Little is known about the worldview and self-image of low-ranking Egyptian civil servants and graduates of state schools of the mid-19th century. Based on an unusual self-referential text which the young irrigation engineer Muhammad Kānīal-Baqlī had printed in 1865, this article seeks to discover the social and cultural orientation of a simple efendi of the mid-19th century and how he interpreted his world. It will show how al-Baqlī acted as an individual in a world defined by constraints and dependencies and how he tried to realise his ambitions for social recognition and advancement. Despite his subaltern position, al-Baqlī participated in the dominant hegemonic discourse about reform, progress and civilisation, and he aimed to adapt it to his own ambitious purposes. He also attempted to define what ought to be provided for him as an individual and as a member of an emerging social group, the afandīya, by a progressive and just government.