5 - 11 August 1999
Issue No. 441
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan ofAbdel-Rahman Fahmi, a top politician and the right-hand man of nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, was the central figure in a mammoth military trial in the summer of 1920. The case was a politically-motivated spin-off of the 1919 anti-British revolution led by Zaghlul. Britain's hand in it was strikingly clear -- all six judges as well as the prosecutor were Britons. The Wafd Party, where Fahmi headed the central committee, was targeted by the British in the belief that it was behind a series of attacks on British military officers. Fahmi was charged with conspiracy and incitement to murder. He was condemned to death but the sentence was commuted to 15 years' imprisonment. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story on the basis of reports published by Al-Ahram
contemporary life (297)
'The Great Conspiracy'
On 14 July 1920, Al-Ahram readers got the first word of the biggest trial in the history of the 1919 Revolution. The newspaper that day reported, "The Honourable Abdel-Rahman Bek Fahmi and others have been referred to a military court on a charge that falls under the provisions of martial law: conspiracy. All the accused were said to be members of an underground organisation that called itself the Vengeance Society, the aims of which were to depose His Royal Highness the Sultan, overthrow his government, cause disruption, incite murder, distribute weapons and assassinate the sultan, his ministers and others."
Abdel-Rahman Bek Fahmi
Plainly this would be no ordinary trial. Alongside Fahmi, the best known, there were 28 other defendants. Most of them were young effendis -- educated city dwellers -- and students of Al-Azhar. But also among them were six Copts, of whom two -- Kamel and Munir Abdel-Shahid -- were brothers. In one sense, at least, the group of defendants epitomised the spirit of the 1919 Revolution, which was spearheaded by the young urban educated middle class and Al-Azharites and which reflected the unity between Egyptian Muslims and Copts.
The trial also involved the largest manifestation of support for the defendants in the history of Egyptian courts, up to that time at least. Nineteen of Egypt's most prominent lawyers volunteered to defend them. Foremost among these was Morqos Bek Hanna, head of the lawyers syndicate, and Bek El-Nahhas, former national court justice and Wafd Party member who, seven years after the trial, would succeed Saad Zaghlul as the party's chairman. The volunteers included other lawyers whose stars would also rise in the political arena. These included Tawfiq Bek Doss, Kamal Bek El-Bindari, Amin Effendi Ezz Al-Arab and Abdel-Fattah El-Shalqani, among others.
It is also interesting to note that the defence in this case, which the newspapers of the time referred to as "the great conspiracy", included two British lawyers. These included Mr Devonshire, one of the lawyers to represent Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, and Mr Fitzgerald, one of the team of lawyers representing the other defendants. Nothing like it had occurred for 40 years, the precedent having been set in 1882 when the British barrister, A M Broadly, headed the defence for his client, Ahmed Orabi, the leader of the massive nationalist uprising of that year.
Naturally, the British stance differed in the two situations. In the trial of Ahmed Orabi, the newly arrived occupation forces had an interest in saving the accused from the vengeance of the Khedive Tawfiq. The British were afraid that a death sentence for the leaders of the Orabi revolution would turn them into martyrs who would remain a permanent rallying cry against the British. In the trial of Fahmi and his cohorts, however, the British were a small minority in the defence team. In the nearly 40-year interval between the two revolutions, the Egyptian court system which was nascent at the time of the Orabi trial had matured. There was now a large supply of indigenous lawyers and the profession that had once inspired epithets of contempt now was widely respected. Indeed, their numbers included many pashas and beks, not to mention the leader of the 1919 Revolution himself, Saad Zaghlul. More significantly, many members of this profession had themselves been activists in the 1919 Revolution and saw it as their duty to defend advocates of their own cause.
Another difference between the two trials was that, 40 years previously, the tribunal was formed by royal edict to hear "the claims against all those implicated in the crime of insurrection, violation of the authority of the khedive and defamation of his person." The tribunal was also presided over by a close acquaintance of the khedive. In the 1920 trial, the tribunal was formed in accordance with the provisions of martial law that had been introduced at the onset of World War I in 1914. As a result, the tribunal was entirely British. As Al-Ahram's correspondent reported, "The six-member tribunal is headed by an officer of the rank of brigadier general and includes Judge Linton Thorpe as deputy chief magistrate and Mr Maxwell as chief prosecutor."
