26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (300)
Mohamed Hussein Heikal was a nationalist, an intellectual, a writer, a politician and a technocrat all in one. He was one of the major players on the Egyptian political scene in the first half of this century. Initially shying away from politics in his writings, Heikal seized on the aftermath of the 1919 nationalist revolution against British occupation to grapple with political issues. In a series of five articles in Al-Ahram in 1921, Heikal reviewed the development of the Egypt nationalist movement with a critical eye. He espoused the theory that nationalist leaders like Saad Zaghlul and others followed the lead of the people in rising against British occupation and not the reverse. He contended that the masses forced Zaghlul to radicalise the demands he put to the British. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * sums up the articles Heikal wrote for Al-Ahram
The voice of the 'elite'
Mustafa Abdel-Razeq Aziz
Reading Al-Ahram several years after the 1919 Revolution leads one to a curious observation. One cannot help but note that the newspaper seemed to become increasingly disenchanted with the revolutionary leader, Saad Zaghlul. However, it would be wrong to fall into the common error of confusing devotion to a political leader with dedication to a political cause. At no time did Al-Ahram grow lax in its support for the nationalist movement, which reached its peak at that time. On the contrary, it remained as steadfast as ever in its antagonism to the British occupation and frequently sided with writers who were more radical than Saad Zaghlul himself.
It is important to recall Al-Ahram's stance at the outbreak of the revolution itself. When disturbances erupted in March 1919, Al-Ahram was careful to draw a distinction between the effendi classes which spearheaded the revolution and what it referred to as rabble and thieves. The effendis -- students, the established intelligentsia and government bureaucrats -- had mounted the peaceful demonstrations in protest against the exile of Saad Zaghlul to Malta. The rabble, who in effect were inhabitants of the popular quarters, took advantage of the circumstances to commit acts of vandalism and plunder. Such acts, in the opinion of Al-Ahram, tainted the image of the nationalist movement and obstructed a positive response to its demands. We can readily see the newspaper's distinction between the effendis and the rabble in the headline of its first report on the events of the revolution: "The demonstrations of Egyptian students and the offenses of others".
Over the next two years, certain lines were taking shape within the nationalist movement, with the masses clearly rallying behind the leadership of Saad Zaghlul. Eventually, Zaghlul's adversaries began to refer to him as the leader of the rabble, an epithet Zaghlul himself did not reject. Moreover, an important segment of the intelligentsia began to resent what they perceived to be Zaghlul's demagoguery and disregard for the majority opinion within the Wafd, which they believed conflicted with the democratic values they espoused. Eventually, these critics coalesced into what they called "the elite", perhaps to distinguish themselves from "the rabble", and established themselves under the political umbrella of the Egyptian Democratic Party.
The founders of the new political party consisted of a group of intellectuals who had taken Al-Sufur newspaper as their mouthpiece during World War I. They also included several individuals whom Al-Ahram described as "the cream of educated Egyptian youth who had received their higher education in Europe." Prominent among these were Mansour Fahmi, Mahmoud Azmi, Ibrahim El-Shawarbi, Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Aziz Mirham, who was the party secretary and spokesman.
Of this elite, Mohamed Hussein Heikal had perhaps the most impressive record of political involvement in public life. In addition to his contribution to Al-Sufur, he also became editor-in-chief of Al-Siyasa. Al-Siyasa was the most famous political party newspaper of the twenties and thirties and remained unrivaled by any other party newspaper of its day. Heikal also became chairman of the Liberal Constitutional Party, which for some time was second only to the Wafd in terms of following. In addition, he served several terms in the Cabinet and, beneath the dome of Parliament, he served a lengthy term as speaker of the Senate. Given this record, it seems appropriate to look to Heikal as the primary exponent of the Egyptian "elite" during the period following the 1919 Revolution.
Heikal was also one of the few Egyptian politicians to leave memoirs to posterity. His three-volume Mudhakkirat fi Al-Siyasa Al-Misriya (Memoirs on Egyptian Politics) was and remains an invaluable boon to scholars of modern Egyptian history. Heikal began his career in journalism at an early age. He first made his mark in Al-Jarida, a nationalist newspaper founded by Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed. When this newspaper ceased publication in 1915, Heikal joined the staff of Al-Sufur, becoming one of its most prominent writers. It is interesting to note, however, that during this period Heikal rarely broached political issues. An exception was a series of articles that he wrote for Al-Jarida shortly after the outbreak of World War I -- "The people of Egypt and anticipated changes". Perhaps the fact that this series never appeared in full, having been heavily subjected to the censor's scissors, explains his reluctance to treat political issues.
