13 - 19 January 2000
Issue No. 464
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (320)
In an effort to tighten its grip on occupied Egypt, Britain reserved the right to exercise its own authority in several spheres even while conceding nominal independence for Egypt in the notorious declaration of 28 February 1922. One of the reservations concerned not only the defence of foreign interests but also the "protection" of minorities. This stance was condemned by Egyptians in newspaper articles. But a violent storm subsequently erupted after a well-known Coptic member of the constitutional commission proposed in May 1922 that the new constitution include a provision guaranteeing the Coptic minority a number of parliamentary seats proportionate with its size. Coptic and Muslim writers alike denounced the proposal as a ploy to undermine national unity in line with Britain's well-known colonial policy of "divide and conquer". Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews the controversy from the pages of Al-Ahram
illustration: Makram Henein
Uproar against divisive ruse
Aziz Mirhom Tawfiq Bek Doss
One of the policy matters left to the discretion of the British government in the Declaration of 28 February 1922 was "the protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities". Throughout its occupation of Egypt since 1882, Great Britain had often cited "the protection of foreign interests" as its pretext to perpetuate the occupation, but this was the first time it officially appointed itself protector of minorities.
To Egyptians it seemed that British wiles this time would backfire. At the time of the declaration's promulgation all segments of the population had been brought together like never before by the nationalist uprising of 1919. Because national unity in spirit and in practice seemed so obvious, few Egyptians voiced objections to the British reservation. While Al-Ahram made itself available as a forum for vehement reactions to the other British reservations in the declaration, notably that concerning Sudan, we only find limited comment on the reservation concerning minorities.
Writing less than a month after the promulgation of the declaration recognising the limited independence of Egypt, Aziz Mirhom, one of the founders of the Egyptian Democratic Party and known for his socialist leanings, condemned the minorities reservation. Given the fact that he was a Copt, Mirhom's lengthy rebuttal of the grounds to justify the reservation takes on a unique significance.
Firstly, he argues Islam "established the principle of freedom of religion. Non-Islamic religious communities are semi-autonomous entities that have the right to organise their internal affairs in accordance with their particular religious tenets". Secondly, the body of administrative, civil and commercial law, not to mention the civil litigation and penal codes that developed over the past half century are secular in nature but they do not deviate from religion.
Because Copts constituted the largest non-Muslim sector of the populace, Mirhom based his third objection to the British reservation on their status. Neither the British, nor any other power, could cite cause for having to protect the Copts. "They have the absolute right to practice their rites and rituals of worship. They have the unrestricted right to build schools, churches and monasteries. They have the right to form and administer religious trusts and endowments. They have the constitutionally guaranteed right to representation in the legislative councils. Finally, they have rights and obligations under the law equal to those of the rest of their Egyptian brethren."
The secretary of the Democratic Party goes a step further to claim that some Copts objected to law provisions stipulating a quota of Coptic government appointees to the legislature. The thrust of his article was that Britain's minority protection claim opened the doors to intrigue.
The Al-Ahram editorials attacking the 28 February Declaration shared Mirhom's disapproval of the minority's reservation. Approaching the question from a different angle, the newspaper argued that the structure of the modern state built by Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the 19th century paid to the very concept of a minority. In its words, Mohamed Ali "brought the minority and majority together in the service of the state built upon the efforts of the fittest, a concept that makes no distinction between one creed and another, or between one colour and the other. Thus, he established government on the basis of equality among all. And it is well known that the Muallem Ghali (a Copt) was his most influential adviser and Youssef Kanaan (a Jew) was his secretary and director of customs. Indeed, the first we heard of such a thing as 'minority' or 'majority' was when we were struck by the calamity of occupation with its creed of 'divide and conquer'." The newspaper goes on to say that Egypt was the first nation to combine the crescent with the cross in the fight for liberty. "Today the Egyptian people cry out in one voice: We are Egypt, united Egypt, the indivisible unfragmentable Egypt. There is no majority and no minority. Egypt in its entirety is one."
