Maha A. Ghalwash, State, Peasants and Land in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Egypt (American University in Cairo Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Maha A. Ghalwash (MG): This book grew out of several interests: I am generally interested in subaltern groups and their relations with the state; I realized that the literature on nineteenth-century Egypt generally glosses over the mid-century years; and I wanted to develop a study that drew from archival sources.
So with these interests at the forefront of my mind, I began my research at the Egyptian National Archives (Dar al-Wathaʼiq al-Qawmiyyia). I started by examining the Islamic court registers; this preliminary investigation revealed that many peasants approached these courts, thereby bringing a multitude of problems before them, and that one of the most recurring disputes/problems concerned land rights. It is at this point that I decided to develop a study that focuses on peasant land tenure during the mid-nineteenth century.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MG: This book focuses on the rural history of Egypt from 1848 to 1863, the mid-nineteenth century years. Specifically, it examines the relationship between the absolutist state and the peasant smallholders, the latter constituting the majority of the subject population, during a period that is often forgotten basically because it falls between the eras of two dazzling rulers—Muhammad Ali Pasha and Khedive Ismail. It draws on a wide array of archival sources housed in Cairo; some are kept in the National Archives, others are in the Ministry of Finance Archives, and some have been rarely examined by other scholars, like the tax reassessment registers (dafatir takmil al-daraʼib). This combination of sources allowed me to shed new light on the state-peasant relationship during the middle of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, it involved specifying state views and perspectives and, on the other hand, highlighting peasants’ voices, views, experiences, and agential power. At this point, it is also necessary to clarify that this book focuses on the Lower Egypt region, where the best agricultural land was to be found and the majority of peasant smallholders lived.
The traditional interpretations of the rural history of nineteenth-century Egypt generally depict an avaricious state that was so indifferent toward peasant well-being that it consistently introduced harsh policies that led to unremitting, widespread peasant impoverishment. This study shows that these ideas do not hold for the mid-nineteenth-century years. It presents an argument that is composed of two points. One, state policy targeting the peasant land tenure regime was informed by the dual economic principles of the Ottoman (or traditional) philosophy of statecraft: to maximize state revenue; to protect the economic viability of the producing base. Two, the workings of the relevant rules and regulations did not produce extensive peasant land loss and impoverishment.
My investigation involved challenging conventional assumptions on a number of crucial issues, such as land legislation, tax impositions, the system of tax collection, the modes of land acquisition, large-scale peasant abandonment of land, the formation of large, privileged estates, distribution of village land, women’s right to inherit, and the nature of peasant political activity. Finally, while my research uncovered material that does not align with certain aspects of the interpretations presented by previous writings on this topic, thereby leading me to develop and present alternative ideas, it confirmed the major ideas specified by writers who had focused on Upper Egypt (most notably Barakat and Abul-Magd).
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MG: Prior to writing this book, I had developed three articles that deal with peasant society in nineteenth-century Egypt. The interpretations specified by these articles were incorporated into my book. In the article that focuses on the land-assignment system, I show that both affluent and poor peasants obtained land via this mode of land distribution—not only the affluent, as was previously assumed. This was one of the ideas the book relied on to demonstrate state interest in preserving peasants’ economic viability.
In another article, I examined peasant petitioning practices and highlighted peasants’ interest in drawing the state into their disputes; here, I argued that the peasants sought to engage with the state, not avoid it. The book also relied on these ideas to examine the nature of peasant political activity during the mid-century.
The last article addresses female land acquirement in peasant villages; here, I explained that the number of female smallholders remained low during the middle of the century largely because women had accepted and internalized the notion that landholding constituted a male prerogative. This understanding prompted women heirs to relinquish their shares of the family land patrimonies to their brothers in exchange for assistance during crisis times, and to rely on the 1858 law (which granted women their inheritance rights in full) to negotiate better land-for-security exchanges with their brothers. These ideas appear in the last chapter of my book, which focuses on peasant women’s inheritance of land.
Finally, in each of these past writings I relied on more than one kind of archival source. In describing them, I start by specifying the nature of the data to be culled from a source, then point to its limitations, and finally conclude that the reliance on only one type of archival source can lead to the development of distorted interpretations. The book does the same.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MG: I believe that readers interested in Middle East history, particularly Egyptian rural history, will find this book interesting and useful. I also hope that readers who focus on other fields— such as peasant studies, subaltern studies, gender studies, and Ottoman rural history—will also explore the book. Finally, I think that both scholars and students who are developing their own writings on related topics will be particularly interested in the examples/data mentioned in the book, as these could be used as evidence for their own interpretations.
