11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (311)Al-Ahram pioneered what was a novelty in the Egyptian press in the early 1920s, the stationing of a resident correspondent abroad to report and follow events on a regular basis. The British occupation of Egypt and the Egyptian nationalist campaign to end it prompted the choice of London as the first base of a permanent correspondent for Al-Ahram. The appearance of a regular column entitled "Special Dispatches" devoted to reports from the London correspondent turned a new page in the performance of the newspaper. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews the early stage of that column which coincided with a severe crisis in Egyptian-British relations
New window on the world
For more than 40 years after its founding in 1876, Al-Ahram offered the Egyptian people a window on the world, especially as regards events on the other side of the Mediterranean. That Europe should dominate the Egyptian's perception of the "world outside" was a natural consequence of 19th century international political developments. Ever since the French expedition at the turn of the 19th century broke through the isolation imposed on the country by the Ottoman Empire, Egypt had increasingly been sucked into the European sphere of influence. The conflicts between London and Paris, in particular, over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire were accompanied by increasing contacts between Egyptians and Great Britain and France, whether in the form of scholastic missions, tourism or commerce.
Late 19th century Egyptians could keep abreast of developments in Europe through three main channels. The first was international news agencies, or "wire companies" in the jargon of the times, the two major representatives of which were the French "Havas" news agency and the British-based Reuters news agency. The information provided through these channels was primarily political in nature.
The second media link to the outside was through European newspapers and magazines, and not necessarily those distributed in Egypt. From its inception, Al-Ahram outstripped all its contemporaries in the sheer volume of translated articles it offered its readers. In fact, at the outset of the 20th century, it initiated the highly popular "Miscellaneous" column that constantly intrigued Egyptians with translated excerpts from European periodicals depicting ways of life that were totally unfamiliar to the ordinary man in the street. Perhaps the most popular were those stories involving foreign royalty, particularly since to Egyptians and orientals in general the lives of their ruling families were usually a closed book.
Al-Ahram furnished a third, and very stimulating, window onto life in Europe through the first-hand accounts of Egyptians who had travelled abroad. In fact, often Al-Ahram serialised such travelogues over several issues, two of which have been allocated special chapters in the Diwan series and which were separated by more than 30 years. The first was Bichara Taqla's account of his six-month tour of Europe in 1887. That this co-founder of Al-Ahram wired successive instalments to the newspaper's headquarters for immediate publication gave his account a particularly fresh and immediate flavour. The second instance of Al-Ahram's serialised travel literature was the "Marseilles Journals", a series of essays by Mahmoud Rashed Bek, former chief justice of the national court. Appearing towards the end of 1920, these essays offer the unique insight, from the point of view of an Egyptian tourist, into European manners and customs.
In late 1921, however, Al-Ahram instituted a practice that cannot be subsumed under any of these three channels. For the fist time in its history the newspaper established a permanent correspondent in a European capital to dispatch up-to-date reports immediately to the newspaper.
To be sure, this was not the first occasion that Al-Ahram featured reports from abroad, dispatched by staff it described as "special correspondents". However, the practice the newspaper introduced in 1921 was different.
On previous occasions, coincidence played an important role. The newspaper would take advantage of the fact that one of the owners, generally Bichara, the younger Taqla brother, would happen to be abroad when important news broke. The fortuitous circumstance would lead to a series of first-hand political reports. Not infrequently, too, a dedicated Al-Ahram reader would find himself at the scene of events abroad and send off a letter to the newspaper -- or a telegram, if fired with enthusiasm -- containing his observations.
Conditions in Egypt in 1921, however, demanded a more permanent arrangement, and London was the logical location. The latter half of that year saw the dramatic unfolding of major events affecting the cause of national independence. Nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul returned to Egypt after his negotiations with Lord Milner, head of the commission investigating the causes of the 1919 Revolution, broke down. The clash between Zaghlul and Prime Minister Adli Yakan over strategies to further the Egyptian cause so split nationalist ranks that tensions degenerated into street brawls. The negotiations between Yakan and Curzon, the British foreign secretary, upon which Egyptians had pinned such high hopes also failed miserably. Finally, only days before the end of that year, Saad Zaghlul was arrested and exiled to the Seychelles, triggering a resurgence in the spirit of nationalist resistance.
