18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (312)In its bid for independence, a defiant Egypt threw the occupying power, Britain, into a quandary for more than two months by leaving the country without a government. Independence negotiations failed in December 1921 and the cabinet then in office, led by Adli Yakan, resigned in protest. The British cast about for a replacement but no Egyptian leader would agree to form a government unless the British yielded on the independence issue. And yield Britain did -- but only on paper. It issued its famous 28 February 1922 declaration terminating its protectorate regime and recognising Egypt's independence. It took Britain 14 years to honour its commitments. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* gauges Egyptian sentiment during that crisis on the basis of articles and editorials published by Al-Ahram
66 days of defiance
Between the resignation of the Adli Yakan cabinet on 24 December 1921 and the formation of a new cabinet under Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat on 1 March 1922, Egypt was without a government. This 66-day hiatus epitomises the nature of the dilemma the British protectorate authorities faced in Egypt.
Yakan resigned following the breakdown of his negotiations on Egyptian independence with British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon. In these negotiations the British had backed down on many issues that they had accepted in the previous round of negotiations linked with Lord Milner. Then, on 23 December, British authorities in Egypt arrested the revolutionary leader Saad Zaghlul, preparatory to shipping him and several of his nationalist colleagues to Aden and from there to his new place of exile, the Seychelles. The arrest and exile of Zaghlul ignited a wave of popular disturbances, similar to, if not of the same scale as, the mass uprising that followed his first exile in March 1919.
The British, capitalising on the experience they gained the first time, quickly succeeded in putting a cap on the disturbances. However, the diversity in the forms of resistance, which included a boycott of everything British, made the colonial authorities in Egypt feel as though they were sitting on a hot tin roof. Exacerbating their circumstances was a growing rift between the British protectorate authorities in Egypt, at the head of which stood High Commissioner Field Marshall Lord Allenby, and the government in London. Opinion in the UK, in turn, was divided between opponents of any concessions in favour of Egyptian nationalist demands and proponents of some sort of compromise, however short such a solution fell of Egyptian aspirations. Frustrated at the standstill on all fronts, Allenby finally resolved the situation by pressuring London to offer some accommodation to Egyptian demands. The result was the famous declaration of 28 February 1922, in accordance with which Great Britain unilaterally terminated the protectorate and conceded formal independence to Egypt, but with important provisos. The text, which appeared in Al-Ahram the following day, read: "Whereas the Government of His Majesty the King, in accordance with the intentions it has declared, wishes to immediately recognise Egypt as an independent sovereign nation; and whereas relations between the Government of His Majesty the King and Egypt are of vital importance to the British Empire, we hereby declare the following principles:
The British protectorate over Egypt has terminated and Egypt, hereby, is an independent, sovereign nation.
When the Government of His Highness the Sultan issues a law of guarantees (ratifying the measures taken in the name of the military authorities) effective throughout Egypt, the martial law declared on 2 November 1914 shall be repealed forthwith.
Illustration by Makram Hunnein
Until the time comes when the Government of His Majesty the King and the Egyptian Government are able to conclude agreements over the following issues, on the basis of friendly, unrestricted negotiations between the two sides, the Government of His Majesty the King retains absolute discretion the following matters:
Until agreements are reached, the arrangements concerning these matters will remain as they are at present."
- The security of communications of the British Empire in Egypt;
- The defence of Egypt against all foreign aggression or interference, direct or indirect;
- The protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities;
- The Sudan.
What has also become known as the "Allenby declaration", has been the subject of intensive study, both by scholars of the nationalist movement, such as Abdel-Rahman El-Rafie and Abdel-Azim Ramadan, and by scholars of Egyptian-British relations, notable among whom is the eminent Egyptian historian Shafiq Ghurbal, the author of an invaluable book on the history of the negotiations between the two countries.
