Posts Tagged ‘December 19’

Khedives, Sultans and Kings–How to be an Executive in Egypt

Posted in On This Day on December 20th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 5 Comments

December 19th

Let’s offer a belated congratulations to Hussein Kamil on becoming Sultan of Egypt on this day in 1914. The promotion must have been a surprise to the 61 year old prince, an innocuous fellow who made no enemies or impressions. Of course, that is exactly what the British wanted in a regal stooge. Egypt was an unique political entity that demanded a well-mannered if contorted form of imperialism.

In theory and diplomatic protocol, Egypt was a province of the Ottoman Empire; however, for a century Egypt actually had been an independent monarchy. A Turkish-appointed governor named Mohammed Ali (1769-1849) decided that he really liked ruling Egypt and had no intention of leaving. Ruthless and efficient (he knew exactly the right people to assassinate), a fine soldier and excellent administrator, he proved invincible and forced Constantinople to grant him hereditary rule of Egypt. Yes, he and his descendants would acknowledge the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire; they assumed the title of Khedive–viceroy–as if they were only assistants to the Sultan. But their ties to the Empire were tenuous and whimsical; they would be loyal Turkish subjects if and when they felt like it. (South Carolina wanted a similar status with the United States.)

Unfortunately, the Khedives were not so adept at protecting the country from the British. Whatever Machiavellian brilliance the dynasty’s founder possessed, it did not extend to the third generation. The reigning grandson Ismail (1830-1895) had excellent intentions and some good ideas–such as the Suez Canal–but his efforts created more debts than progress. In 1875, to alleviate his financial straits, the Khedive sold the Suez Canal to the British government. Of course, as it turned out, he received much more than several million Pounds sterling; he also got the unsolicited but adamant British assistance in governing Egypt. The British felt that safeguarding the Canal required a protective buffer: the entire surrounding nation. In fact, the British called their imposition a “protectorate.” Neither the Turks nor the Egyptians seemed especially appreciative, but did they have any say in the matter?

Actually, there was a native uprising and the Khedive found himself in the middle of it. The Egyptian nationalists condemned Ismail as a traitor, while the British despised him as a weakling. He was no help to them in suppressing the rebellion. (Was it too much to expect Ismail to be an eager toady?) Looking for a more cooperative figurehead, the British ousted Ismail in 1879, sending him off to a comfortable retirement and appointing his son Tewfik as their Khedive. Tewfik (1852-1892) proved suitably pliant and even earned a certain esteem from the British; they thought of him as more European than Egyptian. He was a very Victorian Moslem, making do with just one wife.

But Victorian parents tended to produce Edwardian children, and the next Khedive was an affront to British propriety and the security of the Empire. Khedive Abbas (1874-1944) was all of 18 when he succeeded his father, and he wanted to rule rather than reign. There was a young Kaiser in Germany with both the same intention and a similar resentment of the British Empire. Wilhelm had an admirer–and a potential ally–in Cairo. Abbas was not exactly subtle; he was described as “the wicked little Khedive” and there were thoughts of ousting him. But unless he he declared open rebellion and invited the German army to Alexandria, but the British chose to ignore him…until 1914.

Abbas declared his support for the Central Powers. Of course, he was prudent enough to relocate to Constantinople before he denounced Britain. The British responded by anointing a new sovereign of Egypt: Hussain Kamil, the uncle of the now unemployed Abbas. (No doubt, he expected the Germans and Turks to win, and then restore him to the Egyptian throne. He would live his last 30 years in exile.) Furthermore, Hussain (1853-1917) would be no mere Khedive. The British promoted him to a Sultan. In effect, Britain had just fired the Ottoman ruler, too. The war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire simplified the status of Egypt. With a British fleet in Alexandria and a British army along the Suez, there was no further need to pretend that Egypt was a Turkish province. As a Sultan, Hussein was the equal in rank to the imperial figurehead in Constantinople. (In real power, Hussain had less authority than a British sergeant.)

And like God or Allah, what the British Empire gives, it can also take away. Once the Great War had ended, the idea of an Egyptian Sultanate became awkward. Now that the British fleet was anchored off Constantinople, the British wanted to preserve the Turkish Sultan as their figurehead in the Balkans and Asia Minor. To maintain the luster of the Turkish title, you couldn’t have a competing Egyptian Sultan. So, in 1922 the British demoted their regal stooge Fuad (1868-1936) to being the mere King of Egypt.

The Egyptian Sultanate had lasted six years. Ironically, the Ottoman Sultanate collapsed in 1923, but the Egyptian royal family did not attempt to regain the more prestigious title. Being King was good enough, and the dynasty lasted until 1952 when–finally without British protection–the entire family was sent off to a comfortable exile. They have been losing millions at Monte Carlo for years.