3 - 9 June 1999
Issue No. 432
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (288)
A common practice by colonial powers in the old days was to set up ostensibly indigenous bodies or groups to work for them behind the scenes. Egypt had its share of this in the heyday of British hegemony that began with a military invasion in 1882. Shortly after the anti-British nationalist revolution in the spring of 1919, Britain appointed a commission to probe the causes behind the uprising. But instead of dealing with the Wafd Party, the legitimate representative of the people, the British tried to recruit Egyptian stooges as negotiating partners. British efforts to set up a "Notables Club" and then the "Free Independent Party" for that purpose were defeated. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from reports published by Al-Ahram which led the drive against colonial designs
Notable stooges defeated
To delineate the finer details of a great historic event such as the 1919 Revolution, one must look beyond its major developments: the exile of the nationalist leaders, the resignation of the cabinet, the clashes between demonstrators and the forces of the British Empire, the toppling of some local provincial authorities at the hands of insurgents. While historians have subjected such landmark events to close scrutiny they have tended to overlook the subtler events. In this respect, the contemporary press, of which Al-Ahram was a prime exponent, did much to fill in the finer shades.
One event that sheds light on the dynamics of the revolution is that described by Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, the secretary-general of the Wafd (the delegations), in his memoirs. He wrote, "When the British government decided to send out the Milner Commission to investigate the causes of the disturbances in Egypt, the British authorities in Cairo decided to form a new party called the Free Independent Party. The function of this party was to meet with the Milner Commission and to negotiate with it over the national cause in the name of Egypt. I feared that the creation of this party would deliver a fatal blow to the Egyptian Wafd and our national cause. For this reason I summoned all the strength and abilities that God has bestowed upon me to undermine that party before it was consolidated. Towards that end I engaged a number of patriotic assistants to enlist in that party in order to furnish me with immediate reports on its developments and decisions."
Fahmi goes on to relate some of the finer points of his plan: "None of the members whom I persuaded to join that party knew the others whom I had infiltrated into the party. Yet, all of them worked, in accordance with my instructions, to incapacitate it gradually. At the same time, delegations of youths would meet daily with the families who were contemplating joining that party in order to convince them that its formation was gravely detrimental to the national cause."
Fahmi's scheme was successful. "The hatchets chipped away both within the walls of the party and without until its stays collapsed and it died in its cradle." However, before concluding this section of his memoirs he mentions that the British authorities sought another route to accomplish the same goal. This was "to establish what was called a Notables' Club on the ruins of that party. I could not permit this to happen so I worked to undermine that club in its initial stages of formation." What Fahmi omits to mention, however, was that many nationalist newspapers assisted him in his aims. Among these, of course, was Al-Ahram.
In his account, the Wafd secretary-general made an error in his chronology. The attempt to form the Notables' Club actually began before the collapse of the Free Independent Party. In the beginning of August 1919, the pro-British Al-Muqattam newspaper featured a series of articles on the new club. On 8 August, Ismail Abaza Pasha contributed an article describing it. The notion of establishing a notables' club had been proposed towards the end of the preceding year, he wrote. "I had thought that the notion had died and was buried following a lengthy discussion behind the scenes with several persons who were extremely interested in forming it." He had advised Ibrahim Hilal Bek, who was promoting the new club, to form agricultural syndicates instead, for the notion of the club "was clouded by suspicions and doubts that may contain an element of truth."
Responding to Abaza three days later, Hilal argued that there was no conflict between founding the agricultural syndicates and the notion of the club, which would consist of "notables throughout the country from its southern borders to its northern coasts."
On 13 August, Al-Ahram joined the debate through the person of Hassan El-Sherif, an outspoken, liberal-minded individual who had voiced his opinions in Al-Ahram on other issues of the day such as women's emancipation. El-Sherif wrote that the notables feared that Egypt was heading towards an unknown future. They had more privileged knowledge of the Milner Commission and were intent upon rallying themselves before its arrival "so as not to leave the reins of affairs in the hands of the Wafd." In their determination that "real interests" had the ultimate say in the future of the country, "they established the body known as the Notables' Club in order to represent the nation against its will and to speak on behalf of the people without having been so empowered."
While El-Sherif may not have been a staff member of Al-Ahram, the newspaper's editorial personnel most likely shared his views. This would explain why his article appeared on the front-page in the space usually reserved for the editor-in-chief's editorial. Indeed, in the same space two days later an article appeared supporting El-Sherif's viewpoint. The article, entitled "A political innovation: who have real interests or who are the notables?" was unsigned, suggesting that the author was the editor-in-chief himself.
"Real interests", according to the author, was a term that dated back to the beginning of the British occupation of Egypt. In order to determine the "wishes of the people", the British formed the Devron Commission. This commission consulted with village mayors who asked for lower taxes. Al-Ahram writes that the mayors said, "Those who have real interests in the country ask for no more than that. For this reason they have included in the statutes of the Shura Council and General Assembly a provision binding the government to the opinion of those with real interests as concerns the levying of taxes on land." The author wondered "whether it is possible to extricate ourselves from this narrow circle or restrictive iron bond -- the bond of real interests." After all, the Egyptian people in their entirety are the possessors of real interests, and were the true demands of justice to be observed the term would vanish and be replaced by the term "Egyptians are the possessors of Egypt," he said.
The author also discussed the term "notables." In his view, the term only had significance "in the times when government rule was despotic, when the elite ruled the masses." However, that era is over. Now the elite are the intelligentsia, the experts "and all who serve their nation with their mind, their skills, their expertise and their money, not merely those who have large property holdings and a lot of money."
Then, turning to the "Notables' Club", the author concludes, perhaps more vehemently than Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, "They say that a group of individuals intend to establish a club for notables. The people reject this notion and the newspapers have echoed the voice of the people. If these individuals are farmers, let them found a club for farmers. If they are doctors, they should found a physicians club. If they are members of any particular occupational grouping, any club they establish should reflect the interests of that grouping as is the case with all the other clubs and societies in every capital and every city."
The notables were not to be deterred. On 18 August, under the headline, "The Notables' Club: a word to the people," Ibrahim Hilal wrote in Al-Muqattam that the notables were intent upon going forward with their plan. The people, he argued, are divided. They are not bound by a system for cooperation. The nation, as a result, has no identity and the people, particularly in the countryside, are suffering the consequences of disrupted familial bonds. "There has thus emerged a need for a society to be established in the capital to coordinate interests, overcome problems, create partnerships and implement great enterprises in the best modes of cooperation and mutual assistance," he wrote. Towards this end, the notables, he maintained, should form a society to bring them back together and to revive the bonds that had once united them, thereby establishing "a means for cooperation in order to implement such beneficial projects as would serve the interests of the people of the countryside."
Why, Hassan El-Sherif, responds in a subsequent article, are the notables in such a rush to go ahead with their scheme over all objections? Their true intentions are no longer secret, he writes. "We have seen their true metal. It is black and covered with rust. As soon as they learned that the veil has been lifted and their secret was out, they attempted to dress up their intransigence and arrogance as courage and persistence so as to extricate themselves from the pitfall into which they have fallen."
On 22 August, Al-Muqattam targeted El-Sherif with direct fire. The attack came in the form of a letter, ostensibly sent to the newspaper by a reader, although one suspects that in fact this was a ruse to convey the impression that the newspaper's views were grounded in popular support. According to the writer of that letter, it was not the people that objected to the views of the notables, but only Hassan El-Sherif. "We have not heard that the people delegated him as their representative." The following day, another advocate of the club, Mohamed Tawfiq Shihab El-Din, wrote to the newspaper to criticise Hassan El-Sherif. There were no political motives behind the proposed club, Shihab El-Din wrote, and those who voiced objections to it in the name of the people should "show proof that they have been delegated to speak on behalf of the nation."
El-Sherif was not easily intimidated. In Al-Ahram of 3 September, beneath the headline, "The Notables' Club -- a secret that needs to be unravelled," he suggested that were it not for their connections with the authorities, the notables would not have obtained a permit for their association so easily, even though "the powers that be have announced that the situation in the country has compelled them to close down many such societies and to prohibit many assemblies."
Towards the end of September it seemed as though the notables had abandoned their scheme. Their enigmatic silence prompted Hassan El-Sherif to write on 18 September an article entitled, "The plot of the notables -- my final word: silence is more telling than admission." Addressing the notables, he wrote, "If indeed you have thrown down your weapons and thrown up your arms to flee the arena, you will find that though we are fierce in battle, we are generous with those who have declared that they surrender."
If anything, however, the silence covered a change of tack. Two months elapsed between the drawing of the curtain on the Notables' Club and the call to form the Free Independent Party. In the interim, intensive communications took place among the group of individuals who had sought to found the club. One outcome of their contacts was their decision to use Al-Manbar as their mouthpiece. By using this small newspaper, which had only begun publication a year previously, they hoped to allay suspicions of association with the British authorities through collaboration with Al-Muqattam. Indeed, as we have seen above, Al-Muqattam's advocacy of the Notables' Club had been a primary cause of its failure.
In mid-November, the advocates of the Notables' Club revealed their identities. In addition to Mohamed Ibrahim Hilal and Tawfiq Shihab El-Din, their numbers also included Mohamed Sherif Pasha and Mohamed Urfi Pasha, who was elected chairman.
On 23 November, Al-Ahram resumed its campaign against these individuals, but in their capacity as the prospective founders of the Free Independent Party. Once again, Hassan El-Sherif spearheaded Al-Ahram's assault, and, again, biting sarcasm was his most potent weapon. These men, he said, were "a group of notables who have never acted in their lives other than to attend receptions, farewell parties and occasions for offering condolences or congratulations." Suddenly these men, who were formerly bent on founding a "modest" club, have "unexpectedly moved to create a political party by the name of the Free Independent Party, towards which end they have embraced a local newspaper Al-Manbar as their mouthpiece." Early on the Egyptian people realised that the purpose of these men was to band together in order to negotiate with the Milner Commission in their capacity as "the possessors of true interests." They were oblivious to the fact that every patriotic man had responded to the Wafd's call to boycott that commission. The new party, he continues, will be highly detrimental to the national cause. "This is a time in which the nation desperately needs all political orientations and parties to be united under a single banner. Yet, that party only threatens to destroy national unity."
True to form, El-Sherif opens a second article with the quote from Louis XI: "Pray God, deliver me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies." On this occasion, he focuses on Al-Manbar which was promoting the new party. El-Sherif wonders why that newspaper must make "all this noise and all those appeals and promises." Most political parties announce their platforms and "those who want join and those who do not stay away." Other political parties "do not feel that they have to take the defensive. The Free Independent Party, however, appears driven to defend itself and to fend off suspicions no one had mentioned." El-Sherif's accusations were forthcoming. The new party, in his opinion, sought to delude public opinion. After its founders had "taken an oath before God and the people not to involve themselves in politics, they have returned to transform their club into a political party with a platform and a party newspaper." They also lied to the people in their claim that most of its members were members of the Nationalist Party. However, Al-Afkar, the mouthpiece of the Nationalist Party, denied the claim.
In his third article attacking the Free Independent Party, Hassan El-Sherif disputes its founders' contention that they are using "reasonable methods" to bring about national independence. Unfortunately, he continues, these methods "are known to no one but them and they allow no one else to know them." It was regrettable that now that the nation had made such strides towards independence, a handful of individuals would break ranks and say, "As for us, we want to take the reasonable course." He continues, "The party that wants the nation to walk behind it on the reasonable path should at least reveal to the nation the nature of that path. The founders of that party should have stood up to the Wafd (the nationalist delegation) when it was being formed in order to discuss the delegation's plans and help identify the weak points. However, they remained silent until the time came in which the nation must speak with a unified voice, at which point they broke ranks and refused all other courses except to form themselves into an 'independent party'".
According to El-Sherif, evidence that the Independent Party was acting against national consensus could be found in its stance on the resignation of the Mohamed Said government. When the British High Commissioner in Cairo announced the approaching arrival of the Milner Commission, "the entire nation asked the government to tender its resignation with the exception of the Free Independent Party." The newspaper of the Free Independent Party wrote, "The resignation of this cabinet is not in the interests of this country or this people. Quite to the contrary, it is extremely dangerous for the country to be without a cabinet in these critical circumstances."
El-Sherif goes on to accuse the party of working on behalf of the occupation authorities by campaigning against any boycott of the Milner Commission. Evidently its campaign was quite intensive, for Al-Ahram reports that the members of the party were distributing leaflets in the streets and market places, holding meetings everywhere and touring the provinces in the Delta and Upper Egypt "in order to appeal for a cause which the entire nation has unanimously decided to reject."
Al-Ahram's campaign against the new party intensified with its publication of the contributions of other readers. The most conspicuous, perhaps, was "the lawyer Fikri Abaza" who also chose sarcasm as his weapon of attack. Under the heading, "a linguistic observation," he queried the appropriateness of the new party calling itself 'independent.' This word, he said, "has no linguistic relation whatsoever to the demand for full national independence, contrary to what people who are ignorant of the fundamental rules of Arabic might think. Rather, what the word conveys is that the party is entirely independent of the environment of opinion that surrounds it. As for the word 'free' it is an ambiguous assertion, as though the party were afraid that the reader might miss the point."
Before this onslaught of criticism, the members of the Free Independent Party began to drop out one by one. Many announced their decision in Al-Ahram. Mohamed Onasi, a lawyer, wrote to the newspaper that he had stopped attending the meetings of the party which he viewed as a form of resignation. Abdel-Alim Abu El-Leil, a member of the Minia municipal council announced his resignation "as a declaration that I am innocent of everything that has been and is being attributed to the Free Independent Party." Soon, there only remained Urfi Pasha, the chairman, and Shihab El-Din. Their resignations were announced in Al-Ahram on 28 December. The newspaper took the occasion to congratulate those who had resigned for having "exonerated themselves from the doubts and suspicions that had surrounded them." On this jubilant note, Al-Ahram concluded its chapter on one of the lesser-known twists in the history of the 1919 Revolution.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.