Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (485)
The lost khedive
Three of the nine members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1952 were deposed. Two were ousted by foreign will: Ismail in 1879 and Abbas II in 1914. In 1952, the third, Farouk, was overthrown by the will of Egyptians. Ismail and Farouk headed off to their exile of choice -- Italy -- where they calmly lived out the rest of their lives. Ismail died 16 years after his departure from Egypt and Farouk, at the age of 45, 13 years after his exile. But Abbas II, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* , was a different story
Abbas was deposed by the British in 1914 when Turkey, where the khedive was spending the summer that year, signalled its intention to join the Central Powers. The Foreign Office announced his deposition formally upon Britain's declaration of a protectorate over Egypt on 18 December 1914. Egyptians hotly disputed the legitimacy of the British action. Egypt was still internationally recognised as part of the Ottoman Empire, and just as a decree issued by the Ottoman sultan and Muslim caliph had installed Abbas as the legitimate khedive, only another decree issued by the same authority could depose him.
Officials in London must have also felt that their position was tenuous and attempted to placate Egyptian opinion. One of these was Lord Cromer, who had served as British consul-general to Egypt for nearly a quarter of a century and who, in spite of the animosity between Abdeen and Dubara palaces, the Egyptian and British seats of power in Egypt, composed a short biography of this khedive. Abbas II, appearing within a few months of the khedive's deposition, was immediately translated into Arabic and distributed widely.
Not only did Abbas II outstrip Ismail and Farouk in length of rule but also in length of exile: 30 years until his death in 1944. Throughout this period he remained a constant headache to the British ministries of foreign affairs and war. During World War I he accompanied the German-Turkish forces in their attack on the Suez Canal. Although the campaign itself proved unsuccessful, the deposed khedive's presence on the other side of the front fired nationalist passions. The chant "God is alive! Abbas is alive!" would undoubtedly have raised the alarm of British authorities in Cairo. British authorities would also have been beset with similar fears when, later, during the buildup to World War II, Abbas declared his support for the Axis Powers, an allegiance inspired, perhaps in equal measure, by his desire for revenge against the British and by sympathies developed during his period of education in Austria.
During the three decades of his exile, Abbas also remained a permanent thorn in the side of the occupant of the Egyptian throne. Hussein Kamel and subsequently Fouad I could never feel comfortable as long as the legality of Abbas's deposition was not settled once and for all. Indicative of public sentiments on this issue was the fact that the Nationalist Party refused to recognise Fouad as king until 1923, six years after he had succeeded Hussein Kamel.
Such sentiments, at least in part, account for the precautions Fouad took against the aspirations of his nephew to return to power.
One of these precautionary measures was what was decided upon on 13 April 1922. The resultant decree prohibited the deposed khedive from entering Egypt, from having a permanent residence in the country and from exercising, personally or through an intermediary, any political rights. Nor, under this decree, was Abbas to have a source of financial support in the country, whether through fixed or liquid assets in his own name or by proxy, or by means of donation or proceeds from a religious endowment. The former khedive was once again the subject of a clause in the Liability Law of 5 July 1923, in accordance with which he was prohibited from filing suit in an Egyptian court to reclaim the right to dispose of his property.
In spite of such attempts to clip his wings, Abbas persisted in his attempts to subvert the throne, which the Egyptian press followed assiduously, with Al-Ahram reporting each instance with relish generally under such headlines as "Intrigues of the former khedive". Then, suddenly, on 13 May 1931, Al-Ahram blazoned on its front page: "Khedive Abbas abdicates". Below the headline were three large pictures captioned "His Royal Highness the Khedive Abbas upon assuming the throne", "His Majesty King Fouad I", and "His Excellency Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi Pasha", and then a fourth smaller picture captioned "The late Khedive Ismail". Al-Ahram's Mahmoud Abul-Fath relates the story in detail.
