|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 March 2002
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A Diwan of contemporary life (433)
Prince Ahmed Seifeddin, best known for shooting and wounding King Fouad I following a family feud, had a huge personal fortune which he was forced to leave behind in Egypt after he was sent to an asylum in Britain. Seifeddin's mother, Nujwan, employed the best legal minds in the country to reclaim her son's assets. She set off a court battle which mysteriously turned up two documents exposing financial and political irregularities that involved some of the country's highest political figures. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* looks into the case of the purloined papers
A royal scandal
The life story of Prince Ahmed Seifeddin, son of Prince Ibrahim Pasha, grandson of Mohamed Ali and brother of Shuweikar, the first wife of King Fouad I, reads like an ancient Greek tragedy. In Act I our protagonist shoots his brother-in-law, an incident that occurred in 1898. It may have passed without significant repercussions were it not for the fact that the victim later became sultan and afterwards the first king of modern Egypt. Act II culminates in Seifeddin's escape in 1925 from a private asylum for the mentally disturbed in Britain where he had been interned for more than a quarter century. How the prince escaped from the asylum remained a disturbing mystery to the palace, not least because of the enormous personal fortune that Seifeddin had left behind in Egypt and would undoubtedly seek to claim. The final act of the drama takes place in 1928. It was by far the most disturbing.
Act I took place at the Mohamed Ali Club, where startled onlookers saw Prince Seifeddin shoot his brother-in-law with a revolver because of his maltreatment of Shuweikar. Fouad sustained such a severe injury that his life was only spared by a miracle, according to the physician who succeeded in extracting the bullet from his body. The incident concluded in a double calamity for Seifeddin. Fouad divorced his assailant's sister even though she had nothing to do with her brother's attack against her husband. Secondly, Seifeddin was brought to trial and sentenced to seven years in jail. When his lawyers appealed, they managed to get the sentence reduced to five years.
However, Abbas II, the ruler of Egypt at the time, was not prepared to have a member of the royal family behind bars. At the same time, he had no great affection for his uncle, Prince Fouad. Thus, when less than two years later Seifeddin's lawyer filed a plea of mercy on the grounds of insanity, Abbas agreed to have Seifeddin examined by a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist determined that Seifeddin was mentally disturbed and recommended sending him to an asylum in Britain for treatment. Act I closes with Seifeddin on board a ship, gazing at the receding coastline of Alexandria, unaware that he will never see his country again.
In the 27 years that Seifeddin spent in the British mental asylum, the winds of politics in Egypt brought many changes, most adverse to the interests of the ill-starred prince. In 1914, London declared Egypt a British protectorate and deposed Abbas II. Not only did this result in the loss of Seifeddin's main support within the Egyptian royal family, but Abbas' successor was Fouad's brother, Hussein Kamel, who had naturally sided with the victim of Seifeddin's attack in 1898. Then, in 1917, Fouad himself assumed the throne, a development after which Seifeddin effectively lost all hope of ever returning to Egypt and enjoying the vast fortune he had left behind.
The same period saw the transition of Egypt from a province -- if only nominal -- of the Ottoman Empire to a British protectorate and then, riding the crest of the 1919 Revolution, to a quasi-independent nation in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922. Independence brought the Egyptian king more benefits than it did to the people who launched the revolution that made the declaration possible. For Seifeddin, that meant that there was no longer anything to stop Fouad from keeping him in the British asylum until he died.
Nevertheless, Seifeddin, as well as his sister and mother still retained their princely titles. Abdin Palace had no choice but to follow protocol in this matter, however acrimonious the relationship was between the members of the house of Mohamed Ali and the current occupant of the throne. Al-Ahram readers opened their paper on 4 September 1925 to read of Seifeddin's escape from the British hospital. Naturally, speculation was rife over how that was possible. Perhaps the most credible story was one given by Faridoun Pasha. In his account, Faridoun told the press that on 31 August Seifeddin managed to elude his British guards, board a tour boat across the Channel, meet up with his mother and her husband in France and take a plane with them to Paris where they moved from one hotel to another and changed cars frequently in order to evade any possible pursuer. Eventually, the account continues, Seifeddin and those with him made their way to Marseilles, where they boarded a ship bound for Istanbul, travelling incognito in second class.
