28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (309)"The Black Page", the title of a series of articles in Al-Ahram published in 1922, sought to prove that British occupation policies had hurt Egypt in nearly all facets of the country's life. The articles, written by famed Al-Azhar scholar Abul-Uyun, aimed at debunking the oft-cited British claim that British rule 'civilised' Egypt. If anything, Abul-Uyun wrote, the British made a mess of the country's formerly buoyant agriculture, commerce and industry. The educational system deteriorated, the state of public health declined and public morals degenerated. In government administration, they violated personal liberties, monopolised the ministries and deprived Egypt of the Sudan. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* presents Abul-Uyun's writings and his inescapable conclusion: after 40 years of insidious occupation, the Egyptian revolution was a natural culmination, "not the passing flash of anger the British attempted to convey"
The Black Page
"The Black Page" was the dramatic headline that headed a 17-article series that appeared in Al-Ahram at the start of 1922. The author was Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, an Al-Azhar scholar who had played a part in the revolutionary activity over the previous three years and who remained with Al-Azhar until his death in 1951. The articles were important not only because of the personality of the writer and their reflection on the involvement of Al-Azhar in the events of the 1919 Revolution, but also because they offered thorough analysis of 40 years of British occupation. As the title of his series suggests, Abul-Uyun sought to gather the evidence in favour of the premise that British occupation policies had been detrimental to Egypt in every respect.
Abul-Uyun was instrumental in mobilising Al-Azhar during the revolution. But 1919 was not the first time the ancient Islamic institution rose in rebellion against a foreign presence. In 1798, Azharites led what came to be known as the first Cairean revolution, this time against the French expedition. The precursor of the 1919 Revolution was, nevertheless, very different in character. Given Al-Azhar's leadership, the uprising was more religious in tenor, although it could be argued that the French abuse of the local Islamic stronghold fired the intense religious passions. Certainly, the French cavalry assault on Al-Azhar in order to suppress the uprising was an outrage that Egyptians would never forget. The 1919 Revolution, by contrast, was triggered by nationalist ardour. Spearheaded by the effendi, or urban intelligentsia, it was a broad-based, mass uprising in which Al-Azhar was one of the many important seats of patriotic sentiment. In fact, the vehement anti-colonialist spirit of the times gave rise to that unique phenomenon in which prominent members of the Coptic clergy would take part in speeches and rallies on the premises of Al-Azhar University. In fact, some Coptic officials acquired countrywide nationalist repute in this context. One such figure was the priest Sergius who became a noted speaker within the walls of the eminent Islamic academy, an anomaly that would have been inconceivable at the time of the revolution against the Napoleonic invasion.
Unlike the French over a century earlier, the British were a practiced colonial power and made it their policy to avoid inciting religious sensibilities. Initially, an incident that occurred on 11 December 1919 seemed like a replay of the French assault on Al-Azhar during the Cairo uprising. On that day, a large demonstration set out from Al-Azhar. The protesters soon came up against British forces, which forced demonstrators to retreat and take refuge in the mosque. Some of these forces maintained the pursuit. In a petition of protest submitted afterwards by the ulama of Al-Azhar, "They broke down the doors with their boots and truncheons and violated the sanctity of that sacred house of worship and great Islamic university sought by students of all nations."
On this occasion, however, Lord Allenby, the British high commissioner in all his glory, was forced to issue a personal letter of apology to Sheikh Mohamed Abul-Fadl, the rector of Al-Azhar, in which he wrote: "Please trust that there was no intention whatsoever of violating the sanctity of Al-Azhar or of offending the dignity of Your Excellency or that of the venerable ulama or the Muslim students."
In spite of the caution the British took to appease religious sensitivities, Al-Azhar remained an important focal point for revolutionary activity. According to a contemporary commentator, Al-Azhar students were "always in the front ranks of the demonstrators and were consistently the most dauntless and fervent. They were the most energetic in disseminating the nationalist spirit and mobilising the movement among the various classes of the populace. Moreover, of all sectors of the population, they possessed the greatest spirit of self-sacrifice on behalf of the Egyptian cause."
