19 - 25 August 1999
Issue No. 443
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan ofMohamed Ibrahim Sabri, commonly nicknamed El-Sorbonni because he received his higher education at the Sorbonne in Paris, is not usually listed among Egypt's famous historians. The main reason is that most of his books were written in French and some of them were subsequently translated into Arabic. In 1921, however, he came forward boldly with a series of articles written in Arabic specially for Al-Ahram. The articles were timely as they coincided with a rift within the Wafd Party over policy towards Britain, which was then occupying Egypt. El-Sorbonni candidly and objectively analysed the causes of the dissension and prescribed remedies. Dr Yunan Labib Rizq * summarises the articles
contemporary life (299)
Mohamed Ibrahim Sabri came from an ordinary Egyptian family from Bilbeis. In spite of this humble background, he became one of the outstanding pioneers of the school of empirical history in Egypt. Mohamed Ibrahim Sabri had a fascinating life and some of its chapters were recorded by Al-Ahram .
Annals of an obscure historian
Before opening these pages, it is useful to turn first to Ahmed Hussein El-Tamawi's Sabri El-Sorbonni: a historical biography and portrait of a life. If Mohamed Shafiq Ghorbal was the founder of modern Egyptian historiography, Sabri was far more prolific, having produced 33 historical works, El-Tamawi writes. Sabri was also one of the handful of Egyptian historians who belonged to the French school of historiography. Unlike Ghorbal and his followers, who belonged to the British school, Sabri was a graduate of the Sorbonne. Sabri was proud of his affiliation with the celebrated French university and keen to sustain this distinction. Indeed, as we can see from the title of El-Tamawi's work, the name of his alma mater was affixed to his name.
The relationship between historians and politics is as old as history itself, and, given their respective academic backgrounds, it is perhaps not surprising to find Ghorbal and "El-Sorbonni" on opposite sides of the political fence. While Ghorbal was known to have close connections with Abdin Palace, El-Sorbonni was a fervent supporter of the 1919 Revolution. According to Al-Ahram, Sabri was at one time the secretary of the Egyptian delegation (the Wafd) in Paris at the time of the Versailles peace conference. Sabri's political affiliations and orientations would continue to manifest themselves in his treatment of contemporary issues. In 1947, for example, Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi El-Noqrashi commissioned him to write a history, in French, of the Sudan, the status of which was a permanent bone of contention between the Egyptians and the British. In response to the tripartite aggression on Egypt in 1956, he wrote several works, the best known of which is The Suez Scandal.
Perhaps one reason Sabri was not as widely read in Egypt as he should have been is that many of his works first appeared in French. As though to tout his Sorbonne affiliation, French was the language of all his works published between 1919 and 1926: The Egyptian Revolution, Part I; The Egyptian Question; The Egyptian Revolution, Part II; and The Emergence of the Nationalist Spirit in Egypt.
In 1921, for the first time, this dedicated, if unlucky, scholar, who had persisted in sporting a metaphorical beret through his choice of academic tongue, cast it aside. Suddenly, the historian, who had never written a word in Arabic, embarked on his first literary foray in his mother tongue through a series of articles written for Al-Ahram. The little-known articles, appearing under the title "Our Revolution", are as important to the study of this historical figure as they are of interest to students of contemporary Egyptian history.
That he signed these articles "Mohamed Sabri, the graduate of the Sorbonne and former Secretary to the Egyptian Wafd in Paris" is telling. Clearly he felt that the combination of these credentials lent him authority and, undoubtedly, they did. Little is known about his period of service in Paris. One of the few references appears in the memoirs of Mohamed Kamel Salim, Saad Zaghlul's secretary. In early January 1921 the Wafd in Paris was beginning to show signs of dissension. On the 21st of that month, Salim recalls that Wafd members Mustafa El-Nahas, Wisa Wassef and Hafez Afifi had notified Saad Zaghlul that they decided to return to Egypt. He relates that Zaghlul asked him whether he intended to return to Egypt as well. Salim responded, "No, I will stay here with you. I feel that we need more people like Dr Sabri."
