4 - 10 May 2000
Issue No. 480
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (336)
For 17 years after he was deposed as the khedive of Egypt by British occupation authorities, Abbas Helmi II succumbed to an irresistible urge to regain his throne or any other throne in the Arab region. He resorted to all kinds of manoeuvres and machinations, making secret alliances with potential supporters. He travelled from his Istanbul exile to Italy supposedly in preparation for a voyage to Egypt to confront the British with a fait accompli and capitalise on a residue of goodwill among Egyptians. The voyage never materialised, however, and Italian authorities eventually expelled him. He then moved to Switzerland. Frustrated by his failure at every turn, he signed a declaration in 1931 renouncing his claim to the throne of Egypt. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram and other sources.
The royal schemer
It is difficult for the man who has tasted the thrill of power in Egypt, with all the attendant pomp and wealth, to find his title preceded or followed by the epithet "former," all the more so when that man had occupied the highest seat of power in the country. Three successors to Mohamed Ali went through this experience.
Khedive Abbas Helmi II
The first was the Khedive Ismail who ruled from 1863 until he was deposed in 1879, after which he lived in exile until his death in 1895. The second was Ismail's grandson, Abbas Helmi II, who, after enjoying the longest reign of the three (1892-1914) endured the longest exile of them all (1914-1944). The third, and last, was King Farouk I who had the shortest reign of the three (1937-1952) and the shortest exile, which ended with his death in 1965, only 13 years after he was overthrown and expelled from Egypt.
Of the three, Abbas stands out for being the only deposed ruler whose departure from Egypt was not followed by a hail of curses from the Egyptian people. This could certainly not be said of Ismail who mired the country in the heavy foreign debts that would plague Egypt for decades and whose despotism had an extensive reach. Nor could it be said of Farouk who was toppled from the throne by the Egyptian Free Officers. If anything, quite the opposite applied to Abbas who was deposed by the British occupation authorities when they declared a protectorate over Egypt, conferring upon the ex-khedive a considerable measure of popularity as the victim of British high-handedness.
Indeed, for some time after he was deposed, Egyptians continued to view Abbas as their legitimate ruler. Contrary to his successor, Hussein Kamel, who was installed by an edict issued by the British Foreign Office, Abbas had been invested as khedive by virtue of an Ottoman firman (decree), the officially recognised formula for succession in Egypt, which was still nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, there arose a popular belief that Abbas II would soon return to rescue the country from the clutches of the illegitimate rulers who followed him. Contributing to the spread of this belief was the fact that the deposed khedive accompanied the Ottoman forces in their attacks on Egypt in 1915 and 1916, giving rise to the popular chant: "God is alive; Abbas is coming!"
Abbas, for his part, did nothing to dispel this belief, and, in fact, intimated that he would like to be restored to the throne. But then, of the three deposed monarchs, he was the only one who had a case. Ismail was deposed by a firman issued by the Supreme Porte, albeit at the behest of the British and French. Farouk I signed his own abdication, and although he had abdicated in favour of his son Ahmed Fouad, in effect, on 26 July 1952, he had affixed his seal to the end of the Mohamed Ali dynasty.
There was thus a special aura surrounding Abbas, and his spectre haunted both Hussein Kamel and King Fouad after him. This spectre was not put to rest until 1931, when Abbas officially renounced all claims to the Egyptian throne. Until this time, Abbas continued to play a role in shaping Egyptian events, an influence that was particularly felt during the first decade following his departure. It must be said, however, that 1923 marked a major setback for him. It was in this year that Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne, relinquishing Istanbul's historical rights in Egypt and effectively putting an end to Abbas's hopes to return to the throne. It was only natural, therefore, that Al-Ahram would show considerable interest in the "former Khedive Abbas" up to this juncture, although a fuller explanation of the man and his actions requires that we also turn to other sources.
