Nubar Pasha (1825-1898) served as prime minister of Egypt three times, first under Khedive Ismail, then under Khedive Tawfik and again under Khedive Abbas Helmi II.
In his memoirs, now available in Arabic translation, Nubar offers a powerful account of what went on behind the scenes during the 40 years or so in which he worked for the Egyptian government.
“I found it rather easy to speak about the early viceroys of Egypt, for their energetic and smart endeavours to develop Egypt were conducted in a steady and refined manner. But since Said took office, the nature of work changed, and everything started happening in a fast and sudden manner, as if we were sitting in a theatre watching the scenes of a fictional play. The earlier viceroys (Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim, and Abbas Helmi I) adopted everything that was useful in Europe, but remained in control, adapting the new ways to their needs. The viceroy was the undisputed master of the country. But as time went by, Europe invaded Egypt, and the invasion derived its power sometimes from the coterie that gathered around a young prince who, elated by power, emotional and inexperienced, didn’t grasp the fact that the coterie was manipulating and controlling him. At first, Said was under the impression that he was in control. Thus begun the chapters of a perplexing tale, first in the court then in the departments of government, before its spilled over, somewhat diluted, into the ranks of the common people.
“It is hard to describe the extent of the conflicting ideas that emerged from this chaos. But perhaps I can explain the reasons leading to this situation, chief of which was the personality of the new viceroy, who was extremely shallow, lacking in self-respect, and easily influenced by the glitter of appearances.
“After Said returned from Istanbul, where he went to receive the firman, or decree, of his appointment, he donned the costume of the navy admiral, which his father [Mohamed Ali] had given him, when Egypt had just acquired a navy that was hastily built from timber that was rotting in the port of Alexandria. To make things worse, Said was prone to sea sickness.
“Said could have focused on the military capabilities acquired in the Danube, when the forces of Ibrahim Pasha, under the command of Omar Pasha, managed to repel the Russian Army in Oltenitza and Kalafat, forcing it to break the siege on Silistrie.
“But the realities of war and politics were beyond his grasp. Did Egypt need to present itself in this manner? Wasn’t Egypt accustomed to make its presence felt through diplomatic and political channels? Nevertheless, as soon as Said took office, he was burning with desire to show off his military skills. This opportunity presented itself when Latif Pasha, the general commissioner of Upper Egypt — for reasons beyond my comprehension — decided to force the Bedouins to hand in their arms and then be organised into small groups and forced to obtain permission from their chieftains before travelling, even temporarily.
“The chieftains met for consultation, and concluded that they may, with reluctance, succeed in persuading the tribesmen to hand over their weapons. But it was impossible for them to divide the tribes into smaller groups or subject them to travel restrictions, not without risking a revolt. The general commissioner insisted on his opinion, and he left the matter in the hands of Said. The latter threatened to use force against the tribal chiefs, swore fealty to the viceroy, while reiterating that under the current conditions, they have no power to control the tribesmen.
“Having decided to wage a campaign against the tribesmen, Said marched with his army from Alexandria and across the desert extending between Beheira and Fayoum. Running into some Bedouins, he captured them, and bound them to his cannons.
“Such episodes couldn’t have unfolded without, naturally, some unfortunate men losing their lives. The glorious campaign lasted for a while, ending when Said got bored and decided he’d had enough. The outcome of his campaign was that one of the tribes was subdued and some of its men were banished to Gharbiya where they were given some land. Another tribe opted for exile and returned to its original home in Benghazi.
“All of this happened despite the fact that Mohamed Ali had gone through great trouble to attract the Bedouin to Egypt, and that Ibrahim Pasha used them as cavalrymen during his wars in Syria. Abbas Pasha not only honoured his grandfather’s tradition in dealing with the Bedouins, but doubled their number and treated them as guards and guardians of Egypt’s borders.
“So I was dismissed from work. Why? Since I had served Abbas in a most loyal manner, there was no need to wreck my future in such a way. But we were in a country where the desires and whims of the ruler were the ultimate law.
“Had this happened to me under Abbas, I would have gone to see him or had a friend intercede. But this was not possible with Said, as I would have to go through one of the Europeans working in his court, a man possessed of no refinement but who had a sense of humour whose vulgarity appealed somehow to Said.”