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The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period.

It is important to note what this book is not. It is not an examination of Egyptian expansion in the reign of Muhammad Ali. There is no discussion of either the diplomatic or the military aspects of Egyptian foreign policy in the early nineteenth century; readers interested in these subjects will have to look elsewhere. Nor is it based on new source materials. It draws its information from the impressive secondary literature concerning the Muhammad Ali era which has appeared in recent years, supplemented by occasional use of the contemporary accounts of such authors as al-Jabarti, and Nicolas Turc, and European travellers.

What it is is a study of the domestic conditions of Egypt in the early nineteenth century and an argument that domestic factors were the main cause of Muhammad Ali's attempts at foreign conquest. Professor Lawson's fundamental concern is the theoretical one of how to explain the adoption of expansionist foreign policies. "The basic question this study addresses can be thus phrased in the following way: given a favorable set of international circumstances, what are the domestic political conditions that lead a regime to act upon an opportunity for a policy of foreign expansionism?". Muhammad Ali's Egypt is the specific instance of foreign expansionism which he has chosen to use as a case study in answering this question.

The first two chapters of the work are primarily theoretical. Chapter one offers a critique of both the "conventional" explanations found in the historical literature for Muhammad Ali's foreign policies and the weaknesses of "structural" interpretations of expansionism when applied to early nineteenth-century Egypt. Chapter two lays out the basic framework of Lawson's alternative explanation of Egyptian expansionism under Muhammad Ali. Building upon recent neo-Marxian analysis, he maintains that the roots of Egyptian expansionism are to be found in a combination of "accumulation crises" in the rural as well as the urban economy of early nineteenth century Egypt which produced increased competition over economic resources between different social groups, and the concomitant emergence of "subordinate groups" (primarily the urban artisanat) who challenged the political and economic hegemony of the landlord-bureaucratic-merchant coalition dominating Egypt at the time. "Under these circumstances extending the regime's control over adjacent territories to the south, north, and northeast provided the country's ruling coalition with just the kinds of resources its members needed to suppress their domestic challengers in a mutually beneficial way".

Chapters three through five then apply this framework to three successive phases of Egyptian expansionism during the Muhammad Ali era: the Hijaz in the 1810s, Greece and the Aegean in the 1820s, and Syria-Palestine in the 1830s. Chapter three argues that Egyptian expansionism in the 1810s had its roots in the desire of the state to extend its control over Egyptian society vis-a-vis rival military groups through enlisting them in external expansion, and in the parallel desire of merchants involved in the Red Sea trade to gain control over resources which would enhance their position vis-a-vis merchants connected with the Mediterranean trade. Chapter four makes the case for Aegean expansion being driven by the domestic utility of conscription (adopted to create the regular infantry forces used in the campaigns in Greece and the Aegean) in controlling artisan groups who were engaged in rebellion against the state in the early 1820s, and in bolstering the position of the merchant allies of the state through extending Egyptian hegemony to an area where Egyptian merchants were facing British, American, and local Greek competition. Chapter five finds the causes of Egyptian expansionism into Syria-Palestine in the 1830s in a similar combination of the usefulness of large-scale conscription in controlling growing brigandage and disorder on the part of both the rural and urban lower classes who were facing impoverishment due to the concentration of landholdings, the growth of cash-crop agriculture, the increasing import of European manufactured goods, and the attractiveness of Syria's natural resources at a time when Egypt needed both more food and more raw materials. The final chapter of the book summarizes the argument, considers two other Middle Eastern countries (Tunisia and Iraq) which had similar regimes in the early nineteenth century but which did not undertake foreign expansion, and offers a stimulating but more tentative application of the domestic political conflict perspective to a contemporary case of attempted foreign expansion--the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

How convincing is all this? The examination of Egyptian economic and political conditions offered in chapters three through five is thorough and valuable. The analysis of such issues as the changing character of the Egyptian economy, the shifting economic position of merchants, artisans, and peasants, the concomitant tensions among these social forces generated by rapid economic change, and the relationship of each to the new state regime is based on a careful reading of the abundant secondary literature on Muhammad Ali's Egypt which has appeared in recent years, and on the whole is persuasively presented. The discussion of the evolution of urban society is especially illuminating, offering a cogent analysis of the internal character and political cleavages within Egypt's merchant and artisan communities.

The thesis that domestic tensions were the primary cause of Egyptian expansion abroad is more problematic. The external factors offered as motives for Egyptian expansion are fairly conventional ones--to argue that Muhammad Ali wished to control trade routes around Egypt or to gain access to the resources of Syria-Palestine is neither original nor surprising. Throughout the book, the argument is one of inference: because expansion would be useful in the resolution of particular domestic contradictions, it had to be the cause of attempts at expansion. No documentary evidence for this having been the case is offered. Indeed, relatively little use is made of those portions of the biographies of Muhammad Ali which do deal with his foreign policy. Other than the summary critique of "conventional" explanations for Egyptian expansionism in chapter one, there is no examination of alternative influences (dynastic aspirations; Ottoman ambitions; ideological considerations) which may have been involved in generating Egyptian efforts at expansion. While the case for the primacy of domestic factors is based on an impressive analysis of the internal dynamics of Egyptian society and is vigorously argued, in the absence of documentary evidence relating to the decision-making process it remains suggestive rather than conclusive.
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Author:Jankowski, James
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1041
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