Although the events precipitated by the second exile of Zaghlul were not as sweeping as the massive popular uprising that followed his first exile in 1919, they attracted far greater interest abroad, and, naturally, in the UK above all. Perhaps the unexpected outbreak of the 1919 Revolution came as such a shock to the British that British analysts and newspapers were unable to accord it its proper significance. At the same time, British public opinion, like the rest of public opinion around the globe, was riveted on the proceedings of the Versailles peace conference that was redrawing the map of the world, in which Egypt occupied only a small spot. On the other hand, the stream of Egyptian politicians to the British capital over the course of 1920 and 1921, in order to pursue Egyptian demands, would naturally generate a closer focus on this strategic keystone in the Empire. Suddenly, the British press resounded with names of Egyptian nationalist leaders led by Saad Zaghlul, and was filled with articles and editorials attacking or defending the Egyptian demand for national sovereignty.
Against this stormy background, the idea of stationing a permanent correspondent abroad began to germinate. In fact, in Al-Ahram of 17 August 1920 the idea took hold. The previous day the newspaper had featured a supplement containing "wire dispatches concerning important affairs." The supplement, the newspaper confessed, represented "a departure from our regular policy" in order to cover "the progress of negotiations between the Egyptian delegation and the Milner Commission and the urgent departure of the delegation from London to Paris." It is noteworthy that the byline of the correspondent responsible for the contents of the supplement was "Azmi", who most likely was Mahmoud Azmi, a prominent Al-Ahram journalist and lawyer who would later acquire great fame. In all events, it would still be over a year before the newspaper presented its first "Special Dispatches" column containing the reports filed by "Al-Ahram's special correspondent" in the British capital. It opened a new chapter in Al-Ahram's history.
Given the reverberations abroad of the Egyptian outcry against the arrest and second exile of Saad Zaghlul in December 1921, Al-Ahram's special correspondent was at no loss for material. Indeed, so regularly was he able to furnish reports that hardly a single edition of that period lacked a "Special Dispatches" column.
On the day after Zaghlul's arrest, Al-Ahram published four dispatches filed by its special correspondent. The first was about a London Times article entitled "Violent Riots in Cairo". The second reported that, in a speech before a large crowd, the MP for Hull proclaimed that "the popular disturbances in Egypt are not directed against British rule, but against other Egyptians." His third report discussed the claim reiterated in some British newspapers that, "by backing the Egyptian currency, Britain rescued Egypt from certain ruin." Finally, his fourth dispatch cited a Sheffield Daily Telegraph report that Prime Minister Lloyd George and his colleagues "spent yesterday afternoon studying the situation in Egypt."
Incensed by the content of the special correspondent's dispatches, Al-Ahram added a lengthy editorial on "How they portray us in London." Newspapers in the UK, the newspaper told its readers, "depict us as enemies of Britain and adversaries of British policy. Worse yet, they suggest to the British public and to the world that we are our own enemies by claiming that the disturbances that erupted yesterday in Cairo were not directed against Great Britain or British policy, but were a case of Egyptians venting their anger at other Egyptians." The editorial went on to remark that "if the British think that they have succeeded in dividing us so as to set us against each other, they have missed the mark entirely, and their policy of driving a wedge between us has erred off course, as it has done so often before."
With these fiery beginnings, "Special Dispatches" virtually assured itself a permanent place on the pages of Al-Ahram, all the more so when its special correspondent observed the growing interest in Egyptian affairs in the British press. Indeed, he commented, "so great is the interest in news about Egypt that many newspaper articles carry headlines that are two or more columns."
