failures?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

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At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Which of the three explanations given for the failure of Egypt’s industrialization is most convincing to you? Why?
  2. Consider the three explanations the author gives for Egypt’s failure to industrialize. Do any of these apply to the situation in Japan during the Meiji Restoration? If so, why do you think Japan was able to overcome these disadvantages and still industrialize effectively?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Egypt’s Industrial Revolution

A painting depicting a conversation between Egyptian and European men, overlooking the sea. A few of the men are seated, facing one another; one is smoking a hookah.
By Trevor Getz
During the nineteenth century, Egypt became a major producer of cotton and embarked on a process of building an industrialized economy. However, Egypt's industrialization ultimately failed, for reasons that are still debated.
In the early nineteenth century, Egypt connected two vast, overlapping regions. One was the enormous empire of the Ottoman Sultans. The other was the even larger African continent. Both were immense zones of trade and interaction. But both were also struggling to find their place in a world that was industrializing faster than anyone expected.
Map of the Ottoman empire in 1829.
The Ottoman Empire in 1829. By Esemono, public domain.
For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had been at the center of Eurasian trade that flowed between east and west. It had also been a major center of manufacturing. Workshops in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of the empire produced handmade goods that were frequently in great demand in Europe and Africa, in particular.
But the industrialization of Europe meant that cheaper, machine-made goods soon flooded into the Ottoman Empire. These goods also went to regions that had once purchased Ottoman goods. The result of this sudden competition was increasing unemployment and de-industrialization. Production in much of Africa, meanwhile, had fallen after centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Africa was increasingly seen as a place that provided resources and raw materials to European factories, not a place that could have factories of its own.
But Egypt was an African country that was technically still part of the Ottoman Empire. So in the early nineteenth century, when a new Egyptian ruler wanted to rapidly industrialize, he had to carefully figure out how to work with the Ottoman sultans and the big European powers. And, of course, he couldn't ignore the Egyptian people either.

Muhammed Ali and Egypt’s industrial expansion

This ruler, Muhammad Ali, was appointed to control Ottoman forces in Egypt at a pretty rough time. Egypt had recently suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. With British help, the Ottoman forces eventually drove the French out of Egypt. Following this, Ali managed to bring about Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire in everything but name. Ali put in motion a campaign of modernization, beginning with his military. He required Egyptian peasants to enlist, hired European advisers, and bought modern weapons. By 1831, he was effectively an independent ruler of a stronger, more modern Egypt.
A painting of several men standing in front of several large sailing ships. Muhammad Ali, depicted in traditional clothing in the color green, is pointing at one of the ships.
This painting, by a European artist, shows Muhammad Ali in traditional Ottoman clothing, doing business involving modern sailing vessels. It is true to his reputation as a reformer and modernizer who still valued his country’s own culture and traditions. By Farouk Misr, public domain.
Egypt's rural elite had ideas of their own. Ali skillfully kept them happy by restoring many Egyptian traditions and also encouraged a sense of a shared Egyptian identity across society. But he also introduced many changes in order to modernize Egypt's economy. Egypt was already a small-scale producer of cotton, which was sold to Britain, where British factories would turn it into cloth. Ali encouraged even more cotton production in Egypt. This changed life for most Egyptian peasants. They were used to working much of the year to grow food, but always got to rest in winter. After the 1810s, men, women and children still labored to grow food in summer and fall, and then in winter they were forced into cotton production.
A graph with six columns showing average annual volume of cotton exports in Egypt, 1821-1849.
Using the money from this cotton production, Ali's government then began to sponsor factories so that Egypt could profit from its own industrialization. These factories processed cotton into clothing—beginning with the uniforms for the new military—but also produced foods and some other goods. By the late 1840s, it looked like Egypt would eventually become an industrial power. However, the Egyptian economy slowly declined in the second half of the nineteenth century. The factories stopped producing, and by the 1880s, Egypt was deep in debt to Britain. So in debt, actually, that British banks and "advisers" were calling the shots. Though Egypt remained technically independent, the reality was that now it functioned more like a British colony than a sovereign state.

What went wrong? Three explanations…

One explanation for the collapse of the Egyptian economy was a failure of leadership. Muhammad Ali was succeeded by members of his family, but some scholars argue they were not very effective rulers. Their focus on cotton production at the expense of other crops meant that Egypt had to rely on a single export. They lived lives of great pomp and luxury, spending extravagantly while borrowing money from European banks. These banks used this debt to influence Egypt's leaders, and eventually came to dictate much of Egypt's policy.
A second explanation for Egypt's failure was environmental. They didn't have the coal resources Britain and Europe had, so Egyptian factories ran on animal power. Donkeys, or other strong creatures, had to be harnessed to mechanisms that turned the mills and other machines that automated the work. This system was more expensive and less efficient than burning coal.
A third explanation was that Egyptian industry was purposefully driven into the ground by countries that also made cloth and didn't want the competition. Most of the big industrial countries, like Britain and France, had put tariffs (import taxes) on imported cloth in order to help their own industries. This meant Egypt could not sell to them at a competitive price. But these countries had also forbidden the Ottoman Empire, and hence Egypt, from putting tariffs on European goods. Egyptian factories just could not match their low prices.

Reform and tradition

In this difficult economic climate, the Egyptian people had a problem similar to what many nations faced during industrialization. Some looked for solutions in modernizing, or becoming more like Europeans, while others wanted to return to their Islamic roots. Some Egyptians believed Western-inspired reforms could still function within an Islamic framework, as a kind of middle ground. One scholar, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, argued that Islam could be modernized and mixed with democracy. He was joined by Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, an intellectual born to a family of Muslim scholars. Al-Jabarti studied the French when they invaded and wrote about French ideas that were worth adopting, and others that he thought should be rejected.
Still another was Rifa'a al-Tahtawi. A young religious leader, or imam, al-Tahtawi traveled to France to study military and scientific technology in order to start a new university in Cairo. He studied geometry, physics and math. Upon his return, he argued these ideas were entirely compatible with Islam. But he criticized French scholars for being too secular, or non- religious, and argued that religion was necessary for the proper and thoughtful use of science.
Black and white photograph of the iman and scientist, Rifa'a al-Tahtawi. He has a dark beard and is looking just past the camera.
Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, imam and scientist. Public domain.
Meanwhile, Europeans kept meddling in Egypt. One reason was the Suez Canal, built between 1859 and 1869. Because it connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea's Gulf of Suez, the canal was an extremely valuable shortcut for European powers to access their colonial empires. They all wanted control over it.
A drawn map of the Suez Canal, with three close-up images of Suez (a small town) and Kantara (a dock with a large sailing ship).
Artist’s impression of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea (and then the Indian Ocean). By Artmod, public domain.
Egypt's leaders could not agree on how to deal with the challenge of European intervention. They were already stressed from the industrial collapse that left their country bankrupt. Eventually, in 1875, the king sold his shares in the Suez Canal Company to the British, giving them control of this important national resource. A group of Egyptian military officers were not pleased. Led by Colonel Ahmad Urabi, they took control of Egypt's government in 1881, as a new nationalist leadership. But the powerful British took advantage of this turmoil and instability and seized the country. They restored the king, but only as a puppet ruler they could control. Thus, Egypt's industrialization and actual independence had both been ended by 1882. Egypt did not become an industrialized nation-state until much, much later–and on worse terms–than Muhammad Ali had planned.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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