Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx, Weber, and Wittfogel all employed the concept of Oriental despotism to describe forms of non-European politics. Although each of these thinkers used the idea in different ways for different purposes, they all accepted that one of its crucial aspects was the notion that irrigation produced forms of authoritarian politics. With the world's longest river and one of history's oldest civilisations, Egypt was seen as the quintessential example of Oriental despotism. This article uses the copious sources of the Ottoman period of rule in Egypt to tell quite a different story of irrigation and politics. It shows how peasant cultivators held much of the power in the cooperative arrangements of imperially-coordinated localism that characterised the management of irrigation in rural Egypt. Egyptian peasants had the autonomy and wherewithal to initiate and control repairs to the countryside's irrigation network from beginning to end. They - not the imperial state - were thus the most vital actors in the politics and economics of rural Ottoman Egypt.