A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 3, 2012

The ‘Abdin Incident After 70 Years

‘Abdin Palace (Wikimedia Commons)
King Farouq in 1948;
he was 22 in 1942
As I noted in my previous post, today was the 37th anniversary of the death of Oum Kulthum. Tomorrow, February 4, will mark a different sort of anniversary in Egypt: the 70th anniversary of the ‘Abdin Incident of 1942, a notorious turning point in British-Egyptian relations in the midst of the Second World War. The three-way balance of power in Egypt that followed nominal independence in 1922, in which the King, the Parliament (led by the Wafd Party), and the British competed for influence, came to a head in a confrontation that would lead, a decade later, to the fall of the King, the dissolution of Parliament, and the end of the last remnants of British occupation.

To set the scene a bit. In 1936 Britain and Egypt signed a new treaty which provided for British recognition of Egypt as fully sovereign, with a right to join the League of Nations, and with Britain ending its military occupation of Egypt, except for the Suez Canal Zone, where British troops were to remain. It was also a treaty of alliance, under which in the event of war, Britain could reoccupy Egypt to protect its Ally.

Three years later, Britain went to war. Threats to Egypt from Italian forces in Libya led to Egypt becoming the major front in the North African campaign. By February 1942 Rommel and the Afrika Korps had supplanted the Italians as the threat, and were advancing on Alexandria: El Alamein still lay miles and months in the future, when Rommel would be stopped only 66 miles west of Alexandria.

Hussein Sirri Pasha (Source)
King Farouq, only 22 at the time, had succeeded to the throne in 1936. The Prime Ministry at the time was in the hands of a strong supporter of the British, Hussein Sirry Pasha, and the Wafd was in opposition. Traditionally, the British had opposed the Wafd, seeing it as too nationalist, but when Sirri's government fell, the British decided that the popularity of the Wafd in the country meant there should be a Wafd government, despite their traditional opposition. Egypt's British "Ally," which in wartime behaved just as it had when Egypt was a British protectorate, decided that King Farouq must name Wafd leader Mustafa Nahhas as the new Prime Minister.

Now, Britain's civilian representative in Egypt was Sir Miles Lampson (later created Lord Killearn), Ambassador to Egypt and High Commissioner of the Sudan, but really the latest version of Britain's colonial viceroys.
Sir Miles Lampson (Wikimedia)

Lampson had clashed with Farouq before. Farouq had Italianate tastes and would eventually settle there in exile; he also surrounded himself with a variety of Italian courtiers, aides, and cronies. The problem by 1942 was, of course, that Britain (and Egypt) were at war with Italy, and Italian forces were advancing alongside the Germans. Efforts to persuade Farouq to intern his Italian nationals were to no avail. There is a wonderful story, too good not to tell even if apocryphal, that at one point Farouq said to Lampson, whose own wife was Italian, "I'll get rid of my Italians when you get rid of yours."

When the King dismissed Sirri, Britain informed Farouq that he should appoint Nahhas. The King fudged by offering a coalition government including Nahhas, but Nahhas refused. The British Defence Committee in Egypt, in communication with London, considered deposing Farouq if he did not comply. After considerable maneuvering on February 2 and 3, around noon on February 4 Lampson gave Farouq an ultimatum: appoint Nahhas by 6 pm or suffer the consequences. The King continued to seek alternatives.

By an odd chance, Sir Walter Monckton was attached to the British Embassy. Monckton had been the man who drafted the Instrument of Abdication for King Edward VIII, so he was called upon to draft another, this one for Farouq.

Finally, at nine pm, Lampson, accompanied by General R.G.W.H. Stone, Commander of British troops in Egypt, accompanied by tanks, proceeded to ‘Abdin Palace.When they arrived at the gates, they demanded to see the King. Many Egyptians have heard the story that Sir Miles demanded, in "kitchen Arabic," "fayn al-walad?": "where's the boy?" (An Egyptian would more likely say, al-walad fayn?, but the point is that referring to His Majesty the King of Egypt and Sudan as "the boy" is not exactly protocol. Other accounts say that when a chamberlain offered to show Sir Miles to the King's study, the Ambassador responded, "I know the way." I should note the British accounts suggest a bit more formality than the Egyptian side remembered.
Mustafa Nahhas Pasha

Presented with the instrument of abdication and told he had not complied by the deadline, Farouq complained that  the instrument was written on a dirty piece of paper and said he had responded to the ultimatum by offering an alternative, but in any event, he should not have to abdicate since he had already summoned Nahhas, and would appoint him to name whatever government he chose. Lampson agreed to accept the King's essential surrender, and he retained his throne for another decade.

The British got their way; but all three major players suffered in the long run. The highhandedness of "independent" Egypt's British "Ally" simply ordering the King to abdicate or appoint a Prime Minister to their liking, removed any fig leaves about who was really calling the shots, at least in the midst of the war. The King, who had begun his reign far more popular than his father ever had been, was thenceforth seen as weak, someone who had surrendered Egyptian sovereignty to save his own throne. The Wafd, which had until now enjoyed the reputation of being a nationalist force against the British, suddenly seemed to be doing the British will. Though a Wafd government in 1951 would abrogate the 1936 treaty, this event plus growing corruption dimmed the Wafd's reputation as well. When the war ended other forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood and radical movements of left and right and, behind the scenes, the military.

One senior officer, learning of the ‘Abdin incident (though it remained a secret to the general public until the end of the war), wrote the King offering his resignation on the grounds that the Army had not been given the opportunity to defend Egypt's honor and protect the King. His resignation was not accepted. That officer's name was Muhammad Naguib. A decade later he led the coup that deposed Farouq, and when the Republic was proclaimed in 1953, he became Egypt's first President. According to Naguib in an early memoir, when the King was preparing to sail into exile, he invited Naguib to join him on the bridge of the Royal Yacht. Naguib says he reminded the King of his resignation letter of 1942, but that his loyalty then had changed because of the King's behavior, and the King had forced the Army to act. Farouq, according to Naguib, told him, "Yes. You did what I always intended to do." Naguib said he still puzzled over what the King could possibly have meant, which has become no clearer with time.

Such are the echoes of the ‘Abdin incident, 70 years after the fact.

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