However, these studies focused primarily on the interactions and pressures at the official level that gave rise to the declaration. As such, they did little to gauge the pulse of Egyptian public opinion. For this purpose, we turn to Al-Ahram, which had its finger on the pulse of the Egyptian street throughout the 66-day hiatus the country was without a cabinet. During this interval, Al-Ahram devoted a considerable portion of its space to the commentaries of a number of major Egyptian writers. Their contributions in conjunction with the editorials of the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Daoud Barakat, enable us to formulate an in-depth picture of the Egyptian perspective on the relations and negotiations between Egypt and the UK.
Following Yakan's resignation the British protectorate authorities found themselves stymied in their efforts to form a new government. They had invited Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat to form a new cabinet, but their second deportation of Zaghlul made it virtually impossible for Tharwat to accept unless the British met a number of conditions. As tensions mounted between the Foreign Office and Allenby, who was more conciliatory towards moderate nationalist demands, Allenby was summoned to London to discuss possible solutions to the challenge posed by Egypt.
Mohamed Hussein Heikal
During the High Commissioner's absence, Daoud Barakat wrote a series of editorials on "British policy on the Egyptian question".
In the first of these articles, he attempted to depict the power play in the UK in terms of the position with regard to Egyptian independence. In favour of the Egyptian cause were "Lord Milner and his supporters, Lord Northcliffe and his newspapers, and Lord Allenby and his allies in the government." It is true, he wrote, that these men did not fully agree with Egyptian demands and aspirations, "but we can offer them encouragement against Mr Churchill and his supporters." Churchill was a formidable adversary and "an eloquent public speaker capable of swaying the masses". But it was still possible to take advantage of the fact that his popularity was suffering "because of a series of blunders that cast a cumbersome tax burden on the shoulders of a disgruntled and irate public".
In another editorial, Barakat held out little hope for the current coalition government under Lloyd George. "It has lasted too long and depleted all its strength," he wrote. "The British people should topple it and either bring in another government representing all political parties, on the model of the Lloyd George government which resembles a miniature parliament -- or bring in new faces to take the place of those ministers who have already given all they could give."
The editor-in-chief cautioned that whatever the composition of the British government, Egyptians should not hold out too much hope. "We have had lengthy experience with the liberals to know the actual results of their fine words and lofty promises, and Lloyd George is but another version of Gladstone, the mentor of them all. We have also had sufficient experience with the conservatives to learn that they taste no differently from the liberals, for both parties are distinctly British in flavour. The same applies to the difference between the military and civilian camps and the difference between the Milner project and the Curzon project."
Turning to Egyptian opinion, Barakat claims that the British "will never find in Egypt a man who blends the views of Churchill with the love for Zaghlul". He goes on to say, "if the British ask Egypt to give something in return for their friendship and devotion, they can get no more than Egypt's precious friendship and certain devotion, which, in Egypt's opinion, is quite sufficient." Barakat disputed the contention that Egyptians were divided over the national cause. "We have repeated this truth ad nauseam," he wrote, "but they, in their arrogance, insisted on categorising us as moderates or extremists, minorities or majorities, pashas and peasants, rulers and ruled, and suchlike. Finally, when the nation's unity action belied their argument and when its unanimity in opinions, demands and aspirations proved their contentions hollow, they had to submit to the inescapable truth." So glaring was this truth that British newspapers, which had long alleged that some Egyptians would accept less than full independence, "have had to retract their claims and admit to the glorious and indisputable fact that not a single Egyptian is prepared to accept anything less than full independence, a demand over which all have been united from the first moment".
At the same time, Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief was aware that such unity was a fragile entity. Under the headline "We have hope, but who will realise it?" he cautioned, "now is not the time for any patriot to tell his brother that the affairs of the nation 'do not concern you.' Nor is it the time for any patriot to consider the affairs of his nation and say, 'That does not concern me.' The affairs of the nation concern us all, because they affect the welfare of us all." He appealed to all people "to overcome any differences among yourselves and to consult with one another over what is in the best interests of the nation at this crucial time in the life of the nation and all Egyptian citizens. We do not believe that those who repudiate politics and shirk involvement are correct. Nor do we find those who exclude their brethren from participating and reject the exchange of views to be wisely guided. The fact is that there is no great disparity in our opinions concerning the welfare of the nation and our duty to it. Any differences of opinion that exist concern details. So, is it that difficult or impossible to work together on the basis of what we agree upon and to set aside our minor differences?"
