|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
27 Dec. 2001 - 2 Jan. 2002
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A Diwan of contemporary life (422)
King Fouad's five-month tour of Europe in 1927 was dubbed the "auspicious voyage" in the Egyptian press. Before his departure, though, the trip to Britain, France and Italy was shaping up to be anything but propitious. The king repeatedly went out of his way to refer to the tour as state visits in an attempt to quash rumours that the journey's aim had a political nature. Once the controversy died down, Al-Ahram took the occasion to give readers some insight into the relationship between Egypt and the countries on the royal itinerary. The tour also provided an opportunity for Egyptians to know more about the life of the man who sat on the throne. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* follows Fouad's tour
On Saturday morning, 24 June 1927, King Fouad I left his Ras Al-Tin palace in Alexandria "in an entourage of princes, ministers and senior court officials," and made his way amidst cheering throngs to the royal yacht, Al-Mahrousa. Shortly afterwards, the king embarked on his longest trip outside of Egypt, returning on 14 November, precisely 143 days later. The king's "auspicious voyage," as his tour of Europe was dubbed in the Egyptian press, has been one of the neglected chapters in modern Egyptian history.
King Fouad with his cabinet ministers after his return from the 143-days-long European tour in 1927
Egyptians had known about the king's tour since the beginning of April, which allowed the press time to discuss it -- then turn it into a controversial issue. Certain British newspapers hinted that the purpose of the visit was to reach an understanding with London over a settlement which had long eluded politicians on both sides. Egyptian nationalists objected strenuously to the suggestion, as did Al-Ahram.
In the two months leading up to the king's departure, the newspaper featured numerous commentaries and letters opposing the substance of the rumours in the British press. One writer maintained, "His Majesty is undertaking this voyage, firstly, for health reasons, and secondly, to fulfill the promise he had repeatedly made since taking the throne: to visit European capitals so as to strengthen friendly relations and reply in kind to the visits of foreign kings and princes." The writer went on to express his hope that a constitutionally restricted monarch, such as Fouad, would not seek to appropriate powers that belonged to the parliament and the cabinet. In a constitutional monarchy, he wrote, the role of the monarch "is restricted to reconciling discordant voices and pave the way for foreign ministers and other officials should obstacles come in the way. This constitutes the mission of constitutional monarchs whom the law has relieved of the responsibility and accountability that befall ministers and politicians. Officials who are held responsible before the people are those who must do the work entrusted to them and who must answer to the nation. The monarch, who shoulders no such responsibility and whom the people cannot hold accountable, must steer clear of the business that certain British newspapers wish to attribute to the purvey of His Majesty and that we hope to dissuade him from undertaking." The writer further cautioned the British against encroaching upon the freedom of the king and embroiling him in political issues not of his concern. Should they attempt to do so, he writes, "the Egyptian people will rise as one to denounce the British schemes."
King Fouad was undoubtedly sensitive to the public mood on this issue. An indication of this is that during his meetings with the British high commissioner in Cairo to discuss the upcoming tour, Fouad always referred to it as a "state visit," not a political visit. However, as the date approached, Al-Ahram itself began to make the distinction blurry. On 24 May, under the headline, "The King's visit to Europe: What we should caution him against and what we should hope for," the newspaper said that although the tour was not political it had "political ramifications," in that such visits helped foster the bonds of friendship between Egypt and the countries the king visited.
The writer illustrated this by citing notable Egyptian royal visits to Britain. In 1841, Mohamed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, went to London "to restore the bonds of friendship that had unravelled by the devastating wars England had launched against Egypt. These wars began at the battle of Navarine, which destroyed the Egyptian fleet in the Mediterranean."
Several decades later came the visit of Khedive Ismail to London and Paris where he inaugurated the Egyptian pavilion in the world fair. Although the Ottoman sultan had insisted that the exhibition be included in the Ottoman pavilion, since Egypt was still under Ottoman hegemony, the Egyptian ruler succeeded in persuading Napoleon III to intervene in order to keep the Egyptian pavilion separate. The success, though symbolic, reaffirmed the extensive autonomy the khedive had managed to secure from the Ottoman throne.
Al-Ahram also took the occasion of Fouad's trip to give its readers some insight into the relations between Egypt and the countries he intended to tour: France, Italy and Britain.
