The obituaries of renowned intellectual Edward Said, King Hussein of Jordan, Hollywood actor Omar Sharif and the illustrious Adnan Khashoggi share a common detail: They all attended Victoria College in Alexandria. These figures, all leaders and pioneers in their own fields, are part of a long list of notable alumni from arguably the Arab world’s most prestigious and successful academic institution.
Victoria College was founded in 1902 by Evelyn Baring, earl of Cromer and the first British consul general of Egypt. Known as “Over-Baring” by contemporaries, he very much fitted the stereotype of the British colonial administrator: Fair, hardworking, devoted and patriotic but utterly humorless. His occupation was government. Arriving in Egypt in 1877, he set about expanding government administration across the country.
With public finances in a sorry state due to the re-entry of cheap American cotton into European markets, Egypt’s economy required reform and its administration a complete overhaul.
Victoria College was the brainchild of a group of British businessmen who formed the nucleus of Alexandria’s small business community. With the motto “Cuncti Gens Una Sumus” (“We Are All One People”), the college was fashioned as independent, secular and open to all who could afford the fees.
It quickly began to attract children both of the elite — royalty, dignitaries, tycoons, politicians and landowners — and of ordinary aspirational people. Its pupils came not only from all over Egypt but from the rest of the Arab world and the wider Mediterranean.
Amid a cholera outbreak, the state of education in Egypt, like all else, needed reform. Ambitious parents had few options for their sons. The schools run by Jesuit religious missions and other Catholic orders were hopelessly inadequate. Traditional schools had become increasingly unable to equip students with the skills that would prepare them for the competitive modern world.
Young men wanting to pursue advanced English-language education had to travel to Britain. What the creation of Victoria College did was provide an English public school education that was at last within easy reach of Middle Easterners. Its first two headmasters, C.R. Lias and his successor R.W.G. Reed, were men of great vision, and their leadership made the school what it was.
The annals of the school’s history make for fascinating reading for postcolonial scholars, educationists and social historians. Victoria’s project, to provide world-class education to Egypt and the wider region, was avant-garde. Early cohorts at the school were reflective of the inclusive zeal that the directorship envisaged. The class of 1906 included students from 13 nationalities of Muslim, Christian and Jewish persuasions.
Reflective of the ethnic and religious mosaic that has always characterized Alexandria, the college prioritized academic achievement over the background of its pupils, allowing for an academic rigor that was lacking in other schools of the period.
There has never been a greater demand for such a strong and disciplined academic institution — based on meritocracy, and blind to ethnicity and religion — than there is today.
Zaid M. Belbagi
From early on, the school provided a holistic education. Courses included Arabic, English, French, history, geography, maths, science, drawing and physical education. Well-ventilated classrooms limited to 22 students were ahead of their time, the school’s library was world class and outdoor sports were well-catered for.
Seen as an important source of discipline and character-building, masters took part in sports alongside students, teaching them patience and the all-important element of healthy competition. Irrespective of the celebrated backgrounds of some of the students, the entire school community would dine together in a refectory that seated 500, teaching students the manners and spirit of egalitarianism ingrained through communal dining.
When the bishop of London visited the new school in 1912, he noted with delight that the cult of the public school had entrenched itself in Egypt, and elaborated on how pride in one’s school was the backbone of British global success. “A field-marshal does not carry his baton more proudly than he wears his school tie,” he declared.
He assured the parent body and school governors that Victoria was fast becoming a bastion of success, since three of the elements that made up a good independent school were in place: “Good masters, good buildings and good playgrounds.”
School traditions and events were central to bringing out the best in pupils, who would be involved in three extra-curricular activities: Theatricals in December, Sports Day in May and Prize Day on the eve of the summer break. Indicating the importance of the school in Egyptian society was the annual Victoria College Speech Day.
For decades this event served as an unofficial forum for review of government. Dignitaries would line up to attend the event, which in the absence of a functioning Egyptian Parliament or a speech from the throne served as a state-of-the-nation address. The event was so momentous that the following day’s newspaper headlines would be dedicated to it, highlighting the policy areas that were touched upon.
As many students in the Middle East break for a four-month holiday, the discipline that characterized the regime at Victoria could not be more different. School hours were from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with short breaks. Saturday was a half day and Sundays were off. The school year, divided into three three-month terms of Michaelmas, Easter and summer, provided ample time for the dispensation of quality education.
A certain pedigree that characterizes all solid academic institutions came to symbolize Victoria. By its 25th year, the Old Victorian dinner was already being attended by former prime ministers, Cabinet ministers, consuls and financiers.
With the eventual creation of an Old Victorian’s Club and Old Victorian Association, the old boys’ network grew in influence, with many of its aforementioned former pupils rising to prominence in the rapidly developing petro-economies of the Arab world.
Veteran Iraqi politician Adnan Pachachi still cuts a striking figure well into his 90s as one of Victoria’s golden generation. In a long career that has seen many twists and turns, his “seen it all” bearing is characteristic of so many leading Old Victorians.
Famously turning down the Iraqi presidency in 2004 on a matter of principle, this elder statesman displays an integrity and industriousness that is so rare in modern politics, which his disciplined schooling no doubt equipped him with.
Alas, from the 1960s onward Victoria College succumbed to radical shifts in the socio-political climate in Egypt, and has since become a shadow of what it once was. Unfortunately, there has never been a greater demand for such a strong and disciplined academic institution — based on meritocracy, and blind to ethnicity and religion — than there is today.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).