A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1914: As War Between Britain and Turkey Loomed, the Anomalous Position of Egypt

By late October 1914, it was increasingly clear that the Ottoman Empire was going to join the Great War on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria. Since the closing of the Straits to the Triple Entente Powers on September 26, the Ottoman Government was already in violation of treaties, but throughout October the Allies tread lightly in hopes that Turkey might not come in formally.

I will be dealing in coming days with the war plans and key strategic interests and objectives of each side. But I want to begin with a particularly quirky situation: the highly anomalous legal position of Egypt.

De facto, Egypt had been a British protectorate in all but name since 1882; British troops controlled the country, and defended the Suez Canal, while a British official with the innocuous title of "Consul-General" ran the country with the powers of a virtual viceroy.

Said Halim Pasha
De jure, Egypt was still a province of the Ottoman Empire, was run by a hereditary Khedive who paid annual tribute to Constantinople and who, as war was breaking out, was physically present there; what's more, the then Ottoman Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasha, was a collateral kinsman of the Khedive and from the Egyptian Royal Family. Egypt still flew the Ottoman red flag.

And now the British and Turks were about to go to war. But they weren't at war yet.

The Last Khedive: ‘Abbas Hilmi II
Adding to the legal complications was the fact that the current Khedive, ‘Abbas Hilmi II, was anti-British. Though he had gotten along moderately well with the liberal-minded Consul-General Sir Eldon Gorst, but relations soured when Lord Kitchener replaced Gorst. He had supported the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement, and the British considered him pro-German and a supporter of the emerging Turkish-German alliance; it appears to have been a fairly accurate assessment, and when Kitchener went on summer leave in Britain he was already determined to depose the Khedive, though the outbreak of war and Kitchener's move to the War Office would intrude.

‘Abbas Hilmi was visiting Constantinople when, on June 25, 1914 (just days before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo), he was meeting with the Grand Vizier (his cousin) when an Egyptian student fired five shots at ‘Abbas Hilmi and severely wounded him in the hands. The Khedive is said to have suspected the Turkish government was involved, but remained in Constantinople during his convalescence. He would be deposed before he could return to Egypt; he was the last Egyptian ruler to bear the title Khedive.

PM Hussein Rushdi Pasha
With the Khedive abroad and Kitchener back in Britain, the British authorities in Egypt were dealing with the much more pliant Prime Minister, Hussein Rushdi Pasha. When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914, Rushdi issued a decree that appears to encapsulate perfectly the anomalous and apparently illogical legal status of Egypt: Britain announced it did not propose to change Egypt's status as long as Turkey stayed neutral, but Rushdi declared that since Britain's war with Germany left Egypt open to attack by Britain's enemies, Egyptian companies could not conclude deals with or issue loans to nationals of countries at war with Britain; Egyptian vessels must avoid visiting ports of Britain's enemies, and British forces could exercise full wartime belligerent rights in Egyptian territory.

Like Egypt's entire "veiled protectorate" status since 1882, this made little sense in international law. It asserts neutrality but goes far beyond "armed neutrality," and the late Peter Mansfield noted that "Egypt was de facto, if not de jure, a belligerent." Neutral belligerency may be no more anomalous than a British colonial administration in an Ottoman province, but it also confounds logic.

This Gordian Knot would soon be cut. Once Turkey and Britain went to war in early November, Britain moved quickly; by December the Khedive would be deposed and his uncle, Hussein Kamel, made ruler with the new title of Sultan, and Britain would declare a formal Protectorate over Egypt. But until that time, Egypt remained in its anomalous status, a sort of limbo of sovereignty or at least suzerainty.

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