I like to think that this book will encourage readers to reconsider certain ideas about nineteenth-century Egypt (particularly Lower Egypt, where the majority of the peasants lived and worked): that peasants viewed the state in negative terms, and only sought to avoid and resist it; that state legislation was developed by the ruling elite without input from the peasants/periphery; and that the absolutist state was indifferent toward the peasantry, and developed polices/regulations that were unremittingly harsh and oppressive. In addition to a re-examination of ideas, I hope that this book will encourage scholars to avoid (as much as is possible) relying on one type of archival source when researching their topics.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MG: In addition to my work on peasant society in nineteenth-century Egypt, I am also writing/developing several articles that focus on Islamist movements in current times. Regarding present-day Egypt, I am focusing on two topics: Salafi women, and the Salafi Nour party from 2015 to present. My interest in Islamist movements also extends to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; and here I am focusing on ISIS’s women members and the nature of their role in the movement during the post-2017 period (when it experienced significant territorial losses.)
At the same time, I have begun to think/read about a book-length project that focuses on citizenship in twentieth-century Egypt.
J: To date, your research has basically focused on topics that deal with state-society relations. Have you considered developing a topic that focuses on high politics?
MG: Yes, I have; I am very interested in examining the June 1967 defeat. On one hand, there are a number of very fine studies on this topic, such as that by Oren (2003). On the other, the Egyptian government has recently de-classified state documents that deal with this crisis, and I believe that examination of this material will yield new insights that will enable us to gain a better understanding of the related events. Of course, a book that relies primarily on this archival material would tell the story from the viewpoint of the Egyptian leadership; nevertheless, I believe that it is a story worth recounting.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)
State, Peasants, and Land in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Egypt
In introducing the main ideas of this book, it might be useful to begin with a brief overview of the major political events of the period under study. Egypt’s mid-century period was not a time of dramatic political events. It starts with the ascension of the dour Abbas I to the throne in 1848. Foremost among his concerns was the necessity of slowing the ambitious Western-inspired modernization program developed by his grandfather, Muhammad Ali Pasha, in order to grant the country the opportunity to enjoy a period of much-needed rest and recovery. He proceeded with his retrenchment plans while ignoring the views of the resident European community, thereby earning wide Western condemnation.
Next there was the matter of his tense relationship with his Ottoman overlord. Although Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt in 1517, and thereby turned it into an Ottoman province, local elites managed to establish a level of independence several times during the following two centuries. But the most significant challenge came from Muhammad Ali in the late 1830s, when the pasha fought to secure his dynasty’s rights to the governorship of Egypt. These were finally confirmed by the London Convention of 1840. In this way, Egypt was granted semi-autonomous status vis-à- vis the Ottoman government. This status was tested during the reign of Muhammad Ali’s successor, Abbas I. At this time, the Ottoman sultan’s government, the Sublime Porte, was in the process of implementing its famed Tanzimat reforms across the empire’s domains, which involved specifying new directives for Egypt’s new ruler. He was required to agree to the cancellation of his right to issue the death sentence in his realm and instead refer the relevant cases to Constantinople. Abbas, though, objected strongly, claiming that the implementation of these instructions would undermine his authority. Although viewing himself as a loyal vassal of the Ottoman suzerain, Abbas was nonetheless intent on preserving his autonomy. Realizing that this aim necessitated courting a Western power, he turned to Great Britain. In turn, the British made their support contingent on being granted the concession for the construction of a railway from Alexandria to Cairo. Abbas acceded to their request, and the British oversaw the settlement of the dispute in his favor in 1852.
Abbas’s reign ended two years later on one hot day in July 1854, when he was discovered dead in his palace at Banha, a town in the Delta region, apparently strangled by his slave attendants. At this juncture, his uncle Said Pasha became viceroy of Egypt. The new ruler was the polar opposite of his nephew. Contemporary foreign observers were particularly quick to highlight his appreciation of Western ways and ideas. The contrast between the two rulers can be generally seen in their treatment of the three major political issues of their reigns. First, their modernization programs. While Abbas I shut down many modernization projects in order to grant the country a period of respite, Said Pasha believed it was necessary to accelerate developmental efforts, with his primary focus being the improvement of the country’s infrastructure. He initiated his most dazzling venture in July 1854, when he granted his friend Ferdinand de Lesseps the concession to construct an artificial waterway that would connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea through the Isthmus of Suez; in this way, launching the Suez Canal project. Second, whereas Abbas Pasha was generally suspicious of foreigners, and therefore disliked and shunned them, Said Pasha, having been educated in France, admired the West and courted foreign approval. Several contemporary foreign observers concluded that Said wanted to introduce Western-inspired reforms in Egypt. Said’s positive relationship with foreign residents and diplomats also had bearing on his plans regarding the Ottoman sultan, the third important political issue of his time. While Abbas had wrangled with the Sublime Porte over his right to issue the death sentence, the new viceroy’s relationship with his suzerain was generally free of thorny disputes. Yet resident British diplomats reported to London that Said Pasha gave serious thought to two matters that would have required unwavering Western support: one, changing the rules of succession to the throne of Egypt from the Ottoman system of primogeniture to the monarchical system, thereby allowing his young son Tusun to succeed him; and two, declaring Egypt’s independence from the Ottoman sultan. Although Said Pasha dwelt on these ideas with his confidants, he refrained from acting on them in a clear and resolute manner.