"The neutrality of Egypt" was another issue Al-Ahram addressed through a number of articles. In an article that appeared on 22 February 1922, the editor-in-chief explained why this neutrality was necessary. His editorial was essentially a response to a recent statement by the British Prime Minister, which said, "Egypt is the British Empire's passageway from the East to the West and vice versa". Barakat pointed out that, however true that may be, the Suez Canal was also "Japan's link to Europe and France's passageway to its possessions in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the coasts of India and China. It is equally important to Italy and all other nations that hold overseas possessions such as Holland, Russia and China."
If Egypt's neutrality was essential given its location, Al-Ahram wrote, there were also important practical domestic considerations that warranted it. For example, there were some 60,000 to 70,000 Italians in Egypt, "who have their own banks, companies and other interests throughout the country and who have no desire to cede control over their interests to other powers". Similarly, "there is a large number of French subjects in the country who possess enormous banks and copious assets, and the same applies to the many other nationalities living in Egypt."
In short, he concludes, "Egypt's independence and neutrality are the best means to ensure peace and security and to satisfy all peoples. With Egypt's declaration of neutrality, no nation will have cause to fear for the security of its passageway and its interest, and Egyptians will have no cause to fear for their independence and freedom." Al-Ahram's message of Egyptian neutrality has been a fundamental constant in the national consciousness and a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy. It surfaced again in 1950 when the Wafd government declared Egypt's neutrality in the Korean War, and again five years later when Abdel-Nasser reasserted this principle during the Bandung Conference.
Toward the end of February 1922, reports began to leak about the contents of the declaration that the British government would issue at the end of that month. In light of Al-Ahram's analysis of current British and Egyptian opinion, one can readily understand why it determined that such a unilateral declaration should be considered "a temporary settlement, not an agreement, treaty or alliance". The "settlement", it wrote, could be in both countries' interests, "but it will only be in our interests on one condition, which is that it is not a substitute for an agreement, and that Britain does not treat it as such, as though it were the dividing line between a past and a present that we reject and a future we do not want". Al-Ahram could not have been more correct in its suspicions. The British behaved exactly as it feared and it would be another 14 years of struggle before the "settlement" was transformed into a negotiated agreement.
At the forefront of writers who voiced their opinions in Al-Ahram during this period were Mahmoud Azmi, Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Fikri Abaza, a lawyer.
A lawyer, journalist and later an prominent figure in the nationalist movement, Dr Mahmoud Azmi published an article in Al-Ahram on 1 February 1922. The subject of his article was Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat's 10 conditions for agreeing to form a government. The first was that the British reject the Curzon proposal and explanatory addendum. The second was that the British terminate the protectorate and recognise Egyptian independence before entering into any further negotiations. The remaining conditions involved manifestations of independence: the restoration of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the creation of a fully empowered parliament, the Egyptianisation of the executive authority, revoking the right of the British adviser to the Ministry of Economics to attend cabinet sessions and, finally, the delineation of the points to be put on the table of any future negotiations.
He also discussed the British government's communiqué presented to the Sultan, in which they expressed their intention to end the protectorate, but only under three conditions. The first was to retain the right to secure the communications of the Empire. The second was to reserve the right and powers to furnish foreign subjects in Egypt with guarantees for their well being expected by their respective governments. The third was to keep Egypt safe from any foreign aggression.