Fortunately for Seifeddin, Ankara refused to hand him over to the Egyptian government on the grounds that as the son of Turkish parents, Seifeddin had the right, under the Lausanne Convention of 1923, to claim Turkish citizenship. Seifeddin readily seized this opportunity which not only spared him from the wrath of King Fouad but opened the way for him to regain his fortune from the Egyptian government. As Abdin Palace was perfectly aware, if Seifeddin could obtain a certificate testifying to his psychological well-being, he would then be able to file suit in the Mixed Courts in Egypt to establish his competency and assert his rights with regard to his property in Egypt.
Compared to the 27-year intermission between Acts I and II in the tragedy of Seifeddin, the intermission between Acts II and III was hardly a breather. Events in the last act centred on the prince's extensive property. According to Al-Ahram, he owned 20,252 feddans of farmland, as well as two-and-a-half apartment blocks and assorted plots of land in Alexandria, six homes, a store in Khan Al-Khalili, a pharmacy and 38,800 square metres of land in Cairo. In 1927 alone, these properties generated LE119,483 in income.
Understandably, Seifeddin's mother, Nujwan Hanem, wasted no time in setting into motion the procedures by which her son would regain his entitlements. The process turned out to be not as straightforward as it first appeared. Since Princess Nujwan was a Turkish subject, at first it seemed that her claims would be resolved through the Mixed Courts. Ankara at the time was engaged in negotiations with Cairo to establish the right of its subjects in Egypt to have recourse to these courts, a right accorded to several other nations in accordance with the capitulations system still in force in Egypt. The Turkish government claimed that since it had sovereignty over Egypt at the time this system was put into effect, it was no less entitled to the privileges accorded to other nations. Cairo countered that it was in the process of phasing out the capitulations system and that it made little sense to increase the number of foreign nationals who could claim rights under this system.
With access to the Mixed Courts blocked, the next logical avenue for Seifeddin would have been the religious courts. But this was not to be the case. In 1922, King Fouad had issued a decree forming the Royal Court Council, a body which had jurisdiction over affairs pertaining to the members of the royal family. According to the 1922 decree, the Royal Court Council comprised a prince, appointed by royal decree, as chairman, the speaker of the senate, the minister of justice, the chief of the royal cabinet, the rector of Al-Azhar, the chief magistrate of the national court of appeals and the mufti of Egypt. The council had a secretary, also a royal appointee, responsible for keeping records and documents housed in the royal archives.
Confronted with this reality, Princess Nujwan pursued a two- pronged course of action. Firstly, through Mohamed Shawkat, Seifeddin's attorney in Cairo, she engaged the services of the most prominent lawyers in the capital to represent her son's interests before the Royal Court Council. The team of lawyers consisted of Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha, shortly to become head of the Wafd Party and prime minister; Wissa Wassef, who would become Wafdist speaker of the Chamber of Deputies; and Gaafar Fakhri, who would soon serve as speaker of the senate. Their task was to persuade the council to grant her son LE120,000 per year from the income of his estates, to help him buy a palace in the fashionable Pera quarter of Istanbul and another on the banks of the Bosphorus, and to pay him his monthly allowance dating back to August 1925. Her second tack was to rally the support of a number of politicians and members of the royal family to abolish the Royal Court Council.
