The outcome of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution led by the Free Officers Movement, under the command of Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Egypt and marked the end of more than 140 years of rule by the dynasty of Muhammed Ali Pasha – initially founded in 1805. Although the era of post-1952 Egypt under the leadership of Nasser is lauded and magnified across all layers of the Egyptian society, the nostalgia for the dynasty of Muhammed Ali Pasha and its enduring popularity continues to persist today – even beyond the borders of Egypt.
Whilst undertaking a visit in October 2021 to the Arab Republic of Egypt, the current Prime Minister of the Republic of Albania, Edi Rama, highlighted the ‘Albanian contribution' to the establishment of modern Egypt. It remains a component of Albanian-Egyptian relations and strengthens the commitment of both countries to deepening and advancing ties.
To many people, it may appear surprising that the foundation of modern Egypt in 1805 came at the behest of an Albanian born in Kavala, Greece (at that time part of the Ottoman Empire). Appointed Ottoman governor (Wali) of Egypt in 1805 after being expedited to Egypt by the Ottoman Empire in response to Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign, Muhammed Ali and his dynasty brought about defining changes to Egyptian society and are considered as having set the foundation for the establishment of modern Egypt.
Under the leadership of Muhammed Ali, Egypt would expand its territory and exercise military control beyond its traditional borders. Egypt’s territory would include that of Sudan and the southern parts of Greece. Egypt would also undertake military expeditions to the Levant region and Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina, against forces loyal to the Islamic leader Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who opposed the Ottoman administration in the Arabian Peninsula. Once again, the Ottoman Empire would regain control of these sacred cities thanks to Muhammed Ali’s military achievements against al-Wahhab.
Although the Ottoman Empire saw with suspicion and envy the rise, influence and growing independence of Muhammed Ali’s Egypt, the expansion of Egyptian military power continued unabated. In 1831, Muhammed Ali invaded Ottoman-controlled Syria, marking the beginning of the First Egyptian-Ottoman War, and ultimately forcing the Ottomans to cede parts of Syria to Egypt. However, following the Second Egyptian–Ottoman War (1839-1841), his gains were reversed, as Egypt had to cede its territorial claims to Syria and adjacent territories.
The expansion of Egyptian territory did not end with Muhammed Ali’s death in 1849 but was carried on by his successors. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Egypt’s territorial expansion reached the territories of contemporary Uganda, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia. Egypt was at its peak militarily and politically, reminiscent of the country’s golden age, which had seen the glory of the Pharaonic dynasties. Cairo would ultimately gain autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in 1867 before being subjected to British occupation and colonial administration in 1882.
The contributions of Muhammed Ali and his related dynasty were not only limited to the military and political spheres. Numerous social, economic, and cultural achievements are attributed to his reign and his successors. including, inter alia, the construction of the Suez Canal, critical infrastructures, canals, and roadways, the introduction of social reforms, the development of the country’s cotton industry, and the creation of modern educational institutions.
With the abdication in 1952 of Farouk I, the last King of Egypt, the 140 years of reign of Muhammed Ali’s dynasty would come to an end. One would assume, which often turns out to be the case when monarchies and former regimes are toppled, that their merits are disregarded and their demonstrable contributions are reinterpreted and seen with suspicion and even hostility. This is not to argue that there were no faults and persisting social, economic, and political issues in Egypt prior to the 1952 revolution, but the fact that the legacy of Muhammed Ali within the Egyptian society continues to be acclaimed – more than 200 years after the establishment of his dynasty is a testimony that his achievements and contributions to Egyptian society continue to unite Egyptians across generations.
The Albanian Prime Minister’s visit in October 2021 also included a ceremony at the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha and his tomb in Cairo by the Egyptian Prime Minister, Moustafa Madbouly. “It is known as the fortress of Muhammad Ali. He was Albanian and we consider him the founder of the new Egypt,” he was reported to have said. When Egypt marked 18 April the 2022 World Heritage Day, attention was once again turned to the legacy of Muhammed Ali Pasha. Palaces constructed under his reign continue to be restored and renovated with pride and passion owing to the architectural and historical significance to the country.
The legacy of the Balkans on Egypt has endured for centuries if not thousands of years. From Alexander the Great until the dynasty of Muhammed Ali Pasha, the lasting footprint of the Balkan region on societies across the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, and vice versa, deserve more attention and should be preserved for future generations. Instead of seeing the world through the flawed and disoriented prism of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, it is pertinent to commemorate the joint successes. To applaud the triumphs and contributions which had an impact across cultures, religions, societies, and related identities. This celebratory remembrance will enable societies to emerge out of the confusion and misunderstandings which fuel tensions within and among nations.