Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

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.

On This Day in 1898

Posted in General, On This Day on September 2nd, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

This was the way that Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to end: the outnumbered but morally superior (and better armed) western army decisively vanquishes the fanatic Moslem horde. That was the rousing finale of the Mahdi War in the Sudan as well as the 47 or so film versions of “The Four Feathers.”

On this day in 1898, on the outskirts of Khartoum, a British and Egyptian force of 26,000 faced a Sudanese army of 50,000. Both armies were organized by caste and race; the enemies had snobbery in common. The British soldiers had artillery, machine guns and the most modern rifles; their Egyptian allies had old rifles but carried the latest in British baggage. On the Sudanese side, the Arabs had horses and rifles while the sub-Saharan Africans (yes, I am trying to find a euphemism for Black) had swords and their feet.

Ironically, the invading British were reluctant imperialists. Nothing in the Sudan was of interest or value; if the Islamic fanatics running the desolate region had behaved themselves, the British would have been happy to ignore them. But when have you heard of a subtle, discreet fanatic? The Sudanese thought that they were being led by an Islamic messiah–the Madhi–and they intended to spread their cult to Egypt. Now, there, the British had a cherished interest: the Suez Canal. To protect that Canal, Britain had usurped Egypt–relegating the reigning Khedive to be their pampered puppet while running the country.

Unfortunately, by taking over Egypt, Britain had also acquired the chronic problem of Sudan. It was not merely an annoying neighbor but a rebellious province of Egypt. In fact, the Sudanese were winning. One Egyptian army had been massacred in 1881; a second Egyptian army–with British advisors–was massacred in 1883; and a third Egyptian army–under the very British general (and celebrity) Charles Gordon was trapped in Khartoum in 1885. Knowing the Sudanese habit of using British officers’ heads as decorations, the English newspapers demanded the military relief of Khartoum. S-l-o-w-l-y acceding to popular demand, Britain finally sent  an expedition to the Sudan: it arrived to find the late General Gordon–if not his head–and his equally decomposing Egyptian army.

Not slowly, the British left Sudan and stayed out for 15 years. By 1898, however, the British found that they could no longer ignore the Mahdists. They were fomenting unrest in neighboring territories, and now the French were threatening to do something about it. It was bad enough that Sudan is a French name; it would be insufferable for it to be a French territory. If only to keep the French out, the British finally resolved to retake the Sudan. Of course, they offered all sorts of noble excuses–end slavery, suppress fanaticism and avenge General Gordon–all of which were true, if not really important.

In any case, Omdurman was a glorious British victory. The British and Egyptians suffered less than 500 casualties while killing or wounding more than 20,000 Mahdists. The rebellion was effectively crushed, and British would control the Sudan for another 50 years.

A young British cavalry officer expressed the sense of elation at Omdurman: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” This unusually articulate lieutenant was also moonlighting as a journalist. Check your 110 year-old copies of the Daily Telegraph for his byline: Winston Churchill.

The Art of War and Public Relations

Posted in General on June 10th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Napoleon needed something to do in 1798. The 28-year-old general had conquered Italy and forced Austria to capitulate–but that was a year ago. He sensed that his glory was already fading. The French government–a collection of kleptocrats known as the Directory–did have a project for him. He had been named “General of the Army of England.” Invading England certainly would be exciting; the British Navy would guarantee that. A French platoon was unlikely to make it to shore; and if it had, the English population would not be particularly cordial. No the invasion of England was a certain catastrophe, and definitely not Napoleon’s idea of glory.

A second proposal at least seemed less hopeless: invading Ireland. Allowing for the improbable prospects of a myopic British navy and a competent French one, a French army landing in Ireland would find itself very popular among the oppressed and impoverished victims of English rule. The Irish would have offered all they had to the French: potatoes and volunteer militia armed only with farm implements. Nonetheless, Napoleon might have succeeded in driving the English out of Ireland–and then what? The British navy would have kept him penned up in Ireland. He might have been the de facto ruler of Ireland and its grateful people; but Napoleon did not want the gratitude of a poor people. Generals of the Directory worked on commission, and liberating Ireland just wouldn’t pay.

There was a third idea, however, that promised Napoleon enough wealth and glory to sate his megalomania: invade Egypt. There was a military rationale for this plan. Egypt was the transit between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; the trade and communication between Europe and the Orient passed along the Suez trail. (Yes, there was talk of building a canal.) A French army in Egypt would have a stranglehold on Britain’s link to India. Of course, there was also an economic incentive for invading Egypt; all that trade was quite lucrative. Finally, there seemed a political advantage as well. No one else seemed to rule Egypt. The country was a nominal province of the Ottoman Empire, but the weak Sultanate was unable to enforce its rule there. Egypt was in the hands of squabbling, medieval warlords–the Mamalukes. What could be more tempting than a rich and defenseless country?