In his article to Al-Ahram of 3 December 1921, Sabri indirectly corroborates Salim's oblique praise of his loyalty to Saad Zaghlul and commitment to Zaghlul's principles. He wrote, "The main reason why the greater majority of the Egyptian people continue to rally around His Excellency Saad Zaghlul Pasha and cheer his name is that they believe that he is persistent in his call for the complete independence of Egypt and Sudan and the total restoration of their usurped rights." Elsewhere in the article he lauds Zaghlul for "the wisdom of his words which are sufficient to rebuild unity."
El-Sorbonni's articles in Al-Ahram in the winter of 1921 are particularly valuable for the relatively detached analytical spirit and perspicacity which they embody. It is an approach that contrasts markedly with the prevalent tendency of historians of the time to give vent to their political sympathies. Certainly his astute objectivity lends credence to his analysis of the growing conflict in contemporary Egyptian public opinion between the supporters of Saad Zaghlul and the supporters of Adli Yakan Pasha. In spite of his well-known sympathies for Zaghlul, Sabri observed a rigid impartiality in his attempt to diagnose the causes of the conflict and prescribe an antidote.
The rift within Egyptian public opinion surfaced in the summer of 1920 over the question of whether to negotiate with the (British) Milner Commission. Zaghlul was for boycotting the Milner Commission, Yakan was against. In Yakan's favour was his social and political status. Descended from the old Turkish aristocracy, Yakan had headed the cabinet several times. Saad, on the other hand, felt -- correctly -- that his strength derived from the people. He, therefore, dispatched some members of his delegation to Egypt to test the pulse of public opinion on the Milner issue, which, it transpired, conformed to his position.
Disaffection within the Wafd began in January 1921. The Adli government was formed in March and at the beginning of April Zaghlul returned to Egypt where he was given a tumultuous welcome. Before the month was out, the fissure in the Wafd was a fact and some withdrawals occurred. One after the other, Ali Shaarawi, Mohamed Mahmoud, Abdel-Latif El-Mikabbati, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid and Mohamed Ali resigned.
In May, a wave of popular demonstrations erupted in protest against the Adli ministry and the Wafd members who had seceded. Starting in Tanta, the demonstrations quickly spread to Cairo, Alexandria and provincial capitals. Towards the end of 1921, the country was in the grip of a climate reminiscent of that which preceded the 1919 revolution. In December of that year, Saad Zaghlul was exiled for the second time.
Against this explosive climate Mohamed Sabri "El-Sorbonni" wrote the articles in which he sought to analyse the current state of affairs. His essay opened with an analysis of the circumstances that precipitated the 1919 revolution, which he described as the culmination of a series of British "slip-ups". With the outbreak of World War I, the British imposed a protectorate on Egypt, "without the slightest consideration of the sensitivities and dignity of the Egyptian people. They acted as though the Egyptian people were to be beaten and driven like a flock of sheep." Following this, the British introduced a project which called for the formation of a council comprised of Egyptians and foreigners that effectively placed control over Egyptian resources in foreign hands. Another affront to the Egyptians came with the recruitment of Egyptian peasants into the British war effort in the so-called "worker phalanxes".
As though these actions were not sufficient "to spark discontent and cause Egyptian hearts to seethe", the British exiled Saad Zaghlul and his colleagues. "Then they inflicted upon us the policy of terrorism and brute force, all of which combined to arouse the wrath of the people, ignite the fuse of revolution and engender escalating violence and bloodshed."
The British "slip-ups", El-Sorbonni believed, actually performed a great service for Egypt. By sparking the revolution, the British "made the Egyptians leap forward by a hundred years." He continues, "We can be proud that the revolution solidified the spirit of Egyptian patriotism, unifying the young and old, the educated and uneducated, the Copts and the Muslims. We can be proud that the revolution taught the men and women of this nation how to depend on themselves and work shoulder to shoulder to defend the usurped rights of the nation. We can be proud that the revolution brought together the Egyptian nation under a single banner, the banner of the crescent and the cross, and declared to the world that the Egyptian cause is an international cause, even if foreign governments have recognised the protectorate system that has been forced upon us."
