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08 April 1915 – Abdin Assassin

Above: a Cairo railway station in 1910. 

Hussein Kamel, Sultan of Egypt, is leaving the gilded two hundred-acre Abdin Palace in Cairo today when Said Zulfiqar, his chief of staff seated next to him, notices a young man getting too close to the royal carriage. Zulfiqar alerts the guard, but before they can move against the would-be assassin, he raises a pistol concealed in a red flower bouquet and takes one shot, missing Kamel’s head by mere inches.

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Hussein Kamel’s title of Sultan was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate

Immediately swarmed by palace guards, twenty-seven year-old Mohamed Khalil is disarmed and taken into custody, whereupon he claims to have acted alone. In fact, Khalil has made several recent attempts to get this close to the Sultan, whom he denounces as a traitor to Islam, but always solo. He is responding to the Ottoman Sultan’s call for jihad against all Christian kingdoms except Germany and Austria. Britain, which deposed the pro-Turkish Khedive Abbas Helmi II last November and installed his uncle Hussein Kamel in his place, holds a military court for Khalil. Convicted on the 20th, he is hanged four days later, but he will not be the last Egyptian to attempt regicide this year.

In June, an unseen assailant tries to roll a bomb under Kamel’s carriage as he makes his way to Friday prayers in Alexandria, but it fails to explode. Two men, Mohammad Naguib El-Helbawy and Mohammad Shams-El-Dine, are eventually arrested for the crime and sentenced to death, but Kamel commutes their penalties to life at hard labor. “If I were sure that these incidents had been committed by evil people, I wouldn’t give them a second thought,” Kamel tells a pro-British newspaper. “But my greatest concern is that there is a seed of corruption in this country as a whole.”

As exemplified by the murder of the Austrian archduke which led to the Great War’s outbreak, the second decade of the 20th Century is already an age of political turmoil, radical politics, and revolutionary violence. The vast majority of Egyptians neither rise up against Kamel or respond to the distant Ottoman Caliphate, and the Egyptian Army is never disloyal. Yet with the wartime British presence in Egypt growing by the day, resentment and humiliation are driving some Egyptians to commit criminal acts of protest. They are tired of the double-standard wherein foreigners are immune to Egyptian law, which nonetheless exerts harsh penalties on Egyptians who harm Europeans. Those who celebrate their nation’s long-desired divorce from Istanbul also resent London’s ‘protectorate’ over their nation.

This is the “corruption” that worries Kamel: a simmering, widespread desire to throw off all foreign authority and become a modern, independent nation, with or without a monarch.

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A soldier from Australia carries his unit’s Koala mascot in the streets of Cairo. As the main staging area for operations in Greece and Gallipoli, Egypt is host to hundreds of thousands of troops from across the British Empire during the war

The kingdom is also going broke. Despite spending cuts, the Egyptian government begins the new fiscal year with an exhausted reserve fund and burgeoning deficits. Exports of cotton and tobacco have been cut drastically by wartime protection measures taken up in London, and the normal flow of goods and customs revenue through the Suez Canal has been curtailed, but the single biggest driver of debt is the decrease in railroad receipts, for civilian freight and passenger traffic has almost dried up completely. Except for soldiers on pass, there are no western tourists.

In May, Kamel’s Prime Minister appoints a capable Minister of Awqaf (charitable religious institutions) named Ibrahim Fathi to deal with the concomitant surge in poverty and unemployment, but on September 4th he is attacked at a train station, stabbed three times in the face, and nearly killed by Saleh Abdul-Latif, an employee of the Treasury. Captured by police, Abdul-Latif confesses that he wants to kill “all the ministers,” for they “are traitors and deserve to die.” Like the young man who tried to kill Sultan Kamel, the failed assassin is convicted and executed without regard to the dissonance of his motivations.