The previous day, Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi invited Egyptian and foreign correspondents to a meeting in his headquarters. Abul-Fath writes: "All were surprised by this collective invitation and tried to guess its cause. We thought that the prime minister intended to draw the attention of the press to the precariousness of the current situation and the need to observe such and such a consideration before publication. Or perhaps he had an announcement to make on the current situation. Everything occurred apart from the possibility that we would be informed of the former khedive's renunciation of his claim to the throne and all other claims, his recognition of His Majesty the King, his uncle, and of the Law of Succession, the law on the liquidation of his property and all other such acts and measures."
The moment of revelation occurred at 7.00pm that day, when reporters and newspaper representatives entered the hall where cabinet meetings were held. The prime minister was standing at the front while the ministers stood on either side observing the procedures. "Perhaps, they wanted to see the surprise on our faces," Abul-Fath remarks. When all fell silent, Sidqi started to speak in his familiar deep voice:
"The prime minister has the great honour to inform the Egyptian nation that he had communicated with His Highness Abbas Helmi II, the former khedive of Egypt, with the purpose of drawing his highness's attention to the benefit that would accrue to the nation from his recognition of the current system of government and his declaration of allegiance to its legitimate ruler, His Majesty King Fouad. Today, in Lausanne, his highness signed the following statement." Then, in a trembling voice, as Abul-Fath described it, Sidqi recited the following text which appeared in Al-Ahram under the headline, "The document of Abbas Pasha's renunciation of all claims to the throne of Egypt". It read:
"I am confident that I served my country justly and loyally, that for 23 years, in spite of the sensitivity of the circumstances, I gave it all my effort and the best days of my life, and that, from the deepest recesses of my heart, I hope for the happiness and prosperity of Egypt.
"I have followed closely the progress Egypt has achieved, and continues to achieve, in all domains. I am truly delighted by the firm steps it has taken towards consolidating its independence and by the success of its political system, which confirms my respect for the person of its great king.
"I, therefore, hereby declare my support for the constitution established by royal decree 70 for 1930 and state that I will pursue under all circumstances a course abiding by the established order and laws of the country. In particular, I declare that I will honour and abide by the royal decree issued on 13 April 1922 regulating succession to the throne of the Kingdom of Egypt and Law 28 of 1922 pertaining to the liquidation of my properties, for these two laws are two integral parts of the Egyptian Constitution, and, further, the Liability Law 25 of 1923.
"Whereas I recognise that His Majesty King Fouad I, son of Ismail, is the legitimate king of Egypt, I hereby declare my renunciation of all claims of any nature, past or future, emanating from having been khedive of Egypt. I further affirm my absolute and permanent loyalty to King Fouad I and convey to him my sincere dedication and respect. I offer my deepest prayers to God to embrace His Majesty and Crown Prince Farouk and to increase the happiness and prosperity of Egypt."
The Egyptian press extolled the former khedive for his action and the spirit in which it was taken. In a lengthy editorial, Al- Ahram proclaimed that Abbas was "correct in saying that he had consecrated all his might and his best days to Egypt. No one today can deny that he had prayed, from the depth of his heart, for the happiness and prosperity of the country. Egypt is indebted to all the descendants of Mohamed Ali for the contribution they made to its continued progress and advancement, from the grandfather, Mohamed Ali, to the occupant of the throne today. If they made Egypt strong that was because Egypt made them strong, because the strength of each one of them derived from Egypt's strength and glory."
Naturally, the government press had the greatest cause to rejoice. Abbas's official renunciation of his claims was a great coup that the newspapers were quick to attribute to Sidqi's political skill and acumen. In a sense they were correct if there was any substance to the rumours that Abbas had been in touch with Wafd Party leaders in order to organise ranks against Fouad's incessant breaches of the constitution.
Al-Shaab, a newspaper founded by the prime minister himself, commented, "It is indeed a great marvel that Sidqi Pasha has spared Egypt from the evil of dispute over the throne and protected it from the intrigues such a dispute would entail. It is indeed a marvel that he brought an end to the long-standing rivalry between His Majesty the King and his nephew, His Highness the former khedive." This reconciliation, the newspaper continued, constituted yet another of the many testimonies to Sidqi's consummate skills. It was his unique God-given talents that enabled him, within a short period of time, "to end a great dispute that began on 18 December 1914 and remained a continuous source of anxiety for Cairo and London all these years until that day when Abbas Pasha did what people had once thought impossible and signed that document".
