4 - 10 November 1999
Issue No. 454
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (310)British occupation authorities sent top political leader Saad Zaghlul into exile twice within less than three years, hurtling Egypt into a frenzy of nationalist fervour. In his memoirs, Zaghlul described the upheaval as "cataclysmic". The first banishment, to Malta, lasted for about a month. The second, to the Seychelles and then Gibraltar, continued for more than 15 months. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * compares the two events and focuses on the second exile and the reactions it triggered, as reported by Al-Ahram
"Regardless of the nature of the events that occurred in Egypt following our departure, they were more cataclysmic than anyone could ever have predicted. They have turned the tables against the colonising power and alerted the entire world to the fact that there is an oppressed nation calling out for justice."
Thus read Saad Zaghlul's entry into his memoirs on 2 April 1919, shortly after British occupation authorities exiled him and several of his fellow nationalists to Malta. It was the first time anyone had used "cataclysm" to describe the mass Egyptian uprising precipitated by his exile.
The second time occurred when British authorities banished Zaghlul again in December 1921 to the Seychelles. Fakhri Bek Abdel-Nur, one of the Wafd leaders, in his memoirs, used "The Cataclysm" as the title of the chapter on Zaghlul's second exile.
Although the two exiles were separated by less than three years, the persons involved and the circumstances could not have been more different.
illustration: Makram Henein
In Malta, Saad Zaghlul was accompanied by three other prominent public figures who also had the rank of pasha: Mohamed Mahmoud, Hamad El-Basel and Ismail Sidqi. During the subsequent rift that split the nationalist movement into rival camps of pro-Zaghlul and pro-Adli Yakan supporters, these three figures sided with the latter who represented the landed aristocracy to which they belonged. Accompanying Zaghlul in his second exile were Fathallah Barakat, Mustafa El-Nahas, Atef Barakat, Sinout Hanna and Makram Ebeid. Of these, only the first was a pasha, the next three were beks and the last an effendi. The three beks, all lawyers, were of the middle class practitioners of the liberal professions, as was the effendi.
The different class configuration of the exiled groups suggests that the events of the revolution triggered a sifting process in political allegiances. While major agrarian landowners came to fear the effects of the revolution on their vested interests, the emerging urban professional middle classes saw the revolution as an opening for them to assert their ascendancy in political life.
Another difference between the two groups was that the three pashas who accompanied Zaghlul in his first exile were all Muslims, while his five companions the second time around included two Copts. The difference reflects the conscious effort to promote a united, interdenominational struggle for independence.
A third difference in the composition of the two groups reflects the effect of the revolution on the criteria for political legitimacy. While all of the members of the first group could base their credence as representatives of the Egyptian people on the fact that they were members of the legislative assembly that had been suspended upon the outbreak of World War I, the second group had all made their mark as nationalist activists and exponents of the revolutionary spirit that had pervaded the country between Zaghlul's two exiles.
Nor could the locations of Saad Zaghlul's exile have been more different. Malta was at least familiar to Egyptians. Napoleon had wrested the small Mediterranean island from the Knights of St John, before moving on to invade Egypt, as the French emperor noted in his first proclamation to the Egyptian people. In the latter half of the 19th century, thousands of Maltese came to Egypt as part of the wave of European immigration that expanded in the reign of the Khedive Ismail and reached its zenith under the British occupation. To Egyptians, the Maltese in Egypt became notorious, both as agents for the occupation authorities, especially within the ranks of the police, and as denizens of the underworld of debauchery, notably as procurers. Compounding their ill repute was the fact that the British authorities had chosen their island as the place of exile to which Egyptians were condemned during World War I.
But, at least Malta, to the Egyptians, seemed accessible, unlike the remote Seychelles, whose name the Egyptians heard for the first time when they learned of Zaghlul's second exile. Of course, the Seychelles, like Malta, were then the property of the British crown. But the likeliest place the Egyptians could conceive of was another Indian Ocean island, Ceylon, as it was then called, the island to which the revolutionary officer, Ahmed Orabi, had been exiled 40 years previously. However, if Malta had been the ordinary exile for Egyptians who protested too vociferously the British occupation, the British authority's choice of the Seychelles the second time around reflected the immense stature Zaghlul had acquired in Egypt by that time. After all, there was a vast difference between a pasha who had risen to become a deputy speaker of parliament, as Zaghlul was at the time of his first exile, and the indisputable leader of the largest popular revolution in Egyptian history which he had become. Undoubtedly, this partially explains, too, why Zaghlul's exile to Malta was relatively short -- barely a month -- while his exile to the Seychelles, and afterwards to Gibraltar, exceeded 15 months, and could have extended beyond that had not events in Egypt intervened.
While in the process of drawing comparisons, there is a significant difference between the exile of the leader of the Orabi Revolution in 1882 and the exile of the leader of the 1919 Revolution in 1921. In the case of the former, the revolution the young army officer instigated ended with the British occupation. It followed that his exile would be for life and meet with little resistance. As a result, Ahmed Orabi only returned to Egypt about 20 years after his banishment, old and frail and forsaken by the nationalist movement. Forty years later, the revolutionary spirit was at its fullest vigour and British sway was at its lowest ebb. The British had every cause to fear the Egyptian outcry against a second exile. The authorities' sensitivity to the public reaction undoubtedly influenced their choice of the Seychelles to begin with, and then their decision to relocate Zaghlul to Gibraltar and eventually to release him within a few months, affording him yet a second hero's return to Egypt.
The second "cataclysm" appeared as the last desperate resort in a series of British attempts to deal with the phenomenon of Saad Zaghlul. The British-sponsored negotiations between Zaghlul and the Milner Commission had come to a dead end. The hopes they had pinned on the rift in the nationalist movement triggered by the appointment of Adli Yakan as prime minister dissipated with the failure of the negotiations between him and British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon and Yakan's subsequent resignation. Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat's refusal of the invitation to form a new government left the country without a cabinet for three months and ensured the absence of a successor to Yakan as a counterweight to Zaghlul. Zaghlul and the Wafd were thus unrivalled in their bid to fuel nationalist passions and garner support.
Shortly after the Yakan-Curzon negotiations collapsed, Zaghlul accused the British of deliberately deceiving the Egyptian people. In a fiery declaration before his second exile, he said, "Today the British have finally admitted to their intent to renege on their pledge and openly declared that because Egypt is vital to their interests it must be subjected to their rule, and, indeed, be annexed as one of the possessions of the British crown." Bringing his speech to a close with a rousing appeal to patriotic fervour, he said, "Noble heirs to the oldest civilisation in the world, you have sworn to live free and to die in dignity. Never let history say of you that you have failed to remain true to your vows. So, let us move onwards with confident hearts and minds set on hope, under the banner: full independence or death!"
On 22 December 1921, British High Commissioner Lord Allenby delivered an ultimatum to Saad Zaghlul to renounce political activism. Published in Al-Ahram the following day, the military authorities' decree banned the nationalist leader and his associates from delivering public addresses, attending public assemblies, writing for the press and taking part in political affairs. It also ordered him "to leave Cairo forthwith and to remain in his rural estate under the supervision of the head of the provincial directorate".
Brig Gen G Clayton, the British adviser to the Ministry of Interior, went to Saad Zaghlul's home in Cairo to deliver the decree to the nationalist leader in person. He then delivered similar decrees to the homes of eight other Wafd leaders: Fathallah Barakat, Atef Barakat, Mustafa El-Nahas, Sinout Hanna, William Makram Ebeid, Gaafar Fakhri, Sadeq Henein and Amin Ezz El-Arab.
Al-Ahram vividly describes the popular reaction to the event. As soon as General Clayton delivered the decree, "the news spread throughout the entire city, because a group of students and other visitors were present in Zaghlul's home at the time. Shortly afterwards, protest demonstrations erupted in various quarters of the city. The police, mobilised to quell the demonstrations, fired into the air in Ataba and Mobtadayan. Four policemen were wounded when struck by stones. Also, a large throng gathered before the home of His Excellency Saad Pasha, but was quickly dispersed by soldiers. In some streets, street lamps were smashed, as were the windows of some tramcars."