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A medieval society struggling to emerge as a modern nation: a 1910 postcard from an aeronautics trade show held in Heliopolis

Today’s assassination attempt does result in an urgent discussion of the royal succession. Kamel tells High Commissioner Henry McMahon that he would prefer his son Kemal el Dine, but also cautions McMahon that el Dine may not want the honor, after all. He therefore adds his half-brother Ahmed Fouad as an alternate. As Kamel lies dying in 1917, Kemal el Dine does in fact decline the crown, becoming the only eligible royal heir in the long history of Egypt to voluntarily surrender his right to the throne. The choice makes him extraordinarily popular with the people, whose agitation for independence has only grown stronger with the deprivations of war. The Egyptian monarchy survives — for now.

Finally, a new problem is rising in Benghazi and eastern Libya. While the Turks lost a 1911 war with Italy for control of Tripoli and the western part of the country, the Sublime Porte still has considerable influence in the parts which border Egypt. Seeing an opportunity to recapture what was once the jewel in the Ottoman crown, the Turkish government is fomenting an uprising that will become an incursion before the end of the year. As in their Sinai campaign, the attacking force is too small and poorly-equipped to defeat the British Army, but the crisis still inflames Egyptian anxieties and distracts an overtaxed British Empire.

The Great War is destroying old loyalties and inaugurating new ones. The previous world is dissolving forever, and in the competition of empires whole new nations are struggling to throw off the shackles of their historical subjugation and create the world we live in today. To our collective human misfortune, Kamel’s “seed of corruption” has bloomed in far too many of the last one hundred years, and Egyptians still have more pride than prosperity, but when a-shaab al-Mosriyin (the Egyptian people) tell you they have been a modern country for a very long time, they are not lying.

Taken before the war in 1914, this promotional photo of a Ford Model T underlines

Made before the war in 1914, a promotional for the Ford Model T, which was already available worldwide

  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    Are there other places like Egypt among the other British dominions, colonies and dependencies? Nominally independent, Egypt cannot stray too far from the Britain’s grasp on account of the Suez Canal, the presence of British troops in the region and the British “conquest” of 1882. I don’t know the answer to the question but it intrigues me. Ordinarily imperial overlords are clear in their domination. In Egypt there appears to be a veneer of self rule and a delicate interplay of British and Egyptian interests. Is what’s good for one really also good for the other? I hope more knowledgeable people have an opinion on the subject.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      It’s always been curious to me that different European powers treated their imperial dominions differently, and considered their own imperial projects to be more enlightened than the others, while critics of imperialism tend to only see the exploitation and reject any nuanced analysis or favorable comparisons between different systems. Egypt is not India, India is not Australia, and Australia is not Canada. They each have their own story that deserves examination.

      My impression of the Edwardian period — and I am happy to be proven wrong here — is that the risen generation of England’s middle and upper class in 1915 didn’t see themselves as bearing responsibility for the existence of Britain’s empire. Rather, it was a birthright that somewhat embarrassed them, much like Andrew Undershaft’s armory business horrified his adult children in Shaw’s Major Barbara. This is not to suggest attitudes were even across Britain, but IMO the Irish Home Rule project is a good example of these political dumplings in the savory stew of the political period that ends with the Great War. It’s not hard to see why British officials in Egypt would want to at least create the appearance of a nominally-independent Egyptian monarchy to soothe the public conscience. But again, my impression is more literary than historical and there’s room for subtlety.

      To somewhat answer your question — “are there other places like Egypt?” — I’d say that the princes of India were enthusiastic about “the Empire War,” as they called it, and that Louis Botha’s campaign in German Southwest Africa was aimed at creating an independent South African imperial project within the British one. To what extent was British imperialism in 1910-1923 about exploitation by London versus regional exploitation, and even self-exploitation, in the empire’s name? Is the decline of the British Empire solely a result of popular anti-imperialism, or is it actually explained better by the declining profitability of cooperation with the empire? I’m not enough of a historian to say with certitude, but I’m enough of a student to be very curious.

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