At this point in our discussion of governmental interests, we must pause to highlight the paramount state concern of the nineteenth century: modernization and development. This was even true for Abbas’s reign; for although he reduced the pace and scope of the state modernization project, he by no means completely abandoned it. This might be attributed to his cognizance of the world around him. In the European regions, the major theme and goal of the nineteenth century was modernization, improvement, and development. In Constantinople, the Sublime Porte acknowledged this reality, and tried to follow suit as best it could. Central to the state modernization efforts in both these contexts was the attempt to subject “agricultural wealth, particularly land, to state regulation.” The same was true for Egypt.
This book seeks to examine the state’s efforts to subject peasant landholders to more rigorous official regulations during the mid-nineteenth-century years, which involves investigating the relevant mid-century policies and laws and then determining their impact on rural society. In researching this project, I found it necessary to rethink three assumptions of the current literature: the state was alienated from and without mercy for the lowly producing groups; the peasants were helpless victims who shunned the state and never thought to engage with it; and the peasantry experienced widespread land dispossession during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. After consulting a wide array of archival sources located in Cairo, many of them hitherto unexamined, I was able to challenge these views. For these sources reveal an absolutist state that displayed concern for the lowly “base” of society; that peasants did exhibit awareness of official policies and the willingness to deal with the state; and that the majority of peasant smallholders retained their lands during the mid-century period, with some of the indigent rural folks even increasing their land possessions. This book develops an argument that is composed of two major points: one, state policies and regulations dealing with peasant lands at mid-century were shaped by the dual economic principles of the Ottoman (or traditional) philosophy of statecraft (that is, maximization of revenues, preservation of the peasants’ economic viability); and two, the workings of these policies did not bring about widespread peasant ruination.
The Institutional Context
The elaboration of the just specified first point of my argument involves the exploration of the institutional context that shaped, regulated, and governed the land-tenure regime during the “middle years” of the nineteenth century: namely, the major land codes, the tax impositions, and the system of tax collection. I start with my findings on the major land laws. Most writings on these laws argue that the state specified stringent land recovery criteria in order to disallow poor original holders from suing for the repossession of their lands, in this way enabling current landholders to retain these lands. This thinking further implies nearly complete governmental disregard for the plight of the impoverished peasants. I challenge this interpretation of the land laws of the mid-century period, and instead show that the officials who wrote the first two land codes of this period (1847 and 1855 codes) were guided in their work by the dual economic principles of the traditional philosophy of statecraft, which involved addressing the plight of the insolvent peasants. Here, I highlight commonly overlooked features of these laws: for example, along with the stringent land recovery criteria, these laws also included provisions that focused on insolvent land claimants who could not recover their original lands, entitling them to a small portion of their original lands or to subsistence-size plots of vacant village land. With the comprehensive 1858 land law, though, we see that official concern for poor village cultivators had diminished considerably. But this was not manifested by the specification of more stringent land recovery rules, as was assumed earlier, but by the stipulation of a fee for the receipt of land assignments (the chief mode of land acquirement during the first half of the nineteenth century, which did not require payment of fees before 1858).
Finally, my research also sheds light on the actual writing of the 1858 law. One of the important assumptions that can be drawn from earlier studies is that the provisions that make up this law were formulated at the center without input from the periphery. My research reveals the opposite. Specifically, it reveals cases where provincial officials and humble peasants voiced concern over problematic regulations and proposed alternative ideas, which the center subsequently accepted and incorporated into the new law. Such willingness to listen to peripheral voices clearly points to the writers’ practical bent: by drawing on ideas proposed by knowledgeable rural folk, they were actually introducing regulations that would work in practice—which in turn would only parlay into more effective state management of the countryside.