In similar tones, the French-language La Reforme, published in Cairo, lauded Sidqi who had entered into the secret negotiations that had reached such a successful conclusion. It also praised "the blessed action of the former khedive in recognition of the noble deeds his great uncle performs". Abbas, it continued, had taken pen in hand and "out of his own will and in his own hand affixed his signature to the bottom of a page of history, thereby concluding a highly fraught epoch in public life. As a result, there now is complete understanding between the members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty which, in turn, will serve the welfare of Egypt."
British opinion was voiced in the Daily Telegraph which featured an in-depth analysis of the event. It was obvious from the article that officials in London were exultant and relieved. In relinquishing his claims in Egypt, Abbas had implicitly renounced a claim against the British government. London, he had insisted, owed him several million pounds, representing the increase in the value of his property in Egypt since it was sequestered by the British at the time they declared martial law at the outset of World War I. The newspaper also asserted that Abbas's action had contributed to the stability of Egypt since by recognising the legitimacy of the current constitution he had "put paid to the influence of certain Egyptian princes who have declared their support for the old constitution". Concluding his commentary, the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Cairo observed that the capital was "curiously calm, considering that only 36 hours are left before the polls open. Evidently, last week's commotion has subsided."
In the days following the prime minister's announcement, government officials revealed some details of the difficult negotiations that led to this fortuitous development. According to government sources, Sidqi began negotiations with the former khedive on 7 February 1931. In addition to Abbas's claims on the throne, negotiations covered other sensitive issues pertaining to his relationship with the Egyptian and British governments.
Initially, Sidqi conducted communications directly through written correspondence or via an intermediary: Abdullah El- Bishri, who had continued in Abbas's service after his deposition. Then, when it appeared that considerable progress had been made, the government dispatched an official delegation to Switzerland, headed by royal advisor Anis Pasha and including Youssef Galal Bek, head of the palace's European bureau. Because this delegation and its purpose were to remain highly confidential, Anis announced that his trip was for medical purposes while Galal claimed that he was going to Switzerland in order to consult a noted scholar with regard to a period of history of Egypt he was writing on. The negotiations took place in Lausanne Palace Hotel where the former khedive was staying. It was in this hotel, too, at 10.30am Tuesday, 12 May 1931, that Abbas signed the historic document that Sidqi would announce to the press the following day.
The demands of journalistic competition would not permit Al- Ahram to content itself with the information supplied by the government. It therefore dispatched its top correspondent, Mahmoud Abul-Fath, to chase down El-Bishri to get the inside story. The results of his efforts appeared in Al-Ahram on 21 May under the headline, "Negotiations with the khedive: new details on the agreement and how it happened".
El-Bishri told Abul-Fath that because of his long acquaintance with Abbas, he had been able to detect in the former khedive, recently, a growing dismay by the "dark clouds" separating him from his uncle. Out of his desire to dispel those clouds, he visited Sidqi Pasha in his home and broached the subject with him. Sidqi, in response, declared that he would gladly bring up the matter with King Fouad.
Abul-Fath goes on to relate that Sidqi and El-Bishri held further meetings and with increasing frequency. To ensure the highest secrecy, the meetings were held in the prime minister's home and it was determined that all communications between the two parties would take place directly, rather than through an intermediary. On 10 February, El-Bishri travelled to Algeria to meet Abbas and over the course of four days related to him the details of what had transpired in his meetings with Sidqi. On 1 March he returned to Cairo to resume negotiations. Then, on the 26th of that month, after he and Sidqi had reached an agreement over general principles, he set off to Europe from where he sent a message to Sidqi notifying him that Abbas would be in Lausanne as of 15 April. Shortly afterwards Anis and Galal arrived and, together with Abbas, reached the final details of an agreement on 6 May. Abul- Fath adds, "The negotiations between the two parties took place in a climate characterised by the sincere desire to reach an agreement. Therefore, they encountered no major obstacles or difficulties, for if one party stated an observation the other unhesitatingly accepted it."