The first was given prominence. Every Frenchman must recall that he and his forefathers have had the greatest influence on Egypt, the newspaper wrote, "and because of their schools, literature and culture, their interests, be they moral or material, dictate that they remain keen to preserve the heritage they fostered." Al-Ahram then cited a French member of parliament, writing for L'Echo de Paris, who praised "the great deeds" King Fouad performed during his reign in the interests of safeguarding the high standard of French literature in Egypt. Because of these efforts, "French is now taught in all Egyptian public schools, which is only natural in the opinion of the royal family and government officials."
The French parliamentary member also dwelt on "the French blood that runs in the veins of Queen Nazli," which inspired Al-Ahram to feature an article on Nazli's grandfather on her mother's side. Under the headline, "Queen Nazli and her grandfather, Soliman Pasha," the newspaper relates that this native of Lyon and son of a mercantile ship owner, "enlisted for service on a warship in Toulon at the age of 18, then was transferred to the naval artillery and was wounded in the Battle of Trafalgar." He continued to serve Napoleon until the French defeat at Waterloo in 1815, after which he travelled to Egypt to start building the modern army that Mohamed Ali had started to establish. "He organised the army with astounding precision and was a commander of great importance. When the Turkish sultan asked for Egypt's assistance to put down the Greek rebellion in 1824, he performed heroic deeds." The article continues: "In 1829 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, in which capacity he took part in the Egyptian campaigns in Palestine and Syria. He then became chief-of-staff of the Egyptian army and, in 1839, he inflicted a stunning defeat on the Turkish forces. Afterwards he became the head trainer of the Egyptian army until his death in 1860."
The Italians, too, had "the closest amicable relationship with Egypt." Italy had a large and wealthy Italian community in Egypt whose interests were so closely intertwined with those of the Egyptians that in many activities it was nearly impossible to separate the two. "The Italian labourer is like the Egyptian labourer, the Italian contractor is like the Egyptian contractor and the Italian farmer is like the Egyptian farmer. Italians in Egypt live exactly like Egyptians in all respects."
That Italy was a major stop on the king's tour inspired an Al-Ahram reader, Tawfiq Habib, to contribute a lengthy article entitled "Egypt and Italy in History." Taking readers from antiquity to the present day, Habib highlighted the interaction of Roman and Egyptian civilisations in ancient times, the role played by Gohar Al-Siqilli, the Fatimid commander of Italian origin, in founding Cairo, and the Venetian- Mameluk alliance to break the Portuguese hold over trade routes to the Orient. Habib went on to say that Italians began settling in Egypt in large numbers in response to the opportunities opened to them with the rise of the modern state and that currently they were the second largest expatriate community in the country after the Greeks. To the Italians, Egyptians owe a debt of gratitude for introducing the postal system and for building Al-Qanatir Al-Khairiyya (barrages). In addition, not only should credit go to Italian architects and construction firms for designing and building many of Egypt's most elegant and luxurious palaces and residential and commercial buildings but also to Italian writers, artists and musicians for introducing the contemporary arts into Egypt. Italian opera companies formed the backbone of European theatre in Egypt "since Verdi's operas were first performed in the Royal Opera House," Habib reminded readers.
The tour also proved an opportunity for Egyptians to discover much more about the man with the gloomy countenance and the long, tapered mustache who now sat on the throne. Up to now Egyptians knew more about the young Prince Fouad before he took the throne in 1917 as sultan of Egypt, later redubbed "king" in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922. Naturally, everyone was familiar with the notorious "battle of the princes," in which Prince Ahmed Seifeddin, brother of Fouad's first wife, Shuweikar, attacked Fouad in the Mohamed Ali Club on 7 May 1898, leaving the future king with a permanent injury. They also knew the young Fouad for his public service as head of the board of directors of Egypt's first university, from its founding in 1907 to 1913. Moreover, they were aware that in 1914 it was rumoured that he was to be made king of Albania.
It is interesting that what Egyptians learned about their king as he was about to set off on the royal tour came primarily from the French and British press, as though the Egyptian press, even on this occasion, found the notion of probing into the personal life of their king daunting. In all events, what the European papers featured was commensurate with the occasion. The king was soon to visit their country and it was only natural that these papers focused on the positive aspects of their royal guest.
