Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 February 2001
Issue No.520
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map


A Diwan of contemporary life (375)

The Sudan Defence Force

The presence of Sudanese soldiers in the Egyptian army dates back to 1820 when Egyptian forces advanced southwards to unite the two halves of the Nile Valley. For the next several decades they were to become an important component of the modern Egyptian army. But their presence in the Egyptian army was not without complications for the colonial authorities who took all necessary precautions to ensure the Sudanese posed no threat to the British occupation. The measures worked well until 1924 when the British drove Egyptian forces from Sudan and formed the so-called Sudan Defence Force. In Al-Ahram Dr Yunan Labib Rizk traces the fate of the troops south of the Egyptian border

Saad Zaghlul
Lee Stack
Lee Stack
Ali Abdel-Latif
Ali Abdel-Latif

Point five of Lord Allenby's ultimatum to Saad Zaghlul of 22 November 1924 stated, "Within 24 hours orders shall be issued to recall all Egyptian officers and units of the Egyptian army from Sudan. Subsequent changes shall be determined later." In a memorandum issued later that day the British high commissioner said, "Following the recall of Egyptian officers and units of the Egyptian army the Sudanese units of the Egyptian army shall become a Sudanese armed force subject and loyal to the Sudanese government alone and under the supreme command of the governor-general of Sudan."

This ultimatum and its appendix, issued following the assassination of Governor-General of Sudan Sir Lee Stack on 19 November 1924, reopened the file of the Sudanese in the Egyptian army, a file that dates back to 1820 when Egyptian forces advanced southwards to unite the two halves of the Nile Valley. It is commonly held among students of modern Egyptian history that one of Mohamed Ali's objectives in annexing Sudan was to secure a source for soldiers for the modern army he was trying to build, while simultaneously being able to keep the Egyptian peasants engaged in the cultivation of the land. Nevertheless, the plan failed, they assert, because the Sudanese recruits were unable to acclimatise to the Egyptian climate, forcing Mohamed Ali to recruit his troops from the Egyptian populace, generally the rural peasant population. Officer ranks continued to be staffed from the Turkish aristocracy.

For nearly a century since its founding under Mohamed Ali, the Sudanese were an important component of the modern Egyptian army. Indeed, certain military missions had been designated for the Sudanese contingents, perhaps the best known being the part they played in Napoleon's Mexican campaign, one of the most curious chapters in the history of the Egyptian army.

The French troops that the French emperor had dispatched to the New World encountered, in addition to popular resistance, the spread of yellow fever. As it was believed that dark-skinned peoples were more resistant to that epidemic, Napoleon appealed to the Egyptian ruler, Said Pasha, to send him some Sudanese from the Egyptian army. Historians differ as to why the Egyptian ruler acceded to the French request and, again, why his successor, Khedive Ismail, sent more Sudanese troops to fight for the French between 1863 and 1876. Some contend that it was pure recklessness to do this favour for Paris and, thereby, involve Egyptian armed forces in a war that did not concern Egypt in the slightest. Others have suggested that the consent to lend Sudanese contingents from the Egyptian army to France was part of an agreement struck between two Egyptian rulers and the French emperor and that, in exchange for these troops, the French would back Egypt's bid to secure independence from Istanbul.

Evidence of a significant Sudanese presence in the Egyptian army appears in the wake of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. One of the first acts of the new occupiers was to dissolve the army, led by Ahmed Orabi, that had resisted the British invasion and to set about creating a new army under British command. It is noteworthy, however, that Consul-General Lord Cromer, responsible for implementing London's policies in Egypt, did not eliminate the Sudanese contingents in the Egyptian army, which, in turn, proved fortuitous when Mahdist forces under the command of Abdel-Rahman Wad Al-Nujumi began to make incursions across the Egyptian border in 1889. Moreover, the Sudanese presence in the Egyptian army increased as members of the Sudanese tribes opposed to the government in Umm Durman fled northwards and signed up, a phenomenon which the British encouraged when they went on the offensive against the Mahdist state, seizing Donqola in 1896 and toppling the Mahdist government two years later.

The continued presence and rise of Sudanese contingents in the Egyptian army was not without complications for the British. The colonial authorities' prime concern in rebuilding the Egyptian army was to guard against the new force posing a threat to the British occupation. One step was to keep the numbers down to the extent that throughout the 1880s the size of the army remained in the neighborhood of 6,000. A second concern, of course, was to staff the senior ranks with British officers, all subordinate to the British sirdar -- Persian for commander. British authorities, thirdly, introduced a law which enabled the sons of the well-to-do to pay their way out of the draft, making the brunt of the draft fall primarily on the peasants and broadening the social rift between Egyptian officers and troops.

With regard to Sudanese conscripts, the British were careful to keep them from associating with the Egyptian troops. Army regiments were, therefore, either purely Egyptian or purely Sudanese, a policy that was not entirely foolproof as it was not always possible to find Sudanese officers for the Sudanese companies, leaving no alternative but to staff them -- at the lower echelons of command, of course -- with Egyptians.

The risks of this solution were driven home at the turn of the 20th century, at the outset of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement (1899) for the dual administration of Sudan, when a Sudanese company serving under an Egyptian officer in Umm Durman rebelled after having heard reports that the British command intended to dispatch Sudanese forces to South Africa to help quell the second Boer uprising.

British colonial authorities in Khartoum took heed of this insurrection and pressed ahead with the establishment of a military academy to produce Sudanese petty officers, so as to better curtail contact between Egyptians and Sudanese in the south. To further ensure their grip over the south and the army in particular, the British expanded their military intelligence in the region, developing a special branch for Sudan. Sudanese intelligence was staffed entirely by Britons with the exception of some Levantine assistants such as Samuel Attiya and Naoum Shaqir. Egyptians and Sudanese were entirely excluded from the agency, one of the primary responsibilities of which was to keep tabs on circumstances within the army. Such was the status of the chief of this agency that he stood in line for promotion to sirdar and governor-general of Sudan, as was the case with Sir Reginald Wingate and Sir Lee Stack.

This situation worked well for the British until 1919, when the winds of revolution built up into a gale that would inevitably hit Sudan and overturn all the colonial office's best laid plans. Not surprisingly, the spirit of Egypt's 1919 Revolution rubbed off first on the Egyptian officers in Khartoum. In November of that year, 60 of these officers assembled in the Sudanese capital to draw up a communiqué to demand the independence of Egypt, to protest the Milner Mission that was due to arrive in Cairo in December that year to investigate the causes of the revolution, and to protest the killing of defenceless civilians in Alexandria at the hands of British forces. The meeting was the subject of extensive intelligence analyses, some of which appeared to confirm British anxieties that Sudanese students and civil servants were becoming influenced by events in the north.

Measures had to be taken to curtail the spread of discontent in the upper Nile Valley. Because the army consisted of the largest, best organised and most politically volatile group of Egyptians in Sudan, the high commissioner in Cairo sent one of his most astute and capable officers to Khartoum to examine ways to buffer the Sudanese in the army against the contagion. The report that Ken Boyd submitted to Allenby on 11 March 1920 reviewed the state of the Egyptian army in Sudan and suggested a scenario for stripping it of its Egyptian element, precisely the scenario seen nearly four years later in accordance with the ultimatum of November 1924. Specifically, Boyd proposed the creation of a purely Sudanese army, or what was later to be called the Sudan Defence Force, and laid out in painstaking detail his vision of the various combat divisions and garrison forces and how they should be deployed. As for the Egyptian forces, the 16th and 17th battalions should be dismantled, he suggested, while the remainder of Egyptian troops in Sudan would be redeployed in the south of the country.

