Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (534)
No layman or member of the royal family could stand up to King Fouad I. His Majesty reigned supreme. However, there was the odd prince or nobleman who deviated from this rule and broke the unison of the royal fold. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at one such royal maverick
On 4 July 1922, King Fouad I issued a royal decree establishing the hierarchy of the royal family. Categorised in accordance with kinship proximity to the king, members of the royal family who were alive at the time included 21 princes, 29 princesses and 29 nobles. Many of them were active in the political and social life of the country, however few capitalised on their status to stake out a full-fledged political career. That was the job of the head of the family who exercised his royal powers through diverse channels, and it would have been deemed inappropriate to play a parallel role or, worse, oppose His Majesty's will.
One of the first was Prince Omar Touson. An ardent nationalist, he is said by some to have originally authored the idea of forming a delegation to represent Egyptian nationalist aspirations at the peace conference in Paris in 1918. This delegation was headed by Saad Zaghlul, who later became the figurehead of the 1919 Revolution.
More notorious, however, was Abbas Halim. A member of the noble class, he was the grandson of Prince Mohamed Abdel-Halim, a son of Mohamed Ali, the founder of the royal dynasty. The confidential file on him in the British Foreign Office archives furnishes a brief contemporary biography. Born in 1897, Halim served in WWI with the Turkish, then German armies. A proficient boxer, swimmer and tennis player, he was active in promoting sports in Egypt. Until 1930 he was the president of the Egyptian Automobile Club.
The report continues: "His first wife, a Briton, died in tragic circumstances. He is currently married to the daughter of Midhat Yakan Pasha. Her personal fortune has freed him from dependence upon the annual allowance he had received from King Fouad. In October 1930, he issued a statement calling upon the king to return the Wafd to power. He warned that the king's rejection of that demand would plunge the country into civil war. The king's response was to strip him of his status as a noble, and the attendant rights of this status, rendering him a mere effendi. This action won Abbas Halim great popularity, upon which he capitalised to become a thorn in the king's side. He was an energetic syndicalist and an excellent union organiser, although the police were no less energetic in repressing his activities."
Halim's activities brought him into a collision course with the Sidqi government which, in July 1931, closed down the Egyptian General Federation of Labour, which Halim had founded and headed. Halim ceased his syndicalist activities for three years, until 21 June 1934, the date on which occurred what we might term the "incident of the ex-noble". Not that Al-Ahram referred to him as such. But, nor could it bring itself to use "effendi", the title to which he had been demoted. Its solution was to dub him "sherif", roughly synonymous with noble, but not in the lexicon of King Fouad's order of the royal house.
Al-Ahram reported the incident the following day. Its front page banner tells all: "Police and workers clash in front of the home of Sherif Abbas Halim. Seven workers receive bullet wounds and taken to hospital. Two police officers, two intelligence agents and three soldiers struck by bricks and stones. Eighty-six arrested. Full details by the Al-Ahram court correspondent."
Under this headline, Al-Ahram relates that, the previous morning, 200 workers "of diverse classes" headed to the home of Halim, located at the intersection of Al-Walda, Al- Saray Al-Kubra and Madrab Al-Nashab streets in Garden City. When they arrived, they found it cordoned off by police. When the chief officer of that force attempted to block their entry, "two of the workers attacked him, one punching him and the other knocking him to the ground. The police broke ranks as the workers forced their way through the cordon and entered the house shouting, 'Long live the workers!'"
Skirmishes between the two sides continued until police reinforcements arrived and opened fire at the workers. Of the seven workers who were critically wounded, there was a cook, two tanners, a tarboush maker, a painter, a barber and a butcher. Their ages ranged between 21 and 35. After listing the names of the police who were wounded, the newspaper lists the names of the 86 workers arrested and taken to Misr Qadima Police Station for questioning.
After the dust had settled, the newspaper relates that "a woman from the family of the master of the house" drove up, got out of her car and caught sight of the piles of stone and brick laying in the backyard. Turning to the assistant police chief and the inspector, she asked, "What is this that you've dumped in front of our house?" When the assistant police chief pointed out that those were the stones and bricks the workers had thrown at the police, she refused to believe him. As she got back in her car, she said, "It's impossible that the poor workers would do that!" No better off than the workers were the police conscripts who, after a long and arduous morning, were finally able to break for lunch. Al-Ahram relates that they partook of their meagre meal of lentils and bread which had been dropped off by police lorries, "while sitting on the wicker furniture in the garden of the villa".
And after all the commotion, it transpired that Abbas Halim had not even been at home but in Alexandria. When news of the workers' march reached him, he boarded the 3.00pm train bound for Cairo. After arriving in the capital at 6.30pm, he went directly home where he met with investigators.
Events in front of Halim's house galvanised other workers into action. The following day, a group of bus drivers who had been recently fired for their participation in a strike stormed over to the bus company's garage in Boulaq to incite their colleagues to strike. Then, "at 10.30 this morning approximately 50 workers attacked the company's busses and tramway cars passing through King Fouad I Street, pelting them with stones and bricks. Many of the strikers were carrying thick truncheons which they used to pound sides and rear ends of the passing vehicles as they shouted, 'Solidarity! Solidarity! Long live the workers!'"