Confidential British documents go a long way towards demonstrating that Abbas was not quite up to the tremendous hopes Egyptians had pinned on him. But then, this did not come as a surprise, for even as khedive his actions had proved disappointing. The reversal in palace policy with respect to the British High Commissioner in Egypt and the Egyptian nationalist movement best illustrates this. Students of modern Egyptian history are well aware that Abbas had allied himself with Mustafa Kamel, leader of the nationalist movement, as a means to manoeuvre against Lord Cromer, who had served as British High Commissioner until 1907. However, with the departure of Lord Cromer and the assumption of his post by Eldon Gorst, who adopted a policy of appeasement towards the khedive, Abbas suddenly abandoned the nationalist movement and became one if its most formidable adversaries.
In 1919, Abbas performed a similar about-face. Having allied himself with the Central Powers during World War I, once he had ascertained that Istanbul was no longer in a position to back his bid to the Egyptian throne he began to approach the British, who at the time had their forces stationed in Istanbul and their fleet patrolling the Dardanelles. This little-known manoeuvre was revealed in the correspondence between Admiral Calthorpe, the British High Commissioner in Istanbul, and his superiors in London in July 1919. Calthorpe writes of Abbas's desperate attempts to contact him, saying that Abbas had conveyed to him a promise that were he to be reinstalled on the throne in Egypt he would do all in his power to implement British policy in the country. London was not to be so taken in and answered its representative in Istanbul by instructing him not to respond in any manner whatsoever to the ex-khedive's machinations.
If Abbas was disappointed by this failure, his frustration would develop into fury when he learned of the decision of Lord Allenby, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, regarding the khedive's property in Egypt. In July 1919, the court custodian who had been appointed to oversee the khedival property, died. Allenby declared in a statement published in Al-Ahram on 19 July 1919 that the management of this property was to be transferred to the official custodian for enemy property, because "Abbas has been banished from Egypt, and he and his progeny, by command from the government of His Majesty the King of Great Britain, have been divested of all rights to succession to the position of sultan."
Abbas was not about to take this move sitting down. Together with the members of his retinue he formed a society of Egyptian nationalists with the aim of inciting rebellion against the British. Admiral Robeck, the new commander of the British imperial forces in Istanbul, wrote to London in July 1920 seeking permission to arrest Abbas. He nevertheless perceived two difficulties in this. The first was how to deal with the former khedive once he was arrested, and the second was the reaction his arrest could trigger in Egypt.
Following consultations with Cairo, London dispatched instructions to Robeck permitting him to place Abbas under house arrest in his palace in Istanbul, but not to arrest him. Robeck saw little benefit from such an action and decided instead to place the former khedive under strict surveillance.
Top to bottom: King Farouk; King Fouad
Meanwhile, British officials in Cairo were asked to study Egyptian sentiments towards Abbas in the wake of the war. They concluded that while Abbas was not on good terms with Wafd circles, he had maintained his customary contacts with the National Party.
Over the following year, 1921, neither Al-Ahram nor British documents carried further news of Abbas. The cause of this hiatus probably lay in the intensification of the conflict between, on the one hand, the Turkish nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kamal, up in arms against the humiliation meted out to Turkey under the Treaty of Sevres, and, on the other hand, the Greek, French, British and Italian allied forces that had occupied various parts of the Turkish mainland and the straits. All, including Abbas, held their breath as they awaited the outcome.
It was not long, however, before Abbas began to move again, this time quite literally from his Istanbul palace to Europe, where the British continued to keep an eye on him. His first stop was Rome, from where Al-Ahram's correspondent reported that Abbas had established close relations with the so-called League of Oppressed Oriental Nations that had been founded two years earlier in the Italian capital by Abdel-Hamid Said, a National Party leader. The correspondent went on to add that Abbas, "who is travelling on an Albanian passport, chose Italy as a base for weaving his cunning intrigues which he can fund so easily from his vast fortunes."
