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ʿAbbas Hilmi II

Dictionary of African Biography

israel gershoni

ʿAbbas Hilmi II (1874–1944),  

the third and last khedive of Egypt, ruled the country from 1892 to 1914. ʿAbbas was the seventh ruler in Mehmet ʿAli’s dynasty, which was established in the early nineteenth century. ʿAbbas came to the throne at the very young age of eighteen in January 1892 after his father, Khedive Tawfiq (r. 1879–1892), died unexpectedly. Born in Cairo ʿAbbas was educated by tutors at the Thudicum in Geneva and later in the Theresianum Military Academy in Vienna.

Unlike his father, a weak ruler who was considered a puppet of the British colonial rule, the young ʿAbbas strove to restore the original khedival status as sovereign ruler, patterned after the model established by his grandfather Ismaʿil (r. 1863–1879), and to assert Egypt’s unique status as a semiautonomous province within the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbbas’s aspirations clashed with British rule, particularly with the authority of the powerful agent and consul- general Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer (r. 1883–1907). ʿAbbas challenged Cromer by attempting to appoint his own prime minister, Husayn Fakhri, rather than accept the consul-general’s choice, Mustafa Fahmi, and in his public criticism of Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener, head of the Egyptian armed forces, for neglecting to maintain high professional standards. ʿAbbas’s provocative efforts proved unsuccessful—he was forced to accept Riyad Pasha as a compromise prime minister and to apologize to Kitchener. However, these incidents generated tremendous support among anti-imperialist Egyptians, who saw ʿAbbas as a charismatic, independent leader prepared to confront colonial rule. More specifically, these actions drew the attention of the emerging Egyptian Nationalists, headed by Mustafa Kamil (1874–1908). ʿAbbas had supported early nationalist activities by Kamil and the seminal nationalist movement, and he secretly formed the Society for the Revival of the Nation, which eventually became the basis for Kamil’s Nationalist Party. He also financially supported Shaykh ʿAli Yusuf’s anticolonialist publication al-Muʾayyad and Kamil’s French and English editions of al-Liwaʾ. The Ottoman orientations of the khedive and the Nationalists also played a role in their early collaboration. The association between an ambitious khedive and a young nationalist leader laid the foundations for the emergence of the Egyptian nationalist movement with a defined national agenda to struggle for the country’s liberation and independence.

ʿAbbas Hilmi II

ʿAbbas Hilmi II. Engraving after a photograph by Van Bosch, Paris. (Private Collection/Photo © Tarker/The Bridgeman Art Library)

However, this self-serving relationship did not last long. The French-British Entente Cordiale (1904) dashed national expectations for French support and marked the beginnings of an independent national struggle against British rule, led by Kamil who preferred allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbbas distanced himself from the Nationalist Party in an effort to improve his relations with the British rule, particularly in the new context of Cromer’s retirement and the subsequent appointment of Sir Eldon Gorst (1907). Gorst was much more receptive to the khedive’s ambitions and granted ʿAbbas greater authority and freedom of action. With the support of Gorst, ʿAbbas contributed to pioneering Egyptian cultural and educational projects that culminated in his assistance in the establishment of the nucleus of the Egyptian University in 1908. Another important step in this new policy was the appointment of the pro-British Copt leader Butrus Ghali to prime minister (1908–1910). Ghali’s government, backed both by the khedive and the British, reinstated the 1881 Press Law (1909), which imposed constraints on the freedom of the press, particularly the nationalist press. Ghali’s assassination by a militant nationalist (1910) heightened the tension between ʿAbbas and the Nationalists.

However, the year 1911 augured additional change: Gorst died and Sir Herbert Kitchener was appointed consul-general (1911–1914). Kitchener worked to reassert full British colonial authority and ʿAbbas quickly became his rival. British fear of nationalist militant activity led to increasing British pressure on the Nationalists and to a growing suspicion that the khedive supported their anti-British activities. Their pro-Ottomanism, on the eve of World War I, brought tensions to a peak in the summer of 1914. Kitchener took advantage of ʿAbbas’s extended vacation in Istanbul (the result of an assassination attempt that led to an injury and the need to recuperate) and through the British Embassy in Istanbul notified ʿAbbas that he would not be allowed to reenter Egypt.

In December 1914 the British authorities, already in the war, announced their decision to depose ʿAbbas. In his place they appointed his uncle Husayn Kamil with the title of sultan. They simultaneously declared Egypt a British protectorate, which de facto severed Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. The former khedive attempted to establish relations with the Ottoman government as a means of convincing them to liberate Egypt from British rule and to reinstall him as the country’s leader. But his relations with the Ottoman leaders were problematic and permeated with mutual suspicions. Old rivalries and mistrust prevented him from finding ways to collaborate with the exiled Nationalists led by Muhammad Farid. Thus, the former khedive found himself wandering through Austria, Switzerland, and Germany during the war. He declared support for Germany in the hope that they would reinstall him to his previous position, to no avail.

After the war, unable to return to Egypt, ʿAbbas repeatedly attempted to assert control over his assets in Egypt but was denied by Egyptian and British authorities. In May 1931 ʿAbbas officially renounced his claim to the Egyptian throne in favor of King Fuʾad. In the beginning of the 1930s he was involved in peace initiatives between Zionist and Arab leaders in an effort to solve the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine. He strove to use this political involvement to return to the local political arena but his efforts again failed. ʿAbbas wandered around European capitals with little purpose other than minor business enterprises and real estate investments. During World War II he supported the Axis Powers in yet another desperate attempt to return to the local political arena. Again he failed. ʿAbbas Hilmi II died in Geneva in 1944, leaving substantial memoirs and diaries that recorded his life from his own unique angle.

[See also Farid, Muhammad; Fuʾad I, Ahmad; Ismaʿil; Kamil, Mustafa; and Kitchener, Horatio.]


Abbas, Hilmi II. The Last Khedive of Egypt: Memoirs of Abbas Hilmi II, edited and translated by Amira Sonbol. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1998.Find this resource:

    Baring, Evelyn (Earl of Cromer). Abbas II. London: Macmillan, 1915.Find this resource:

      Baring, Evelyn (Earl of Cromer). Modern Egypt. l2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1908.Find this resource:

        Goldschmidt, Arthur, Jr. “The Egyptian Nationalist Party: 1892–1919.” In Political and Social Change in Modern Egypt, edited by P. M. Holt, pp. 308–333. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

          Mayer, Thomas. “Dreamers and Opportunists: ʿAbbas Hilmi’s Peace Initiative in Palestine, 1930–1931.” In Egypt and Palestine, A Millennium of Association (868–1948), edited by Amnon Cohen and Gabriel Baer. Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.Find this resource:

            Owen, Roger. Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

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