Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Features Books Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A Diwan of contemporary life (285)
A little-known battle, one of many that made up the 1919 Egyptian nationalist uprising against British occupation, raged for weeks between British and Egyptian media stalwarts. It was a war of words between The Times of London and Al-Ahram. The Times started it in the first of a series of six articles about the turmoil in Egypt. Al-Ahram hit back with six articles of rebuttal and criticism. The verbal tirades were exchanged over several weeks in the autumn of 1919. Al-Ahram fired the final salvo. It had the Sphinx send a message to the British: Egypt does not need masters; it needs people with knowledge they can impart. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews the press battle
Taking on The TimesThe year of the 1919 Revolution saw battles with the British on numerous fronts. In the cities, student demonstrators clashed with the British security forces. In the countryside, the peasant uprisings caused general turmoil, particularly with the severing of rail communications. Following the collapse of government authority, British protectorate authorities mobilised the various branches of military in order to impose their version of law and order.
While most of these battles have been treated exhaustively by scholars of modern Egyptian history in general and the 1919 Revolution in particular, little has been written about another field of combat: the press. One battle on this front erupted in the autumn of that tumultuous year between the oldest Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, and the oldest British newspaper, The Times. Most wars begin with minor skirmishes that eventually flare up into full-scale combat. The same applies to the battle of the pens waged between Al-Ahram and The Times that year.
It was the latter that would fire the opening volleys with the first of a series of six articles on "The Disturbances in Egypt". The articles, written by "The Times correspondent in the East" and translated into Arabic for Al-Ahram's readers, featured prominently on the newspaper's front page, where Al-Ahram's editorial writer parried the shots.
The Times correspondent began innocuously enough with an attempt to explain the causes of the "disturbances," as he referred to the 1919 Revolution. He ascribed the disturbances in part to the relationship between Egypt and Turkey. "The Turks were not well-loved in Egypt in the days of their effective hegemony," he wrote. "The current situation could only have been possible after the end of their rule and intervention in Egyptian affairs. Although Egyptians had no powerful desire for the return of Turkish rule, the sympathies between Egypt and Turkey were much stronger than most people generally think." From this assessment of the bonds of loyalty to the seat of the Caliphate, the writer concludes that the termination of Ottoman suzerainty over Egypt in 1914 "did not meet with the approval of the public, however much it was justified."
Daoud Barakat, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram who led the battle against The Times of London
The declaration of the British protectorate over Egypt, in his view, was a major cause for the 1919 uprising. He confessed that "no Egyptian ever felt that he was a member of the British Empire or asked to be one. No one had entertained the thought of allegiance to King George. Nor had any Egyptian felt that the war of 1914 was a war involving Egyptian interests." He also admits that, as a result of the war, the British grip over Egyptian affairs tightened even further. Circumstances of the war also led to the creation of more jobs for European experts and technicians, particularly within the railway authority, which was placed at the service of the imperial war effort.
As for Egyptian attitudes towards the British protectorate, The Times correspondent divided Egyptians into moderates and extremists. The former, epitomised by Prime Minister Rushdi Pasha, realised that, whatever the ills of the protectorate, "a German-Turkish victory in the war would bring certain ruin." The moderates, therefore, "were not taken in by the appeals and promises issued by the Ottoman Unionists. They knew that, however good the intentions of some of the Young Turks, the spirit of extremism and fanaticism continued to prevail in Istanbul and that Germany sought absolute supremacy under which Egypt would be no more than a milking cow."
Al-Ahram's writer, who was most likely Editor-in-Chief Daoud Barakat, felt that there was not much to take offense at in The Times' article. The correspondent, in his opinion, was sincere in his quest for the truth. He was certainly unlike so many European writers "whose only haunts are the Shepherd's Hotel rooftop garden, the lobby of the Continental Hotel or the pubs and cafés and whose only concern is that Egypt be a machine in their hands but it never works to their satisfaction."
Responding to the points in The Times' correspondent's article, Barakat argued that the British were at fault for Egypt's continued links with Turkey throughout the 19th century. To corroborate this, he offers a succinct account of British intervention at a time when Egypt had struck out for independence. Following the French withdrawal from Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century, the British insisted that the Amiens Treaty concluded between Paris and London in 1802 contain a provision that Egypt would remain a Turkish province. Five years later, the ill-fated Fraser expedition, which had invaded Egypt in order to restore the Mamelukes deposed by Mohamed Ali, met its nemesis in Rashid. Instead of negotiating evacuation terms with Mohamed Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt, the British negotiated with Istanbul. Then, "we (Egyptians) subjected the rebellious tribes in the Hijaz, restored the key of the Kaaba to the sultan and brought Greece under his suzerainty, for which services Egypt was granted the governorship of Acre. However, your (British) ambassador in Istanbul appealed to the sultan to renege on the gift he bestowed upon us." Later, in the 1830s, when Mohamed Ali's campaign against Turkish forces brought Egyptian forces virtually to the doors of Istanbul, the British sided with the Ottoman sultan once again. Palmerston, the British secretary of state at the time, had announced that Great Britain "is not pleased by Egypt's progress and advancement and refuses to accept a victorious Egypt and a defeated Turkey."
In short, the Al-Ahram writer concludes, the British had persistently worked to keep Egypt under the Ottoman thumb. If, following the British occupation, the Egyptians evinced pro-Turkish sympathies, such sympathies were no more than an expedient to rid the country of its new British overlords.
Barakat also objected to The Times correspondent's classification of Egyptians into "moderates" and "extremists." To the British writer, Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief wrote, extremist meant to demand a free and sovereign nation whose citizens had the ultimate say in running their material and social affairs while the moderate was that person who voiced no demands, had no nationalist aspirations and submitted to British dictates unconditionally. Thus, "a moderate minister is that minister who signs the papers submitted to him by the British adviser without looking at them, a moderate director is that director who obeys the instructions of the British inspector without question or debate, and so on down the line." If to be extremist is to press for one's rights, as The Times correspondent contends, Barakat argues, then "we are all extremists."
19 October 1919: Al-Ahram's issue parting the final shot
In an article that appeared on 16 October, the Al-Ahram editorial writer proceeds at length to discuss the distinction the British writer drew between moderates and extremists. "When it comes to the rights and sovereignty of the nation over its territory," he said, "there is no such thing as extremist or moderate." Rather, "there are those who seek to pry loose the fetters and those who seek to smash them." He continues, "If to demand freedom is extremist, than every Egyptian is extremist. If to be content with our current lot is to be moderate, then not a single Egyptian is moderate. These facts are as clear as the sun in the sky, whose glaring rays cannot be obscured by the hands."
The Times correspondent's third article would fuel the battle. It was the Egyptian intellectuals who led the revolution, he said, a fact for which he blamed "the snare of education." The system of education, he contended, produced "a sizeable clique of young intelligentsia hostile to our rule." Moreover, it was an "effete" system solely geared to "intensifying the competition to pass exams." Thus, when the educational system is constantly "closing the doors to opportunity in Egyptians' faces," it is bound to fuel their bitterness against foreign rule.
Al-Ahram's author resented The Times correspondent's taunt regarding the low numbers of educated Egyptian youth. "The Egyptian people long to increase this number," he said. In all events, the shortcomings in their education should be attributed to "the system of education, the paltry number of schools and the tampering with the municipal council schools." In other words, the fault lay with the British who were responsible for educational policy.
The allied powers claimed to advocate the right of nations to self-determination, the Al-Ahram writer said, and the demonstrations in Egypt were a national assertion of that right. And while Egyptians must still contend with the British protectorate, the European powers proclaimed the Hijaz (Saudi Arabia), "the most backward of the Ottoman provinces" an independent nation.
The Egyptian people also saw that "the Jews were promised Palestine, the Syrians promised self-rule and the Iraqis likewise. It seems that everyone but us is being awarded independence." The Egyptians' sense of injustice is all the more acute in light of the fact that "we were the most advanced and enlightened nation in the east. Did we not build the Suez Canal, in spite of the British persistence in opposing the project? Did we not build the great barrages? Did not Cairo and Alexandria introduce paved streets and tall buildings because the wealthy in these cities aspired to progress and advancement?"
Al-Ahram found The Times correspondent's fifth article the most contentious. In this article, the author ascribed the "disturbances" to three grievances related to wartime circumstances. The first involved the Egyptian labour regiments that were sent to the various fronts in Palestine, Iraq and France. "At first, signing up in the workers' regiments was not compulsory because there was a high level of response among the peasants. However, as the war progressed, the voluntary system failed and the authorities had to introduce the draft in order to supply the necessary quotas." Yet, although the author recognised the injustices perpetrated against the Egyptian peasants, he nevertheless suggests that the Egyptians were at fault: "Those responsible for committing the injustices used us (the British) as the cover for their ill-doings, claiming that they were only obeying our orders."
During the war, too, Egyptian officials were directly in charge of procuring food supplies for the armies. "Many tragic incidents occurred involving essential military supplies. They claimed, for example, that the farmers were ordered to furnish quantities of wheat in excess of their actual holdings and that they were consequently forced to purchase wheat at much higher prices than the value of the wheat for which they were compensated. Naturally, small-scale farmers were hit much harder than large landowners."
The third cause for complaint, The Times correspondent admitted, was the maltreatment of Egyptians by British officers. "We send to Egypt young men deficient in the qualities of true superiority. These young men, in turn, are given to proving their control by rudeness and brutality towards Egyptians. They act as though they have forgotten our particular status in Egypt."