El-Sorbonni attributed the current rift in public opinion to two factors: the loss of the spirit of the revolution and the willingness to be deceived by the British policy of appeasement in the mistaken belief that negotiations would realise nationalist aspirations. The policy of appeasement was epitomised by the Milner Commission that was sent to Egypt to assess the causes of the 1919 Revolution. In effect, the commission was an astute ploy "to bring the Egyptians to the British in drops and dribbles, as individuals and small groups, in order to avoid having to address a coherent body representing the entire Egyptian nation, which would obstruct the achievement of British aims." Certain Egyptians played into the hands of the British by urging the Wafd to return to Egypt to meet with Lord Milner. "Fortunately, these efforts failed as the nation rallied behind the call to boycott the Milner Commission." He added, "The world stands amazed that a nation of 14 million people opted to boycott the commission in spite of the might, authority and political sway behind it."
It was unfortunate that "the policy of flexibility which failed against millions of Egyptians in their steadfast adherence to their immutable rights succeeded against a small body such as the Egyptian Wafd, which they used to divide the nation in two." Given this result, the Egyptian people were correct to suspect the British offer of negotiations. Negotiations were "the British government's primary instrument to demolish the unity of the Egyptian people and to further entrench the protectorate," El-Sorbonni wrote. Through negotiations, the British had "anaesthetised our nerves and numbed our minds." He reminded readers that the Egyptians negotiated with the British for 18 months "without taking the appropriate precautions and securing sufficient guarantees to safeguard ourselves against the potential detrimental effects of negotiations. The foundation of negotiations was to seek an accommodation between our full independence and their interests. If that foundation is to be viable, the British must negotiate in good faith. Otherwise the entire edifice constructed upon such negotiations is doomed to collapse." The Egyptian historian's caution against trusting the good intentions of the stronger party in a negotiating process holds good today.
El-Sorbonni harshly reproached the Egyptian political leaders who had lent themselves to the British stratagem to undermine the spirit of national unity. "Day and night they told the people that independence was at hand and their bid was taken up in the mosques and churches. Suddenly, from one day to the next, they woke to find their determination sapped and their hearts tremulous. Gone was the spirit of sacrifice as each of these leaders bemoaned his own fate." To a large extent, the fault for this plight lay within the "nature of the character" of those leaders. From the outset, most of them had not "thoroughly absorbed the principles which they advocated and which the revolution embodied." The fact was that "the seeds of division had existed within the Wafd since its creation, although they had remained hidden beneath the surface. Discerning their presence, Lord Milner worked to nourish these seeds through his deceitful policy of flexibility, causing them to germinate and flourish. Today we see the fruit of his endeavours."
Specifically, what Sabri saw as the fruit of Milner's endeavours was the spread of partisanship and the preponderance of personal ambitions over principles. It seemed that "every person wants to be a leader, every group wants to be a political party drawing the people to march under its banner and every party seeks to portray itself as infallible and cast the blame on others. As a result, we find that everyone is casting aspersions against everyone, magnifying all flaws and negating all virtues, whereas at one time we had all been united around a single leader, a single programme and a single aim."
The prevalence of self-promotion over the advocacy of principles was an old affliction that was endemic in Egyptian politics. The phenomenon followed a particular pattern. With regard to the events of his day he found that "the parties or leaders who had once targeted British policy for their arrows of animosity and criticism soon begin to see their fellow Egyptians as their only adversaries. With this shift in aim, they alter their moral nature, thereby forfeiting the spirit of sacrifice that had been one of the most beautiful and noble traits of the revolution."