Officials in the high commissioner's office in Cairo and the Foreign Office in London kept Boyd's report in mind, waiting for the right moment to put it into effect. This opportunity presented itself during the events that swept Sudan in the summer of 1924, events which convinced the British authorities that they had to sever the Sudanese limb of the Egyptian army. That summer saw several manifestations of the growing tide of Sudanese nationalism. It was not just the spread of anti-British underground societies that the colonial authorities found so disturbing. So, too, was the fact that they contained many Sudanese officers, one group whose loyalty the British had felt so confident about up to that point. In fact, the most notorious of these societies -- the White Brigade -- was founded by Sudanese Lieutenant Ali Abdel-Latif and contained a number of junior Sudanese officers. The society advocated "unity of the Nile Valley" and professed loyalty to King Fouad. But many other Sudanese shared their sentiments. On 9 August students from the military academy in Khartoum emerged from the academy in military file, carrying pictures of King Fouad and Saad Zaghlul. They headed first to the barracks of the Egyptian 4th battalion to proclaim their support for "the king of Egypt and Sudan" and then proceeded to the home of Lt Abdel-Latif, whom the British had arrested, to demonstrate support for him as well.

If this outpouring of anti-British and pro-Egyptian sentiments were not disturbing enough, to the north Prime Minister Saad Zaghlul had initiated a policy of not renewing the contracts of British officers in the Egyptian army, which ran counter to all the plans the British colonial authorities had been putting into place since 1882 to ensure their hegemony over the armed forces in Egypt and Sudan.

Finally, the assassination of Sir Lee Stack on 24 November galvanised British decision-makers into setting in motion the Boyd recommendations, although the amputation met with considerable resistance among the Sudanese elements in the Egyptian forces. In Talodi, the capital of the Nuba Mountains province, Sudanese officers were arrested for having refused to comply with orders to stop dealing with Egyptian officers. In Khartoum, tension over the issue flared into armed confrontation with the British garrison stationed there. When news of this incident reached Cairo the office of the high commissioner issued the following statement published in Al-Ahram on 4 December: "Reports have reached us that in Khartoum on 27 November two platoons of the 11th Sudanese regiment mutinied. They left their barracks and marched eastwards towards the military hospital where they were met by another platoon from the Argyle regiment. The deputy commander ordered the Sudanese soldiers to return to their duties, but they refused. The forces of the sirdar opened fire on the insurgents who struck back. The skirmish killed or wounded many Sudanese. Two British officers were killed and eight officers and soldiers were wounded."

In spite of these setbacks British authorities pressed ahead with their plans, initiating in January 1925 the expulsion of Egyptian soldiers from Sudan. Although the British may have resolved a security problem in Sudan, it was still premature for them to breathe a sigh of relief. They still had considerable political fallout to deal with.

Because the Egyptian claim to Sudan was a major nationalist tenet, perhaps the British should have anticipated the vehement protest in the Egyptian press which accused the British of violating the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. The British press countered that the 1899 agreement contained no reference to the nature of the army in Sudan, to which Al-Ahram responded with a lengthy article featured over two editions, on 17 and 19 January 1925. "The Egyptian army is a single indivisible entity, composed of Sudanese and Egyptian regiments, and it was this entity that was to come under the general command in accordance with the 1899 condominium. When the authors of that agreement used the term 'army' it was to signify the entire Egyptian army inclusive of both its Egyptian and Sudanese regiments."

The British were not about to be dissuaded, however. No sooner did newly-appointed Commander-General Sir Geoffrey Archer take his post than he forged ahead with the creation of the Sudan Defence Force. One of his first decisions was to separate the commands of the Egyptian and Sudanese armies. In fact, few are aware that the title sirdar was dropped following the assassination of Sir Lee Stack precisely because it was used to designate the supreme commander of the Egyptian army in Sudan as Al-Ahram defined it in its editorials of 17 and 19 January. The sirdar, moreover, regardless of his nationality, was an Egyptian government official, appointed by decree by the Egyptian throne, a status that British authorities were determined to change.