Given the convergence of minds, it is not surprising that Al-Ahram should open its pages to the members of the Egyptian Democratic Party. Not only did the newspaper heartily welcome the formation of the new party, but it also assiduously followed its activities. At the beginning of 1919, it dedicated space to a literary column authored by one of the party's founders, Mansour Fahmi, who in turn took the opportunity to introduce some of his colleagues. Among these was Taha Hussein, with whom Fahmi engaged in an important literary debate, and Mohamed Hussein Heikal, whose book, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Fahmi reviewed in Al-Ahram of 12 November 1919.
In spite of the fact that Heikal had more extensive journalistic expertise than his colleagues in Al-Sufur and in spite of the fact that the founders of the Egyptian Democratic Party had elected Al-Ahram as a forum for their views, it would not be until 1920 that Heikal's writings began to appear on its pages. One cannot help but note, however, that by this time Heikal had abandoned his earlier reserve in treating sensitive political issues.
Heikal's first article in Al-Ahram appeared on 18 January 1920 under the headline "The effect of the ministers' talks." Former ministers Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat and Adli Yakan had recently held discussions with Lord Milner, the head of the British Commission that was created to examine the causes of the 1919 uprising and that was boycotted by the Egyptian people. Heikal was incensed by the off-handed brevity and vagueness of the statements issued by the former ministers following the meeting. Their statements contrasted sharply with those of Sheikh Bakhit, the Mufti of Egypt, who, following an earlier meeting with Milner, had given a lengthy interview to the press in which he discussed the details of that meeting. Heikal remarked, "I hope that their excellencies the former ministers, having seen the effects of their talks, the substance of which still has not been disclosed to the nation, will follow the example of the venerable Mufti of Egypt who publicised the contents of his meeting. It is important that they do so if the nation is to be reassured that they adopted the same stances in their talks as that of the venerable sheikh."
Even though Al-Ahram published Heikal's article, it did not approve of the implied allegations he levied against the former ministers and hastened to comment: "They asked for full and unconditional independence guaranteed by an international treaty. Indeed, one of them told Lord Milner, 'Not even five Egyptian cats would follow anyone one who advocates anything less than full independence'."
Heikal's second article, appearing on 4 February, was entitled, "And now, what do the British want?". In this article, the "delegate of the elite" contrasted a statement issued by Saad Zaghlul, which he described as "moderate" and one issued by Milner, which he described as vague and intransigent. Such intransigence, he wrote, would compel the Egyptian people "to cling even more desperately to their rights."
It would be more than a year before Heikal continued his contributions to Al-Ahram. When he did, it would be in the form of a series of five articles appearing over the summer months of 1921 under the headline "The development of the Egyptian nationalist movement".
In his memoirs Heikal alludes to the circumstances that prompted this series. He wrote: "The tensions between the government and Saad Pasha remained extremely acute for nearly two months, during which the nation became polarised between supporters of Saad and supporters of Prime Minister Adli Yakan. Although I was never an ardent supporter of that government, I was nevertheless averse to the campaign of agitation that was managed by the Wafd and organised by its central committee. Indeed, I had written on several occasions to Al-Ahram in support of the views of the Democratic Party and I take this occasion to remind my fellow countrymen that the nation needs the efforts of Adli as much as it does the efforts of Saad. For every time and every circumstance there is an appropriate man. Saad was the man for the revolution, which he led strongly and wisely. Adli was the man for the talks with Milner. As the members of the Wafd themselves attest, he was the epitome of shrewdness, precision and perseverance in his negotiations. In these articles, I have reiterated that mutual allegations of treachery are most detrimental to the reputation of our country. I cannot conceive that a person who has attained the respect and admiration of the nation such as Saad and those around him, or Adli and those around him, could be accused of dereliction in his pursuit of the national cause, let alone treachery."
