Abbas Hilmi ['Abbās Ḥilmi] II
- Michael T. Thornhill
Abbas Hilmi II (1874–1944)
Abbas Hilmi ['Abbās Ḥilmi] II (1874–1944), last khedive of Egypt, was born on 14 July 1874 in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of Muhammad Tawfiq (1852–1892), sixth ruler of Egypt under the dynasty founded in 1811 by his great-great-grandfather Mehmet Ali, and Princess Emine Hanem (1858–1931), daughter of Ibrahim Ilhami Pasha and the granddaughter of Abbas I. He had a younger brother and three sisters. Egypt was officially part of the Ottoman empire, but was occupied and administered by Britain from 1882.
Brought up in the harem until he was eight, Abbas was subsequently educated at a specially built school next to the Abdin Palace in Cairo until 1883 and then in Switzerland before entering the Theresianum Academy, Vienna, in 1887. He gained a speaking knowledge of Arabic, English, French, and German alongside his Turkish mother tongue. His studies ended abruptly when his father died from pneumonia on 7 January 1892. A day later the Ottoman government recognized him, by virtue of primogeniture, as the new khedive (viceroy) of Egypt. Because he was not eighteen until July, there was uncertainty about whether he could immediately assume the throne. However, Britain wanted to avoid an interregnum and so his age was calculated by the Muslim calendar with its 354 days, making an immediate accession possible. The handsome young sovereign sported a pointed upturned moustache; official portraits depicted him in fez and uniform of the Ottoman ruling family.
As with his father, however, Abbas was allowed only to reign: Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring), the British agent and consul-general, was the effective ruler of Egypt. But whereas Tawfiq had been grateful to Britain for saving his throne during the Urabi uprising of 1882, Abbas resented the foreign domination. His energetic pursuit of power brought him into conflict with the British residency, the equivalent of government house in a crown colony. In January 1893 he sacked a pro-British prime minister and installed one of his own choosing after Alfred Milner, a senior official in the residency, had advocated maintaining a 'veiled protectorate' in his book England in Egypt, published a month earlier. The ministerial crisis ended in a humiliating climb-down by Abbas but it nevertheless presented him as a potential ally for Egypt's nascent nationalist movement. His next showdown with the British occurred in January 1894 after he made disparaging remarks about the Egyptian army to its commander-in-chief Horatio Kitchener. With Kitchener threatening to resign, Britain issued a démarche to Abbas requiring him to retract the comments. The threat of deposition hung over all subsequent acts of misbehaviour. Kitchener never forgave Abbas and a lasting antipathy ensued. In public Cromer put the khedive's behaviour down to youthful exuberance; his private view was that the dynasty had long been degenerate.
Swayed by a corrupt and sycophantic court, Abbas developed a self-indulgent personality that made it difficult for him to sustain political alliances. He gave financial backing to nationalists but the ensuing relationships foundered because of disagreements over future constitutional arrangements. The khedive wanted a strong monarchy, not European-style democracy. The British exploited these differences to divide their enemies. As the defender of Islam in Egypt, Abbas cultivated contacts with religious leaders and one of his most stable friendships was with Sheikh Ali Yusef, who was known for his moderate views.
Abbas married Ikbal Hanim (1876–1941), a former member of his mother's household, on 19 February 1895; they had four daughters prior to the birth of a son and heir, Muhammad Abdel Moneim (d. 1979), on 20 February 1899; a second son was born three years later. In 1900 Abbas began an affair with Marianne Torok de Szendro (1874–1944), an American-born Hungarian countess whom he first met while studying in Vienna. Because of Tawfiq's stipulation that monogamous marriage was a requisite for Egypt's rulers in the modern age, a divorce from his wife was deemed necessary before a second marriage could take place. Chafing against this constraint, Abbas secretly married his lover (the date is unknown), witnessed only by two sheikhs. An official wedding took place on 28 February 1910, officiated by the grand mufti of Egypt. Because of its polygamous and morganatic nature, the event was again kept secret, aside from an entry for Torok in Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels (1911). This listed her as Princess Djavidan Hanem, wife of the khedive of Egypt. The marriage was dissolved in 1913.
Abbas's international policies involved a vain attempt to play off France and Turkey against Britain. In 1895–8 he reluctantly agreed to the reconquest of the Sudan and he bitterly resented the ensuing Anglo-Egyptian condominium agreements of 1899. It was not that he sympathized with the Sudanese; rather, he believed that the Egyptians alone should control the Nile. (Towards the end of his life he formed the ridiculous view that Britain had gained control of Egypt and the Sudan by deliberately fomenting two supposedly anti-British uprisings, Urabi's in 1882 and the Mahdi's in 1885.) The Anglo-French entente of 1904—by which France recognized Britain's position in Egypt—prevented him from manipulating imperial rivalries. Abbas responded by helping establish a pressure group in London called the English Committee for Egypt, headed by J. M. Robertson MP. At the same time, however, he attempted to put his relations with Britain on a more cordial footing and accepted a British officer as an aide-de-camp.