Illustration by Makram Hunnein
The same commentator also records that Al-Azhar had preserved one of its old traditions. Speakers would deliver "fiery sermons and fervent poems from its pulpit, drawing large audiences of students from Al-Azhar and all other schools, as well as men and women of all classes who would rush to attend any time of the day." In Al-Azhar, "many demonstrations were organised and planned and Muslim along with Christian religious figures delivered sermons exhorting people to unify ranks and to solidify the bonds between Christians and Muslims. You would see flags on which the crescent and cross embraced and you would see the black turban of the priest next to the white turban of the sheikh as a symbol of union for the sake of the nation."
Abul-Uyun was no minor figure in the nationalist atmosphere that pervaded Al-Azhar. In fact, his activism came to the attention of the leaders of the nationalist movement. Toward the end of 1920, Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, secretary-general of the Wafd, wrote to nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, who was then in Paris, to tell him about the spate of arrests the British occupation authorities had made against nationalist activists. Among those arrested, he said, were Sheikh Mustafa El-Qayati and Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, "leaders of the movement in Al-Azhar". Far from allowing prison to intimidate him, Abul-Uyun wrote numerous letters to British officials, several of which were later published in Al-Ahram.
In one letter, addressed to the general-commander of the British forces in Egypt, he questioned the right of the British military authorities, which represented an alien power, to arrest Egyptian citizens. Aside from this principle, he asked, what would compel the British authorities to arrest an individual such as himself, "when they are in a position to prevent all threats to security with their vast network of spies that extends throughout the country like veins in the body?"
Abul-Uyun wrote another letter to Lord Milner, who had headed the commission that was sent to Egypt to investigate the causes of the uprising. The Egyptian people, he told Milner, will cling to the right they inherited from their fathers and forefathers, "a right they won through the shedding of their precious blood. The Egyptian people refuse to compromise and to bargain. Nor are they intimidated by the killing of children, massacring of old men, imprisonment of upstanding citizens, defiling of houses of worship, degradation of men of religion and other acts that continue to take place in front of your own eyes."
Nor did the author of these impassioned letters have any qualms about revealing his identity. He assiduously signed them all: "Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, political prisoner No 4".
Another factor that elevated the Al-Azhar scholar and political activist in the public's esteem was his refusal to become a party to the conflict that erupted in the early 1920s between the supporters of Prime Minister Adli Yakan and the supporters of Saad Zaghlul. The sentiments are reflected in a letter to Abul-Uyun from one of his students, Ibrahim El-Bagouri. Published in Al-Ahram on 20 January 1922, the letter read, "In that baleful hour when the people's efforts were diverted to the service of individuals, we were alarmed to find your pen silent and your voice mute. Yet how they admired you and cheered you on when they learned of your opinion, which was that the days of the rivalry between Saad and Adli was a time of sedition, a time when it was better to sleep than to be awake. But now that sedition has retreated into the distance, that hour is long forgotten. Our forces are reunited, our soldiers have rallied again, and you have resumed your place in the firmament of the movement, casting down upon us the rays of your faith in limpid purity through the pages of the venerable Al-Ahram."
Abul-Uyun's articles appeared in Al-Ahram from 6 January to 17 February 1922. They thus fell within a crucial three-month juncture in Egyptian history, beginning with the failure of the Adli-Curzon negotiations at the end of November 1921 and the British declaration of limited independence for Egypt on 28 February 1922. Within this period the Adli Yakan government resigned. The country then found itself without a cabinet when Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat refused an invitation to form a new government, leaving the management of national affairs in the hands of the deputy ministers. On 23 December, Saad Zaghlul was exiled for a second time for having refused to heed the British ultimatum to retire from politics. British heavy-handedness galvanised the nationalist movement, which had been sharply divided between the pro-Adli and pro-Zaghlul camps, into reuniting ranks and precipitated such a resurgence in nationalist resistance as to suggest a revival of the spirit of March 1919.
This charged background serves to lend Abul-Uyun's articles a unique flavour. It is not surprising to find that Abul-Uyun sought to debunk the oft-cited British claim that the British occupation lifted Egypt out of its backwardness by bringing to it the institutional and material causes of modern civilisation. If the disillusionment with the British's "civilising" role, as depicted in Lord Cromer's Modern Egypt and touted by the pro-British Egyptian Gazette and the Muqattam, was not unfamiliar in those times, Abul-Uyun's style of rejection was vibrant and original.