If that was the mood in the street, Fakhri Abdel-Nur, in his memoirs, describes the mood in the Beit Al-Umma, or "house of the nation" as Saad Zaghlul's Cairo residence was called. The atmosphere was gloomy, he relates. All the more so because the Wafd was divided on how to respond to the ultimatum. A minority of the members thought the Wafd should comply, because to do otherwise would "be detrimental to a frail old man who must follow a strict medical regime in order to maintain his health". The majority felt that the response should be a "strong and resolute rejection". That was the opinion of Saad Zaghlul who said, "You have expressed my feelings exactly. We shall write a response and dispatch it immediately." As he spoke, Abdel-Nur recalls, "his eyes gleamed like a young soldier, not for a moment betraying the weariness of age."
We find the text of Zaghlul's response in Al-Ahram. The nationalist leader strongly protested the high commissioner's demand because "there is nothing to justify it". He continues, "As I have been empowered by the nation to lead it in its quest for independence, that is the only power that has the authority to relieve me of this holy duty. The power of force may do with us, singly or collectively, what it will, for we are fully prepared to meet what it may bring, with stout heart and tranquil conscience."
Anticipating the likelihood that the public might hold them accountable for the British authorities' actions against Zaghlul, several individuals who had broken off from the Wafd quickly penned off a letter of protest to the British prime minister. In this letter, these former Wafd members, foremost among whom were Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, Mohamed Mahmoud and Lutfi El-Sayyid, denounced Allenby's arbitrary act and proclaimed "we repeat that intimidation will not deflect the nation from its higher pursuit, regardless of the forms of terror it is forced to endure in that pursuit."
On 24 December, an Al-Ahram correspondent, using the byline "an eyewitness", described the implementation of the ultimatum. At 8.00am the previous day, a detachment of British soldiers appeared outside Saad Zaghlul's home. "An officer climbed the stairs to the front door to notify His Excellency that he must prepare to leave. Saad Zaghlul had no alternative but to ready himself. However, his honourable wife, who had already prepared herself for this exigency, expressed her desire to accompany her husband. The officer objected that that was impossible, upon which response she telephoned the governor, who also refused her plea. She was forced to remain behind, but her courage had impressed all."
Following this interlude, the officer pressed Saad Zaghlul to make haste. Thus, "after quickly gulping down his coffee Saad Zaghlul left his home. There was an automobile awaiting him and he asked his escorts to inform him of his destination. They responded that they did not know. The automobile set off with His Excellency in the direction of Abbasiya and that evening a messenger returned to his home to fetch his clothes and medications."
The other Wafd members who received ultimatums were gathered in the home of Fathallah Barakat when a messenger from the military authorities arrived to convey the following message: "Lord Allenby intends you no harm. You may stay here if you like or in any other part of the country. All he asks is that you refrain from active involvement in politics." Atef Barakat responded on behalf of the group: "We do not understand what you mean by 'practical involvement in politics'. If by that you mean that you want us to stop speaking, that is beyond our power. As members of the Wafd we are delegates of the nation and can only act as the people instruct us."
The messenger left and an hour later the deputy police commissioner appeared with a detachment of British soldiers. Al-Ahram relates that as the deputy police commissioner placed the members of the Wafd under arrest, "their faces were cheerful and their hearts stalwart". The correspondent continues, "They were taken away in a police van to Qasr Al-Nil barracks where they spent the night. The following morning the chief of the Abdin police station had their belongings sent to them."
Al-Ahram's "eyewitness" observed that Amin Ezz El-Arab had not been among the arrested Wafd members. "It is rumoured that he has travelled to his father's rural estate at Al-Santa," he reported. But Ezz El-Arab was not the only Wafd member to heed the British ultimatum. According to confidential British documents Gaafar Fakhri and Sadeq Henein had acted similarly.
From Suez, Al-Ahram's correspondent reported that Saad Zaghlul and the other five Wafd members had been brought to that port city and detained in the British army camp there. When news of this spread throughout the city, "massive demonstrations erupted in the city and all commercial outlets were closed. At this moment, demonstrators are still marching between Suez and the British camp. It has been rumoured that the Wafd members are to be transported to Ceylon."
That was not the only rumour to have proven false. Another rumour had suggested New Zealand. Perhaps it was the question of costs that determined the political exiles' actual destination. According to secret Foreign Office documents, the British authorities had initially intended to have the Egyptian treasury foot the bill for the exiles. However, because of the difficulties this would cause the Egyptian government, the British themselves decided to pay the expenses. The place of exile itself was not determined until after the exiles had reached Aden. The authorities had indeed considered Ceylon but met with the objection of the Indian government. It took two months for the colonial office to finally settle on the Seychelles. It was thus not until 8 March 1922 that Zaghlul and his companions arrived in the Indian Ocean islands.