Although police succeeded in dispersing the demonstrators, government authorities were not content. They strongly suspected that the ex-noble had been behind this incident. At the time of the demonstrations, he was in the office of Shawkat El-Toni, lawyer for the Federation of Egyptian Workers. Fearful that this location would attract another rally, the authorities cordoned off the building until Halim left. Compounding their suspicions was the telegram sent by Halim and Shawkat to the public prosecutor, protesting the "unwarranted" secrecy that had been imposed on the investigations with the arrested workers.
The head of the royal family, who could no longer be expected to contain his patience with this rebel noble, decided to bring him to heel. Certainly, nothing less than house arrest in that splendid villa in Garden City would suffice.
On page 9 of its edition of 29 June 1934, Al-Ahram blazoned the headline, "Sherif Abbas Halim arrested and held in custody for 14 days after a four-hour interrogation on the recent labour disturbances." Because Halim had returned to Alexandria while police investigations into the incident at his home were in progress, law enforcement officials needed to lure him back to Cairo. The public prosecutor, therefore, asked him to return so that he could question him on some matters pertaining to that incident. Unaware of what was in store for him, Halim returned to Cairo and headed directly to the public prosecutor's office unaccompanied. The trap was sprung when the chief justice of the national primary court entered the office, at which point the prosecutor displayed the investigation documents and asked the judge to issue a warrant to detain Halim for 14 days pending an investigation. Before Halim knew it, Sergeant Iskandar Yaqoub was escorting him to prison. The Al-Ahram correspondent who was on hand during this event relates, "Throughout, Sherif Abbas remained composed and unruffled. He asked to speak to his attorney, Ahmed El-Guindi, and after speaking to him on some private matters he asked permission for his attorney to visit him in the foreigners' prison."
The 14 days of detention stretched to 24. During this period an attempt to discipline Halim provoked an outcry from all quarters. As Al-Ahram put it, "His arrest is on everyone's lips, in public and in private, in clubs and in societies... Reaction was strong, whether from within the royal family, some of whom regretted that King Fouad had resorted to throwing one of their members into prison, even if this is the foreigners' prison in which prisoners are accorded better treatment than in ordinary prisons, or from the Wafd Party, with which Abbas Halim allied in his leadership of the labour movement or from the workers themselves who regard him as a martyr to their cause."
Indeed, Halim appeared well in his incarceration. Not only did he have a room to himself on the second floor of Ward B, he had the entire floor to himself. His room was furnished with a proper bed and a table with a water jug on it. After having visited him, his lawyers, Zoheir Sabri and Shawkat El-Toni, reported that he was in high spirits. Sporting civilian clothes -- white trousers and a sports shirt -- he told them that he passed his time reading and practising calisthenics. Clearly, he enjoyed the minimum requirements for a noble being brought to heel.
The first of his royal kin to visit him was the nobleman Ismail Dawoud, in the company of Halim's wife. After being assured of his well-being, they headed to the office of the chief public prosecutor to ensure that Halim would be accorded the best possible treatment and then to the offices of El-Toni. As such movements, which took place the day after his incarceration, would have been widely publicised, they could be assured that their message was driven home: Abbas Halim would not be left dangling on his own. The following day, in a similar demonstration of support, Prince Omar Touson called on Halim's family in their Garden City villa. The implications of the visit of this royal personage was not lost on anyone.
The Wafd, too, moved into action. Secretary-General Makram Ebeid asked for permission to visit Halim, a visit that developed into a mass demonstration. Al-Ahram relates: "News reporters and photographers were duty-bound to go to the General Prison to cover the event. They were blocked by police who addressed them in a manner inappropriate to the dignity of the press. Although unprovoked, the police began to chase journalists and photographers from the square and attempted to snatch cameras from photographers' hands. In one instance, a policeman grabbed hold of a camera as a photographer was taking a picture of Makram Ebeid and in the ensuing tug-of-war the cover was torn."
The meeting between the Wafd secretary-general and Halim took place in the prison waiting room, with the police chief in attendance. "The men greeted each other warmly. Ebeid presented Halim with two books to read while in prison and told him that he would speak to the prison authorities to have current newspapers and magazines delivered to his cell. They then conversed at length on the subject of the investigation and the charges against Halim."
The next to call on Halim that day were his lawyers, whom the ex-noble asked to convey his greetings to Wafd Party chief Mustafa El-Nahhas and the "Mother of the Egyptian people", Safia Zaghlul, the widow of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. Not surprisingly, newspapers gave great play to this gesture.
Meanwhile, outside in the streets, workers continued their strikes in protest against the arrest of their incarcerated labour leader. In spite of the ensuing police clampdown, strikes continued throughout Halim's period of detention.
Events reached a peak when, after 14 days, Halim was not released. Nothing could have more confirmed that authorities had yet to come up with specific charges and that the purpose of his detention was purely punitive. Halim took a particularly effective course of action. On 12 July he declared a hunger strike which embarrassed authorities and supplied excellent fodder for the press.
