The dangers of hearsay
To this day, members of the Mohamed Ali family continue to be maligned in the Egyptian press, writes Faiza Rady
In a series of articles addressing the reasons for Egypt's defeat in the 1948 war in Palestine, published both in the written and electronic Egyptian press, historians Dr Khlaled 'Izab and Mohamed El-Sayed Hamdy contend that Prince Abbas Halim, among others, imported defective arms which "many people say" resulted in Egypt's defeat in Palestine.
It is the banal insertion - "which many people say" -- that should alert readers. It leads me to take issue with the historians' claim, not only because of my deep love and respect for Prince Halim, who was my uncle, but also because of the many fabrications that have distorted the history of Egypt's royal family since the days of the July 1952 military coup. Though there has been some historical revisionism of Egypt's period of parliamentary monarchy (1922-1952) much of the mudslinging still sticks, one illustration of which is 'Izab's and Hamdy's contentious claim based, it seems, solely on tittle-tattle. Are the learned historians seriously arguing that hearsay is a valid historical source? Or are facile charges, hurled against prominent members of Egypt's royal family, acceptable, to this day, in lieu of verifiable facts?
For the sake of argument let us assume Halim did supply the Egyptian army with arms in 1948. Let us also, hypothetically, assume 'Izab's and Hamdy's claims are true, and that those arms were indeed defective. If so does this, in and of itself, constitute evidence that the prince knowingly traded in such arms?
Trading arms, even defective ones, doesn't automatically imply complicity between the arms' dealer and the manufacturers. Unless 'Izab and Hamdy can produce verifiable and credible evidence that Halim intentionally and maliciously supplied the Egyptian army with defective arms in preparation for the 1948 war in Palestine their claim must remain in the realm of gossip, as they themselves readily admit.
The prince's political record as president of the National Federation of Trade Unions in Egypt doesn't compute with such claims. Distinguished professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre, Yunan Labib Rizk, refers to Halim as "a remarkable figure in modern Egyptian history" ( Al-Ahram Weekly, A Diwan of Contemporary Life, issue # 637).
"Abbas Halim became seriously involved in labour affairs as a result of the political struggles of the 1930s and, once involved, contributed greatly to the emergence of the strongest and most autonomous union federation Egypt had yet seen," wrote Egyptian labour historians Joel Beinin of Stanford University and Zachary Lockman of Harvard in their classic Workers on the Nile. Even the British, who ordered the closure of the federation and interned Abbas Halim during World War II, paid tribute to his role in the labour movement. In their files, the British Foreign Office acknowledged that Halim was an "energetic and excellent union organiser". ( Al-Ahram Weekly, Diwan, issue # 678)
Born in 1897, Abbas Halim was the son of Prince Ibrahim Halim, a grandson of Mohamed Ali. Because the British exiled his father from Egypt he went to school in Germany. In his teens he entered Germany's Imperial Horse Guard and served as an aide-de-camp to Kaiser Wilhelm II.
During the First World War Egypt was still technically a province of the Ottoman Empire, and Halim fought with the Turkish and German armies against the British and French forces. An ace pilot, he was shot down on several occasions and sustained serious injuries. For his bravery in combat he received the Iron Cross First Class for Valour, the highest German award granted to combatants.
Upon his return to Egypt he was instrumental in promoting public and government interest in sports. He was president of the Royal Flying Club and founded the Royal Automobile Club, serving as its president. An accomplished athlete -- he was a boxer, a swimmer and a tennis player -- he was the first Egyptian to set up football fields for workers. When, many years later, I asked him what initiated his interest in the labour movement, he explained: "In the late 1920s and early 1930s Egyptian workers were totally destitute. They had nothing, not even a patch of grass where they could play football. The only thing available to them was the street. This is what made me decide to take action and try to change things."
It was as a result of this commitment to make sports available to the poor that he first connected with the workers' movement.
In October 1930 Halim took a public stand against his cousin King Fouad I, who had expelled the Wafd from power and appointed Ismail Sidki as prime minister. Sidki promptly suspended the 1922 constitution, replacing it with a version that curtailed the powers of parliament and increased those of the king. He also censored the press and violently repressed the opposition. In response to these measures Halim addressed a statement to the Egyptian people in which he urged the king to restore the Wafd to power and warned that failure to do so could trigger a civil war. The king's answer was swift and to the point: he stripped Halim of his title, his allowance and his royal prerogatives.
"This only further enhanced the popularity of the young, vigorous and handsome Abbas Halim, who had already shown his concern for the people and had now lost his title in defense of democracy," wrote Beinin and Lockman.
It was his courageous support of the Wafd -- the "people's party" of the 1919 Revolution and of Egyptian nationalism -- that ultimately pushed Halim into labour politics. On 17 December 1930 the board of the National Federation of Trade Unions in Egypt elected him as its president.
Following Halim's election, and an upsurge of union membership in the federation, the Sidki government went on the war path. On 15 March 1931 the police shut down the federation's headquarters. Undaunted, Halim transferred the federation's office to the basement of his home on 6 Rostom Street, Garden City, where it was back to business as usual.
Halim was committed to improving the wages and living conditions of workers and sometimes intervened personally in labour disputes on their behalf. To keep the federation going he spent thousands of pounds of his own money, even mortgaging his property to finance the movement. Under his leadership the federation expanded rapidly. In 1934 it had an estimated membership of between 300,000 and 400,000 workers from 58 unions.
The federation's growing strength, and its president's popularity among workers, caused a British backlash. Keown-Boyd, director of the European Department at the Ministry of Interior, pressed the Egyptian government to clamp down on labour activism and shut down the federation. As was the case with all British officials in Egypt, Keown-Boyd's wish had the force of command. On 20 June 1934 the police surrounded Halim's residence while he was in Alexandria and prevented trade unionists and workers from entering. In retaliation, and in order to break the police siege of their headquarters, the federation organised a demonstration on the following day. The ensuing confrontation between workers and the police on 21 June resulted in the killing of one worker, the injury of many and the arrest of most federation cadres. On returning to Cairo Halim was also arrested and imprisoned for 26 days. He was only released after he went on a hunger strike and the workers staged daily demonstrations to protest the arrest of their federation's leader.
"The workers regarded him as a martyr to their cause," commented Rizk.
Halim retained the presidency of the federation until 1935 when differences with the Wafd, which was vying for control of the unions, split the organisation into two opposing factions, one controlled by Wafdists, the other by Abbas Halim's supporters. This factionalism ultimately led to the federation's demise. Halim withdrew from labour politics in 1936, though he resumed his activism on behalf of the working class after World War II.
I am referring to these events in my uncle's political career to underline how facile and unfounded accusations serve only to misrepresent and distort history. His record hardly squares with Dr Khaled 'Izab's and Mohamed El-Sayed Hamdy's assertions that he knowingly sold the Egyptian army defective arms in 1948 for the sake, one can only assume, of personal profit. Halim was a courageous combatant who was gravely wounded in World War I. He was not the person to send Egyptian soldiers to their death in Palestine. He was also a supporter of the Wafd and a nationalist who, like most Egyptians, rejected the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine. He supported the Egyptian war effort, and would not have compromised it by selling defective arms.
His courageous commitment to labour activism, challenging both the king and the British, for which he paid a high personal price, and his selfless financing of the Federation of Trade Unions, demonstrate exceptional qualities of courage and generosity. Prince Abbas Halim was a noble man not because of birth but by dint of his spirit.