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Modernity’s impact on the Middle East 

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Western-style modernization arrived in the Middle East at the end of the nineteenth century. The intensive reforms in Egypt and the Ottoman empire, during the Tanzimat period, precipitated the complete retooling of Middle Eastern society from the top-down. Arab modernity evolved in reaction to the dominant powers in Europe and their pursuit of consumer markets and territorial conquest. Arab leaders marked their entry into the Western markets, however, as an opening to rival the European powers and establish themselves as an equal to them. Such that, they hastened to imitate European administrative, education and political systems. The new state reforms required increasing numbers of technical experts and qualified administrators. Thus, a new elite class emerged, educated in European methods, constituting an increasingly secular state which replaced traditional, Islamic leaders in society. Arab leaders bartered agricultural goods, intended for their population, to purchase Western technology, accumulating massive debts to European banks. However, the subaltern classes in society used everyday forms of resistance to rebel against modernity. In Egypt, intensive modernization processes concentrated economic power to the elites in society who exercised their authority as feudal capitalists.

By the nineteenth century, the militarization of the Middle East acquired a cultural aspect, transforming the peasant classes and promoting the rise of new urban, industrial centers. In Egypt, Muhammed Ali founded a modern army, based on conscription, and funded by the institutions of the modern state. As governor of Egypt, under the Ottoman Sultan, he consolidated his power over the state by murdering his Mamluk rivals, the influential slave class, who undermined Ali’s goal of building a European style army. Next, Ali constructed an officers’ training school in Aswan with European instructors, to produce Egyptian military leaders with an understanding of European military sciences. In 1823, Ali organized a mass conscription of the peasant classes from new census data. The modern Egyptian government encouraged the collection of statistical data to levy taxes and obligate a period of service for the population. Soon, news of the conscription policy spread through the countryside, the fellahin employed different measures to escape the Pasha’s men. Some people openly rebelled or fled, while others took to self-mutilation. Ali responded by forming special military units for those who were disfigured. Then, Ali usurped the affluence of the Islamic leaders by taxing and then confiscating those lands administered by the ulama for the waaf, income from property to be used for charity. Effectively, the ulama became relegated to a minor religious role in the new centralized state system. Therefore, Muhammed Ali subdued any internal challengers to his authority over the Egyptian state.

Further, the Pasha yearned to secure independence from the Ottoman empire and establish a heredity dynasty for his family. Successfully, he centralized the political and administrative apparatuses through intensive agriculture production and land reforms. Muhammad Ali’s regime forced thousands of fellahin, farmers, into corvée labor to dredge canals for irrigation systems on marginal Nile lands. He planned to expand the production of Jumel cotton to satisfy the demands of a European consumer market. With the expansion of this staple crop, less arable farmland was available for growing food. Subsequently, the Egyptian government needed to import food to feed the population. Importantly, he granted land estates to members of his family and close allies for agricultural development. Such that, he consigned the bulk of Egypt’s wealth to the stewardship of a few important families, while the peasant and rural classes submitted their fates as “burdens of fortune.” In Sayyid Qutb’s book, A Child from the Village, “the countrymen are always oppressed by the rulers, oppressed by the taxes on his small bit of earth, and the endless demands of ‘umda to meet the orders of the government.” Together, two developments characterized Muhammed Ali’s reign: the successful harvesting of long-staple cotton and a professional army, whose labor and membership arose from the reluctant participants of the peasant classes.

With new agriculture production and land reforms, Cairo developed as an important cultural and urban center, the “second Manchester”. Cairo’s streets fashioned on the European model signaled the pinnacle of Egyptian modernization. However, typical of urban cities in the industrial age, over-crowed slums and factories existed in the center of Cairo. Ali expended huge sums to purchase machinery and import European managers. Including, there are estimates that at least 30,000 Egyptian laborers worked in textile factories around the city. According to James Augustus St. John, in Egypt and Mohammed Ali, “an attempt was made to produce velvets equal to those of Genos, and muslin not inferior to those of England; but after a short trial, the destruction of the machinery and the inferior quality of the articles [produced], induced the Pasha to abandon this portion of the scheme.” Ali expected to manufacture added value goods for the common market, rather than rely on unstable cash-crop sales for European industry. The officers of the factories, although receiving huge salaries, often mismanaged the factory’s expenses, and the worker’s pay. Low-skilled fellah laborers pressed into textile work labored under harsh and oppressive conditions, “seldom saw their wives and children, nor allowed time for meals, ablutions, or religious duties.” Thus, they quickly descended into ill-health and disease. Such being their condition, fellah workers frequently absconded, and whether accidentally or intentionally damaged factory machinery. Their actions highlight the divide between the state and its population who had become disaffected with modern systems of government. Thus, by the 1840s, the state-sponsored industrial experiment had failed forcing Muhammed Ali to reduce his army to 18,000 men.

The experiences of Egyptian modernity occurred throughout the Middle East. Modernity precipitated an imitative project which sought to build the region and its people in the image of Europeans, by deploying science and technology to achieve economic development, enhanced military prowess, and cultural and moral revival. Inculcated by educational and political reforms, modernity cultivated individuals, mass politics, and nation-states. These reforms were organized in an idea of progress that assumed the Middle East should follow the path of European history. Centralized governments rent authority from local tribal or religious leaders through institutional reforms and coercion. However, they did not eliminate the ulama from the public sphere, as such a dualistic character developed in Middle Eastern society. Nevertheless, political and economic powers had concentrated the state’s authority in a new land class. They cultivated Western-friendly governments to facilitate the exploitation of natural resources and labor within the state, often for their own personal gain. Modernization generated a uniquely Arab experience in the nineteenth century. Such that, it emphasized economic stratification and produced ill-effects particularly for the peasant classes.

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