Abdel-Rahman Bek Fahmi was considered by most the second highest-ranking leader in the 1919 Revolution, second only to Saad Zaghlul himself. Indeed, there were a few who went so far as to rank Fahmi before Zaghlul at the time when Zaghlul was abroad defending the Egyptian cause in Europe while Fahmi, they contended, was keeping the flame of revolution alive at home.
Contrary to most of the 1919 leadership, which was drawn primarily from lawyers, Fahmi was a military man. A graduate of the Royal Military Academy in 1888, he took part in the Egyptian expedition to reclaim Dongola in the Sudan. Following his return to Egypt he rose quickly through the ranks of government bureaucracy to become the head of the Beni Sueif Directorship in 1906, not an insignificant post to hold at the relatively young age of 36. Two years later, he was appointed head of the Giza Directorate in which capacity he found himself at frequent loggerheads with the British. It was thus with relief that, in 1911, he took up the position of deputy minister of the awqaf (religious endowments), where he was directly subordinate to the khedive. Yet in this position he did not last long. Before two years were out, tensions broke out between him and Khedive Abbas II. Fahmi was opposed to the benefits the khedive was seeking and felt that the khedive was abusing his power. Since Fahmi was not the sort to be excessively attached to public office, he resigned in 1913 and did not engage in politics in an official capacity until he joined the Wafd in 1918. It was at this juncture that he embarked on a new phase in his political career, one that would bring him into history as well as into prison.
British documents reveal the anxiety that had pervaded the Office of the High Commissioner in Cairo towards the end of 1919 at the spate of assaults against British soldiers. In a single day, 11 November, Captain Samuel Cohen was assassinated and Sergeant Cox and two other British officers were attacked. Immediately afterwards, attempts were made on the lives of Captain Marsdon and Lieutenant Rogerson. In the following year, the anti-British violence escalated.
British military officials in Egypt felt that the way to counter the assaults was to strike at the Wafd which they believed to be behind the campaign. In particular they targeted the Wafd mastermind in Cairo, Abdel-Rahman Bek Fahmi. After having failed to exile Fahmi from the capital, they put him under close surveillance and set one of Cairo's top secret policemen, Captain Selim Zaki, to the task of laying a trap for him. Zaki succeeded with the assistance of one of the most important figures in Fahmi's trial, Abdel-Zaher Al-Samaluti, the first witness for the prosecution.
Al-Samaluti testified to the court that he was a member of an underground society, led by Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, dedicated to revenge against the British occupation. The group called itself the Vengeance Society. In his testimony, which lasted seven sessions (from 28 July to 2 August 1920), Al-Samaluti listed nine underground societies: the Black Hand, the National Defence Society, the Expediting Committee, the Free Egyptian, the Torch, the Society of High Institute Students, the 5,000, the Council of Ten and, finally, the Society of the Gun. All of these societies, he said, were preparatory to the formation of the largest underground group, the Vengeance Society.
On the basis of this information, the police raided the offices of the secretary-general of the Wafd and took him to the Qasr Al-Nil barracks where he was kept for a week without knowing the reason for his detention. On 8 July, the police commissioner of Cairo presented Fahmi with the writ of charges and a week later Fahmi was taken to the Ministry of Justice where he was shocked to discover that he was in the company of 28 others facing the same charges. It was there that they all learned that they would be tried by a military court that would begin its hearings in the Cairo Court of Appeals on 20 July.
Naturally, the national press was riveted to the developments of the trial. Al-Ahram's correspondent describes the scene on the first day. "At 8.00am people thronged to the Court of Appeals. Crowds filled the entrance hall and the area around the court. Police officers were on hand to keep order. The courtroom was cordoned off to prevent the entrance of anyone without a special pass. By 9.00 the courtroom was packed. There was no place left to sit or stand. There were three Egyptian women present in the courtroom." The correspondent noted that special seats had been reserved for VIPs among whom were the Italian consul and the Reuters' representative. The first session began at 10.10.
