Egypt Table of Contents

The Neo-Mamluk Beylicate, 1760-98

Most scholars of Egyptian history now agree that the political and economic changes that occurred in the early nineteenth century had their origins not in the French invasion of 1798 but rather in events that occurred in Egypt itself in the latter half of the eighteenth century. At that time, political and military power was consolidated in the hands of the Mamluk Ali Bey al Kabir (1760-66) and his successor, Muhammad Bey Abu adh Dhahab (1772-75). Before 1760 a balance of power and separate spheres of influence were maintained by the Mamluk beylicate, which controlled the civil administration and derived its revenues from the rural tax farms, and by the Mamluks, who dominated the military and derived their revenues from the urban tax farms and the customs house.

In 1760 Ali Bey gained control of the military and drove the sultan's governor from the country. He issued firmans (decrees) in his own name, redirected the state revenues to his own use, and attempted to recreate the medieval Mamluk empire by invading Syria. In addition, Ali Bey tried to strengthen commercial ties with Europe by encouraging trade and attempting to open the Port of Suez to European shipping.

Ali Bey ruled only briefly, but his successors, especially Muhammad Bey, continued his policies. These two beys effectively eliminated Ottoman control and repositioned Egypt at the center of a newly emerging network of international relationships that embraced the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea coasts, and Europe. Thus, Napoleon Bonaparte did not "open" an isolated Egypt to the West, nor was Muhammad Ali Pasha in the nineteenth century the originator of the policies responsible for Egypt's transformation. Only Ali Bey's dramatic expulsion from the country and Muhammad Bey's premature death of a fever prevented them from using the authority they acquired to carry on those policies that are associated with Egypt's revival in the nineteenth century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress