Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (588)
Omar Tousson was one of the few Egyptian princes to forsake a freewheeling lifestyle and do some good for the country. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk writes about the prince who cared
Prince Omar Tousson
One of the confidential British Foreign Office files on Egypt for 1937 bears the label, "Leading personalities in Egypt". Out of the 132 names in that dossier only four are from the royal family: Prince Mohamed Ali, Prince Omar Tousson, nobleman Abbas Halim and Prince Youssef Kamal.
These, of course, were the ones who engaged in public affairs. The rest of the 21 Princes, 29 Princess, 15 noblemen and 14 noblewomen went on with their private lives, engaging in their favourite hobbies and pastimes, travelling abroad to Europe, especially Turkey, and perhaps tending to their villas on the Bosphorus or their estates in European capitals. But then, King Fouad not only did not encourage his family members to engage in public life, he sometimes expressed his anger when they did. One of the more extreme instances occurred when he stripped Abbas Halim of his royal title.
Abbas Halim was the grandson of Prince Mohamed Abdel- Halim who was a son of the dynasty's father, Mohamed Ali. An unusually bold political activist for the royal family, in October 1930 he issued a statement calling upon the king to bring the Wafd Party government back to power and warning of consequences as grave as civil war for failing to heed this advice. He was also a prominent syndicalist. His activities in this regard, which included founding a labour federation, landed him in prison, albeit for a very short stretch.
Prince Mohamed Ali, son of Khedive Tawfiq, was the adventurer of the family and undertook lengthy expeditions to southern Africa and India. The eldest scion of the royal house, he was on good terms with both the Wafd Party and the office of the British high commissioner, which is why it came as little surprise when he was confirmed as one of the regents for King Farouk who had assumed the throne on the death of Fouad in 1936.
Prince Youssef Kamal, grandson of Mohamed Ali's son Ibrahim Pasha, was the least public of the four royals. Vastly wealthy, he was fond of long hunting expeditions and he had a special interest in Islamic architecture and old geography books.
On the other hand, the most famous of the four was Prince Omar Tousson, grandson of Said Pasha who ruled from 1854- 1863. Perhaps the best introduction to this figure is to be found in the autobiographical sketch appended to a paper he delivered to the Scientific Academy in Damascus shortly before his death: "Born on 8 September 1872, the son of Prince Mohamed Tousson Pasha, son of the Wali Sadi Pasha. Like other Princes he received his primary education in the palace of his father, who died when Omar was only four. He completed his education in Switzerland, and travelled between there and France and Britain. In the course of these trips, he devoted particular attention to the development of agricultural techniques in those parts. He became fluent in Turkish, Arabic, English and French."
After reaching majority, Prince Tousson took over the agricultural holdings left to him by his father. So successful was he at managing these estates that his brother and sister were persuaded to sell him their properties. This, however, did not keep him from pursuing his scholastic interests, his explorations into the history and geography of Egypt and Sudan above all. He was also an active supporter of Turkey in its war against the Italians in Tripoli and in the Balkan wars before World War I.
Following World War I he immersed himself in the struggle for national independence. Although he formed a delegation of his own to represent the Egyptian cause at the Versailles peace conference, King Fouad persuaded him to abandon that project in favour of the delegation formed by Saad Zaghloul. Just as willingly, he helped finance the delegation while in Paris and later during the Zaghloul-Milner negotiations.
Unlike the other three royals mentioned in the British list of leading personalities in Egypt, Omar Tousson took up residence in Alexandria. According to some historians of the period, this was because of his grandfather's connections with the port city. Alexandria had acquired strategic importance to Said Pasha as the base for building up the Egyptian navy, but he must have had a deeper relationship with that city for it is in Alexandria's Prophet Daniel Mosque in which he chose to be buried. Others have suggested that his concern for the royal properties and estates in Alexandria were another important reason why Tousson chose to live there.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Egypt's second largest city was the home base of most of the activities of the "Dynamic Prince" -- the epithet Al-Ahram bestowed on him. Few were the major associations that were founded in Alexandria during the 1930s -- from charity societies and private schools to sporting organisations and even Alexandria Stadium -- that did not turn to him to become their chairman. As Sahar Hamouda said in her monograph of Omar Tousson, published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in spite of his constant coming and going between there and Cairo, Beheira, Sudan, Europe and Turkey, Tousson would always be known as the "Prince of Alexandria".
In recognition of Al-Ahram 's long-established respectability, Prince Tousson had chosen it above all others as his forum. The newspaper, therefore, constitutes an excellent archive on his views and activities from the Tripoli War in 1911 through the 1919 Revolution and through the following decade. But the 1930s was a different story. This was the decade that opened with the premiership of Ismail Sidqi, the abrogation of the 1923 Constitution and an unusually heavy-handed intervention by the palace in political affairs. During this royalist period, which became known as the "Sidqi era", the king and his right-hand man Zaki Ibrashi, kept royal family members under a tight leash, including those who had a long history of political involvement. This undoubtedly explains why Tousson during those years had confined himself to his scholastic interests and, in public, to his views on purely social concerns.
Biographers of the "Prince of Alexandria" agree on at least one point, which is that if politically he was more inclined to the National Party than to the Wafd, socially he was closer to the conservatives in parliament. However, before turning to his writings in Al-Ahram in this regard, it is interesting to pause first at Tousson's positions on Sudan, which are the subject of an exchange of letters between him and the Sudanese religious leader Al-Sayed Ali Al-Mirghani.
Published in Al-Ahram of 11 April 1934, the first of these is from Al- Mirghani who conveys to the Prince his gratitude for "the generous gifts that you have long been bestowing on mosques and educational institutions in Sudan". The most recent of these was "that magnificent donation of LE1,000 to the Scientific Academy in Omdurman."
In his response, Tousson struck a humble tone. He was only performing his duty, and this required no gratitude, he wrote. However, he took the occasion to stress that his donations were inspired by the long cherished unity of Egypt and Sudan. The two countries were one, he wrote, "a principle to which Egypt has always adhered... Egypt has come to the aid of Sudan and its people since ancient times and its government and people are keen to preserve this tradition because the Sudanese are our partners for better or for worse."
The Prince was only too well aware of the threat posed to the unity of the Nile Valley by the British colonial "southern policy" in Sudan, which was inaugurated by the Closed Districts Act of 1922, aimed at separating the south from the north. It was this that inspired Tousson's seminal History of the Egyptian Equatorial Province, a three-volume study published in 1937. Four years before its appearance, he revealed his reasons for engaging in this enormous project to readers of Al-Ahram.
"A word on the Equatorial Province by His Highness Prince Omar Tousson" appearing in Al-Ahram of 29 May 1933 occupied the greater portion of the first and second pages. In his introductory remarks, Tousson introduces the central points he intended to cover: Egypt's ownership of the shores of Lake Albert in accordance with the Treaty of 1899, Uganda under Egyptian protectorate, Gordon's occupation of Uganda, the Egyptian administration of Sudan and the government and people of Sudan.
Tousson proceeds to relate that following the outbreak of the Mahdist uprising, the British ordered the evacuation of Egyptian forces from Sudan, an entirely unnecessary move, in his opinion, because there was never a serious threat to these forces. However, British designs in southern Sudan were soon revealed when the East Africa Company moved in to inherit the Egyptian administration of the Equatorial Province and London declared a protectorate over Uganda in 1894, an act that Tousson condemned as illegal "because it was based solely on the use of force." In seizing possession of this province, he continues, Britain had "extended its grip over the entire Nile Valley from the equatorial lakes to the Nile's mouth in the Mediterranean. The only explanation for this act of rape and plunder is its desire to put Egypt in a stranglehold so as to ensure that it remains docile and forever obedient to the British will."
Tousson goes on to reveal a little-known fact, which is that Khedive Ismail launched an expedition to extend Egypt's influence to the upper reaches of the Nile. The mission was headed by an American officer who had fought for the union in the American Civil War. Under the caption "Egypt's lost province", Tousson recounts that the Ugandan king signed a treaty with Egypt, in accordance with which he placed his kingdom under Egyptian protection. It was agreed that the territories bordering Lake Victoria and Lake Albert would be annexed to Egypt and that the two lakes, its tributaries and Somerset River would be opened to navigation. "This is the clearest proof that Egypt has certain rights in those territories and the strongest evidence of the British intent to possess them."
Part of the British plan to wrest these territories from Egypt was to paint Egypt's rule there as harsh and brutal. Tousson refutes this contention, citing foreign sources as support. The first was the Russian explorer, Wilhelm Junker who in his Travels in Africa observed, "it is to the much maligned Muslims that credit is due for persuading Negroes to live in peace and harmony with their neighbouring tribes and to confine themselves as much as possible to their homes and to tending their fields. We should accord this fact our fullest and unequivocal appreciation."
The second part concerned the British medical missionary, Robert William Felkin who in Uganda and the Egyptian Sudan wrote, "I can say confidently that in those lands that are under Egyptian rule, as represented by Amin Pasha, the current governor of the Equatorial Province, the people are living in far better circumstances than they had under the care of their savage kings."
At the same time, however, Tousson warned of British evangelical aims in southern Sudan. In a lengthy communication to Sheikh Mustafa Al-Maraghi, director of the League for the Defence of Islam, he cautioned that British policies aimed to keep Muslims, Sudanese or otherwise, from travelling in those "pagan lands", to prevent the employment of Muslims, to prohibit the speaking of Arabic in order to encourage the spread of Negro tongues, and to prohibit all manifestation of the Muslim faith, "including prayer, even while on the road". He went on to urge the spiritual leader to form a Muslim evangelical mission that would "travel to the lands of those Negroes and spread the word of Islam just as those Christian missionaries are evangelising for the Anglican Church, the creed of our supposed partners in the administration of Sudan."
Keen on exploring everything pertaining to the Egyptian Sudan, Prince Tousson unearthed what he described as "an unknown page" in the history of the Egyptian army. Under the headline, "The heroic Sudanese-Egyptian battalion in the Mexican War", which appeared in Al-Ahram of 4 September 1933, he recounts that Napoleon III had appealed to Egyptian Viceroy Said Pasha for a loan of forces to fight under the French flag in the Mexican campaign. European forces had been decimated by tropical diseases and it was thought that Egypt's Sudanese forces would have a natural immunity due to their dark skin. The Egyptian Pasha readily complied, as did his successor, Khedive Ismail.
The readiness of the two Egyptian rulers to send Egyptian forces to the other side of the Atlantic as part of a European army has had historians both perplexed and amused. In Said's and Ismail's defence, however, it has been argued that their action should be seen in the context of their constant attempts to expand the margin of Egypt's autonomy under the Ottoman Empire. In exchange for the loan of their troops, they hoped the French emperor would support their aspirations.
In an interview with Al-Ahram following the promulgation of the 1930 Constitution, Tousson said he was dismayed by the constitutional change in Egypt. His remark drew the anger of the palace as well as sharp criticism in the British press. The Morning Post at the time quoted "a former minister" accusing the Prince of entertaining "political ambitions". Although the Prince denied the charge, he must have been shaken by the outburst for he ceased all involvement in domestic politics, at least for the time being.
To compensate, as we have seen, he occupied himself with the study of Sudan. But at this time too he began to devote himself to other areas of concern, especially problems exacerbated by the global economic crisis that had also sunk its teeth into Egypt.
In Al-Ahram of 18 January 1933, under the headline "On education and the educated: the opinion of His Highness Prince Omar Tousson," he addressed the question of "women taking jobs that were once only held by men". In his opinion, this phenomenon posed several dangers. The first was that the rising numbers of female employees aggravated unemployment. "Instead of being restricted to males, unemployment will affect both classes," he said. He also worried that now that the avenues were open for women to support themselves they would abandon the search for husbands. Or, if they did marry, the chances were it would be to men who sought "to stay at home and live off the earnings of their wives". In both cases, he asks, who would tend to the affairs of the home? Finally, in the case of unmarried working women he quivered at the thought that they would be "let loose throughout most of the day, with no one to monitor or control them and permitted unrestrained freedom in milieus that are not appropriate to their sex or age". Not surprisingly at the end of this article he urges legislation prohibiting the employment of women in jobs meant for men.
What is surprising is that Al-Ahram which had long been a champion of women's rights should have lent itself to the dissemination of the Prince's opinions. Perhaps it felt obliged to the Prince on the basis of his long-standing relationship with the newspaper. Our guess is, however, that it sympathised with his opinion to a certain extent in view of the massive unemployment in Egypt at the time. Corroborating our suspicion is the fact that in the same edition, Al-Ahram quoted an editorial on this issue in the Cairo-based Le Reforme : "After the events in the US, the birthplace of women's rights and the country that has seen the greatest encroachment of women into the workplace, one cannot help but wonder that this country has now declared war on the female assault on male occupations and other forms of employment." The article goes on to report that an American university professor had recently delivered a lecture in which he said, "the gravest danger to our civilisation is not machines but the women who are preventing men from earning a living. They are the prime cause of the unemployment catastrophe."
The Le Reforme article was followed by another supporter of the Prince's views. The writer, Sir Mohamed Yaqoub El- Hindi, held unrestricted women's employment responsible for both the high rates of unemployment and the increasing rates of divorce in Europe. In addition, not only were women who were working outside their homes no better off than those who preferred to remain at home and bring up their children, but society benefited nothing from their intervention in public life. In contrast, the Muslim woman in India merited the greatest admiration. "Well educated and the uncontested boss of the home, she is loved and respected by all her relatives." This in his opinion accounted for why polygamy was rare among enlightened Muslims in India. He added that the Indian Muslim woman never interferes in the affairs of men and that the female student in university studied separately from men, "even those in the faculties of medicine and law".
Another problem brought on by economic stagnation was the "stagnation of the marriage market" and the consequent rise of common-law marriages. The problem was the subject of an Al-Ahram interview with Tousson appearing under the headline, "The common-law marriage question: Does it require new legislation?" The Prince opened his discussion of the issue by reminding his interlocutor of the royal decree of 1893 prohibiting marital suits from being brought before the courts unless an official marriage certificate was presented. "The decree was issued following the dispute over the estate of Prince Ibrahim Ahmed, one of the plaintiffs in which was Princess Naemat, daughter of Khedive Ismail, who claimed he was her husband and thus was entitled to inherit his property." However, to the Prince the crux of the issue resided in the children "who are born to a woman that does not have official documentation of her marriage. Having had no hand in this matter and having committed no sin, they do not deserve such unjust punishment." He, therefore, approved the system that was in practice in the religious courts, which was to establish proof of common law marriages and proof of paternity of the children from that marriage. One would think that this opinion which the Prince of Alexandria offered Al-Ahram in the early 1930s is just as applicable today in light of the recent resurgence of common-law marriages.