With all the tactics, personalities and money involved, scandal was bound to come. Sure enough, Act III of the tragedy of Seifeddin opens with the publication of two documents exposing financial and political wheeling and dealing. Appearing in Al-Akhbar, the mouthpiece of the National Party, the first of these documents was the contract between Shawkat and the legal firm of El-Nahhas, which revealed that the latter had charged LE130,000 for its services on behalf of Seifeddin. The fee was unprecedented for this type of case and Al-Akhbar explains why it was so exorbitant. El-Nahhas and Wissa Wassef had been attorneys for the Royal Court Council at the time they signed the contract with Shawkat. They were being paid, not so much for their legal expertise as for their political clout and their influence in the courts, which in this case was represented by the Royal Court Council.
The second document was a draft letter from Gaafar Fakhri to Faridoun Pasha. Dated 24 September, two days after El-Nahhas was elected chairman of the Wafd Party. The letter contained a reference to the lawyers' intention to abolish the Royal Court Council so that Seifeddin's case could be brought before the religious courts, over which the king did not have as powerful an influence. The intention was acted upon when, in June 1928, National Party Chairman Hafez Ramadan presented a bill to parliament to abolish the Royal Court Council. That it was the National Party leader who introduced the bill made it appear as though this party and the Wafd were in collusion against the king.
The scandal precipitated by these documents served as one of Fouad's pretexts for dismissing the first El-Nahhas government. Given their historical and political significance, it is important to determine exactly how these documents came to light, for which purpose we must turn to British Foreign Office archives.
In a letter dated 29 June 1928, British High Commissioner to Egypt Lloyd George informed his superiors in the Foreign Office that the contract and the letter from Gaafar Fakhri had been purloined from Fakhri's home in Alexandria some time in March. Shortly after their disappearance, Fakhri filed a complaint with the public prosecutor's office charging that his cook had stolen them from one of his wife's dresses. George doubted the story, if only because a male member of an Egyptian household staff would not have had access to a woman's wardrobe. After making inquiries, Lloyd's staff learned that Fakhri and his wife had a falling out, which raised doubt whether she had stolen the documents. The high commissioner did not think so either, believing instead that Fakhri, working in collusion with the king, handed the papers over to the palace.
It was three months before King Fouad decided the time was ripe to use the documents. He gave them to Ahmed Wafiq, editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar, who reproduced them as zinc plate photographs on the front page of his newspaper on 23 June, along with an Arabic translation of the Turkish originals. Within days, the documents appeared in Al-Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the pro-palace party by that name, in Al-Siyasa, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party newspaper and with an accompanying translation into French in La Liberté, a French- language newspaper known for its close ties with the palace.
All these newspapers assailed the Wafd Party. Al-Akhbar proclaimed that the offenders should be prosecuted on criminal charges in accordance with Article 93 of the Penal Code, as well as for flagrantly violating articles 67, 68 and 71 of the constitution. It demanded that the prime minister and the speaker of the senate resign and be stripped of parliamentary immunity so that they could be brought to justice. The other newspapers expressed similar sentiments.
In response, the Wafdist newspapers rallied to the defence of their leaders. The Wafd Party parliamentary committee convened an emergency meeting primarily to discuss the documents and the repercussions of their publication. The meeting was held on 24 June, and the following day Al-Ahram published the proceedings in full.
Fakhri told his fellow Wafd Party members that the Arabic translation of the Turkish documents was inaccurate and contained words and passages not present in the original. Perhaps the most damning read, "It is no secret that you can manipulate the members of the two houses of parliament." This sentence was given prominent play in the newspapers that attacked the Wafd as proof of the intent of Wafd leaders to exploit their political positions for personal gain.
At the meeting, Wissa Wassef vehemently denied the claims of those he termed conspirators against the Wafd. The lawyers could not possibly have charged Seifeddin the fees cited in the alleged contract that appeared in the national press. Although Seifeddin's estate was worth more than LE3 million, it only generated an annual income of LE120,000. "We, therefore, only asked for LE500 for each of us in advance," he said, "and approximately LE40,000 to be paid to each of us only in the event that Seifeddin gets back all his possessions, regardless of the number of cases that must be filed towards this end before the national, mixed, or religious courts, or the Royal Court Council. This fee comes to less than three per cent of the value of the appellant's claim and, as such, represents a very modest figure."