Perhaps these movements prompted British authorities in Cairo to deliver a stunning blow to the former khedive and his interests in Egypt. On 19 July 1922, the Egyptian government issued a law sanctioning the actions undertaken by the British military authorities during the war with regard to "liquidating the properties of Abbas Pasha who was deposed as Khedive of Egypt." One article of this law must have come as a great shock to Abbas. This article banned the former khedive from entering Egyptian territory. "Should he attempt to do so, the executive authorities shall immediately return him to the borders." The article went on to stipulate, "Nor shall he, independently or through an intermediary, be allowed to exercise any political rights or to have control over any fixed or movable assets or to own such assets through a contract or deed of donation. Nor shall he be entitled to any revenues accruing from a trust."
Commenting on this law, the British newspaper Near East wrote that it would "put an end once and for all to the demands pertaining to the trusts with which the khedive had been pestering the British government ever since war broke out with Turkey. According to the agreement with the British government, the former khedive shall receive the sum accrued from the liquidation of his assets, after deduction of debts and mortgages, a figure which it is said will amount to 750,000 pounds."
To Abbas, who believed his properties were worth far more than that, this figure must have seemed appallingly low. However, it transpired that even that British newspaper's estimate was optimistic. Within the space of two months, Al-Ahram announced that the net worth of the vast properties he had left behind in Egypt came to no more than half a million pounds.
Abbas's reaction was twofold. On the one hand, he abandoned all caution with regard to his anti-British statements. In an interview with Le Progrès de Lyon, he launched a vehement attack against British policies in Egypt and expressed his hopes for the success of the boycott against British goods and products that was then in progress. The Egyptians were carrying out this boycott, he said, in order to force the British "to recognise the justice of the Egyptian demand for the right to live in true, unrestricted and unconditional freedom." He went on to add that political activity in Egypt would enter a new phase as the nation's political parties "put behind them their petty quarrels and adhere as one to their original programme of action, which is to embark shoulder-to-shoulder on the struggle for liberation and to elect patriotic representatives prepared for this struggle."
His second course of action was reminiscent of movies of adventure and drama. Abbas boarded a ship from Italy to Alexandria, with the intention of placing himself face to face with the British authorities in Egypt in order to test their true mettle. According to a Daily Chronicle correspondent in Milan, the khedive was travelling under the name Aziz and had stayed in Naples for a week before boarding the Asperia bound for Alexandria.
One can imagine that Al-Ahram readers who had read this report on 22 February 1922 scoured their morning newspapers over the following days to track any further news of Abbas. Even Al-Ahram, unable to obtain more information, was ultimately forced to attribute the reports of Abbas's eventual arrival in Egypt to rumour. However, the reports were far from rumour as British secret documents reveal.
In a telegram dated 13 February 1922, the British ambassador to Rome alerted the Egyptian authorities of the ex-khedive's departure on the Italian liner, bound via Syracuse to Alexandria. The following day, Egyptian authorities awaited the arrival of the ship, only to discover that Abbas was not on board. After questioning the crew and other passengers, they learned that he had disembarked in Syracuse and never returned to the ship.
There followed a flurry of contacts between the British embassy in Rome and the Italian Foreign Ministry, which informed the British authorities that Abbas was then in Messina, but was planning to sail either to Tripoli in Libya or to the northern Egyptian coast. The officials said that they intended to prevent Abbas from travelling to Libya and were prepared to respond to a British request to refuse him permission to travel to Egypt. The British government eagerly took the Italians up on their offer, for if the ex-khedive landed in Egypt the authorities would have no choice but to arrest him and put him on the next outward bound ship, an alternative that London wanted to avoid at all costs. It was not until a few weeks later that the story of the khedive's adventure drew to a close. On 14 March, the British ambassador to Rome dispatched a brief telegram to London, informing his government that the Italian government had succeeded in compelling the ex-khedive to return to Rome. But this was not to be Abbas's last adventure.
On 30 July 1922, Al-Ahram's special correspondent in London dispatched a report to the effect that the former khedive was on the lookout for a vacant throne, preferably other than Egypt's, should the opportunity arise. He continues, "According to recent reports, he is currently in Paris with the intention of cajoling French officials into appointing him king of Syria. The reports add that the French are currently entertaining this possibility, because they find in Abbas a possible rival to the Sherif Hussein dynasty of the Arabian peninsula."