From the special correspondent, we learn that the British press coverage of the arrest of Saad Zaghlul was fraught with foreboding. The arrest "united all political factions" in Egypt, mourned the Daily Mail. The Morning Post bemoaned the acts of vandalism against public and private property and the general strikes and expressed horror at the "few attacks against foreigners." The Daily Chronicle warned that "an unstable Egypt poses a grave threat to our political and military interests." Other newspaper comments were highly provocative. The Morning Post expressed hopes that, now that the British authorities had arrested Zaghlul for the second time, they would learn from their first mistake and "exile him to a destination much further away than Malta." More contentious yet, another newspaper demanded that Lord Allenby, the British high commissioner in Egypt, be accorded absolute powers and that "all forms of liberties that Egyptians enjoy at present be abolished."
What most astounded British opinion was the new form of resistance Egyptians organised in response to Zaghlul's second exile. Demonstrations, strikes, marches and protest rallies hardly raised an eyebrow. The British forces were trained and well experienced in suppressing such expressions of protest. But the call to boycott everything British was something for which the British were entirely unprepared. Initiated by the Wafd (the party that took its name from the delegation headed by Saad Zaghlul to press for Egyptian demands at the Versailles peace conference), the call for a boycott was inspired by Gandhi's principles of non-cooperation and passive resistance. In a public communiqué, the Wafd appealed to the Egyptian people to refrain from any dealings with British officials in the various ministries and services and to boycott British banks, shipping companies, insurance companies and all other forms of British commerce. Clearly disconcerted by the communiqué, British authorities confiscated all the newspapers that published it, including Al-Muqattam, which for 30 years had been a mouthpiece of British policy.
From London, Al-Ahram's special correspondent relayed the British reaction to this new development. In an interview with an official from the Manchester import export association, the Daily Mail quoted him as saying, "Any Egyptian boycott is bound to have grave consequences. Egypt is one of the few countries that have shown signs of growth and has developed healthy business activities. A disruption in these activities would be most unfortunate." What particularly alarmed the British was the prospect of a prolonged boycott. The Al-Ahram correspondent reported to Egyptian readers a commentary in the Eastern Morning News that said, "The Egyptian market has been thriving and all agree that the Egyptian boycott of British products is certain to have disastrous effects, particularly upon Manchester." The Observer, meanwhile, commented that "the spirit of passive resistance has gradually become a powerful weapon in the hands of the oriental peoples." The Morning Post expressed its fear that the Egyptians would "go too far" with their boycott, after having received information from its correspondent in Cairo to the effect that cotton farmers planned to reduce the land area allocated to cotton cultivation in protest against British policy.
Other sections of the British press sought to calm the anxieties in British financial circles. The Manchester Evening Chronicle, for example, asserted that the Egypt boycott was "nothing to fear". It wrote, "Egypt is a purely agrarian society and the consumers of Lancaster cotton products are Egyptian farmers who care for nothing or no one as long as they can obtain their needs from someone at a cheaper price than they could from someone else. They care not if the man selling the products is Chinese, Italian or British."
Little comforted by such analyses, British merchants sought to bring pressure to bear on their government, and newspapers voicing their interests attacked British policy. In "Special Dispatches" we can watch the battle unfold between the liberals, who feared the financial consequences of the boycott, and the conservatives, whose interests were largely unaffected by the boycott.
Sir Valentine Chirol, author of the Egyptian Problem published earlier that year, fired the opening shot on 30 December with a letter to the Times, criticising London's policy toward Egypt. Britain was a powerful country, he wrote, "but we cannot treat Egyptians as a country conquered by the sword. Yes, a great soldier such as Lord Allenby is capable of quelling all evident resistance through martial law. British soldiers can disperse all hostile demonstrations, shoot agitators and arrest and exile members of opposition groups. And British war vessels can menace Alexandria and the canal ports and the small river fleets under British command can patrol the Nile. However, is this political astuteness? Will the seeds of hatred that we sow now safeguard the communications of the Empire if they are threatened again, as was the case in 1915 when the Egyptians themselves helped us ward off the assault of the Turks?"