Heikal confesses that in writing his memoirs he only rarely had recourse to the newspapers to aid his memory of events. "Perhaps this might cause some to suspect that my memory failed me," he adds, "but I would be perfectly happy should anyone wish to correct my facts." He hastens to add, "But I believe that no one will find anything to correct." Although this may well apply to his memoirs, it is not necessarily the case with the series of articles he wrote for Al-Ahram.
In the first of these articles, Heikal posits that the Wafdist leaders followed the lead of the people and not the reverse. He argues that in their meeting with the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Reginald Wingate, on 13 November 1918, the demands of Saad Zaghlul and his colleagues were actually quite modest. According to Heikal, a certain group of dissidents disseminated bulletins sharply criticising the Zaghlul delegation for having omitted from its demands the question of Sudan, the ending of the protectorate and the evacuation of British soldiers from Egypt and for agreeing to the perpetuation of the privileges accorded to foreigners under the capitulations system and the continuation of foreign budgetary monitoring. To prove his theory that leaders took their cue from the people, Heikal proceeds to contend that Zaghlul altered his programme in accordance with the bulletins. Two months later, at a tea party held on 13 January 1919, he delivered a speech in which he said, "Sudan is more vital to Egypt than Alexandria, the perpetuation of the protectorate is inconsistent with full independence and foreign privileges may continue temporarily in order to reassure foreign expatriates that their interests shall remain secure under an independent Egypt."
Heikal argues further that the mass uprising of March and April 1919 compelled the Wafd to radically alter its strategy. The Wafd leaders "abandoned the idea of travelling to Great Britain, opting instead for bringing the Egyptian cause before the Versailles peace conference directly." In so doing, the Wafd had responded to the popular demand to internationalise the Egyptian cause, rather than restricting it to the framework of British-Egyptian relations. This was precisely the tack the British wanted to counter when London, during the peace conference, sought international recognition of its protectorate over Egypt. That London succeeded in this drive, however, "did not dampen the determination of the people who greeted every blow with a heart greater than that of the Sphinx and more immobile than the immortal pyramids."
In the same article, Heikal also attributes the call to boycott the Milner commission to a popular initiative. He confirms this again in his memoirs, published some 30 years later, in which he said that the idea of a boycott was first suggested by an anonymous writer to Al-Nizam newspaper. The notion was immediately taken up by the Egyptian Democratic Party, of which Heikal was a member. He wrote, "We disseminated the idea everywhere and we appealed to the youth associated with us, and to the students in the Egyptian University and in the higher educational institutes to do their utmost to implement it." Only when this groundwork had been laid, Heikal suggests, did the Wafd adopt the call for the boycott.
Heikal devoted the second article of his series on the development of the nationalist movement to a critique of Wafd policy over the previous two years. He felt that the members of the Wafd had begun to believe that full independence for Egypt was akin to a platonic ideal. In effect, they had succumbed to a sort of pragmatism that led them to advocate that "Egypt agrees, in exchange for Great Britain's defense of its independence and national security, to consult Great Britain on matters of foreign policy and to accept the presence of a British military force on Egyptian territory to protect the Empire's lines of communication."
To Heikal, this policy represented the beginning of what he termed the Wafd's "strategy of retreat". Heikal and other members of the Democratic Party could not condone this policy. They believed that the cause of "independence requires no negotiations nor any give and take. If the British have interests in Egypt, an independent Egypt is better equipped to appreciate and guarantee them, whereas an Egypt under a protectorate and subject to brute force cannot do that."
One manifestation of the Wafd's "strategy of retreat", according to Heikal, occurred in May 1920, when it sent several of its members to London to ascertain whether Britain was prepared to respond to the Egyptian people's aspirations for full independence. Our "delegate of the elite" held that this marked the beginning of the bartering over Egyptians' full independence. At the time, the Democratic Party issued a communiqué saying, "The objective of any negotiations between the Egyptians and the British must, above all, be to secure their recognition of Egypt's full independence in its domestic and foreign policy and Egypt's right to join the League of Nations as a fully sovereign and free nation."
