A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 18, 1914: A Khedive becomes a Sultan, but Egypt Becomes a British Protectorate

In our discussion of the centennial of the First World War in the Middle East, we have already discussed the anomalous position of Egypt: though ruled by a hereditary Khedive, it was still de jure a province of the Ottoman Empire, paying annual tribute to Constantinople. But, since 1882, it had been de facto under British control, occupied by Britain, whose innocuously titled "British Agent and Consul-General" functioned as a virtual viceroy. It was an awkward legal status often referred to as "the veiled protectorate," and once Britain went to war with the Ottoman Empire, It became wholly untenable.

A century ago today, the veil came off. Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt, deposed the Khedive and installed his uncle as ruler with the new title of "Sultan," but it was not as simple as that, as there was a month or so of hard bargaining before the deed was done.

Ronald Storrs
Lord Kitchener had been British Agent at the time of the outbreak of the war, when he was kept in Britain to take over the War Office. In his absence, Milne Cheetham was the Acting British Agent, with Ronald Storrs as his "Oriental Secretary," his Middle East expert.

Once Turkey entered the war, there was no question that Britain had to alter the status of Egypt. But to what? In London, many favored outright annexation, making Egypt as much a part of the Empire as India. The Agency in Cairo was alarmed: direct rule would alienate Egyptians and the Muslim world generally, while the policy since 1882 had been to govern through a local ruler. Cheetham and Storrs pleaded for a protectorate instead, On November 19, London agreed, but it took another month before the protectorate was proclaimed.

‘Abbas Hilmi II
The reason was Britain needed a candidate for ruler of Egypt; the incumbent Khedive, ‘Abbas Hilmi II, was in Constantinople, recovering from a failed assassination attempt, and he was an inveterate opponent of British rule. Kitchener had been determined to depose him even before; now he had to go.