He would invade Egypt with an army of 34,000 men. Never lacking confidence, Napoleon expected a glorious military victory but he also envisioned his campaign as a cultural triumph. He would rediscover Egypt and reintroduce a great civilization long forgotten. So, in addition to his military preparations,(which actually were inadequate; he overlooked the need for water canteens in a desert) he assembled several hundred scientists, historians and artists to accompany his expedition. While he conquered, they explored, discovered and illustrated–inspiring a fascination with ancient Egypt that continues to this day. Our very knowledge of hieroglyphics began with Napoleon, when some French soldiers dug up a very interesting stone at Rosetta, Egypt.

Such a massive undertaking could not have escaped the attention of the British. However, they assumed that the General of the Army of England was a literal title. The British navy was patrolling the English Channel and the western Mediterranean while the French fleet was heading toward Egypt. On the way, the French stopped at Malta to seize the island. By doing so, the French had finally revealed their whereabouts, and the British guessed Napoleon’s real intentions. The British navy sailed immediately to Alexandria and arrived before the French. In view of the French absence, however, the British now wondered where the French might be headed. Was Malta a feint and Napoleon was heading past Gibraltar to sail to England? So, the British fleet raced northwest while the French fleet lolled southeast to Alexandria.

However, the British had not reached Gibraltar, let alone Penzance, when they learned that the French had actually arrived at Alexandria. Turning around–again, His Majesty’s Ships now raced east. In the intervening month, the French army had disembarked in Alexandria, defeated the Mamalukes in a battle picturesquely near the Pyramids and now was in Cairo. The French fleet was at anchor at the mouth of the Nile, in Abukir Bay. Late in the afternoon of August 1, the British fleet attacked. The French were in a good defensive position, the ships aligned close to the shore and with the added protection of darkness. Who would attempt to navigate narrow gaps between the French ships, skirting the Egyptian shore in the dark? Did I mention that the British commander was Horatio Nelson? He could have assured you that it is easy to sail at night when you have burning French ships to light your way. Most of the French fleet was either sunk or captured, and the French army now was stranded in Egypt.

The Ottoman Empire did not grieve over the Mamalukes, but it did not consider the French control of Egypt as an improvement. Assured of British support, the Sultan declared war on France. Napoleon was not one to wait for an attack. He marched into Syria, expecting the conquest of that province would compel the Turks to cede Egypt to France. Although he had just 15,000 men, his campaign began with its customary success. The Turkish forces were equipped to fight a 16th century war. Napoleon even began to entertain the notion of taking Constantinople. However, his triumphal march did not get past the fortifications of Acre–in what is now northern Israel. The garrison’s Turkish gunners had the benefit of European training and the aided assistance of the British navy. Napoleon found himself outgunned and ill-prepared for a siege; worse, bubonic plague broke out in the French camp. Although unaccustomed to retreat, he had no choice.

Napoleon now realized that the Egyptian campaign would inevitably fail; however, no one else in France seemed aware of it. Bonaparte really should be considered one of the pioneers of public relations. He dictated communiques–press releases–telling the public exactly what he wanted it to believe. Napoleon was never shy about self-aggrandizement; every victory was magnified, any defeat was minimized if not omitted. (Despite its ability to do so, the British navy never bothered to impose a complete blockade on Egypt, so individual French ships could manage to go back and forth carrying Napoleon’s communiques.) The French public was convinced that the Egyptian campaign was a complete triumph. Ironically, however dubious or pyrrhic those victories, that was the only good news that the French public heard at the time.

With Napoleon in Egypt, Austria felt emboldened to resume the war. Aided by a Russian army, Austrian forces had recaptured most of Italy and now threatened France itself. Feeling endangered, the French wanted their best general back home to defend them. Since the public demanded it, Napoleon was willing to save France–and flee his hopeless situation in Egypt. Of course, he did not tell his abandoned army or even his second-in-command of his French itinerary. That was a surprise. Just as surprising was the fact that the French army held out for another two years, contending with Turks, Bedouins and disease. By 1801, the acting French commander was half-mad but he still managed to get generous terms of surrender. What was left of the army–its 17,000 ragged, sickly survivors–was repatriated to France. (The British did confiscate many of the ancient artifacts that the French had found; that is why the Rosetta Stone is at the British Museum.)

The survivors of the Egyptian campaign found that France had considerably changed in their absence. The corrupt, unpopular Republic had been replaced by a less corrupt, much more popular dictatorship–and guess who the dictator was. He had proclaimed the invasion of Egypt to be a glorious campaign–and who were they to disagree?