Wassef strongly denied the allegation that anyone in the Wafd leadership sought to abolish the Royal Court Council. The truth of the matter, he said, was that several members of the royal family had appealed to him, in his capacity as speaker of parliament, to abolish the body on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. He had no intention of embroiling Wafdist members of parliament in this matter and, when confronted with his refusal, his petitioners found someone else to do their bidding. This was the chairman of the National Party, Hafez Ramadan, who presented to parliament a bill to abolish the council in May 1928. Wassef stressed that no Wafdist member of parliament had a hand in that bill and that, moreover, the bill was referred to the parliamentary legal committee for study, which is where it remained even as he spoke.
In light of Wassef's statements, it was all the more curious that Hafez Ramadan, the chairman of the party whose newspaper was the first to break the news of the scandal, eventually withdrew the bill he had submitted to parliament. This resulted in considerable speculation over his role in the palace's conspiracy against the Wafd. At the same time, however, suspicions lingered over El-Nahhas Pasha who was legally bound to abandon his advocacy of Seifeddin's case once he became prime minister. However, according to Wassef, the Wafd leader had written to Nujwan following his election as prime minister in order to excuse himself from the case. He received a response from her accepting his apology. As for Wassef, as speaker of the house, there was nothing to prevent him from representing clients in court although he was not inclined to do so out of principle but to preserve the dignity of his position. Finally, Wassef maintained that neither he nor El-Nahhas had any advance knowledge of the letter from Gaafar Fakhri to Faridoun Pasha, a claim supported by Fakhri himself before the Wafdist parliamentary committee meeting and in the investigations later conducted by the public prosecutor.
In spite of these denials, a number of anti-Wafd newspapers kept up their attacks on the Wafd Party leader and his colleagues. Al-Ittihad reiterated the demand that the three lawyers should tender their resignations from parliament and that they should be brought to trial. La Liberté continued to fume against the prime minister, calling him an "idiot" on one occasion. Al-Akhbar maintained that in any other nation charges of the nature being levelled against the lawyers would have long since forced them to resign and brought them before the courts. The newspaper also deplored the substance of the report, which appeared in Al-Ahram, that El-Nahhas would remain prime minister as long as he enjoyed the confidence of parliament.
In the midst of this outcry, Fouad issued a decree dismissing the El-Nahhas government. However, so as to allay any concerns that he had any hand in the purloining or falsification of the contents of the documents which triggered this scandal, his decree made no reference to them or to the case of Seifeddin's property rights. Rather, he simply justified his decision on the grounds that the ruling coalition was badly divided.
Although an outcry against the Wafd provided the perfect climate for dismissing the El-Nahhas government, Wafd Party leaders continued their probe into the case of the stolen documents. They were certain a plot against the Wafd was afoot and they were determined to discover how the documents found their way to the national press and who was behind the mistranslation of the letter from Fakhri to Faridoun. Unfortunately, they came up against at least two brick walls. Although they acknowledged that the Arabic translation of the Turkish documents was inaccurate, investigating authorities supported the principle cited by the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar that a journalist is not obliged to reveal his sources. Secondly, no one was about to openly point a finger at the king as the instigator of the plot. The most that could be done was to allude to the palace indirectly, which is precisely the course Al- Ahram took. In its edition of 11 July 1928, the newspaper featured a fictional interview between an Al-Ahram correspondent and "someone in the know." The interview went as follows:
Q: Have you noticed any commotion concerning this issue?
A: Were it not for domestic politics and the ulterior motives involved, this issue would never have caused even a stir.
Q: The public prosecution is now eager to learn the circumstances surrounding the theft of the papers from the home of Fakhri Bek.
A: Do you think the theft is still a mystery? Many people know exactly how it occurred and I am one of them.
Q: Then who did it?
A: Mr X, of course, was the middle man.
On this note, Al-Ahram falls silent on the case of the purloined documents which then became history.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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