Having voiced their objections, Mirhom and Al-Ahram set the issue aside. Egyptian unity, they believed, was too strong to be affected by the minorities reservation in the declaration. Yet, within a matter of weeks, the Constitutional Commission established under the government of Tharwat Pasha would spring a surprise.
On 10 May, in the City Hall of Alexandria where the 30-member constitutional commission met, Tawfiq Bek Doss, a Copt, demanded that the constitution should contain a provision guaranteeing the Coptic minority proportional representation in the legislature. The proposal created an uproar.
According to the brief biographies the British High Commissioner compiled on important Egyptian figures, Tawfiq Doss was the son of a merchant in Assiut who dealt in religious books. A Presbyterian, rather than an orthodox Copt, Tawfiq Doss studied at the American school in Assiut and worked for a short time as a translator for the American Consulate in that Upper Egyptian capital. Doss did not acquire his notoriety through his participation in the 1919 Revolution as much as he did for having served as a defense attorney in the trial of members of the Vengeance Society, accused of mounting assassination attempts against British officials in Egypt. Although the defence panel consisted largely of Wafd lawyers, Doss' links with the Wafd were weak, especially since he was a member of the Constitutional Commission, scorned by Wafdist leader Saad Zaghlul as "the rogues commission". In light of the absence of a connection to the Wafd, the primary exponent of the nationalist cause, it could be said that Doss was representing no one other than himself.
The reactions against Doss' appeal for proportionate Coptic representation were quick in coming. Speaking out against his proposal were Aziz Mirhom, Ibrahim Desouqi Abaza and a large group of Coptic clergymen.
Writing to Al-Ahram, Mirhom expressed his shock that a true Egyptian could make such an appeal. He asked, "Is it in the interests of the nation that a group of individuals among us inject into our national codes of law the religious differences that will only prove a stumbling block to our future progress? Do these individuals think they are promoting their own interests through the contention and controversy that will be triggered by a law that gives recognition to the notion of a majority versus minorities while the fundamental essence is lost? Have they given any thought at all to the indirect serious consequences of such a system of minority representation?" If minority rights are to be guaranteed, Mirhom suggests, it will not be through such skewed measures. "Rather it is only through the establishment of a comprehensive body of rules and principles to be applied to all individuals having the Egyptian nationality that we can ensure that all citizens are accorded their entitlements to rights and duties."
Ibrahim Desouqi Abaza, who signed his articles to Al-Ahram as "El-Ghazali", described Doss' proposal to the Constitutional Commission as "a stunning blow". He wrote, "I would have thought that the Copts would have found it shameful for us to demand for them some form of distinction and that they would think it blasphemous to draw a line between 'our rights' and theirs." He went on to appeal to Wasef Ghali Bek, Murqos Hanna Bek and Wissa Wassef Bek, all eminent Coptic members of the Wafd party, "to make their stance known on this issue".
Speaking on behalf of the Coptic clergy was Archpriest Boutros Abdel-Malek, Chairman of the General Coptic Community Council. In a lengthy interview with Al-Ahram, he condemned religious sectarianism "and those who awaken it". He said, "There is no way we the creed of 'divide and conquer' will infiltrate our ranks. We are all brothers, united in unbreachable concord. We have long enjoyed our rights to personal religious observance and communal religious jurisdiction. We have no need for legal formulas the only purpose of which is to serve foreign interests and undermine the unity of the nation."
Doss, clearly taken aback by that broadside from unexpectedly close quarters, wrote a lengthy rebuttal that appeared in Al-Ahram on 15 May 1922. In a headline undoubtedly of record length for Al-Ahram he sets forth the thrust of his argument:
"The necessity of providing for the representation of Copts in the Constitution: Copts have no fundamental special interest in a constitutional provision for proportionate representation, for they will miss nothing without such a provision. It is the nation that will be in grave jeopardy if minorities are not represented. Set aside emotions. Judge rationally in accordance with the dictates of realism. The Egyptian nation is a single entity. Do not sow the seeds of its fragmentation."