News of the arrest of Saad Zaghlul sparked widespread unrest in Cairo and the provinces. On 23 December Al-Ahram reports, "Early yesterday morning students from Al-Azhar, other religious institutions and public schools as well as ordinary citizens gathered to express their outrage. The demonstrators tried to reach the home of Saad Pasha, but orders had been given to the army to disperse them. Policemen took up positions on the streets leading to Zaghlul's home as a result of which numerous clashes occurred and gunfire could be heard."
The British garrison had also been instructed to maintain order, but that did not prevent demonstrators from breaking the windows of foreign-owned stores and coffeehouses, stoning street lamps and vandalising some tramways. According to Al-Ahram, the first two days of unrest led to the death of four demonstrators. In addition, 26 sustained wounds from gunfire and 33 suffered bayonet and truncheon wounds. Of course, one can assume that the actual toll was much higher. Those who did not have to be hospitalised would naturally have fled to avoid the clutches of the police. Unrest quickly spread to Alexandria, Tanta and other provinces. As Zaghlul and his companions had been detained in the British camp outside Suez, that city experienced the most violent demonstrations outside Cairo. From Suez on 27 December Al-Ahram reports that British soldiers were brought in to quell the demonstrations. The soldiers "opened fire on the demonstrators causing one death and wounding many".
One would be hard put to find a single political, vocational or religious organisation that did not protest the arrest of Saad Zaghlul. Two of the most outspoken political organisations were the Egyptian Democratic Party and the National Party. The Democratic Party wrote a letter of protest to the British authorities and a second letter of encouragement to Saad Zaghlul. In the letter to Zaghlul they told him to "rest assured that the people will keep the nationalist movement alive, for not a single Egyptian shall abandon his duty or shrink from sacrifice in this critical hour". The executive committee of the National Party dispatched a flurry of protest letters to the governments and parliaments of Great Britain, France and Italy, as well as to the League of Nations. A third party, the Society of Independent Egypt, which had been founded earlier that year, also "severely condemned the policy of terror and intimidation being implemented by the British government to subjugate our country".
On the religious front, the Reverend Butros Abdel-Malak, in the name of the Coptic clergy, protested "the acts of cruelty and brutality perpetrated against a peaceful nation that seeks no more than its usurped right to independence". In addition, numerous ulema from Al-Azhar expressed their outrage at the detention of Saad Zaghlul. Sheikh Yusef El-Digwi, speaking for the order of senior ulema, dispatched a telegram to Allenby in which he condemned the British policy of violence, adding that "clipping trees back only helps them grow".
The arrest also precipitated numerous strikes. The national lawyers' syndicate declared a full-scale strike and the employees of the Ministry of Public Works declared a three-day strike. In fact, such was the general outrage that Al-Ahram was forced to initiate a special column entitled "The Nation Protests". In this column we discover that some of the most vociferous organisations were the women's societies throughout the country. On 30 December, for example, an entire page featured letters of protest from the women's societies in Tahta, Fayoum and Manfalout in southern Egypt, indicating a level of women's political activism extending into Upper Egypt.
The Wafd itself called for a boycott of British products, which was naturally intended to hit British officials where it hurt most. Secondly, it called for a reunification of ranks and succeeded in bringing back into its fold the members who had defected from the Wafd. Foremost among these were Mohamed Mahmoud, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, Lutfi El-Sayyid and Hamad El-Basel who declared that the banishment of Saad Zaghlul demonstrated the British "determination to refuse to recognise our rights and to usurp our country". On 28 December, the reassembled Wafd met in the Beit Al-Umma, where Safiya Zaghlul, from behind a screen, addressed the gathering. When her husband was first arrested, she said, she had wanted to accompany him. Then she decided to remain in Cairo so that the 'house of the nation' would remain open to all. But then Safiya Zaghlul played a more active role than that, for she was also highly instrumental in mobilising support for the boycott of British goods and in rallying Egyptian women behind the call for Egyptian independence.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.