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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/163

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cattle, or renew his bond on still more ruinous terms. He was, in fact, entirely at the mercy of the lender."

That some betterment of such a condition of affairs was imperative if civilization was to be maintained and the substantial dissolution of Egyptian society prevented, seemed evident, and to effect it most rationally and speedily, an experiment was instituted that, as respects its nature and results, finds no parallel in the world's history. This in brief was the creation of a fiscal commission, by Sir Evelyn Baring, then British agent and consul general in Egypt (but now Lord Cromer, minister plenipotentiary), the members of which were selected solely by reason of their recognized qualifications for the work in hand and invested with almost autocratic powers. To this commission was intrusted the task of examining and reconstructing a revenue system of long duration and fortified by the precedents, customs, and prejudices, of an entire country, with a not inconsiderable population. The commission when organized in 1884-'85 entered upon its work under exceedingly unfavorable circumstances. The financial pressure was most acute. The magnitude of the national debt was apparently overwhelming; and the prices of the leading agricultural staples of the country, depressed in an extraordinary degree by world-wide competition, consequent upon improved conditions of production and transportation, seemed to preclude all possibility of obtaining any increased revenues from the masses by a continuance of the old, or even by any new methods of extortion. The first step taken was to abolish as rapidly and as far as possible all unnecessary and unproductive expenditures; and for this there was large opportunity. A diminution was made in the pension list, and in the number of superfluous and highly paid officials. By the concurrent action of the great powers of Europe the rate of interest on the funded debt of Egypt was also somewhat reduced.

The next important measure that claimed the attention of the commission was the grievance of the corvée, or system of enforced labor on the part of the peasantry on the public works; which, if entitled to be called taxation, was taxation of the worst and most wasteful kind, entailing sacrifices upon the people out of all proportion to the money which it saved to the state. It was not, however, found practical at the outset to abolish it altogether. The old practice by which the fellahs might be dragged away from their villages at any moment for any purpose, public or private, upon which the Khedive might choose to employ them, was at once totally abrogated. On the other hand, the agriculture of Egypt, the main source of support of her people, depends upon the water of the Nile, distributed through irrigating ditches or canals; and in order that these should fulfill their purpose, it is