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|Re-examining Egyptian Rule: Who laid the foundations for modern statehood in Palestine?
The period of Egyptian rule in Syria and Palestine has long been considered by scholars the first expression of modern statehood in the area. This paper takes issue with that claim, noting that Egyptian rule may have accelerated the process of change, but did not create it.1 While Egyptian authorities “opened” the country in a manner that has been associated with modernization, in fact the leadership of Dhahir al-’Umar brought about key changes in the economy and power structures that were then deepened under Egyptian control.
Muhammad ‘Ali, the Ottoman wali of Egypt, showed interest in Palestine and Syria from the beginning of his career. After his failure to take Syria peacefully and legally, he started preparing the way for an invasion, and waited for the opportune moment to do so forcefully. Although the Egyptian invasion of Palestine and Syria had many direct and indirect causes, Muhammad ‘Ala used fallaheen who had fled to Acre to avoid conscription as the pretext for the invasion. Ibrahim Pasha, ‘Ali’s son sent to carry out the invasion, was welcomed by the majority of Palestinians. Most local leaders surrendered to him even before the conquest of Acre. During the first period of Egyptian rule, about one year, there were no substantial changes in the administrative rule of Palestine. The influence of his local allies was sufficient to maintain order in the country, while giving Ibrahim Pasha the chance to move forward with his main column against the Sultan’s troops. Thus the local leaders of Palestine reached the zenith of their power between the close of 1831 and the end of 1832, and especially in the months after the conquest of Acre. In fact, they were the true masters of the country. Ibrahim was far away with his army, his instructions ignored with impunity. But the situation began to change at the beginning of 1833, after the arrival of Sharif Bey and the civil government of the whole of Syria.
The pattern of centralization and militarization that characterized Muhammad ‘Ali’s control over Egyptian resources was repeated and extended to Syria. Muhammad ‘Ali entrusted his son with the implementation of these policies. The Egyptian policies and reforms were based upon the ambitious desire of Muhammad ‘Ali to exploit the human and economic resources of the country and employ them in his project of gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire –or at least in gaining a dynasty in Egypt and Syria.
The Egyptians seemed interested in curbing the authority of the religious court. They granted considerable judicial authority to majalis al-shura. The judicial system under the Egyptian rule therefore consisted of two institutions: al-mahkama al-shariyya [religious court] and majlis al-shura [consultative council]. Although the majlis alshura, as it was termed, seemed quite similar to the traditional diwan that had long existed in every province. The Egyptians reorganized the structure and functions of the majlis to have both administrative and judicial functions. It was also used as a tool to restore Egyptian policies and spread the government’s influence and control over the population.
The Egyptians declared the abolishment of illegal taxes and unified previous taxes into one basic tax on agricultural land (the mara). But this declaration was not implemented. They faced great defence expenditures because of the threats from local inhabitants and the Ottomans, which pushed them to increase the taxes. On one hand, the rates of mara were at a higher level than had been paid previously and its collection was more regular and more equitable during Egyptian rule. On the other hand, the Egyptians imposed a new tax (firda), which was a great burden on the population. The imposition of high tax rates and strict control over tax-collection and farming aimed to maximize revenue.
In their economic policies, the Egyptians sought to augment agricultural production in order to feed the Egyptian armies and industries. Although some attempts were made to introduce new crops, most peasants, and definitely those producing cereals, continued to cultivate their fields and process their crops in the same fashion. Not only did the methods and means of production remain unchanged, the control over these means showed no marked alteration either. Most agricultural land remained state-owned and the peasants continued to enjoy usufructuary rights.
One of the main theses of this study is that Muhammed ‘Ali seized Syria to exploit its human and natural sources in his project to build dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. But Muhammad ‘Ali failed to achieve his aims for both internal and external reasons. Palestine paid the price of failed Egyptian ambitions out of its human and natural resources. It seems that Muhammad ‘Ali did not expect the revolts against his policies in Palestine and Syria.
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