Al-Ahram turned first to the French Le Journal, which described Fouad as a great patron of literature and an intrepid explorer who had undertaken many geographical expeditions. Of particular note was his expedition into the Libyan Desert: "Dressed as an Arab sheikh, he travelled 2,200 miles into uncharted territory, for which he received the medal of honour from the British Royal Geographic Society." The French newspaper went on to laud Fouad as erudite, proficient in Arabic, Turkish, French and Italian, and a man who "could never be swayed from abandoning a life of study and exploration."
London's Daily Telegraph offered another facet of Fouad's personality. The Egyptian king, it said, was as far removed as could be from eastern rulers. The newspaper relates, "Recently he was shown a list of applicants for a vacancy in the palace. The king scrutinised the information given by each applicant, particularly those whose qualifications included recommendations for appointment. Then he inquired about those names on the list that were not accompanied by recommendations. Ultimately, his choice fell on an individual whose application relied solely on his personal qualifications."
Also, according to the Daily Telegraph, the king was a strong opponent of bureaucratic laxness. On occasion he would be petitioned to permit an exception to bureaucratic rules and procedures. Even if there were sound reasons for such an exception, Fouad would invariably reply, "I made those laws and I can hardly be the first one to break them." The British newspaper went on to say, "Throughout his life, the king had little interest in politics. He was always more concerned with spreading education and now he has dedicated himself to raising the intellectual level of Egyptian women, as Turkey had done when it moved to do away with obsolete customs such as the veil."
Fouad was an avid stamp collector who, according to the Daily Telegraph, used his expertise in this field to ensure that Egypt had the highest quality of postage stamps. "The current stamps, which carry the picture of His Majesty, are universally recognised." It said Fouad's personal attendant was a loyal, trusted and dedicated servant who "sleeps in the apartment next to that in which the king sleeps."
In the opinion of the Manchester Guardian, Fouad, with his "bright, penetrating eyes," was reminiscent of many powerful figures in the West. He was a frequent visitor to Britain, always showing great joy. "From the moment he greeted King George V, he was jovial and kind with all around him." The description certainly jars with the trademark scowl for which Egyptians knew their king.
From Al-Ahram's coverage of the trip, we learn that Queen Nazli did not accompany the king but caught up with him a month later. Although official palace statements at the time attributed her delay to illness, the ailment in question was undoubtedly her well-known aversion to her husband. In all events, her departure afforded the press another opportunity to dwell on the background and personality of a royal personality. The editor of a French newspaper remembered Nazli as "the slender, highly intelligent girl" he knew as a student in a French school in Alexandria. He praised the Egyptian queen for being exceptionally familiar with French culture and, at the same time, for strictly preserving the traditions of her ancestors. Another French newspaper held that Nazli had inherited the magnanimity and erudition of her grandfather, Soliman Pasha, qualities that made her the perfect queen of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Fouad's tour of Europe, which took him from Britain to France to Italy, in addition to two brief stopovers in Belgium and the Vatican, was covered extensively by Al-Ahram which sent a special correspondent to accompany the royal retinue.
Naturally, Britain was the first and longest leg of the journey, lasting from 4 to 26 July. To the relief of Egyptian public opinion, the three-week tour proved a purely official visit with no political agenda. No source, including those available in the British Foreign Office archives, suggested that any issues relevant to the negotiations between Egypt and Britain were raised during the many meetings the king had with British officials.
Al-Ahram reports that the two kings met in Buckingham Palace, where Fouad was accorded an official reception and given a tour of the royal chambers, after which the British royal family emerged from the palace with the Egyptian king to see him off. Al-Ahram said that King George displayed "unprecedented kindness and affection."
Although an attempt to arrange a meeting between Fouad I and George Bernard Shaw failed -- the famed Irish writer remained adamant in his refusal to meet royalty and heads of state -- the king's tour of Britain proceeded as planned. The agenda included visits to palaces, theatres, academic institutions, philanthropic organisations and industrial centres. Al-Ahram wrote that Fouad saw a theatre production in Palace Theatre of The Princess, starring four of the most renowned actors and actresses in Britain. The theatre, originally an opera house, is one of the most beautiful in London, the report said, adding, "The events of the play take place in an imaginary country, which bears some resemblance to one of the Balkan countries, at a time when a revolution was taking place."