Abul-Uyun's premise speaks for itself in the opening argument of his first article: "Before Egypt was occupied, it had a constitutional government and a fully empowered representative council [parliament]. It had a proud and mighty army and was making powerful strides toward progress and civilisation. When the British wrested control of the country, they enjoined themselves to a specifically defined mission. However, they soon began to concoct pretexts to prolong their occupation as they wrought their vengeance upon the country, eradicated every last beneficial remnant, fought every useful idea and reaped any fruit to be had for themselves."
He follows with such a battery against every aspect of British rule that readers are left with the impression that it had not a single saving merit. In government administration they violated personal liberties, monopolised the ministries and deprived Egypt of the Sudan. Their economic and financial policies brought greater economic hardship, an oppressive tax structure and the continued failure to pay back Egypt's national debt -- the very pretext London used to occupy the country to begin with. Their social policies were a catastrophe. The educational system deteriorated, the state of public health declined and public morals degenerated. Against this accumulated attrition, the revolution of the Egyptian people was a natural and logical culmination, not the ephemeral aberration or passing flash of anger the British attempted to convey. The revolution reflected a deeply held conviction to ultimately bring an end to the British presence in Egypt.
The Al-Azhar scholar held that the emergency, extraordinary and administrative exile tribunals embodied the assault against personal liberties. These courts "are unfettered by any law and their verdicts cannot be appealed. The first such court that we are aware of is that formed in 1906 to prosecute the people of Danshaway. It issued a range of sentences, from death by hanging and hard labour for life to detention with lashing and lashing with a five-tailed whip." The administrative exile tribunals in particular were notorious for "basing their rulings on suspicion and surmise". But all were guilty of "acting above the law and issuing rulings that are to be considered final and incontrovertible".
Hand in hand with these judiciary forms of despotism went the occupation authorities' press laws, which "restrict the freedom of expression and muffles the mouths of free-thinkers who, therefore, refuse to write and speak circumspectly". The press, to Abul-Uyun, was a condensed form of the national consciousness. "It expresses its heart and mind and serves as a compassionate guide to a confused people. To attack the press is to assail the dignity, will and soul of the nation."
Such extra-legal measures were highly prejudicial to a nation that "feels that it has a full right to life and an undiminished right to liberty". Moreover, the author of "The Black Page" notes that in spite of the many restrictions imposed by British rule, the country still lacked security. To corroborate, he rallied as evidence the 1909 annual report of British High Commissioner Eldon Gorst, who wrote: "It is disturbing to note in the recent annual reports the poor state of public safety in the provinces and the persistent difficulties which hamper an effective remedy." Abul-Uyun put his finger on the cause: the British placed the maintenance of security and public safety in the hands of young British officers "who have neither the experience nor appropriate training and expertise".
It was not just in the security services where the British say prevailed; it was in every aspect of government. The Al-Azhar activist writes that the council of ministers instituted under the Khedive Ismail in 1878 "had complete legal authority in the country. It alone controlled the promulgation of laws it deemed necessary for the well-being and prosperity of the land." But when the British occupied the country, "they manoeuvred to extend their intervention in our national affairs until they succeeded in placing a British adviser alongside every minister. However, these advisers have come to have the final say in every matter. In the British political dictionary, the word 'adviser' means someone whose word is to be obeyed." Again, he cites the high commissioner's annual report for 1909 in which Gorst said, "There is not a single segment of the Egyptian populace to whom it has occurred to dispute the fact that the government of His Royal Highness should have the ultimate say, or who has conceived that matters should be otherwise as long as the British occupation is in Egypt."
One of the blackest marks in the British administration of Egypt was its policy with regard to Sudan. Rather than portraying the campaign against the Mahdists as a series of bungled missions, Abul-Uyun seems to suggest that the British implemented a long-term conspiracy to serve their objectives in both the northern and southern halves of the Nile Valley. Thus, the occupation authorities were able to exploit the Mahdists' victory over the Hicks expedition as a means to eliminate the officers involved in the Orabi revolution. "If the powers at the helm of government [the British] had been sincere in their objectives, they could have extinguished the flame of the Mahdist rebellion with a handful of armed soldiers," he wrote. Having permitted the Mahdists to gain sway over Sudan, the British exploited that reality to force the Egyptian forces to evacuate Sudan in 1885, only to mobilise the Egyptian forces, under British leadership, into a costly campaign of reconquest a decade later at Egyptian expense. In short, the British "forced the Egyptian government to leave Sudan and established borders between Sudan and Egypt as though Sudan was not an integral part of this country. Then, after they decided to reconquer the country using the money and blood of our countrymen, they invited us to share in the spoils of victory... to legitimise this so-called partnership they forced the Egyptian government to sign a treaty to that effect."