To Azmi, the distance between the Egyptian and British positions as expressed in Tharwat's announcement and the British communiqué could not have been greater. In fact, he said, the communiqué was essentially a reformulation of the Curzon proposal which Adli had rejected. For Britain to retain control over the security of its imperial communications in Egypt was to permit it to retain control over its military outposts and accord it the freedom to occupy any location inside Egyptian territory. London's second condition was a rewording of Curzon's demand that "Britain stand for all the nations that have rights under the capitulation system and retain the right to intervene in the Egyptian administration in order to ensure that it has the powers it needs in order to exercise these rights." It was the third condition that Dr Azmi felt the British could abuse too easily. Under the pretext of "an indirect foreign intervention" they could mobilise their armies throughout the country in order "to keep Egypt safe from all foreign aggression or intervention".
The famous writer Mohamed Hussein Heikal was a frequent contributor to Al-Ahram and one of the primary exponents of Egyptian opinion during that crucial juncture in Egyptian history. Several months previously he had contributed a serialised expose on the "Development of the Egyptian Nationalist Movement" and, between 31 January and 6 March 1922, he reappeared with three more characteristically incisive and detached articles.
In his first article, Heikal also addressed the Tharwat announcement and the British communiqué. In his opinion, even if the British agreed to Tharwat's conditions, "that would not constitute absolute proof of the sincerity of their desire to resolve the Egyptian issue. In fact, their sole purpose in agreeing may simply be to buy time".
Reports of a meeting of minds between Allenby and the Home Office afforded Heikal the opportunity to deliver an object lesson on British rule. No matter how British officials might differ among themselves, he pointed out in his second article, which appeared in Al-Ahram of 18 February, "they all converge upon that point which serves the interests of the British Empire". Against this reality, he asked, "are we going to continue stabbing one another in the back, heedless of the fact that the destruction of every man undermines a cornerstone of the general national movement? We have to say to all those who place individuals above principles and cling to the coattails of those in power that if the conditions agreed upon between the British government and its representative in Egypt are considered sufficient to restore some confidence between the two countries so as to render the formation of a government possible, then they should not concern themselves too much with persons in the cabinet."
Heikal's third article appeared after the declaration of 28 February was released. The declaration, in his opinion, did not resolve the Egyptian question, but it did restore an element of mutual trust and laid the foundation for a final resolution. At the same time, he cautioned Egyptians against placing too much faith in the declaration. The British, after all, had not yet left the country and they still are lying in wait for Egyptians to make the slightest mistake. Moreover, he continues, "even if the British withdraw from the arena tomorrow, they will do so like the hawk which circles in the air at a distance from its prey, the better to be able to track its movements and to be prepared to pounce."
Fikri Abaza attacked the Allenby declaration with his typical acerbic wit. After having read the declaration "once, twice, a third time, a fourth and then a fifth," he began, "I could draw but one conclusion from my intensive scrutiny, and that is that the government of His Majesty the King is 'so terribly sorry,' 'has resolved,' and 'regrets to say.' God's curses on pessimists such as myself, who are unmoved by such wonders. But, forgive us, for the fault lies not in ourselves, but in our paltry powers of perception, which have not been nourished with such lofty platonic principles." Having confessed to such shortcomings, Abaza concludes: "My dear British, we are compelled to offer in return a three-fold response. Firstly, we are 'so sorry' but nothing binds us to you. Secondly, we are 'resolved' not to implement any of your conditions. And, thirdly, we 'regret to say' that you have to leave the party empty-handed."
Two days later, the political humourist delivers another refreshing dose of sarcasm. Under the headline, "Minutes of the Meeting", he lampoons the British government through an imaginary scenario in which the Allenby declaration is brought before the House of Commons. The session opens with the speaker of the house, who says: "Dear sirs, in your hands lies the fate and honour of the British Empire. God save the king!" Next to rise to the podium is the Prime Minster, who launches into his speech with the customary "Gentlemen..." Immediately pandemonium erupts as MPs begin to shout, "Who are you calling gentlemen?" "Shut up!" "Down with the coalition government!" Finally, the speaker is forced to ring the bell and declare, "This session shall be adjourned until next week. No, the week after next. Say, the week after the week after next. That is, if the vital affairs of the Empire permit." Evidently vital affairs did permit, for it would be several decades until the sun dipped below the horizon and British forces were finally withdrawn from Egypt.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.