Topping the list of academic institutions on the royal tour was the famous school for British aristocrats, Eton College, where Fouad was received not only by its headmaster but also by a prominent Eton alumnus, the British high commissioner to Egypt, Lloyd George, who was spending his summer holiday in Britain at the time. He also visited the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, where he took particular interest in an 18th century map drawn by Indian cartographers of the Red Sea and Arabian Peninsula coastlines.
Fouad's visit to the Royal Children's Hospital reflected his humanitarian concerns. Al-Ahram said the young patients waved at the king as he passed through the wards, although "some were so shy that they hid themselves under their blankets." On the other hand, one child had a beautiful, long-haired dog that it wanted to present to the king. Al-Ahram recounts that Fouad "turned to the child, said in English, 'Thank you, my son,' and politely returned the gift to the child."
In view of the economic importance of Egyptian cotton, it is hardly surprising that the royal tour included a visit to the Princeton spinning and weaving plant in Lancashire, noted for producing fine, high-quality products made chiefly from Egyptian cotton. The king also made a similar tour of the most important textile plants in Manchester.
There is reason to believe that Italy, which was the next stop on Fouad's tour, was close to his heart. When still a young man, he accompanied his father, Khedive Ismail, when he was sent into exile there in 1879. While in Italy he attended the military academy in Turin. And if English posed a problem in the first leg of the journey, there would certainly be no language barriers in Italy and the Vatican, nor later in France and Belgium.
Fouad's arrival in Rome on 2 August was received with pomp and splendour. He had left the country as the son of a deposed ruler and returned as the king of Egypt. The high point in Rome was the grand reception in the Capitol, in which "the king of Italy escorted Fouad as they proceeded through the famous Greek and Roman colonnades."
During his visit to the Vatican on 7 August, King Fouad had a 20-minute meeting with the pope. Although Vatican tradition prevented the issuing of an official statement following the meeting, informed sources suggested that the two leaders explored the possibility of exchanging diplomatic relations. Of course, no visit to Italy would be complete without a trip to Venice, which hosted "a splendid reception" in honour of the visiting Egyptian monarch.
Fouad's longest stay in France was in Vichy, where he spent nearly a full month being treated in the spa resort's mineral waters. Al-Ahram's correspondent noted that this city was well-known to Egyptians precisely because many visited it for that very purpose and that Fouad's father had visited it in 1865. The correspondent goes on to relate that, on the afternoon of his arrival, the king "visited the mineral water station and spoke with the physician who will supervise his treatment." The correspondent adds, "The king has been accorded a spacious chamber equipped with the latest scientific equipment. Nearby was a large room for relaxation, furnished with large, comfortable chairs and decorated with plants. The treatment scheduled for the king will last three weeks."
Fouad's reception in the French capital was considerably warmer than his reception in London, perhaps in part because Queen Nazli, who was of French origin, had now joined him. He was received in the Elysee Palace where he and the French president gave addresses that underscored the historical roots and the amicable relations between their two countries. In his speech, the Egyptian monarch stressed how his grandfather, Mohamed Ali, had sought the assistance of "elite French scientists and engineers to complete his great enterprise," and extolled the great contribution the French had made to Egyptology with Champollion's deciphering of hieroglyphics.
The last stop on Fouad's journey was more in the nature of a courtesy call. In Belgium, King Fouad was the guest of honour at a dinner hosted by the Foreign Ministry. Subsequently, he was given a tour of the "collections of the rare animals and fish" housed in the Colonial Museum, and then the Institute of Egyptian Antiquities. Finally, the king visited Charleroi, the city famous for building the tramcars that operated in all of Egypt's major cities.
On the morning of 14 November, the Mahrousa dropped anchor in the port of Alexandria, marking the end of the royal tour of Europe. Much had taken place at home during his absence, perhaps the most significant event being the death of Fouad's most formidable adversary, Saad Zaghlul. Undoubtedly, the king felt that the passing away of the nationalist leader had made his journey truly auspicious.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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