Under this headline, Doss discloses the heated debate that erupted between Abdel-Hamid Badawi and himself over this issue in the chambers of the Constitutional Commission. Absolutely denying allegations that he was bent on dividing the nation, he insisted that the idea of including a provision for representation of minorities in the national legislative councils did not originate with him. Rather, it was the chairman of the commission who appealed to its members to include such a provision "so that when we arrive at the negotiating table we can tell the British that they have no grounds to adhere to their reservation concerning the protection of minorities since guarantees to this effect are stipulated in the constitution".
Doss argued that it was dangerous to leave the British the slightest opening through which they could meddle in Egyptian affairs. The sole purpose of including a provision guaranteeing minority representation was "to obviate their British claim to any right to interfere in our purely domestic concerns, indeed to gravely undermine our independence, on the grounds of protecting minorities, a pretext they would exploit to influence our legislative process, our judicial system, our economy and every matter large or small in this nation. We must engage every God-given strength of intellect and rhetoric to forestall this peril, and the best means to this end is to draw up a constitution that closes off all avenues the British could seize upon in the name of minority rights".
At the same time, he argued, without minorities in the representative councils, the members of the council may unwittingly, and even with the best intentions, overlook the concerns of minorities. He warned against the possibility of driving minorities into the embrace of the British, who would seize the opportunity to wreak havoc with national independence. "Look to the long-range interests of the nation!" he implores his readers. To further strengthen his argument, he points to countries in Europe, such as Spain and Belgium, which had incorporated provisions for proportionate minority representation into their national constitutions. And, in a final appeal for support, he exhorts, "Let your minds be your guide and send your opinions to the Constitutional Commission which is to resolve this matter."
Abdel-Hamid Badawi, who refuted Doss' arguments in meetings of the Constitutional Commission, was a formidable adversary. One of Egypt's most prestigious legal minds of his day, Badawi had obtained his doctorate in law from France, was a close associate of Prime Minister Tharwat and had also served on former Prime Minister Adli Yakan's negotiating team in 1921. Badawi took issue with Doss' fear that the non-inclusion of a provision for proportionate minority representation would open the doors to British interference in Egypt's domestic affairs. In a letter to Al-Ahram he explained, "Never in the history of international relations has intervention on behalf of minorities been grounded on the demand that they should be granted special rights of representation. Rather, such intervention has taken place only to protect minorities who have been excluded from the general rights accorded to others. The British proposals, however prejudicial they are to our national rights, have made not the slightest reference to such representation." Regarding Doss' contention that a parliament might legislate against a minority's interests, he responded that such a view was shortsighted. "Even the majority may be divided into a panoply of special interest groups, such as landowners, merchants or assorted professional cadres. It cannot be claimed that the absence of special representatives of these groups will adversely affect their interests, because it is presumed, and indeed it is a reality, that the intrinsic link between the legislative council and public opinion guarantees a diverse representation of interests on the council."
Letters to Al-Ahram over the following weeks indicated that the vast majority of Egyptians, Muslims and Copts alike, sided with Badawi's view. Contributing to the exchange of ideas were some major figures in Egyptian intellectual and political life. The noted writer Taha Hussein wrote two articles, both appearing under the headline "Minority and Majority". To him the solution lay in securing the prevalence of the notion of a "civil state". Civil law, he wrote, "makes no distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim and, conversely, Muslims and non-Muslims are equal under civil, and especially constitutional, law. Once we recognise this, we will have achieved conformity in our social and moral orders, distinctions will vanish and unity will be achieved". If Egypt is to enshrine the notion of civil government, its constitution can make no allowances for dual systems, one for the majority and the other for the minority, one from Muslims and the other for non-Muslims. "Our new system of rule will be grounded on a purely political, non-religious foundation in which our government will not be deemed sacred or in any way founded upon religious authority or divine command. We shall have a purely civil government that borrows its form from Europe and derives its authority from the earth not from the heavens."
Salama Moussa expressed a similar opinion, if from another perspective. In his opinion, minority representation was as productive as the absence of minority representation. "As long as a minority has no hope of ever becoming a majority, its representation serves no purpose whatsoever, since, after all, the parliamentary system is based on the views of the majority. If the government were to guarantee Copts 20 seats in the parliament, which they could occupy even if their deputies failed in the elections, they would still have nothing to gain, as they would be outnumbered by approximately 180 Muslim representatives."