The tale of the deposed Khedive Abbas did not end there. Not only did he still have some 13 years to live; there were also the more immediate repercussions from his renunciation. In a gesture of gratitude to Abbas, "in recognition of his past and his status as part of the royal family", the government moved to restore some of his financial rights. This took the form of a royal decree issued on 21 May, stating: "The government shall grant to the former Khedive Abbas Helmi II an annual stipend of LE30,000 to commence as of January 1931 and to last for the rest of his life. This sum is to be considered a personal annuity that may not be bequeathed, relinquished, transferred or placed in trust. The method of disbursement shall be determined by cabinet decree."
Abbas's nationality was, now, also a subject of some dispute. At the time his lawyers were pressing his claims through Egyptian courts, they had contested that he was a foreign subject because he possessed a Turkish passport and as such he was entitled to the restoration of all or some of his property. The government, on the other hand, had maintained that he was Egyptian, which it stipulated in the agreement Abbas eventually signed. Therefore, on 31 May, the minister of foreign affairs issued to Abbas an official Egyptian passport. However, while Abbas was not entitled to travel abroad as an Egyptian, an official government source maintained that he was still barred from coming to Egypt by virtue of the laws he had recognised in the document in which he renounced his claims to the throne. Thus condemned to a life of exile, Abbas was indeed the "lost khedive" as some dubbed him.
King Fouad absolutely refused to budge on this issue, fearful that the day would come when Egyptians might rally around the former khedive were he to be allowed back in the country, and cause him no end of troubles. The death of Abbas's mother in Istanbul, however, would prove a test of the royal will in this regard. The wife of the Khedive Ismail died just a little over a month after her son signed away his claims to the Egyptian throne. On 20 June, Abbas sent a telegram to El-Bishri asking him to convey the news of his mother's death to the palace and informing him that he was going to Istanbul to collect the body and transport it to Greece and from there to Alexandria.
Abbas was not the only one to believe that Fouad's heart would soften at his nephew's need to escort his mother to her final resting place. A Reuters news agency release appeared similarly certain that Abbas's plans to travel to Egypt for the funeral would encounter no obstacles. Fouad, however, was not to be moved. Although he sent a telegram to Abbas expressing his condolences, he simultaneously issued a statement denying the Reuters report and affirming that "His Highness, the former khedive of Egypt, is prohibited from entering Egypt in accordance with Law 28 of 1922, which His Highness has recognised in the document of his abdication and which is deemed constitutional under the provisions of Article 155 of the Constitution."
If the return to Egypt and perhaps to its throne had eluded Abbas, perhaps there was another country and another throne in the waiting -- in Syria. For this story we turn first to British archives.
One document in these archives relates that while Iraq was enjoying a period of stability under King Faisal, Syria was in a state of unrest and French mandate authorities, in consultation with Paris, were considering installing a new monarch in Damascus. They had two candidates in mind for the crown: Ali, Faisal's brother, and former king of the Hijaz, or Abbas Helmi II. On 17 November 1931, reports in the French press suggested that their choice fell on the former khedive, news which was welcome neither in London nor in Cairo and which gave rise to another Foreign Office document.
In a lengthy report to London, Mr Morgan, of the British embassy in Ankara, recounts Abbas's recent tour in the Levant. Beginning on 21 December, the ex-khedive called first in Jordan, then headed over to Beirut where he received an official welcome by the French high commissioner of Syria, after which he went to Jerusalem where he stayed several days. The tour, in Morgan's opinion, was indicative of the khedive's aspiration for the Syrian throne.
London wasted no time in lodging its protests with Paris, which quickly shelved the idea. By the time Al-Ahram's correspondent in Turkey secured an interview with Abbas to enquire about the veracity of the rumours, the former khedive responded, "They have no basis in fact. I have no knowledge of them apart from what I have read in newspaper accounts, and I could not help but to laugh when I read them. No one ever broached such a subject with me and I certainly have not received a proposal of such a nature from any source." Abbas must have laughed so hard that tears fell.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.