Al-Ahram's headlines during the four-day strike reflected the public's high esteem for this courageous action. On 13 July, it blazoned: "Sherif Abbas Halim declares hunger strike. He confides the purpose of this strike to El-Toni. Telegram to Makram Ebeid in Alexandria." On 14 July: "Sherif Abbas Halim continues hunger strike." The following day: "On Sherif Abbas Halim's hunger strike: What officials have to say." And on 17 July: "Halim calls off hunger strike. Official response and reports of prison medical staff. Public prosecutor issues statement on attorneys. Result of yesterday's visit of the Sherif's wife and His Excellency Midhat Yakan."
Finally, on 22 July the prosecution issued the findings of its investigation. They may have raised a few eyebrows in that although 13 reasons for bringing charges were cited, no charges were brought. Among the evidence of the ex-noble's malfeasance: desks and chairs arranged in his home for an assembly; Halim's confession that he had offered his home to the workers because of the high rents they were paying on their old syndicate premises; and his confession that he had learned that the government planned to cordon off his home and that he informed the workers of this. In addition, the prosecution had definite proof that prominent labour federation leaders led the workers' assault against the police cordon and that it was they who broke open the door to Halim's home. In spite of this, the prosecution decided to shelve the case "due to insufficient evidence against Abbas Halim Effendi." Clearly, the head of the royal family felt that 24 days in prison were sufficient to bring his kinsman into line.
However, the story of the rebel noble did not end there. There remained the trial of the 86 workers arrested during the skirmish in front of his home. On 30 July 1934 the first hearing was held in the Sayeda Zeinab Court of Misdemeanours which had been placed under tight security for the occasion in anticipation of popular demonstrations and unrest.
From inside the courtroom, Al-Ahram reports: "At 5.30pm, 85 defendants were brought in and seated in the dock on chairs that had been arranged neatly on top of each other due to the confined space. One defendant was absent. Most of the prisoners were wearing prison uniforms although a few were in civilian dress. Some of these wore the emblem of the workers federation: a blue shirt and blue cap. Two files of armed soldiers were stationed in the courtroom to guard them, under the supervision of two officers."
The defendants were represented by 13 lawyers, foremost among whom were Zoheir Sabri, Shawkat El-Toni, Rafie Mohamed Rafie and Rafie Abdel-Halim Rafie. Most, if not all the lawyers were members of the Wafd Party which naturally wanted to make its presence felt.
The trial lasted for a week during which time the national press allocated full page coverage to each of the six sessions. Indeed, Al-Ahram accorded two entire pages to the session of 31 July, its story published under the headline which appeared in a large, bold font: "The story of the workers and police clash at the home of Sherif Abbas Halim. Defence strategy, defendants' testimony and other details. Report by Al-Ahram's court correspondent". The correspondent notes that the aim of the prosecution was to establish that the workers were using Halim's home for an unlawful rally which police had attempted to prevent. In their attempt to refute this charge, most of the defendants and the witnesses for the defence claimed that they were part of Halim's household staff and were simply reporting for work when police prevented them from entering.
The testimony of witnesses, both for the defence and the prosecution, lasted three days. On the second day, some of the workers' employers were called to the stand in order to furnish background on the grievances that drove them to form syndicates and join the federation founded by Halim. The first to testify was Nazarit Kajrian, owner of a shoe factory. He employed between 50 and 60 workers, whose hours were from 8.00am to 10.00pm with no lunch break. They were paid by the piece. Next came Georgie Khalil, owner of a cement tile factory. Apart from revealing that he had a staff of 18, he was reprimanded by the judge who described him as the "witness who knows nothing". Of the other employers brought in to testify, two more were owners of cement tile factories and two were owners of textile mills. From their names, it was clear that most were of Greek, Lebanese and Armenian origin. Most were owners of relatively small operations. More importantly, their testimonies revealed that their employees suffered the most gruelling working conditions, offering Zoheir Sabri the opportunity to drive home his point to the court: If the government wanted to pacify workers it had to solve their problems, not prosecute them.
On 9 August at 9.45am, the defendants were herded back into the courtroom. Again, security precautions were strict and only a handful of spectators were allowed in. The court was called to order and all rose as Judge Mohamed El-Shafie El-Laban entered. Contrary to custom, the judge delivered a statement before delivering his verdict. "The workers against whom there is insufficient evidence of their participation in the incident have been acquitted. Those who have been established to have taken part fall into two groups. The first are those who participated in the rally under the influence of diverse factors without being fully cognizant of their acts, for which reason the court has viewed them with mercy. The second consists of those who planned and organised the demonstration and incited others to participate. These the court holds fully responsible for their actions."
On the basis of these principles, the court acquitted five and sentenced 15 to prison terms ranging from three to six months of hard labour. As for the remaining 65, they were sentenced to prison for two months, most of which they had already served while the investigation was in progress. When those who had received sentences were taken back into custody, the courtroom resounded with cries to the victory of the working classes. Abbas Halim is reported to have expressed his sorrow over the ruling but to have added that it was the duty of workers to make such sacrifices in the pursuit of their cause. One suspects that the demoted noble had not been fully tamed.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.