The political nature of the trial was obvious from the outset. When political objectives are at stake, customary rules of law and legal process often take a back seat and the rulings are generally determined in advance and can be anticipated even before the trial gets under way. This aspect of the trial became increasingly evident as it progressed.
The proceedings began with the entrance of Abdel-Rahman Bek with a six-guard escort. After he was seated in the front of the dock, the guards were instructed to bring in the rest of the accused. Then, as though to inspire awe and respect for the proceedings, the presiding magistrate cautioned all present "in a loud and commanding voice" that "any person to cause noise or disruption shall be punished. This is the first and last warning."
When one reads Al-Ahram's coverage of the first session of the trial, which appeared in the newspaper's 21 July edition, one cannot help but observe that the British members of the court appeared intent upon intimidating both spectators and witnesses. Al-Ahram was their first victim. Shortly after the session began, Chief Prosecutor Maxwell extracted a copy of Al-Ahram of 14 July and read out an English translation of a news item to the effect that the investigation had been conducted in secret which did not conform with British law. Maxwell asked the whereabouts of the representative of Al-Ahram. The newspaper's correspondent relates: "The prosecutor was informed that Daoud Effendi Barakat, the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram was waiting outside the courtroom. The editor-in-chief was summoned before the court. After the judge asked his name and occupation, he showed him the newspaper, pointed to the article in question and asked him whether he had written it. Daoud Barakat responded that in fact one of his writers, Tawfiq Effendi Habib, had written the article. The court summoned Habib and he admitted to having written it."
The court reproached the editor-in-chief and his staff member and declared that such activities of the press were detrimental to the progress of the trial. Although it was not in the court's competence to rule on that matter, it would bring it to the attention of a higher authority so that it could determine what action to take. The court had made its message clear. Press coverage was to restrict itself solely to the proceedings of the trial and exclude any editorialising that might win readers' sympathy for Fahmi and the other defendants.
One of the witnesses to be badgered was Mohamed Effendi Ali Al-Sawi. Al-Sawi was kept on the stand for hours during which he was interrogated about his alleged attempt to prevent one of the witnesses for the prosecution, Mohamed Qadri, from testifying. Qadri had filed a complaint that on the morning of 18 July, 12 students of Al-Azhar and nine other gentlemen, led by Al-Sawi, came to his home and told him, "If you want money, we'll give it to you on the condition that you don't testify." When Qadri refused, they said, "If you go to the court and anything happens, you'll be killed."
Al-Sawi's questioning lasted for the remainder of the first session and all of the second session. In addition to Al-Sawi and Qadri, five other witnesses were brought to the stand. Following a summation of the testimony, the prosecutor announced that the charges against Al-Sawi were valid. The magistrates of the court deliberated for five minutes and returned to the courtroom to declare that Al-Sawi was guilty and to instruct the guards to take him to prison. The court had issued its second message: woe unto them who attempt to interfere with the witnesses brought by the prosecution, particularly those picked by undercover policeman Selim Zaki. Now, the political authorities could sit back and watch the trial proceed smoothly towards their objectives.
The trial of Abdel-Rahman Fahmi and the others accused of forming the Vengeance Society lasted for more than two and a half months (from 20 July to 5 October 1920). The court held 99 sessions, sometimes two on a single day. Throughout this period, Al-Ahram followed the case assiduously under the title "Military trial". From the newspaper's extensive coverage, we can follow the general course of the trial.
The prosecution's first task was to establish the underground, subversive nature of the Vengeance Society. It argued that its members had to take an oath of secrecy. In addition, "a member of the society never knows more than five other members and when they speak to one another they use a secret code."
The prosecution then submitted the evidence of confiscated papers which, he claimed, revealed that the society had been formed at the beginning of March and was divided into three sections, one to circulate leaflets, a second to distribute arms and a third to spy on the government. Some of these papers, the prosecutor went on to say, prove that murder was one of the society's aims.
