24 - 30 August 2000
Issue No. 496
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (352)
Five years after Egypt's 1919 nationalist revolution against British occupation, a similar uprising took place in Sudan, also against British control. But the two movements had different endings. Egypt was able to wrest in 1922 a British declaration of its independence. In Sudan, British occupation authorities cracked down harshly on the uprising and eventually succeeded in dislodging Egypt from the country which had been ruled by an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. The Sudan movement was spearheaded by the White Banner Society founded by a Sudanese army officer. Its members were mostly junior officers, civil servants and the children of some notables.Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram
Leaf out of Egypt's book
Epoch making popular revolutions have a habit of spreading contagiously to neighbouring countries. Certainly this was the case with the French revolution of 1789, the reverberations of which were felt throughout the length and breadth of Europe.
The Egyptian revolution of 1919 offers another prime example of this phenomenon. The massive uprising against the British presence in Egypt resounded as far away as British colonial India, leaving profound impressions along the way in the Levant and Iraq, also suffering the strains of colonial domination.
It was hardly likely that Sudan, with its long historical and geographical links to the northern Nile Valley, would remain immune, however much British authorities sought to immunise it against the revolutionary fervour that had taken hold of Egypt. The most the precautions taken by Sirdar Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan, were able to accomplish was to defer for a time what he perceived to be the malady that most jeopardised the British presence in the southern Nile Valley. This serves to explain why the anti-colonialist uprising in Sudan erupted five years after the 1919 revolution in Egypt.
The events that took place in Sudan in the summer of 1924 constituted a full-fledged popular revolution in every sense of the term. Indeed, some historians have aptly described it as the younger sister the Egyptian revolution of 1919.
Nevertheless, the 1924 revolution in Sudan was not destined to establish itself as profoundly in the national consciousness of the people of the Nile Valley as its northern counterpart. The Egyptian revolution succeeded in achieving a form of national independence, as embodied in the Declaration of 28 February 1922, and the creation of a sovereign Egyptian kingdom. The Sudanese revolution, on the other hand, enabled the colonial authorities to deliver a death blow to Egyptian presence in Sudan, putting paid to the nationalists' demand for the unity of the Nile Valley.
Furthermore, Egyptians are unanimous in extolling the page the 1919 revolution entered into their history, but Sudanese opinion is divided over their revolution and its consequences. One faction in the Sudanese nationalist movement had received encouragement from the British authorities. This faction, which advocated Sudanese self-determination, gained ground over the years subsequent to the revolution. Dubbing themselves independents, though condemned by Egyptians as separatists, the advocates of Sudanese self-determination were lukewarm to the 1924 uprising in Sudan precisely because it embodied the demand for the unity of the Nile Valley. This opinion was further supported by a number of British works on the history of Sudan that met with considerable acclaim among Sudanese, as well as Egyptians, interested in this era of their history. In general, these works either tend to downplay the scope and importance of the Sudanese revolution or to portray it as an Egyptian conspiracy that lured a handful of Sudanese supporters.
On the other side stand a few works that take a less biased view of the events and spirit of the Sudanese revolution. One is Sudan under the First Period of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, by the author of this column, and the second is The 1919 Revolution: A Study and Documents, by Ahmed Diab, Professor of Contemporary History at Umm Durman Islamic University.
In spite of these works, the 1924 revolution in Sudan remains a faded image, even among modern historians. Yet, it is interesting to observe how a reading of Al-Ahram of that period can restore focus to that image. But, before proceeding to the newspaper account, it is important to make several further observations about the 1919 revolution's sister movement to the south.
The revolution in Sudan, like its predecessor in Egypt, was a truly grass roots revolution, encompassing all segments of society and extending throughout the country. But there too, the vanguard consisted primarily of the effendi class, the composite middle class of educated elite that had evolved with the development of the educational system in Sudan over the previous quarter century.
The revolution was not instigated from within the ranks of the army, as was the case in Egypt's Orabi revolution of 1882, nor was it tribal in nature, as was the case with the Mahdist movement that was gaining momentum in Sudan at the same time. While it is true that it was spearheaded by the White Banner Society, which was founded by a Sudanese officer, Ali Abdel-Latif, in 1923, historical studies indicate that this society had extended branches in many Sudanese cities and its rank and file consisted primarily of the new effendi class of government and military functionaries, not to mention a goodly number of sons of Sudanese notables.
Beyond the similarities between the 1919 revolution in Egypt and the 1924 revolution in Sudan, there can be no doubt that the latter was strongly influenced by events to the north. This is what gave the British authorities the pretext to accuse the leaders of the Sudanese revolution of acting as proxies for Egyptian nationalists.
The magnitude of the 1919 revolution led British colonial officials to take urgent measures to forestall its impact on Sudan, particularly in view of the large numbers of Egyptians who were residing in Sudan's major cities. In June 1919 the British government invited a delegation of Sudanese religious leaders to the British capital, where they met with the Foreign Secretary who promised a brighter future for their country now that Great Britain had emerged victorious in World War I.
British authorities also actively fostered an anti-Egyptian nationalist, pro-British press in Sudan. It had been some time since Al-Sudan, owned and operated by the owners of the pro-British Al-Muqattam in Egypt, had disappeared from the stands, leaving the field open to the Egyptian nationalist newspapers. In order to counter this situation, the British encouraged a group of influential Sudanese religious leaders, including Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Mirghani, Al-Sherif Youssef Al-Hindi and Al-Sayyid Abdel-Rahman Al-Mahdi to publish a newspaper. The first edition of Hadarat Al-Sudan appeared in August 1920, leading with an appeal to Sudanese to totally distance themselves from the Egyptian national movement. It further expressed the hope that the administration in Khartoum would become thoroughly Anglicised because the British, it claimed, had worked faithfully to lead their country to progress and prosperity, whereas the Egyptians, prior to the Mahdist revolution, had only set a record for mismanagement.
The British declaration of Egyptian independence crowned several years of concerted nationalist action in Egypt. In order to curb the effects of the Egyptian nationalist victory on Sudan, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Lord Allenby, undertook a visit to Khartoum on 26 April 1922, two months after the Declaration of 28 February 1922. In a meeting with prominent Sudanese religious and tribal leaders, Allenby said that his government had no intention whatsoever of loosening its ties with Sudan. On behalf of those present, Al-Mirghani responded that it was the wish of the Sudanese people to continue on the path of progress on which they had made long strides under the British administration.
In 1919, Egypt saw a widespread movement to collect signatures in support of delegating Saad Zaghlul and his colleagues to press for Egyptian national rights in Versailles. In 1924, in a reverse movement, British officials in Sudan circulated petitions among Sudanese religious and tribal leaders demanding that Sudan remain under British administration. The signed petitions were then collated and published under the title The Book of Allegiance.
On 21 June 1924, Al-Ahram alerted its readers to this activity under the headline, "What are they doing in Sudan?" "They are forcing the people to sign petitions saying that they want the British as their guardians and that they refuse Egyptian rule," the newspaper charged. "These petitions are now being sent to London.
Four days later, an Al-Ahram editorial remarked that the British knew that the Sudanese were being forced to sign these petitions against their will. "Intimidation, enticement and cash payment are among the means that the authorities have in their power and use without compunction," the editorial said, adding, "They have all the means at their disposal to serve these ends, including Egyptian treasury funds to spend on their intelligence agencies."
The purpose of these petitions, the editorial asserts, was to compel the British government "to take a stronger stance on Sudan and to spread word among the British people that the Sudanese reject the Egyptian presence and fear the prospect of Egyptian rule." The petition campaign also aimed "to coerce the Egyptians to agree to negotiate over the issue of Sudanese national entity."
The British strategy was fated to backfire, since conditions in Sudan favoured the spread of nationalist fervour. Diab relates that anti-British activism in Sudan had its beginnings in early 1920 with the creation of the Sudanese Federation Society, formed by a collection of students from Gordon College and some members of prominent families in Umm Durman. Within a short time after its founding, British intelligence succeeded in infiltrating the secret society and this led to its dissolution, but not without the Sudanese activists having failed to learn an important lesson from the experience. The White Banner Society, which was formed towards the end of 1923 and included members of the outlawed Sudanese Federation, adopted a different strategy. They believed that open confrontation against the colonial regime and its supporters would give them a broader base of popular support. Their reasoning proved correct.
The British linked the founding of the White Banner to a visit to Khartoum by Egyptian Nationalist Party leader Hafez Ramadan, Sudanese historians argue differently. Ramadan was very circumspect in his meetings with Sudanese nationalists, they contend, to the extent that he was frequently reported to have said, "I left my tongue behind in Aswan."
On the other hand, these historians do not deny a bond between the White Banner and the Egyptian nationalist movement. The Sudanese society also adopted the slogans of the "Unity of the Nile Valley" and "Long live Egypt" and proclaimed that its aim was "to unite Egypt and Sudan under one crown, one parliament and one law." Counting among its members a number of Egyptians residing in Sudan, its flag consisted of an image of the Nile from its sources to the Delta depicted on a white background, indicating the group's determination to use peaceful means of protest. And, indeed, the spirit of the 1919 revolution lived on in 1924 in Sudan. Mass petition campaigns were organised demanding the union of Egypt and Sudan and peaceful protest demonstrations were staged condemning British acts of repression. These developments were followed closely in Al-Ahram and were enthusiastically supported by Egyptian public opinion.
Nationalist demonstrations opened with a massive popular turnout in Umm Durman on 17 June 1924. Occasioning the demonstration was the death of Abdel-Khaleq Hassan, the Egyptian police commissioner of that city, bringing a throng estimated at over 20,000. "If we compare this number to the population of the Sudanese capital, it is possible to presume that not a single able-bodied man failed to appear to pay his last respects," commented Al-Ahram. Following a moving address delivered by Tawfiq Wahbi, a magistrate in Khartoum, the crowds began to chant for the downfall of Great Britain and the long life of Egypt and Saad Zaghlul. The demonstration lasted over two hours, after which its organiser, Omar Daf'allah, was arrested, summarily tried and sentenced to a term of three months in prison.
This was only the beginning. On the day of Daf'allah's trial on 20 June 1924, the imam of Khartoum Mosque delivered a lengthy and impassioned sermon, condemning the religious and tribal leaders and government officials who signed "The Book of Allegiance" and urging worshippers to preserve the unity of the Nile Valley. The Imam was arrested on charges of inciting dissension.
Not surprisingly, since the same phenomenon occurred during the 1919 revolution, British authorities described the protesters as "a group of hooligans armed with stones, breaking windows, pelting policemen and threatening Europeans." This was the pretext the governor of Khartoum used on 22 June to ban all further demonstrations.
Again, the precautionary measures of the British authorities were to no avail, as events of the following days demonstrated. It is interesting that Ali Abdel-Latif, the founder of the White Banner, furnished the Egyptian press with several reports on the demonstrations. Al-Ahram featured two of his dispatches, the first appearing on 25 June: "The people held a peaceful demonstration yesterday, cheering their country's king (Fouad) and Saad Zaghlul and holding aloft pictures of these national figures. The police intervened, using swords to disperse the demonstrators and wounding eleven. Five individuals were arrested, among them an army officer."
As the storm of protest raged in the Sudanese capital, the White Banner Society dispatched two of its members -- Zein Al-Abideen Abdel-Salam and Mohamed Ahmed Al-Taeishi -- to Egypt to convey petitions of fealty and allegiance to the "king of Egypt and Sudan." However, when the colonial intelligence authorities got wind that the two nationalist envoys had boarded the train to Wadi Halfa, they wired this information to the directorate chief, who set off by special train in pursuit and made arrangements to intercept the two men. Thus, as Abdel-Salam and Al-Taeishi pulled into Wadi Halfa they found the station surrounded by a police cordon, and Al-Taeishi was arrested and brought back to Khartoum under armed guard. Al-Ahram reports that the Sudanese capital at the time was "swarmed with a throng of patriots, led by officer Ali Abdel-Latif and his companions, cheering the king of Egypt and Sudan and the independence of the Nile Valley. The government issued orders to the British superintendent of police and police forces to disperse the demonstrators."
Not to be thwarted, in the wake of this incident the White Banner issued an "Appeal to the British People" expounding its objectives. Appearing on the front page of Al-Ahram on 16 July 1924, the document opens with a criticism of the claims in the British press that "a deep chasm separates the Sudanese from the Egyptian people." These articles, it says, "were written by people who are entirely unaware of the realities, because in their customary aloofness from us they rarely find reliable sources of information outside of the small circle of flatterers that surround them." The appeal continues, "Anyone who attempts to view the situation with an objective, unbiased eye will immediately perceive that the two nations are brothers. Both are of Arab descent, both believe in Islam and the two are linked to each other through a variety of bonds that extend to the most ancient epochs of history."
The appeal then attacks British educational policy in Sudan for deliberately seeking to keep the people ignorant. "In all of Sudan, only a single secondary school has been established in the entire 26 years of the reform programme." It further attacks the British authorities' systematic oppression of the Sudanese people: "The prisons are overcrowding with young and old who have dared to shout 'Long live Egypt' and 'Long live King Fouad, the legitimate ruler of this country.'"
More indicative of the scope of the movement in Sudan, however, was the "Appeal of the White Banner Society to the Nation and the Government," which appeared in Al-Ahram on 18 August 1924. The appeal, in effect, was a compilation of letters from various quarters of the country.
From Port Sudan, Saleh Abdel-Qader, deputy chairman of the society, vehemently protested the British attempts to separate Sudan from Egypt. Abdel-Qader, an employee in the Sudanese Postal and Telegraph Authority, also announced that he had been arrested and was to be brought to trial because of his beliefs. Ahmed Hassoun, another member of the White Banner, wrote from Marwa to complain that the British administration had stationed soldiers in mosques to arrest anyone who delivered tendentious sermons. He also grieved that the government had imposed such harsh taxes on the people "that we have become entirely destitute." From Khartoum came another letter from a White Banner member who refrained from signing his name. The anonymous author condemned the British for having "filled the prisons" with innocent people. The detainees, he writes, "are not criminals and have never committed a criminal act, unless the love for one's nation is a crime under colonial law."
If these letters suggest the extent of the influence of the White Banner throughout Sudan, the protest movement, which reached its peak in August of that year, confirms the popularity of its appeal. On 9 August in Khartoum a horde of protesters marched to Abu Rouf where they pelted the police with stones. In Atbara, the inhabitants staged a demonstration in the train station in order to hail a passing train that was carrying political prisoners from Port Sudan to Khartoum. Meanwhile, in Port Sudan, employees of the Postal and Telegraph Authority as well as employees of the Customs Bureau staged a strike in protest against the arrest of fellow employee Saleh Abdel-Qader. At the same time and in the same city, Ali Malasi was arrested for having delivered an impassioned anti-colonialist sermon, precipitating another protest demonstration the following day. In Shindi, the inhabitants took the occasion of a passing British military force to stage a mass protest against British rule. Finally, in Al-Ubayyad, Sergeant Mohamed Saleh Gibrael, a White Banner member, attempted to rally the tribes of Kordofan against British rule, for which he was quickly arrested.
Against this tide of anti-British, pro-Egyptian nationalist agitation, the British had little choice but to take decisive action. The occasion presented itself in the form of the assassination of Sirdar Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan, on 19 November 1924, in reaction to which the British moved to sever Sudan from Egypt.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.