Egypt, Abul-Uyun writes, "was once the jewel of the world because of its abundant wealth and produce". The British, of course, put an end to that. "Although they have disseminated the notion throughout the world that they have lifted Egypt up from ruin, we are obliged to say bluntly that under the occupation it has tangibly degenerated in every aspect."
In agriculture, the British neglected cultivable land and cut back land reclamation. Particularly afflicted by neglect was the cotton industry, resulting in lower than average yields. The damage this did to the economy could not be underestimated, according to Abul-Uyun, who cited a European entrepreneur as saying: "Egypt's prosperity stands on one foot -- agriculture -- and that foot is balanced on one toe." In commerce, he writes, Egypt could have vied with the most powerful nations of the world "due to its fortuitous geographical position". But even its commercial standing is thwarted because the government offers no protection to domestic trade. Moreover, prior to the British occupation, Egypt had a diversified industrial base, "sufficient to meet the needs of the inhabitants with plenty remaining to export". Then came the British who "dismantled that edifice and sold off the remains at the most paltry prices. They sold off our ships and their contents, our factories and arms plants and their machinery and our spinning and weaving, paper and glass workshops. The ruination of our industry destroyed a major pillar of our economic independence."
The Al-Azhar scholar was not himself an economist, although he did gather evidence to refute Lord Cromer's claim that during his 25-year term as British consul in Egypt he succeeded in significantly reducing Egypt's foreign debt, which had originally served as the pretext for foreign intervention in national affairs. This evidence came in the form of the following statement by Sir Wilfred Lawson, a member of the House of Commons: "Under our rule, Egypt's foreign debt increased to 100 million pounds." To make matters worse, the Egyptian pound had been linked to the British pound, creating a loss to Egypt of 13 million pounds. The effects of the linkage were more insidious yet, for the national bank issued millions of banknotes to the tune of 76 million pounds. But, Abul-Uyun asks, "On what basis did the bank issue all these millions of banknotes and what guarantees has it furnished to secure international confidence in the Egyptian pound?"
In social policy, the British occupation authorities were guilty of two major offences. The first was the setback they brought to education and the arts and the second was the decline in the standards of public morals.
Before the occupation, Abul-Uyun writes, "education and the sciences were flourishing in Egypt. The country was abundant in schools and institutes and making great progress in all the higher sciences and the diverse arts. There were more than 140,000 students attending 4,817 schools, apart from the students in Al-Azhar, foreign institutes, the military academies and the schools under the Waqf [religious endowment] authority. Scientific missions would be sent to Europe to drink the fresh waters at the fonts of knowledge." As soon as the British came, the educational system came under attrition. The first crime they committed was to close down schools. In the wake of their occupation of Egypt, "they closed down 22 government schools, three technical training schools, the School of Education and the School of Land Survey." On top of the "scandalous" decline in the number of schools, the "standards of teaching declined disgracefully". British educational authorities were also relentless in their war against the indigenous language, "in fulfilment of their desire to efface the national identity, smother national sentiments and sever the link between the country's past and its present." Finally, the British abolished free education at all levels, thereby "depriving the poor of an education and stunting their innate talents".
The British also abolished religious education in the public schools which would take an inevitable toll on the standards of public morals. "Egypt has become one large stage upon which prostitution and depravity strut within sight and earshot of the men of government," writes Abul-Uyun. The total lack of censorship on that stage "has created an enormous breach in the morals of the nation". Given this moral degeneracy, the author does not find it surprising that many Egyptian military officers lost their spirit of pride and honour and that government officials were sapped of independent will and initiative. But, after all, that was what the British wanted -- a local government machinery that did its bidding unquestioningly. It is certainly difficult to draw a different conclusion from Abul-Uyun's extensive list of black spots against the sum product of exactly 40 years of British rule at the time he wrote "The Black Page".
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.