Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

Egypt Table of Contents

During the nineteenth century, the socioeconomic and political foundations of the modern Egyptian state were laid. The transformation of Egypt began with the integration of the economy into the world capitalist system with the result that by the end of the century Egypt had become an exporter of raw materials to Europe and an importer of European manufactured goods. The transformation of Egypt led to the emergence of a ruling elite composed of large landowners of Turco-Circassian origin and the creation of a class of medium-sized landowners of Egyptian origin who played an increasingly important role in the political and economic life of the country. In the countryside, peasants were dispossessed because of debt, and many landless peasants migrated to the cities where they joined the swelling ranks of the underand unemployed. In the cities, a professional middle class emerged composed of civil servants, lawyers, teachers, and technicians. Finally, Western ideas and cultural forms were introduced into the country.

Rural Society

Muhammad Ali had attempted to take Egypt directly from a subsistence agricultural economy to a complex industrial one. He failed because of internal weaknesses and European pressures. Ironically, Muhammad Ali, whose goal was to make Egypt economically and politically independent of Europe, set the country on the path to economic dependence and foreign domination.

In the industrial sector, Muhammad Ali's factories did not last past his death. In the agricultural sector, Egypt's longstaple cotton became increasingly attractive to British textile manufacturers. Between 1840 and 1860, the export of cotton increased 300 percent. During the American Civil War, the area devoted to cotton cultivation in Egypt increased almost fourfold and cotton prices rose along with cotton production.

The transformation of the rural economy from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture caused dramatic changes, including the privatization of land in fewer hands and the dispossession of peasants. The privatization of land began during the reign of Muhammad Ali, who in the 1840s distributed half the agricultural land to royal family members, Turco-Circassian officials, and Egyptian notables or village headmen. Although many land grants were rescinded during the reign of Abbas, consolidation of landholdings proceeded during the reigns of Said and Ismail at the expense of small and middle-sized peasant proprietors. By the 1870s, the royal family owned one-fifth of all the cultivated land in the country. The largest royal estates could be as large as 10,000 feddans (a feddan is slightly more than an acre--see Glossary). By the 1890s, 42.5 percent of all registered land was held in tracts of more than fifty feddans. The largest landowners included members of the royal family, and the Turco-Circassian elite of officers and officials. Their estates were worked by sharecroppers or agricultural laborers. By the time of Ismail, these landowners had developed into a landed aristocracy. Another group of landholding elite originated with Muhammad Ali's appointment of Egyptians as village headmen (umada; sing., umdah), the state's agents in the countryside. This was Muhammad Ali's attempt to reduce the power of the Turco-Circassians. With the privatization of land, the Egyptian notables became substantial landowners with considerable political influence.

Historian Judith Tucker has described the nineteenth century as a time when the peasants were transformed from independent producers with rights to use the land to landless peasants forced to work as wage-laborers or to migrate to the cities where they became part of the urban dispossessed. The development of capitalist agriculture and a monetized rural economy spelled disaster for many peasants. Despite land laws like those of Said in 1855 and 1858, which gave peasants legal ownership of their plots, peasant land loss occurred at an unprecedented rate, chiefly because of indebtedness. Forced to borrow at high rates of interest to get the seed and animals necessary for sowing and to pay monthly installments on their taxes, the peasants had to repay these loans at harvest time when the prices were lowest.

The American Civil War put a premium on Egyptian cotton, and the price increased. When the war ended, the inflated prices suddenly dropped. For the first time in Egypt, a serious problem of peasant indebtedness appeared with its inevitable consequences: mortgages, foreclosures, and usurious loans. The village headmen and the owners of great estates profited from the crisis by purchasing abandoned land. The headmen also profited as moneylenders.

Peasants also lost land because taxes on peasant land were higher than on estate land. Large landholders sometimes paid as little as one-fourth of the taxes paid by the peasantry. In addition, peasants fled the countryside to escape corvée (forced labor) on the state's public works projects and military conscription.