‘Abbas Hilmi II was the son of the Khedive Tawfiq and grandson of the great Isma‘il, the man who both glorified and bankrupted Egypt the previous century. Isma‘il had two surviving sons, uncles of ‘Abbas Hilmi; the elder of these, Hussein Kamil, was respected by both the British and the Egyptian establishment, and he became Britain's candidate. But he was to prove a hard negotiator: insisting on protecting the hereditary rights of the Muhammad ‘Ali family among other issues. Ronald Storrs in his Memoirs (as the British edition was called; the US edition is called Orientations) tells the story:
Sultan Hussein Kamil
But before proclaiming the good news it was necessary to provide the throne with an occupant. Prince Hussein procrastinated in the hope of better terms. The fact of the negotiations was known, and strong family and general pressure was secretly exerted upon him through emissaries from Constantinople to drag on discussions until mid-January by which time the Turks would be ready to attack Egypt and then to break them off. I do not think the Prince was appreciably influenced by this sort of thing, though Harims in those days were almost exclusively Turkish, and domestic pressure, like the Mills of God, though it grind slowly yet grinds exceedingly small. He considered, and I agreed, that he was conferring as well as receiving a favour and that, in the matter of status, his wishes should be met. The Prince was strongly of opinion that Egypt should be transformed into a Kingdom under an Egyptian King. As it was impossible that a vassal prince should bear the same style as his suzerain, I ventured to suggest the alternative of Sultan, an Arab name signifying "the bearer of ruling power" which had been first adopted in Egypt by Saladin, and which was incidentally the title of the ex-Suzerain ruler of the Ottoman Empire. My proposal was accepted by both sides. Majesty being impossible for the same reason as King, Hautesse, the ancient and dignified double of Altesse, was suggested in order to distinguish the sovereign from the spate of obscure and sometimes ignoble collaterals all claiming the title of Highness. Meanwhile, nothing was settled, neither side was committed to anything, and a sharp Allied reverse on any front might plunge us into the dreaded inferiority of hawking round an ever less desirable crown and continually having to offer higher inducement for its acceptance. I had spoken frequently but, as a junior, unofficially, with Prince Hussein, having fresh in my memory the perplexities and humiliations of the Mustafa Fehmy crisis. Negotiations dragged on for about a month. At last the question was narrowed down to the offer by the Government of the throne of Egypt to Prince Hussein with the title of Sultan and - nothing more. The Prince behaved with great dignity, but pointed out that the document contained no mention of heredity in his family or indeed among the descendants of Muhammad Ali; that he, was allowed no voice in the choice of a flag nor was even sure he would have one at all; and that he was not informed whether Egyptians would be British subjects or retain their own entity and nationality under a British Protectorate. I considered him entirely justified on these three points, but we had our instructions, and it seemed impossible to persuade him to accept. The alternative was the proclamation of a Protectorate without any Egyptian Sovereign at all.
The imposition of the Union Jack, containing as it does the cross in three forms, would have had a bad effect in Egypt and a worse throughout Arabia; and the Khedivial Turkish party, which though dormant still existed, would have been immensely strengthened when it became known that we had not been able to make the rival claimant an offer which his dignity could accept. The Ministers told us frankly that they would not continue in office under a throneless Protectorate. We had given up all hope, and a telegram embodying the Prince's refusal, drafted and typed, lay ready for ciphering on Cheetham's table. As a last resort I primed Shaarawi Pasha, a rich landowner who had been intimate with the Prince all his life, and Ambroise Sinadino, a Greek, in more or less intimate contact with the Agency for the past thirty-five years. They went round independently and as if with no knowledge of the circumstances (I had in fact told them very little) pointed out to Prince Hussein how nervous the country was getting at the prolonged delay in the pro duction of the proclamation, and hoped that the responsibility did not lie on his side, as that might force the English to do things repugnant to them and disastrous to the country. On Sunday evening I received a note from Sinadino. "Mon cher Storrs, J'ai fait de la bonne besogne pendant une heure et demie. Son Altesse aimerait beaucoup avec l'autorisation de Monsieur Cheetham que vous alliez le voir demain lundi avant midi a sa Daira; il pourra ainsi vous parler a coeur ouvert. ]e vous serre la main; bien a vous. Ambroise."  I persuaded Cheetham to postpone his final telegram and telephoned to the Prince asking him to see me that evening instead of the next day. He received me very kindly in his Palace at Heliopolis and kept me from 10 till 12. A laconic brevity and a direct coming to the point are not the virtues of Prince Hussein, and he began by quoting a number of instances of his friendliness and loyalty to Great Britain from the very beginning. My soul fainted within me when he described with a wealth of horticultural detail how he had rooted up trees from his own garden at Giza and presented them to the first Lady Cromer and I longed to say: "Monseigneur! passons au Deluge" However, he eventually attacked the subject and speaking without any reserve at all told me that he wanted to accept the Sultanate, but as offered by H.M.G. could not face it. I begged him for his own sake and that of the country to trust the British Government, which had recalled him from exile and which had never yet betrayed him; still he would not accept. At about half-past eleven I said I feared I was intruding upon his leisure, and he asked me whether I would leave with an impresion of an obstinate man: I said No, but with a distinct impression of a Prince who had no confidence in Lord K. or the British Government. He appeared a little staggered at this and said: "I cannot let you go away under this impression; what do you think I had better do?" I recommended him to allow us to put in a strong appeal for the heredity, and to leave the question of the flag and the nationality to the wisdom of the British High Commissioner who was coming out. I pointed out that a Sultan on the throne was in a much better position for bargaining than a claimant however illustrious, and that the Foreign Office, confronted with this notable proof of his bonne volante would be likely to allow him a larger share of confidence and consequently a freer hand in the future. He thought awhile and said: "If you will guarantee that the High Commissioner will decide the other two points in my favour and procure for me the heredity, I accept." I told him that this was not an acceptance at all, but only a post-dating of his demands, that I regretted so small a thing should keep him from doing all the good I knew he would be able to do, but that there was nothing for it now but to dispatch the telegram embodying his refusal. He took leave of me very cordially, and said he very much appreciated my anxiety that the Sultanate should not pass into less worthy hands. I left him at midnight, impressed by his dignity and the real justice of his cause, and informed Cheetham of his offer. Early next morning Prince Hussein sent for the Ministers and, after informing them of what had happened, telephoned to me that he was prepared to accept my suggestion of the night before. He visited Cheetham (who was not a little pleased), withdrew his former refusal and made the new proposal which we have now embodied in a telegram and sent home. 
At the end of this long saga, Storrs comments:
I have ventured to record thus at length the last inner workings of that rumbling and irregular but beneficent old machine, then about to be thrown on the scrap-heap -- the British "Occupation" of Egypt.
So the Khedive became a Sultan, Egypt became a protectorate, and the British Agent/Consul General became a High Commissioner. And the new Sultan did get a new flag and Coat of Arms:

Flag of the Sultanate of Egypt

No comments: