1 - 7 July 1999
Issue No. 436
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (292)
A thin layer of perfunctory courtesy covered the lukewarm reception accorded by Egyptians to Georges Clemenceau, the renowned statesman and two-time premier of France in the first 20 years of this century. Egyptians took this position at the urging of Saad Zaghloul, the nationalist leader, despite their anger at Clemenceau's disregard of the Egyptian cause at the 1919 Versailles peace conference following World War I. Clemenceau was then prime minister and chairman of the conference, a function that earned him the title "father of victory." But Egyptians knew him by the earlier nickname "the tiger" and at heart they resented his visit to Egypt, made after he relinquished power. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story on the basis of reports published by Al-Ahram
A cold shoulder for 'the tiger'Georges Clemenceau served two terms as the premier of France: the first from 1906-1909 and the second from 1917-1920. In his first term he became known as "the tiger". In the second, when he chaired the Peace Conference in Paris at the end of World War I, he became known as "the father of victory." Egyptians were familiar with the first epithet but they refused to recognise the second.
Clemenceau acquired his reputation as "the tiger" because of his harsh accusations against and exposures of the conservative republicans in his country in the 1880s. His "lashing tongue" could destroy reputations and bring down governments. Following the Prussian defeat of France in 1870, resulting in the annexation of the Alsace and Loraine to Germany, he joined La Revanche Party which was committed to revenge against Germany and the restoration of the two usurped provinces.
Egyptians, at first, perceived "the tiger" as a staunch defender of their country's independence. Following the bombardment of Alexandria by the British fleet on 11 July 1882, Clemenceau stood before the French National Assembly, of which he was a member, to denounce the British aggression against Egypt. Eventually, however, Egyptian hopes pinned on him were to be dashed. During his first term as premier, he showed himself too willing to mollify the British, whose colonial designs in Egypt had largely been satisfied by the Entente Cordiale concluded between Paris and London two years previously. In his second term, when chairing the Paris Peace Conference, he agreed to recognise the British protectorate over Egypt, opening the door for the other major powers to follow France's lead on this issue.
It was national aspirations for independence that would determine the way Egyptians came to perceive Clemenceau following World War I. In the Peace Conference he appeared as an opponent of Egypt's intent upon undermining the "Fourteen Points" that US President Wilson had brought with him to the negotiations. The French premier had little personal regard for the US president. It was reported that on one occasion he remarked derisively, "God gave us 10 points (the Ten Commandments) and Wilson came up before us with 14."
Even the British, whose colonial policies benefited from the French premier's positions in the peace conference, criticised his open hostility to the American president. On 17 February 1920, following the end of both Clemenceau's and Wilson's terms in power, one British newspaper commented, "The fall of Clemenceau was the inescapable result of the fall of President Wilson. The clash of the two radicals in Paris, which gave rise to an unviable treaty, was an exercise in futility. The failure of one side was, in itself, a cause of the failure of the other, perhaps because the vision in the mind of one was very close to war, while the vision in the mind of the other was very distant from peace."
The intent of such commentaries was to emphasise the intransigence of two world leaders, one dedicated to an unattainable idealism and the other to the realisation of his country's ambitions. But for Egyptians the articles confirmed the belief that Clemenceau was opposed to their aspirations for freedom and independence while Wilson championed these aspirations. It was Wilson, after all, who had raised the hopes of colonised peoples around the world with his 14 points, the most important of which has come down to us as "the right to self-determination."
Against the loftiness of Wilson's principles, the Egyptian disillusionment with Clemenceau would be all the more bitter. The Egyptian delegation to the peace conference, headed by Saad Zaghloul, had anticipated that the negotiations would ultimately come out in favour of Egyptian aspirations. The members of the delegation, or the Wafd as it was called, had imagined that "the tiger" was on their side, or at least would not obstruct designs against the Egyptian cause. These hopes were expressed as early as 11 January 1919, two months before the outbreak of the Egyptian uprising that year, in a letter to the French premier. It opened: "To the chairman of the Peace Conference which is to determine the fate of the small nations, not on the basis of negotiations between the strong, but on the basis of unbiased justice; to the man known throughout the world for his staunch advocacy of the truth." The letter took occasion to remind Clemenceau of the special bonds between France and Egypt: "Our minds, our dispositions and our laws are imbued with the French spirit, for our modern society, in spite of the obstacles imposed by the British occupation, is still firmly embossed with the French imprint." The letter appealed to Clemenceau, in the name of freedom, justice and humanity, not to allow peoples and provinces to "be bartered about from one hand to another as if they were chattels." Finally, it implored, "Do not take of our compulsory silence, which is the natural result of our confinement within the borders of our country, as an indication of our acceptance of the sovereignty of others. Do not let our fate be determined without hearing what we have to say."
Then, on 2 February, when the conference had begun to discuss "those countries whose political status has been altered by the war," Saad Zaghloul sent another letter to Clemenceau. Less impassioned than the first, Zaghloul reminded the chairman of the peace conference of his previous letter, to which there was no response, and appealed to him once more "to hear the arguments in our defense before arriving at a resolution concerning our cause."
When, on 6 May, the Peace Conference announced its recognition of the British protectorate over Egypt and forced Germany to ratify this recognition, the attitude of the Wafd towards Clemenceau changed radically. If the Wafd's first letter was just an appeal and its second letter was a demand, the third letter was a protest. It said, "No rational mind can reconcile itself with the resolution of the conference, however it examines it and regardless of the pretexts that were cited to justify it. Even if we grant that it was founded on the right of the strong over the weak, which can only mean war and conquest, Egypt was never in a state of war with Great Britain; in fact, it fought in its ranks and alongside it."
Now that, for Egyptians, Clemenceau had become an ogre that had savaged their cause, they would never have imagined that he would dare visit their country. Yet, the unimaginable happened.
In his memoirs, Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, secretary of the Wafd in Cairo, recalls that after the conference over which Clemenceau presided "spurned the Egyptian cause," Egyptians naturally grumbled at the news that reached Cairo towards the end of January 1920 about his impending visit. At the same time, however, the Egyptian delegation in Paris feared that an angry reception of "the tiger" in the Egyptian capital would have regrettable consequences. Therefore, Saad Zaghloul dispatched an urgent telegram to the Wafd headquarters in Cairo cautioning against any precipitous action. "The welfare of our sacred cause makes it imperative that the Egyptian nation avert any such plan, for the great politician represents our greatest friend, France, wherever he may go."
Fahmi's memoirs reveal one of the mysteries behind Clemenceau's visit to Egypt. Before setting off, the French ex-premier asked to meet Saad Zaghloul. In the meeting, which took place on 29 January, Clemenceau sought to placate the Egyptian nationalist leader. After explaining that he wished to visit Egypt "to relax and to see its antiquities, its Nile and its Sudan", Clemenceau expressed his pleasure at meeting Zaghloul. He then added, "I would like to stress that I have not forgotten Egypt. Egypt remains close to my heart and it will always be in her interests to keep the friendship of France, which loves Egypt like no one else in the world and which can help Egypt like no one else in the world. However, necessity has its dictates and assistance has its time and place."
Writing again to his aides in Cairo, Saad Zaghloul further warned against any personal affront against Clemenceau. "That would not only make him an enemy of us, but make an enemy of the French people," he wrote. "The only benefit we might derive from that would be to quench our thirst for retaliation, but this is not the time." The Egyptian leader added that he had no objection against the members of the Wafd in Egypt meeting with the French guest "to discuss with him the affairs of Egypt."
In light of Zaghloul's directives, it is not odd that Al-Ahram should also urge a warm reception for the French leader. In its first commentary on the forthcoming visit, which appeared on the front page of its 4 February 1920 edition, the newspaper argued, "This is the best opportunity to lift from the eyes of the representative of France that film that has obscured from him the truth. We do not know what haze made Clemenceau accept so readily to see a nation such as Egypt stagger under the weight of a protectorate system imposed against its will. If he had been deceived while in France, we will reveal to him the glaring truth beneath the skies of Egypt, where he will find a nation united in opinion, judicious in action and in no need of a power to obstruct its path to advancement. We will be delighted once that tiger learns the truth about the nationalist movement in Egypt."
Al-Ahram's stance on the "tiger's" visit to Egypt was not devoid of significance. In his memoirs, Abdel-Rahman Fahmi mentions that the Egyptian press played an important part in demonstrating "the genuineness of the Egyptians' feelings towards France and the French people. An example of this was what Al-Ahram wrote on the day of his arrival in Cairo." Al-Ahram had lent itself to the implementation of the policy of the Wafd, perhaps at the urging of the Wafd secretary in Cairo. Al-Ahram also allocated space on its pages to the members of the Wafd to welcome Clemenceau. One such contributor was Hafez Afifi whose article appeared in Al-Ahram of 7 February. Afifi held that if blame were to be apportioned for preventing the Egyptian people from defending themselves at the Peace Conference, the fault did not lie with Clemenceau alone. Also at the conference in Paris was "the new messiah" -- a reference to President Wilson -- "who appeared before the world with his new commandments, which he was the first to break. If that latter-day prophet had wanted the Egyptian delegation to appear before the conference, he would have had no difficulty in bringing that about."
The Wafdist member proceeded to enumerate the positive positions Clemenceau had taken on the Egyptian question. Afifi reminded the Egyptian readers of the tiger's "glorious" defence of Egypt before the French National Assembly in 1882. To Clemenceau's credit, too, was the fact that he accorded the Egyptian delegation in France "the freedom to speak and publish what it wished without restriction of any sort, even though France had been under martial law and even though it was well known that this went against the wishes of the British government." Afifi, therefore, urged the Egyptian people to follow Zaghloul's advice closely. "The great man from France should hear nothing during his stay in our beloved country but the words: 'Long live France, the great friend of Egypt!'"
On 8 February, the day Clemenceau was due to arrive, Al-Ahram featured an "open letter" to him, intended as a gentle slap on the hand. The letter did not censure the French leader for excluding the Egyptians from the Peace Conference as much as it blamed the entire assembly for overlooking the fact that the Egyptian people had offered every manner of assistance to the war effort. In an attempt to win the tiger over to the Egyptian cause, the letter appealed to him to study the case thoroughly. The author continues, addressing Clemenceau: "Though you may no longer hold the reins of power, you remain revered and your opinions are heeded closely, even by the men in England who have strong cravings for colonisation."
On 18 February 1920, Abdel-Rahman Fahmi dispatched a report to Saad Zaghloul in Paris to assure him that Clemenceau had been well received. "He was greeted with loud cheers such as: 'Long live free France! Long live independent Egypt! Long live all defenders of Egypt!' And some in the crowds added, 'Long live free Clemenceau!'" Zaghloul wrote back to thank the secretary of the Wafd for his efforts "in forestalling any untoward reception of Clemenceau, for any hostile manifestation would only have been detrimental."
A reading of Al-Ahram's coverage of the tiger's visit to Egypt presents a slightly different picture. If Egyptians, unable to disguise their sense of injury and anger, displayed no open hostility to Clemenceau, their reception lacked warmth despite the Wafd's advice. The blow Clemenceau delivered to the Egyptian cause in Paris was still too fresh in the public mind. It is not surprising, therefore, to note the very low Egyptian profile in the reception ceremonies.
Clemenceau's ship arrived in Alexandria on the morning of 8 February. Apart from the Governor of Alexandria, who was duty-bound to be present, not a single Egyptian public figure was present. Thus, those on hand to greet the French statesman were Colonel Watson, representing General Allenby, Monsieur Vitasse, the French consul in the city, and the directors of the customs and health departments, both British. There was no outpouring of onlookers, and certainly no mass jubilation that customarily greets a foreign dignitary when Clemenceau's car took a tour of the city's streets before bringing him to the train bound for Cairo.
At noon that day, Clemenceau's train pulled into the Cairo train station. Al-Ahram's correspondent on the scene reports that most of those there to greet him were French officials. After "shaking hands with all present," Clemenceau proceeded to the vehicle awaiting him, smiling in response to the cheers that greeted him. When he arrived at the Shepheard's Hotel, he was again cheered by those on hand to greet him, "most of whom were British officers and women."
As though to drive home the bleakness of his reception, the newspaper reported that after a short rest "he left the hotel and walked to the French consulate and from there to the Egyptian museum, returning to the hotel at 5.00 pm." His walk was surprisingly undisturbed by well-wishers or even the idle curious, as though he were an ordinary foreigner, and not the French premier until a few weeks previously.
That circumstances militated against a physical public manifestation against the visitor did not prevent Egyptians from taking advantage of the "telegraph weapon". Yet, even that was relatively restricted. Al-Ahram noted no more than four. One was from the students from the Intermediate School of Commerce whose telegram to the French leader read: "The Egyptian nation, whose rights have been prejudiced by the Treaty of Versailles, greets you. We only wish that you could have visited Egypt after its attainment of full independence so that you could have seen the generosity of our hospitality and unrestrained veneration."
The second telegram, from the students of the Khedival School, read: "The Egyptian nation, to whose appeal you have turned a deaf ear, hails you as the representative of our friend, France, the champion of freedom." Clearly reproach was the dominant message of the telegrams. The same applied to the other two, which were sent by private individuals.
Clemenceau's cool reception in Egypt prompted Emil Goud, a member of the National Assembly, to comment, in one of the Parisian newspapers, on Clemenceau's "provocation" of Egyptians. The National Assembly member had supported Egypt during the parliament's debate on the peace treaty. In its session of 4 September 1919, he denounced the peace conference's refusal to hear the Egyptian delegation and cautioned against the consequences of that error. In his article, published in translation in Al-Ahram of 22 February, Goud recalls that as soon as Clemenceau had announced his plans to visit Egypt, "Egyptians hinted that he would be an unwelcome guest." He explains, "Everyone who has followed the Egyptian question and Clemenceau's foreign policy maintains that the feelings expressed by the Egyptians are appropriate." In light of these feelings, Clemenceau's decision to travel to Egypt "adds another slap in the face to that people who are friends of France."
One suspects that the cool reception in Cairo induced Clemenceau to cut short his visit to the Egyptian capital. He only stayed three days, after which he went to Luxor and then, 72 hours later, to Sudan. After a brief silence on the elder statesman's tour, Al-Ahram announced, on 16 March, that Clemenceau had arrived in Aswan on his way back to Cairo. Along the way, he stopped to see some Pharaonic monuments. Because of his support for Greece in its dispute with Turkey, he was also warmly received by representatives of the Greek communities in Aswan and other Upper Egyptian cities. A two-week bout of illness delayed the final arrangements for Clemenceau's tour. It was thus that the final ceremony -- a brief address before the French Club in which he expressed his best wishes to the men and women present -- took place on 15 April. The following day, just over two months after his arrival, Clemenceau boarded the French steamer, Le Sphinx, bound for Marseilles. The silence with which Egyptians bade him farewell was pregnant with meaning.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.