Al-Ahram adds another interesting footnote in this regard. Sir Archer stopped wearing the tarboush that Stack had worn, as did all previous occupants of the sirdariya in their capacity as Egyptian army commanders. Instead, Archer wore a British-style hat, a gesture that a British newspaper interpreted as an attempt to present himself to the Sudanese as the head of a purely Sudanese army, "for no government official in Sudan had worn the tarboush unless he was serving in the Egyptian army."

Of course, Archer had much more on his mind than his headgear. One of his prime concerns was to dispel the anxieties of the Sudanese over the fate of Sudanese officers who had formerly served in the Egyptian army. In his first meeting with Sudanese tribal leaders and notables, Archer explained that these officers were now members of the Sudan Defence Force, "which is subordinate to the governor-general who has the right to appoint and dismiss them." He assured his audience that he intended to retain all the Sudanese officers who had served in the Egyptian army with the exception of those who had taken part in the "insurrection," because "it would be reckless to use officers who had taken part in a conspiracy."

British propaganda, for its part, did all in its power to sow the seeds of discontent in Sudanese-Egyptian ties. British newspapers, for example, accused Egyptian officers of having incited their Sudanese colleagues to stage the insurrection of the previous November. It was not easy to come up with tangible evidence, since Egyptian officers did not take part, but eventually the British press pointed the finger at Ahmed Bek Rifaat, the commander of the Egyptian artillery division in the Sudanese capital. The Times went so far as to assert that Sudanese soldiers had been extremely angered by "the treachery of their Egyptian colleagues." Egyptians were deeply offended by the accusations. In one instance, Prince Omar Touson, known for his passionate interest in Sudanese affairs, published a book at his own expense, The Activities of the Egyptian Army in Sudan and the Tragedy of its Departure.

It was not long before the Sudan Defence Force took concrete form. According to Al-Ahram's report based on information gleaned from the British press, it was a force of 17,600 regulars and irregulars, the former "receiving accommodation in military barracks, rations and allowances for married conscripts." The army was composed of six infantry regiments, among which were the 10th and 11th from the Egyptian army in Sudan. These were divided, temporarily, into two companies, each commanded by a British officer.

Irregulars primarily made up the camel cavalry, the eastern and western Bedouin forces, the equatorial regiment, the cavalry and the mounted artillery forces. Irregulars were to receive larger salaries than regulars in compensation for the rations accorded to regulars, Al-Ahram explained.

As for the command structure of the Sudan Defence Force, the Al-Ahram report continues, it is not difficult to see political factors at work in the fact that more Sudanese officers were to be brought into second rank positions. British officers were still to fill the command positions, which, the newspaper added, promised them splendid career prospects and were already attracting applicants from British officers in the Egyptian army and in India.

If the new Sudanese army was now a reality, the British still had one more surprise in store for the Egyptians. When authorities in Khartoum were asked how they planned on financing the Sudan Defence Force given Sudan's lack of resources at the time, they were at first suspiciously vague, although they indicated that the income from the railways would be sufficient to cover costs, a suggestion no one took seriously. Soon, the British press began to uncover the truth, which was that it was to be financed primarily from the Egyptian national budget as payment for securing Egypt's southern borders against incursions of the sort that occurred at the time of the Mahdist uprising and in exchange for ensuring "the unobstructed provision of Egypt's water needs."

The truth was made explicit in a statement issued by Egyptian Prime Minister Ziwar Pasha on 5 February 1925, in which he announced, "As the Egyptian government has always considered the army in Sudan as part of the Egyptian army entrusted with the defence of the Sudanese provinces, which are still bound to Egypt through inextricable ties, the government has decided to maintain the budget for the Ministry of War for the 1925-26 financial year at the level of the previous year, specifying in detail the allocation for the army in Egypt and the remainder which shall be allocated in a lump sum for the army in Sudan." British authorities in Cairo, Khartoum and London could not have hoped for anything more.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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