Heikal believed that the Wafd's strategy had disastrous consequences for the nationalist cause. Firstly, it recognised Britain's right to retain a military presence on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Secondly, it recognised that Egypt would not have the right to enter into an alliance with any other nation but Britain. Thirdly, in exchange for Britain's defense of Egyptian territory, the Egyptians would have to meet all the demands placed upon it in the event of an armed aggression against Britain. Finally, it recognised Britain's right to assume the privileges of other nations that had benefited from the capitulations system in Egypt. Such a policy would sow the seeds of discord within the nationalist movement, which was the subject of the final episodes of Heikal's series.
In the second to last of the series, the author observed the reaction to the draft agreement with Britain that was publicised on 9 September 1920. One group, he writes, greeted the draft agreement positively. "They published lengthy articles in which they attempted to present academic or logical arguments to support the premise that the bases of the agreement provide independence and that the restrictions on independence are no worse than those imposed on most nations." In the opposite camp were those who, as soon as the agreement appeared in print, hastened to urge its rejection. To them the agreement represented "a further systematisation of the British protectorate on the country."
The two trends together, however, represented a minority of opinion in Egypt. The bulk of public opinion, in Heikal's view, took the middle ground, arguing that the agreement should be amended. The recommendations of the advocates of amendment became known as "the nation's reservations on the Milner agreement." They included the public declaration of the abolition of the British protectorate over Egypt; international recognition of Egypt's independence, a specified term for the continued alliance between Egypt and Britain; the establishment of a constitutional monarchy whose authority is derived from the people; the setting of a deadline for the termination of the Debt Fund (La Caisse de la Dette Publique); Egypt's participation in the negotiations with the concerned countries to terminate their privileges under the capitulations system, the delineation of a ceiling for the military assistance Egypt would be obliged to lend Britain on condition that it should be provided within Egyptian territory; and, finally, an assurance that "Britain shall not have the lion's share in Sudan."
Following his exposition of these reservations, Heikal remarked that the Wafd had evidently failed to notice that the majority of Egyptians rejected the draft agreement as it stood. It "fell far short of their aspirations which are largely realisable." Whereas Heikal's first four articles in this series appeared at approximately one-week intervals, the final episode appeared more than a month after the fourth. Evidently, the author wanted to wait for certain developments to play themselves out before commenting. The most salient of these developments was the growing breach between the supporters of Saad Zaghlul and those of Adli Yakan. That the latter, representing the government, used force to quell pro-Wafdist demonstrations put the hoped for reuniting of nationalist ranks further out of reach. It was, thus, only natural that the "delegate of the elite" devote his final article to this subject.
Heikal attempted to cast certain aspersions against the Wafd. When Saad Zaghlul and his delegation arrived in London, he wrote, they were accorded a grand reception. Also, "their luggage was exempted from customs inspection at Folkstone, where they were met by the municipal chief of police and in London they were met by representatives of Lord Milner." It is difficult to imagine exactly how Heikal expected a foreign negotiating delegation to be met, but clearly he felt that the reception accorded to the Wafd was suspiciously warm. He also charged that certain members of the Wafd, including Zaghlul himself, were not sufficiently committed to the nation's "reservations" on the draft agreement and were prepared to enter negotiations before first securing guarantees with regard to these reservations. However, he writes, "other members of the Wafd were so adamant in their refusal to commence negotiations before securing such guarantees that they persuaded a newspaper correspondent to attack those who advocated otherwise."
In his charge against Saad Zaghlul, at least, Heikal's account is suspiciously partisan. The official minutes of the negotiations and all other accounts of professional historians attest to the fact that Zaghlul had held the line of the Wafd, which essentially adopted the nation's reservations. In all events, the negotiations with Britain failed and the Wafd returned to Paris. Even then, Heikal persisted in his attempt to cast aspersions against Zaghlul. He wrote that, following the breakdown in negotiations, Zaghlul sought to disassociate himself from the camp that was prepared to enter into negotiations unconditionally. Heikal asserted that the nationalist leader had appealed to some of his supporters to spread the word that he "refuses to enter into negotiations with any authority before receiving a clear statement from them agreeing to the reservations."
In his memoirs, Heikal wrote that the primary aim of his articles for Al-Ahram was to push for a reconciliation between the supporters of Saad Zaghlul and the supporters of Adli Yakan. Given the unmistakable antipathy to Zaghlul that we observe in the articles, one suspects that when he wrote his memoirs, the memory of the "delegate of the elite" had indeed failed him, in this instance at least.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.