While the intellectual giants in Cairo put forth their arguments, Copts in Upper Egypt were holding meetings and issuing statements rejecting Doss' appeal. From Girga, Fakhri Abdel-Nur wrote to Al-Ahram to report that the Coptic inhabitants of that city met in order to discuss the issue and "moved to declare their contempt for that outmoded notion and to disassociate themselves from anyone who advocates what would tarnish the image of the popular Egyptian awakening which has impressed the world". Speaking on behalf of 33 Coptic notables from Assiut, Doss' home town, Hana Morqos wrote, "We stand opposed to that idea which would threaten to sow dissension among the members of a single nation." From Samallout, the pastor of the Coptic church and a number of eminent Coptic citizens declared their "solidarity with the overwhelming majority of Copts who oppose the opinion of Doss Bek for the sake of the higher interests of Egypt". Copts from Al-Baliana, Al-Fayyoum, Al-Minia and Zaqaziq dispatched similar telegrams to Al-Ahram. The Coptic stance against Doss reached its peak on 19 May when a packed rally in the Church of St Peter and St Paul adopted a resolution declaring that "the demand for the proportional representation of religious minorities in the legislative assemblies is an insidious contrivance that threatens to jeopardise both these minorities and the entire body of the Egyptian people as it will fragment that national unity which must remain forever untarnished".
That the British press favoured Doss' appeal for minority representation did not help his cause at all. On 22 May 1922 The Daily Telegraph wrote that while the Copts might have objected to the principle, other religious minorities in Egypt did not agree. Indeed, it was the opinion of those minorities, the newspaper claimed, that "if their representation is not guaranteed under the constitution they will have no representation at all". Proof of this, it said, could be found in the fact that in the parliamentary elections that took place before the war not a single candidate from these minorities was elected. The newspaper went on to charge that the Copts, "due to the meekness imprinted upon them as a result of generations of oppression", simply sought to flatter the Muslims, which was not true of the Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians or Roman Catholics "who constitute influential and wealthy minorities".
The Near East newspaper sided with Doss. Praising his courageous stance, it expressed its surprise that other Copts did not support him. Perhaps, it opined, that phenomenon was due to "the machinations of intimidation that frequently succeed in muffling the mouths of the more rationally inclined citizens".
More insidious yet was an article in the Morning Post which claimed that Coptic Patriarch Kiryllos V had declared his support for proportional minority representation, which the newspaper took to indicate "an open conflict between the Muslims and Copts over this issue". Unfortunately, adding weight to such speculation was the fact that the representative of the Coptic church on the Constitutional Commission tendered his resignation from that commission. To silence such rumours, the Coptic representative wrote to the chairman of the commission to withdraw his resignation. He explained that he had originally resigned for health reasons, but "as it has transpired that the holiday my doctor ordered coincides with that of the commission I have found that, when this holiday is over, I can remain true to my dedication to my cherished nation and resume my participation in the performance of what I hold to be one of the most sacred duties to the nation".
It escaped few people's attention that the British newspaper articles exposed the divisiveness of British colonial policy. The notion of proportional representation was clearly yet another tool to drive a wedge among the Egyptian people. Moreover, some suspected a deliberate conspiracy. On 27 May 1922, an Al-Ahram reader who preferred to remain anonymous wrote a letter to the newspaper entitled, "Beware of the hand behind the scene!" The writer, who may well have been a member of Al-Ahram's staff, warned against "those who use their pens to bring down our men one by one and to undermine our efforts deed by deed". The conspiracy, which had been concocted "in the lair of British policy-makers", was being put into effect "by people who are strangers to this land (referring to writers for the pro-British Al-Muqattam newspaper)". The anonymous writer concludes with a reaffirmation that the Egyptian people "are a single family".
"We might wrangle over differences of opinion. That is not a flaw in civilised nations. However, we must remain vigilant against that alien hand that strives to broaden the differences between us and to impede mutual understanding. That evil we must prevent at all costs." Egyptians today would do well to heed this advice which remains valid.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.