What Al-Ahram would find most objectionable in The Times article appeared under the heading "the perspective of the nationalists." The nationalists, according to the British writer, "recognise that Great Britain is a free country and that if there must be a foreign presence in Egypt, none would be better than Great Britain." He also posited an argument that has become familiar today in the era of globalisation. He maintained that there was no such thing as absolute national sovereignty. He said the first duty of the British is to "enable the deficient nations among us to rise to the status appropriate to free nations within the British Empire." The only conclusion an Egyptian reader could draw from the article was that the British writer believed that Egyptians were not yet equipped to take control of the management of their national affairs, a position certain to rankle with public opinion and Al-Ahram in particular.
"The Riddle of the Sphinx", as the last of the six Times articles was entitled, confirmed Al-Ahram's deduction. The British should force the Sphinx to reveal its secret, The Times correspondent wrote. Somehow he possessed the key to the riddle: the Egyptians knew that they had to depend on the British occupation authorities, but they refused to admit that truth. "Were you to ask the Egyptians if they were prepared to dispense with foreigners in their Ministry of Interior," he wrote, "their answer would be no." The real problem, in their assessment, was that the relationship between Egyptian and British officials in that ministry was not properly regulated. He argued, "British inspectors work with department directors. There is no question that these directors are highly qualified, well experienced and thoroughly familiar with the local circumstances and difficulties. Suddenly, these directors find themselves having to work with a young officer fresh out from England and in his ignorance he offers the Egyptian director irresponsible advice." The visiting inspectors were worse. Also British, and representing a variety of concerns, "they swoop down on the provincial directorates, turn everything topsy-turvy and depart, leaving in their wake a legacy of 'advice' to put into effect."
Thus it is, he argues, that while Egyptians are quick to demand independence, they soon reveal that they do not wish to see the foreigners removed from the ministries of interior, justice and public works and others. "Rather, they ask for a greater level of public responsibility. They also ask that the lower ranking British employees be held accountable to their Egyptian seniors and that these be supervised by the British advisers and the British high commissioner. In this manner, the British will have the ultimate say, it is true, but that say will be coming from the top of the hierarchy."
As a final note, The Times correspondent urges the protectorate authorities to "stop producing Egyptian graduates who receive a motley education and then are left with no outlet for their talents and with no field of employment other than in the realm of political agitation."
Al-Ahram's response to the last two articles filled three out of the seven columns of the front page of its edition of 19 October 1919. Under the headline "Competence", Daoud Barakat wrote: "If this word were uttered in any other country it would produce considerable joy. Not so in Egypt where it is flaunted as a bugbear in the face of every Egyptian so as to thwart his ambitions, demean his self-respect and frustrate his aspirations." To be truly eligible, according to the Al-Ahram author, one must meet three conditions. Firstly, the individual must have a sense of dignity and self-esteem, a sense of duty and a firm belief in his right to institutions he defends. Secondly, he must realise the importance of his personal commitment, of understanding this commitment fully and of airing his views on the issues related to it. Finally, he must be able to discriminate between good and bad in order to reach his aspired goal. Turning to Egyptians in government employment, he pleads, "What Egyptian in government service has a sense of dignity, self-esteem and duty in his work? How can he ever hope to be truly competent if he does not possess these qualities? How can a physician become competent if he is not given the opportunity to remedy and cure? How can the builder become competent if he does not build? They say that only with persistence you can become a blacksmith. Have you ever heard of a blacksmith who never put his hand to the anvil?"
Under the heading, "Teachers and masters", Al-Ahram turned to the "riddle of the Sphinx." "You have not learned my secret," Barakat has the Sphinx telling The Times correspondent, "and you have not solved my riddle. The fact is, I have no hidden secret, no riddle to conceal. You, like other foreign scholars, merely imagine that Egyptians are unlike other peoples of the world. However, Egypt today is no different from what it was yesterday. The Egyptian people do not want masters; they want teachers. Yet, you send us the former and they possess no knowledge to impart."
Europe in the 19th century had sent to Egypt a number of experts whom the Egyptians commemorated with pride. "Does Egypt not remember Clot Bek who taught them medicine without bowing its head in veneration and without a smile of affection? Does Egypt not recall Suleiman Pasha (D.J.A. Sève) whom Mohamed Ali brought in to organise our army without awe? Can Egyptians ever forget the unstinting dedication and integrity of Marriott Pasha, the collector of our antiquities, who refused to hand them over to Napoleon?"
How different was the attitude of the British authorities today, Al-Ahram commented. And, to drive the point home, the writer cited the British minister of education at the time who said, "We disseminate knowledge in the colonies only to the extent that it serves our interests." It was perhaps this cynicism that made it all the more imperative for the nationalists to rid the country of the British inspectors and ministerial advisers.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.