At the turn of the century, the population of Egypt was about 10 million. Of this total, between 10 and 20 percent were landless peasants. In 1906 less than 20 percent of the privately held and waqf (religiously endowed) land was held by 80 percent of the population while 1 percent owned more than 40 percent. Most landowners owned between one and five feddans, with three feddans being necessary for subsistence.

Towns and Cities

Of the 10 million people in Egypt at the turn of the century, approximately 2 million lived in towns and cities, and of those, 500,000 lived in cities with a population of more than 20,000. The population of Alexandria grew as it became the financial and commercial center of the cotton industry. New towns like Az Zaqaziq and Port Said (Bur Said) on the Suez Canal were established.

Most of the increase in Egypt's urban population was the result of the migration of peasants from the countryside. Although some became workers or petty traders, most joined the ranks of the under- or unemployed. By the turn of the century, a working class had emerged. It was composed mainly of transport and building workers and of workers in the few industries that had been established--sugar refineries, ginning mills, and cigarette factories. However, a large proportion of the new urban lower class consisted of a fluctuating mass of people without any fixed employment.

The old lower class of the cities and towns, particularly the artisans, suffered from the influx of cheaply made European imports. Whereas some crafts, like basketry, pottery, and rug weaving, survived, others such as textiles and glass blowing were virtually eliminated. The urban guilds declined and eventually disappeared because Europeans replaced Egyptians in production and commerce.

The old, or traditional, middle class also declined in status and wealth. This middle class included the ulama, religiously educated elite who staffed the religious institutions and courts, and the merchants. The ulama and the merchants were closely tied to each other because of family and business connections. Furthermore, these categories overlapped; the ulama were also merchants and tax-farmers. The decline of the ulama began during the reign of Muhammad Ali who considered the ulama an intolerable alternative power center. He abolished tax farms, which were a major source of ulama wealth, thus weakening their position.

The decline of the ulama and the merchants was accelerated by the socioeconomic transformation of Egypt that led to the emergence of secular education, to secularly trained civil servants staffing the government bureaucracy, and to the reorientation of Egyptian trade. Secular education and the establishment of schools influenced by Western ideas and methods occurred throughout the century but were particularly widespread during the reign of Khedive Ismail. Secular education became identified with entrance into government employment. Moreover, once government employment was opened to Egyptians, it became the goal of the educated because of the power and social status it conferred. Between 1882 and 1907, the number of persons employed in public administration grew by 83.7 percent. The rise of this new urban middle class, called the effendiyah, parallelled the rise of the rural notables or umada. In fact, during the nineteenth century, the effendiyah tended to be first-generation urbanites from rural notable families who took advantage of expanded education and employment opportunities in the cities.

Whereas the Egyptian effendiyah and umada were rising, the traditional merchant class declined because the lucrative import-export trade was dominated by resident foreigners, and Egyptian merchants were confined to internal trade. During the nineteenth century, foreign trade was completely reoriented. In the past, it had dealt mainly in Sudanese, Arabian, and oriental goods. Cairo was one of the most important centers of trade, and Egyptian, Syrian, and Turkish merchants engaged in it. During the nineteenth century, Greeks and other Europeans resident in Egypt monopolized the export of cotton to Europe and the import of European industrial goods.

The change was reflected in the increase of foreigners in Egypt--from between 8,000 and 10,000 in 1838 to 90,000 in 1881. The majority was engaged in cotton production, import-export trade, banking, and finance. The European community occupied a privileged position as a result of the capitulations, the treaties governing the status of foreigners within the Ottoman Empire. These treaties put Europeans virtually beyond the reach of Egyptian law until the establishment of the mixed courts (with jurisdiction over Egyptians and foreigners) in 1876. Like the artisans, Egyptian merchants suffered from a large variety of oppressive taxes and duties from which foreign merchants were exempt. With the support of their consuls, foreigners in Egypt became an increasingly powerful pressure group committed to defending its own interests.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress