20 - 26 July 2000
Issue No. 491
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (347)
Want to join Egypt's foreign service? In the early 1920s, applicants needed to be no more than 30, of Egyptian nationality, have a law degree, be quite well off and fairly good looking. The first emissaries were all West bound -- to London, Paris, Rome and Washington. The choice of capitals was determined according to Egypt's priorities in foreign relations. Much pomp was accorded the country's nascent diplomatic corps in farewell and arrival ceremonies. Egypt's representative to London would be scrutinised the closest for, given the complex relationship with the British Empire, his task would be the most challenging. From Al-Ahram, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at diplomacy at work
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs celebrates its anniversary on 15 March. On that day in 1922, the British government informed King Fouad that the ministry should be revived in keeping with the spirit of the Declaration of 28 February of that year recognising Egyptian independence and sovereignty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been abolished ever since the declaration of the British protectorate over Egypt in December 1914.
Mohamed Ali Pasha
To be sure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was founded almost a century earlier, in 1826, when it was called the "Bureau for Commerce and Foreign Affairs." This development was associated with the success of Mohamed Ali in laying the foundations of a modern state, distinct from the Ottoman Empire and one which required an agency to manage overseas economic and political relations. The new institution remained a component of Egyptian government until 1914, when it changed its name to the "Foreign Bureau," then to the "Foreign Ministry." When it was abolished by the protectorate authorities, Egyptians were deeply dismayed by the loss of this symbol of independence and sovereign rights.
Although the restoration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave "the government of His Majesty the King of Egypt" the right to post diplomatic missions in those countries that had diplomatic representation in Cairo, the actual orders appointing those missions were not issued until 18 December 1923. In other words, it took 19 months in order to arrange for the financial allocations needed to establish those missions and prepare the cadres who would undertake their new assignments. Naturally, Al-Ahram was on hand to cover the developments leading up to the practical embodiment of sovereignty in Egyptian embassies abroad.
On 15 May 1922, Al-Ahram published a Foreign Ministry statement announcing that it planned to send 10 Egyptian youths every year over the next three years "to universities and international academies that offer courses in political and social sciences in preparation for their diplomatic postings abroad." Half of these students were to be sent to Paris, the other half to London.
Al-Ahram readers must have sensed early on that the Egyptian government was determined that these candidates be drawn from the upper social strata. Applicants had to be no more than 30, of Egyptian nationality and possessing a degree in law. But aspirants were also cautioned that the educational institutes required "extensive expenses that government stipends will not be enough to cover. Therefore, it is preferable that the applicant for admission into the diplomatic corps be of sufficient means to enable him to sustain the costs of an appearance appropriate to the post and of the additional financial burdens entailed."
Ambassador Abdel-Wahab Azzam;
Mahmoud Fakhri Pasha;
Ahmed Zewar Pasha;
Seif-Allah Youssri Pasha;
In addition, prospective candidates would be subjected to a thorough background check to ascertain the title and profession of the father, the schools in which they received their education, their foreign language proficiency and the extent and sources of their income. To further drive its point home, the Foreign Ministry announcement reminded applicants that they would receive no more than LE250 a year, "in addition to the cost of second class travel by train and ship, and the necessary tuition expenses in the universities or academies to which they are sent."
Naturally, people were bound to question some, if not all the ministry's conditions. One letter to Al-Ahram expressed surprise that the ministry had restricted applicants to those possessing a degree in law. Foreign embassies, said the writer, had departments vital to consular and commercial representation, which, in turn, required that "candidates possessing higher degrees in economics be granted a role in serving their country through their embassies abroad as consuls and trade representatives."
At any rate, it appears that the Foreign Ministry advertisement accomplished its objectives, attracting quite a few candidates from prominent families. We learn from Al-Ahram that among those to apply were Shamseddin Abdel-Ghaffar Bek, Deputy Public Prosecutor for Alexandria and graduate of the Academy of Law in 1918, Mohamed Effendi Kamel Abdel-Rahim, assistant to the chief deputy prosecutor and graduate of the Academy of Law in 1920, and Mohamed Waguih Rostom, also a law school graduate. Among the candidates accepted, surprisingly, was Abbas Effendi El-Gazzar, the umda of Shabin Al-Kom, whose social class must have interceded on his behalf, because he was "a graduate of a college in Britain."
Al-Ahram was somewhat disturbed by the ministry's emphasis on the appearance of the candidates, perhaps to the detriment of substance. It cautions, "Many think that we must select dashing aristocrats for our diplomatic postings so as to impress foreigners. But an ambassador or secretary does not succeed unless elegance in appearance is matched by refinement and erudition. Looks may open the doors to clubs and societies, but only knowledge and skill can sustain their standing in these societies, and without these assets, the outer gloss remains valueless, since the person that sports it is not viewed with respect."
Perhaps inspired by Al-Ahram's distinction between outward appearance and substance, another letter, signed M N, appeared on 4 September 1923 with advice on certain considerations that should be taken into account in the staffing of Egypt's diplomatic missions abroad. He favoured the principle that candidates be selected from "the families of the oldest established lineages, of the greatest familiarity, knowledge and astuteness in social and political affairs and other vital matters." However, he cautioned that the functions of these individuals would not merely be "to look after Egyptians abroad, stamp their passports and submit occasional political, commercial and technical reports to the government." Rather, they would have "a nobler task, which will require great dedication and effort." This was to "efface those falsehoods and scandalous imputations of character that have been attributed to Egypt and to the Egyptian people." This task could only be accomplished by choosing people "whose moral character and noble virtues have been sufficiently honed to enable them to serve as models abroad."
Another reader suggested a further qualification. The members of Egypt's new diplomatic corps should be capable of influencing public opinion abroad, and specifically the pundits of public opinion in the press. This required selecting candidates who demonstrated the most extensive familiarity with current international events and who had a thorough grounding in modern literature.
A third reader proposed establishing consulates in the countries "in which Egypt had commercial interests, such as France, Britain, Germany and the United States." He observed that "consuls represent the government, whereas ambassadors are personal representatives of the king. If there are difficulties in the appointment of ambassadors, we do not believe that anything stands in the way of appointing counsels first. If we set aside the questions of political pride and international image, we will find that it is more important to start organising our consular services abroad, especially in view of our present circumstances."
From its birth in 1923 until the Treaty of 1936, the development of Egyptian diplomacy was linked with the question of full national independence. Because the Declaration of 28 February 1922 only conferred limited independence upon Egypt, many aspects of Egyptian foreign policy continued to be controlled by the British. For example, London refused to allow Egypt to join the League of Nations which was established following World War I. In addition, it would not permit Cairo to exchange diplomatic relations with other capitals at the ambassadorial level, but rather at the level of what it termed a "minister plenipotentiary." The only exception was to be in Great Britain's relations with Egypt, where London's diplomatic representative reserved the title High Commissioner. Al-Ahram expressed the general frustration felt by Egyptians at this demeaning of Egypt's status, explaining to its readers that Egypt's representatives abroad would not be ambassadors in the true sense of the word, and that their offices abroad would be termed, not embassies, but "legations." "There is no word in Arabic to convey the meaning of 'legation'," it added as though by way of apology.
Although the Egyptian government allocated some LE191,000 to the Foreign Ministry out of its 1923-24 budget, it received no more than LE26,000, which barely covered the costs of opening only four diplomatic missions.
The choice of capitals had to be carefully made according to Egypt's priorities in its foreign relations. London and Paris were the obvious first choices. Rome was selected because the Italian community was by far the largest and most influential European expatriate community in Egypt, and because of the Italian colonial presence in Libya on Egypt's western borders. Finally, Washington was chosen in light of the US's emergence as an international power following World War I and Woodrow Wilson's famous "Fourteen Points."
On 6 September 1923, Al-Ahram announced the names of those who would head the four new Egyptian legations in Italy, France, Great Britain and the US. They were Ahmed Zewar Pasha, Mahmoud Fakhri Pasha, Abdel-Aziz Ezzat Pasha and Seif-Allah Youssri Pasha. What the newspaper failed to mention was that three of them were relatives of King Fouad. Abdel-Aziz Ezzat was married to one of the Khedive Ismail's granddaughters, Seif-Allah Youssri was married to the daughter of Fouad's elder brother Prince Ibrahim Helmi, and Mahmoud Fakhri was married to Princess Fawqiya and, therefore, a son-in-law of Fouad himself. But if Ahmed Zewar was not bound to Fouad by bonds of kinship, he was by bonds of loyalty, which are generally more powerful.
That the nascent Egyptian diplomatic corps should so tangibly represent the occupant of Abdin Palace was not that surprising. Egyptian monarchs had always maneuvered to have personal sway over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the grounds that this agency, like the army, should remain above partisan politics. Consequently, Fouad, as did Farouk after him, used every means in his power to exclude the Wafd from the business of foreign diplomacy.
On 18 September 1923, Al-Ahram published a royal edict appointing Egypt's first "ministers plenipotentiaries to the Republic of France, His Royal Majesty the King of Italy, His Royal Majesty the King of Great Britain and, finally, the Government of the Republic of the Unites States of America." The other associated edicts issued that day revealed that the diplomatic mission to London was to have four members, while the other missions would only be staffed by two. While most of these officials had been practitioners of law in various capacities, there was among them a physician who had served in the Ministry of Education. The doctor turned diplomat, Abdel-Salam El-Guindi, must have had some very powerful connections in order to get around the conditions set by the diplomatic corps for admission.
On 24 September, Mahmoud Ibrahim, owner of L'Express newspaper, made an "intelligent" proposal, as Al-Ahram put it. This was to appoint a commissioner for religious affairs and Islamic law in each embassy whose function it will be to perform the spiritual and legal services for Egyptians residing in those four nations. "I believe that the government funds should be sufficient to cover the salaries of four imams to fulfill these much needed functions," Ibrahim wrote. Indeed, it was not long before King Fouad fulfilled Ibrahim's wishes, issuing towards this purpose a royal edict appointing a sheikh responsible for the religious affairs of the Egyptian communities abroad in each of the four legations.
At about the same time, Fouad issued further edicts for the creation of "Egyptian consular bodies abroad." Given the commercial interests they represented, consular offices would be more numerous than the diplomatic missions. In the UK there would be two, one in London and the other in Liverpool; in France three, in Paris, Lyon and Marseilles; and, in Italy three as well, in Rome, Naples and Trieste. In the US, however, there was to be only one -- in New York. Egyptian consulates were also established in other major European cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Geneva, Vienna and the Greek port of Piraeus.
There still remained several other formal matters to be concluded before Egypt's first modern diplomatic corps could set off overseas. The first was clothes. It was decided that the ceremonial uniforms of the heads of legations would be distinguished from those of ministers by "a sash and buttons carrying the images of the royal crown and the three crescents of the national banner." In addition, their swords were to be "straight rather than curved," and "with hilts inlaid with mother of pearl."
Their remained, too, the farewell ceremony to be hosted by Foreign Minister Tawfiq Pasha Rifaat for the diplomatic corps. This was held in the Continental Hotel on 10 December 1924 and occasioned an address delivered by the foreign minister in which he wished the new diplomats success "in fulfilling Egypt's aspirations for establishing amicable relations and spreading the banners of peace."
Amidst displays of pomp and ceremony, of the extravagance of a distant era, the four new heads of mission departed for their postings. The first to leave was Ahmed Zewar, minister plenipotentiary to Italy. Seeing him off at Cairo train station were the ministers of foreign affairs and transportation, as well as the diplomatic representatives to Egypt from France and the US, and senior Foreign Ministry officials. The following day it was the turn of Seif-Allah Youssri Pasha, minister plenipotentiary to the US, escorted to the train station by "his eminent family" and bid farewell on the platform by "Their Excellencies the ministers of foreign affairs, finance, public works, education and transportation," by "Their Excellencies the representatives of France, Germany and Sweden," and by "Their Excellencies former Prime Minister Adli Yakan Pasha, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha and Abdel-Aziz Fahmi Bek." As might be expected, Egypt's minister plenipotentiary to France, the son-in-law of King Fouad, was accorded a more lustrous send-off. He entered the train station through the "royal portal" and travelled to Alexandria on the royal train.
The departures were well worth celebrating. In an article appearing in Al-Ahram of 22 December 1923 under the headline "Farewell to Ambassadors and Consuls: Their Destinations and the Purposes," the newspaper reminded readers that this was the first time since the country fell under Ottoman rule in 1517 that Egypt had sent diplomatic missions of its own abroad. It went on to exhort the new diplomats and called on them to realise the momentousness of the occasion and the responsibility that had fallen on their shoulders and reminded them that Egypt had a right to demand the fruits of the expenditures it had laid out on their behalf. In addition, it urged them to seek the assistance of the hundreds of Egyptian students on educational missions in Europe and the US, for "each of these individuals counts himself in the service of his ambassador abroad because in this capacity he can serve his nation." More importantly it appealed to them to cast behind them all the rivalries in which they may have taken part in Egypt, for "while overseas, they are not ambassadors of political parties, nor should they ever consider themselves as such."
Even after their departure, Al-Ahram continued to cover news of the new diplomatic missions. Naturally, the ministers plenipotentiary to London and Paris would be the focus of greater attention than those to Rome or Washington.
In London, Abdel-Aziz Ezzat Pasha found some favourable press. Al-Ahram reports that The African World expressed sympathy for a man whose task would not be easy for obvious reasons. Not only did he represent Egypt in its complex relationship with the British Empire, but his arrival in London and assumption of his duties coincided with the formation of a new government in Egypt under the premiership of Saad Zaghlul. Was Ezzat now supposed to promote the policies of the palace, to whom he owed his present position, or those of the recently installed revolutionary government headed by the famous Wafd Party leader? Perhaps because of the obvious confusion in such a situation, Ezzat spent his initial days in the British capital engaged in a number of diplomatic formalities and ceremonies, delivering vague speeches about his mission to develop close ties between Egypt and Britain and expressing his admiration for things British. However, it was impossible to put off the inevitable. On 4 June, at the Cotton Association in Manchester, he dealt his audience a surprise. Reporting on his speech the following day, Al-Ahram wrote that Ezzat had told his audience that Britain had given more than 65 pledges "to evacuate my country and respect the sovereignty of its territory." These pledges "were reiterated by a large number of famous and prominent men," yet none have ever been fulfilled. He also raised the delicate issue of Sudan, whose affairs continued to be considered the preserve of the British government under the 28 February Declaration. But he said to his undoubtedly stunned audience, "the geographical, economic and strategic interests of Egypt in Sudan are so vital that it is impossible to separate Sudan from Egypt, a fact which is recognised by all statesmen in your country." He concluded by saying that British interests could only benefit from withdrawing its forces from Egypt.
If Al-Ahram was concerned by the emissary's outspokenness, it did not show it. The following day it commented, "Ezzat Pasha, our ambassador to London, spoke the truth and all Egypt applauds him and believes as he does." His speech "faithfully embodied the dignity of his country and the opinions of his fellow countrymen."
In Paris, Mahmoud Fakhri had an easier job ahead of him. He was embraced by French society for his erudition in French culture, to the extent that he was accorded an official procession the day he presented his letters of accreditation to the French president. Describing the procession, Al-Ahram writes that the carriage carrying the Egyptian minister plenipotentiary was "preceded by an escort from the French 12th Brigade as the crowds peacefully lining the pavement greeted the passing cortege with all respect and esteem. When the procession reached Elysée Palace, the Egyptian anthem was played and a regiment of the Republican Guards in full regalia saluted His Excellency. Fakhri Pasha then proceeded to the palace's reception hall where he presented his letters of accreditation to the president of the Republic of France." It must have heartened Egyptian readers that their diplomatic representative was accorded a welcome almost at the level of a visiting head of state.
The new emissaries to Rome and Washington would not have such impressive receptions. Zewar Pasha took up temporary residence in the Grand Hotel in Rome, where he was welcomed by "a host of senior Italian and foreign officials." In Washington, Youssri Pasha moved into "a modern four-storey building located on one of the best streets in the city, less than a mile from the White House."
It was from these rather modest beginnings, though with some elegant trappings, that the long and event filled history of Egyptian foreign diplomacy began, the most recent stage of which is embodied in Egypt's current foreign minister, Amr Moussa.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.