Without French opinion to restrain him, Cromer became even more autocratic. The nationalist credentials of Abbas suffered as a consequence, especially after the Dinshwai incident in June 1906 when the British treated an affray with brutal severity. Cromer retired soon after; his replacement, Eldon Gorst, was on good terms with Abbas, having previously served in Egypt. It helped that both shared an interest in horse breeding. (A century later the khedive's name still figured prominently in Arabian breed history.) Gorst's remit was to increase the influence of the khedive in the context of greater authority for Egypt's political institutions, but the liberal approach unleashed nationalist pressures and Abbas's newly cosy relationship with the British residency made him unpopular. His most trusted political friend, Boutros Ghali, was assassinated in 1910 after he and Abbas supported Britain's plan to extend the Suez Canal Company's ninety-nine-year lease by another forty years. For a while it looked as though the edifice built by Cromer would collapse. The death of Gorst in July 1911 was a massive blow to Abbas. Not only did he lose one of his best friends (he had rushed to a deathbed meeting and later attended the funeral) but Gorst's replacement, Lord Kitchener, was his nemesis.
Kitchener's return to Egypt as consul-general in September marked a resumption of autocratic methods of imperial rule, aptly signalled by his arrival in a warship rather than the customary steamship. A policy of humiliating Abbas was systematically pursued: Kitchener, for instance, wore his field marshal's uniform for meetings rather than that of a minister-plenipotentiary. Matters became so fraught that Abbas insisted that every conversation be put into writing. In the summer of 1914 Abbas planned to visit London but Kitchener ensured that an audience with the king would not be forthcoming. To avoid this snub, Abbas went instead to his estates in Turkey. During a visit to Constantinople he was shot by a pro-Turkish Egyptian student; a facial wound was sustained making speech painful for several months.
Abbas was recuperating in Turkey when the First World War broke out. His attempts to return to Egypt were blocked by Kitchener on the ground that he was pro-Ottoman, although it was not until 5 November that Britain declared war on the Ottoman empire. On 19 December, the day after Egypt became a British protectorate, Abbas was deposed in favour of his father's brother, Hussein Kamal. The title sultan replaced khedive in order to indicate the break with the Ottoman sultanate. Abbas never forgave his uncle for usurping him, and the family grievance was extended to Kamal's successor, Fuad. Cromer defended the deposition in his biography of Abbas (1915); a contrary perspective is given in A. H. Beaman's The Dethronement of the Khedive (1929). For the rest of the war Abbas sided with the central powers in the hope of reinstatement. He lived for a while in Vienna, where he was involved in efforts to maintain Italy's neutrality, and thereafter lived in Switzerland.
After the war Abbas unsuccessfully sought compensation from the British government for properties it had sequestrated. Further misfortune beset him in the early 1920s when his Turkish estates were confiscated. He continued to follow the political situation in Egypt and wrote a critical piece on the British relationship in 1930 entitled A Few Words on the Anglo-Egyptian Settlement. Lingering hopes of regaining the throne were only extinguished in 1931 when he renounced his claim in return for a pension from the Egyptian government worth £E30,000 per annum. Fuad was anxious to ensure that his son Farouk succeeded him. In the late 1930s Abbas worked on his memoirs (which were published posthumously). He remained in Switzerland during the Second World War and died aged seventy on 21 December 1944 in Geneva.
- The last khedive of Egypt: memoirs of Abbas Hilmi II, ed. and trans. A. Sonbol (1998)
- earl of Cromer, Abbas II (1915)
- A. H. Beaman, The dethronement of the khedive (1929)
- T. H. O'Brien, Milner (1979)
- A. Goldschmidt, Biographical dictionary of modern Egypt (2000)
- D. M. Mckale, ‘Influence without power: the last khedive of Egypt and the great powers’, Middle Eastern Studies, 33/1
- S. Raafat, ‘From Mag-Arabs to Al-Magary’, Egyptian Mail (13 April 1996)
- S. Raafat, ‘Queen for a day’, Al-Ahram Weekly (6 Oct 1994)
- U. Durham L., personal and official papers
- U. Durham L., Sudan archive, letters with R. Wingate
- Dittrich, photograph, pubd 1900, NPG [see illus.]
- photographs, U. Durham L.
- photographs, repro. in Sonbol, ed., Last khedive of Egypt