Lord Winterton, an arch-conservative, fired the rebound, which also appeared in the Times. In reference to the rioting in Alexandria at the time, he condemned the police for having "allowed local Zaghlulists and other agitators to speak and then to get training in the killing of British citizens." It was the acts of repression alone that "spared Alexandria from the murder of Europeans," he proclaimed. He also attempted to refute Chirol's claim that Egyptian soldiers helped to repel the Turkish assault on the Suez Canal in 1915. That was not a serious attack, he asserted, "as it was carried out by a small band of exhausted and hungry Turkish soldiers."
Chirol, in his response to Winterton, admitted to the success of the British occupation army in quelling the disturbances. As for the counter-offensive against the Turks in 1915 and 1916, this would not have been possible had not "the free use of Egyptian territory, resources, labour and supplies been placed totally at our disposal without restriction."
Also siding with the Egyptian cause was a certain Major Barnes, whose letter to the Times Al-Ahram's special correspondent in London summarised and dispatched to the Egyptian reader. Barnes argued that Egypt under Mohamed Ali had managed to emerge from under the thumb of Ottoman rule and that, in the 80 years preceding the British occupation, foreigners had been able to live securely and safely in the country "without the assistance of British advisers." Britain, he concluded, "no longer has an excuse to prolong its occupation of the country."
Lord Sidenham Lonterton, another lord to enter the debate, accused Chirol of contradicting his own principles. He reminded Chirol that he, himself, had argued in favour of a firm hand in India, the circumstances of which were no different to those in Egypt. Yet, "when it comes to applying the policy of force in Egypt, Sir Valentine Chirol vehemently condemns it."
The "Special Dispatches" column reveals that other heated battles were raging in the UK over the "Egyptian question." It was the custom of Egyptian students in the UK to form a society in every city they studied in. Normally, such societies served as a support mechanism, but with the outbreak of the revolution they were mobilised as channels for the defense of the national cause. We learn from Al-Ahram's special correspondent that the Egyptian student society in Sheffield issued a statement in which its members complained that British authorities had refused them permission to stage a protest demonstration "against the shedding of innocent blood and the use of brutality in Egypt." The statement, which was distributed to the British press, went on to proclaim that "exile, arrest and military force will not suppress the Egyptian demands for independence, but rather compound the determination of the Egyptian people to press for full independence."
The local Sheffield Daily Telegraph hit back under the headline, "Sheffield for the people of Sheffield". After criticising the activities of the Egyptian student society, it asked, "Why are Egyptians receiving education in our university at the cost of the Sheffield taxpayer?" The newspaper's commentary brought a rush of protest letters, one of which the newspaper felt obliged to publish, perhaps by way of apology. The letter read, "The Egyptians in Sheffield are not asking for money. On the contrary, they spend on the average 400 sterling a year each, which is of benefit to the people of Sheffield. There is not the slightest similarity between the Egyptians in Sheffield and the British in Egypt."
Under the headline "Sheffield for the people of Sheffield and Egypt for the British", Al-Ahram's special correspondent sought to counter the Sheffield newspaper's "fabrications." Ultimately, he said, the newspaper was forced to issue what was essentially a weak retraction of charges against the Egyptian students, claiming that it objected only "to those individuals who take the opportunity of their free education to engage in the dissemination of anti-British propaganda." One strongly suspects that these "individuals" were a figment of the Sheffield writer's imagination. Clearly the allegations of a small local newspaper had also aroused the ire of broad segments of British public opinion, for we find that it ultimately had to issue what passed for an apology. In a lengthy editorial, it admitted that the Egyptian students paid their own university fees, but added, "However, the taxpayers of Sheffield pay for the university." The article asked the government to lend further financial assistance to the university, because, in fact, it did not provide free education. Finally, it appealed to students "to confine themselves to their studies and to leave politics aside until they acquire greater experience."
The special correspondent in London would continue to furnish Al-Ahram's readers with news concerning their country, as well as news about the British themselves, a tradition that Al-Ahram has kept alive until today.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.