Evidently, the defence had questioned the integrity of the witnesses for the prosecution, as the prosecution felt it had to uphold their testimony. It argued that the defence had submitted no proof that Selim Zaki or any other police officers had fed their witnesses their testimony or forced them to alter their statements. The prosecutor also asserted that Zaki had not known that Al-Samaluti, the first witness for the prosecution, had formerly worked for the secret police. Evidently, too, Al-Samaluti had been made a "crown witness", which the prosecution defined for the court as "a person who is granted amnesty by the authority so empowered in exchange for information pertaining to a crime committed by others." He added that Al-Samaluti "bears no grudges against the accused, but is simply offering truthful testimony about what he knows about them under oath."
The prosecution's star witness testified that he had visited the home of the defendant, Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, in March. On that occasion, Fahmi had said that the country had to be cleansed of traitors and that "the Wafd could only be moved into action by students and the shedding of their blood" and that "the big hand had to be cut off". He explained, "this means that the ministers and the sultan had to be killed". Al-Samaluti continued, "Then Fahmi listed the names of the current ministers and described how they would be killed with bombs."
The prosecution had a host of other witnesses harvested by Selim Zaki. One of these was Sheikh Ezzat Abdullah who testified that he was at the home of Fahmi on the same occasion, along with many others. He said that Fahmi had climbed onto a chair and delivered a speech in which he said, "We have created a society called the Vengeance Society. It has a noble aim, which is to kill traitors, especially the ministers, and most of all Tawfiq Nessim Pasha."
The prosecution also attempted to recruit witnesses to testify to the alleged poor character and reputation of Abdel-Rahman Fahmi. In this endeavour it failed. When asked about Fahmi's character, one witness, Ibrahim Fathi Pasha, a former minister of the awqaf, responded:
"He is absolutely first rate in his integrity and propriety."
Prosecution: "And in his work and activity?"
Ibrahim Pasha: "Absolutely first rate."
Prosecution: "We heard today that he is intolerably rude and cruel."
Ibrahim Pasha: "His etiquette is quite bearable, although he is demanding at work."
The other witnesses brought by the prosecution to taint the character of Fahmi also refused to be lured into making poor references.
In his interrogation of Fahmi, himself, the prosecutor persisted in his attempt to tarnish Fahmi's character. He suggested that when Fahmi was promoted from his directorship of Beni Sueif to the directorship of Giza that was not a promotion, since both positions were of the same rank, indicating that his superiors were not satisfied with his work. Dredging further into the defendant's past, he attempted to portray Fahmi as a heartless official known for his inhuman treatment. When Fahmi was a police commandant, he would cram as many prisoners as possible into a tiny cell. The prosecutor cited passages from the reports of a British police inspector who wrote that Fahmi was "so arrogant that he lost the respect of the people". So intent was the prosecution upon blackening Fahmi's character that he probed into his personal life. He asked one witness, for example, whether he knew that Fahmi had been the cause of a certain woman's divorce when he was director of Beni Sueif. The witness categorically denied knowledge of such an incident.
The British barrister, Mr Mitchell, who had joined the defence team, pleaded on behalf of his defendant for the duration of three sessions. The lawyer firstly cautioned the court against giving preponderance to political considerations over the requirements of justice. He then argued that a person of the calibre of Fahmi could not possibly descend to the naiveté and crudity suggested by the witnesses for the prosecution. Finally, he contended that the prosecution's testimony relied solely on hearsay and that it offered no tangible documented evidence to support its charges.
So convinced was the defence of the weakness of the prosecution's case that everyone believed that Fahmi would be acquitted. On 5 October they realised that their optimism was premature. The court ruled that Abdel-Rahman Fahmi and three other defendants were guilty and sentenced them to death. Four others were acquitted while the remainder were sentenced to prison terms ranging between 10 and 20 years. Political considerations had won out. Moreover, the political nature of the trial was corroborated by the fact that it took over four months for the military governor to act on the ruling. And then, on 24 February 1921, he commuted the sentence on Fahmi from death to 15 years in prison. In the end, Fahmi did not even have to serve this sentence in full. He was released four years later when the Zaghlul government came to power.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.