Sabri found the phenomenon highly detrimental to Egyptians in their current situation. On the one hand, it lent itself to a cult of personality that exacerbated the rift and caused the people to lose sight of their ultimate aims. Thus, instead of focusing on the most appropriate way to resist the occupation forces, their energies are diverted into supporting charismatic figures. Nothing epitomised this better than the names given to the two divergent camps at the time: the Saadists (Saad supporters) and the Adlists (the Adli supporters).
The phenomenon also played very well into the hands of the British. The British, Sabri pointed out, diagnosed the rift in Egyptian opinion as a conflict between two different political wings: moderates and extremists. He opposed this view, holding that to cater to the British conception of moderates and extremists served no other purpose than to give the occupation forces a handle with which to divide and rule.
Perhaps for this reason, Sabri devoted his fourth article to the British categorisation of Egyptian nationalists into moderates and extremists. "This is no more than a formula to camouflage their true aim, which is to sow dissension. Those who wish to regain their full rights -- rights which are indivisible and cannot be bartered -- are not extremists or fanatics. Quite to the contrary, they are moderates who demand the restoration of their usurped rights through legitimate means."
Sabri goes on to contend that, if such a category existed at all, extremists were "those who, in addition to demanding the independence of Egypt and Sudan, also demanded financial compensation from Great Britain for the damage inflicted upon Egypt from the time of the bombardment of Alexandria until the present." Sabri cleverly succeeded in driving home the point that when it comes to the demand for independence, the concept of an Egyptian "extremist", as opposed to moderate, does not exist. He argues that what does exist are British extremists. These are "the colonialists who construct a barrier between the truth and the British people, who want to persuade the Egyptians that their legitimate means will not bring them independence and who threaten recourse to arms against those who have no other weapon but justice."
To illustrate his point, Sabri takes the opportunity to stress the peaceful nature of demonstrations during the Egyptian revolution. Had the revolution been "extremist", it would have manifested itself in violence. He adds, "The revolution instilled a new spirit in Egypt, bringing the nation a long way towards progress. It had no extremists or moderates. It not only demolished the theoretical foundation for the protectorate which bases its claim upon the support of the will of the people; it undermined the entire structure erected by the foreign occupation."
The ultimate aim of Sabri's articles was to offer guidelines, or articles of faith, for the nationalist endeavour. The bottom line for these guidelines was the will of the people in their aspiration for full independence. To Sabri, the people were the active agent. The people were responsible for correcting the errors of their leaders, or, as he put it, "iron out the wrinkles in their plans." It was because of the people that the Wafd went to Europe with the sole purpose of achieving full independence for Egypt and the Sudan. It was the people who declared the boycott of the Milner Commission and who thwarted the British designs to create and bolster a "moderate" party that would lead the nation into accepting Milner's scheme to further entrench the protectorate system.
A second prerequisite for nationalist endeavour was for the Wafd to reunite its ranks. The withdrawal of several of its members had generated a gap that must be breached. However, as "men are few and recruiting new members will tend to generate further discord," Sabri advised that the former members should return to the Wafd's fold. Those very members had formed "the brains of the Wafd as the British themselves admitted before the rupture. That their actions and their writings impressed the entire Western world is the best testimony to their endeavours. We should avail ourselves of their talents."
However, if these members are to return to the Wafd, they must also reform themselves. They must offer themselves as models of self-sacrifice in the name of the principles they advocate.
Not only did Sabri urge the secessionists to return to the Wafd, he urged the Wafd to take on additional members, including Saad Zaghlul's adversary Adli Yakan. He writes, "The members of the Ward who remain and those who have resigned all have a unique range of expertise. Yet such expertise can only bear fruit if they walk hand in hand." In his call for solidarity, Sabri also cautions again against the spread of partisanship, which he considered "the greatest peril". A nation divided into numerous small bodies can never become "a single mass that is impossible to destroy."
It is sad to realise that El-Sorbonni lived to see that his advice fell on deaf ears. He was the epitome of the historian and visionary whose dreams collapsed before they could ever see the light of day.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.