A reading response I wrote for a graduate class, based on four articles or selections about modernization in Egypt.
In “An Irrigated Empire: The View from Ottoman Fayyum,” Alan Mikhail uses agriculture in Fayyum and the maintenance of dikes and dams to make a larger argument about the balance of power in the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Mikhail is arguing against Karen Barkey’s hub and spoke model which posits that all power is in the center and all resources flow through the center. Instead, Mikhail shows that Fayyum acted as its own power center with its own peripheries. One way he demonstrates this is by explaining Fayyum’s traditional role as the grain-supplier of the Hijaz region. Istanbul never attempted to reorganize this regional dynamic and instead supported it because maintaining Fayyum’s productive power was in the best interests of the empire as a whole. More importantly, Mikhail’s article challenges the top-down power dynamic associated with empires by showing that the Fayyumis, the peasants, were able to wield power of their own by using their agricultural production and local expertise as leverage. In Fayyum, the peasants, though at the bottom of the social and power structure, were able to manipulate that structure to their advantage.
Khaled Fahmy’s article “The Nation and Its Deserters: Conscription in Mehmed Ali’s Egypt,” while not making the same argument as Mikhail, plays to the same theme. Fahmy is arguing against the modern historiographical narrative that presents Mehmed Ali’s modernization of the Army as an expression of Egyptian nationalism. He shows quite convincingly that Egyptians saw military service as an onerous burden and went to great lengths to avoid being drafted. The draftees were subject to a modern medical examination to see if they were fit for duty. Understanding this, draftees manipulated the system through self-mutilation, forcing the government to make changes to its policies. While their resistance was not effective or successful, this shows that draftees, like the Fayyumis, understood and engaged with state institutions in ways that made them political actors, rather than passive recipients of top-down power.
In the second article by Fahmy, “The Anatomy of Justice: Forensic Medicine and Criminal Law in Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” Egyptian peasants are shown to have engaged with and used the new siyasa legal system instituted by Mehmed Ali to their advantage as well. The article presents a historical narrative that is similar to the one presented by Milan Petrov in “Everyday Forms of Compliance: Subaltern Commentaries on Ottoman Reform, 1864-1868,” which discusses the way that people in the vilayet of Danube engaged with the new nizami courts. In this article, Fahmy is arguing against the prevailing teleological narrative of a steady progression from “backwards” shariah law to “modern” secular law. He argues instead that the government introduced these legal reforms not for the purpose of enlightenment or justice, but to improve state control over the population. In other words, this wasn’t European light illuminating the darkness of Arab backwardness. It was a carefully thought out plan meant to enhance the efficiency of the state. Fahmy focuses on autopsies and how they were used by the state and understood by the average person. Generally it seems that people understood the benefits of autopsies as a means of ensuring justice in areas that the shariah did not address or did not address adequately.
Brown’s article, “Who Abolished Corvee Labour in Egypt and Why?” is the only article that takes away agency from the common people, who are depicted as a formless mob who act only when ordered to act. In his article Brown is making the argument that corvee labor was not abolished for enlightened reasons, but because it became more profitable for the peasants to remain on their lands to harvest crops after year-round growing became established. The peasants were always being used to serve the greater interests of the state (or the landholders, who in turn produced revenues for the state), and even after the supposed renouncement of corvee labor, there were projects that necessitated the use of forced labor, especially in terms of the maintenance of the irrigation system.
It is interesting how great a role the irrigation system played in influencing policies in Egypt. Egypt’s agricultural output was its greatest asset when it was part of the Ottoman Empire and served as a vital part of the Empire’s infrastructure. After Egypt was separated from the Empire, agriculture was still of vital interest to the state. There were apparently conflicting interests, however. How was the irrigation system maintained when Mehmed Ali depleted the countryside of men to fill the ranks of his army?