Although the Al-Ahram correspondent himself gave little credence to the reports, British authorities did not share his opinion. The British High Commissioner in Cairo, too, heard similar reports -- specifically that the secretary of General Gouraud, the French High Commissioner in Damascus, was on his way to Paris to persuade his government to place Abbas on the Syrian throne. Apparently the French were planning on granting Syria nominal independence, for which purpose they had in mind a pliable autocratic government working in conjunction with a high commissioner who would have a special status. Abbas was supposedly an ideal candidate for the part, because his presence on the Syrian throne could be used to exert pressure on the British in both Palestine and Iraq.
After hearing this report from its representative in Cairo, the British Foreign Office instructed its ambassador to Paris to ascertain the veracity of the rumours. On 24 August 1922, the ambassador met with the French foreign minister who denied ever hearing anything of the sort. Furthermore, during the war the former khedive had shown a certain antagonism to France and, in fact, his envoy to Paris at the time had to be arrested because of his hostile activities. The French foreign minister informed the British ambassador that the British government had nothing to worry about, because "the government of the Republic of France will never act in an unfriendly spirit towards the government of His Majesty the King of Great Britain." The minds of Lord Curzon in London and Lord Allenby in Cairo were put at ease, but not for long.
Three months later, at the end of November 1922, a Syrian delegation headed by Shakib Arslan and a Palestinian delegation headed by Moussa Kazem met in Rome, where "they decided to unite as one under the leadership of Abbas Helmi and demanded that the allied powers recognise the unity of and independence of Palestine and Syria and immediately evacuate British forces from Palestine and French forces from Syria."
To the British, this move seemed to mesh uncomfortably well with the designs of General Gouraud. The French high commissioner in Damascus had formerly attempted to partition Syria into small administrative units, an action that not only angered the Syrians but proved far too costly for the French to maintain. Having failed in this policy, therefore, he adopted an alternative plan. This was to unite the provinces of Syria under a single powerful eastern ruler, who was to be none other than Abbas. If, indeed, these were Gouraud's plans, they were not those of the French foreign minister who once again gave reassurances to the British ambassador in Paris.
Several months later, the Italian authorities found an opportune moment to expel Abbas, whose continued presence in Italy was clearly causing them some embarrassment. Al-Ahram relates that in March 1923 the Italian authorities arrested the Libyan rebel leader Omar Mansour Pasha and found in his possession papers linking him to Egypt's former khedive. Although it transpired that this connection was loose and based on unconfirmed links between the Omar Mansour and the League for Oppressed Oriental Nations, it was sufficient to serve the purposes of the Italian authorities.
The deposed Egyptian monarch then moved to Switzerland, primarily in order to be on hand for the Conference on the East that opened in Lausanne in July 1923. As the purpose of this conference was to discuss the future of the former Ottoman provinces in the Middle East, including Egypt and Syria, Abbas hoped that he could lobby to become a beneficiary of the conference's resolutions. Towards this end, he coordinated with the delegation representing the Egyptian National Party, which flooded the participants with memorandums, but again Abbas's hopes were to be dashed. Another source of his disappointment was the National Party itself. In the hopes of securing better terms for Egypt from the Lausanne conference, this party did all it could to appease the British. It abandoned its traditional links to Turkey and renounced its claim that Abbas was the legitimate ruler of Egypt, signing to this effect a declaration of allegiance to King Fouad. With this declaration, Abbas's links to any significant political grouping inside Egypt had been severed, effectively putting paid to his aspiration to be restored to the Egyptian throne.
News of Abbas and his intrigues disappeared from the pages of Al-Ahram. But over the next eight years, he remained a nettlesome figure, continuing to press for his financial rights and to pester King Fouad, who feared that the British might use the spectre of Abbas to intimidate him. It was not until 1931 that Abbas raised the white flag, officially renouncing all claims to the Egyptian throne in exchange for a settlement of his financial affairs and finally contenting himself to become a "former khedive" more than a decade and a half after he was deposed.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.