|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (417)
The Egyptian army at one time was not truly Egyptian. Until the early 19th century, the army was not composed entirely of Egyptians. It had foreigners, mainly Turks. The Egyptianisation of the army began in earnest under Khedive Said Pasha but the transition to a domestic armed force was far from smooth. British occupiers sought to keep the army under their thumb. After the 1919 Revolution, nationalist leaders sought to strengthen the army to undermine British pretexts for remaining in Egypt. ProfessorYunan Labib Rizk* follows the journey of an army reconstructed
An issue of identity
During the Middle Ages, kings and emperors in Europe and the Islamic world built their armies around foreign elements. In Egypt, this policy continued to be followed until the first half of the 19th century, when Mohamed Ali (1805-1848) began to institute the modern centralised state. But the transition to a domestically recruited army took some time, as we note from a number of sources.
In his diary Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti relates that, during the campaign against a British invasion in April 1807, dubbed "the Fraser expedition," Omar Makram and other public figures visited Mohamed Ali to ask permission to go to Rashid "to fight alongside the military." The response of the Egyptian ruler: "It is not the duty of the country's subjects to go to war, but to help supply the money for the provisions and pay of the soldiers."
Thus, up until the early 19th century, Egypt had an army -- but not an army of Egyptians. This army had achieved numerous victories but had also suffered bitter defeats, perhaps the most famous being its failure to stem the French assault on Imbaba on 21 July 1798. That the forces of the Napoleonic expedition suffered continued attrition at the hands of the forces of popular resistance over the next three years signalled that the philosophy that had long governed the composition of the Egyptian army was about to change.
Change began gradually after Mohamed Ali had eliminated the Mameluke army threat by the slaughter of 470 Mamelukes whom he trapped in the citadel in 1811. Now, he needed to find another source for levying forces other than that which had long caused such chaos and infighting in the Ottoman armies. He turned first to Sudan, which he annexed in 1820. It was only after this experiment failed, for several reasons, that he considered recruiting native Egyptians -- Egyptian peasants in particular.
But officers in the new Egyptian army continued to be recruited from among the ruling Turkish aristocracy, which inevitably led to several problems, among which were the formidable class gaps and language barriers between the officer cadres and the native Egyptian conscripts.
It was not until the time of Khedive Said Pasha (1854-1863) that this situation began to change. Under the rule of this son of Mohamed Ali, the principle of promotion based on merit was tested and adopted, eliminating the class gaps and language barriers and allowing for the rise of Egyptians to officer ranks. Only then could the army become thoroughly Egyptianised.
From the top left, clockwise: Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti, Ahmed Khashaba, Mohamed Ali, Khedive Said, Abdel-Azim Ramadan, Omar Makram, Ahmed Orabi and Fikri Abaza
But the process was not smooth. Opening the avenues to promotion for native Egyptians generated the major factors which led to the insurrection that became known as the Orabi Revolution. Egyptian resentment at the obstacles which prevented promotion to higher officer ranks led to clashes between Turkish officers who held the senior ranks and the descendants of Egyptian peasants led by Brigadier Ahmed Orabi. The latter were strongly influenced by the general nationalist climate opposed to foreign intervention that led to the deposition of Khedive Ismail in 1879 and the Anglo-French dual control over the national economy. It was not long before tension surfaced in the revolution that eventually brought the defeat of the Orabi forces at Tel Al-Kibir and the British occupation.
Following the entry of British forces into Cairo on 14 September 1882, Khedive Tawfiq issued a proclamation dissolving the Egyptian army, or the "rebel" army, as he termed it. Simultaneously, the occupation authorities set about building a new army, setting a number of conditions that brought the system of recruitment back to where it stood before the time of Said, ensuring that once again the Egyptian peasant was to be barred from officer status.
The new policy governing the formation of the army was designed to keep it firmly under the British authorities' thumb. One restriction was that the force would be no bigger than 6,000 men; senior ranks were reserved for British officers and, if Egyptian officers occupied junior ranks, efforts were made to ensure that most of these were descendants of the old Turkish families that had monopolised command in the days before the Orabi Revolution. The Turkish aristocracy had succeeded in securing its position in the upper echelons of the Egyptian social hierarchy through the land grants conferred upon it under the rule of Mohamed Ali and his successors, especially Khedive Ismail.
Once again, therefore, the sharp division between the officer and conscript classes was reimposed on the army, a situation that was enforced through the introduction of badaliya (compensation) law in 1885. The law made it possible to avoid conscription, either by presenting a voluntary substitute at the time specified by the Ministry of War or by payment of a LE100 fee. Naturally, such an exorbitant fee was well beyond the reach of most Egyptian peasants, and the result was that conscript status became intimately linked with poverty.
For 40 years, the conscription policy served the political ends of the occupation. The discriminatory practices ensured a form of divide-and-rule policy that kept the army under control and neutralised it as a force in the national liberation movement. It also helped that, following the reconquest of Sudan in 1898, the bulk of the Egyptian force was stationed in the southern half of the Nile Valley, far removed from the charged political climate in the north. However, what the British had been avoiding all those years began to materialise after the 1919 nationalist revolution. The pro-Egyptian, anti-British fervour had spread to Egyptian and Sudanese civil servants in Khartoum and quickly infected the Egyptian officers in the army, leading to an armed insurrection against British forces in the Sudanese capital in 1924, claiming numerous casualties on both sides. Shortly afterwards followed the assassination of Sirdar of Sudan Sir Lee Stack in Cairo, which in turn precipitated the British high commissioner's ultimatum that brought the downfall of the Zaghlul government. One demand in the ultimatum called for the withdrawal of the Egyptian contingents in the army from the south, a demand that Zaghlul's successor, Ziwar Pasha, had no choice but to meet.
Even so, the Egyptian army remained under the control of the British authorities. The British put the army under the command of an inspector-general, a post that had no equivalent in the British forces. The inspector-general presided over a newly-created armed services council which, not surprisingly, consisted mainly of high-ranking British officers.
Even the British, though, did not expect the situation to continue for long. The army was now back in Egypt and in close contact with the nationalist movement. Simultaneously, nationalist leaders aspired to strengthen the army to undermine one of the cardinal reasons the British had always cited when defending their stay in Egypt. The reason appears in the Declaration of 28 February 1922, in accordance with which the British recognised Egyptian independence but reserved the right "to defend Egypt against all foreign aggression or intervention, whether undertaken directly or indirectly."
Discontent over this provision was not permitted to surface under the government of Ahmed Ziwar (1924-1926), the existence of which depended upon the support of King Fouad, who believed that it was in the palace's interest to keep the army isolated from the nationalist movement led by the Wafd Party. However, when the government fell and a constitutionally elected government with a sweeping Wafd majority took its place, it began to appear possible that the army and the nationalist movement would unite. But the British were not at all prepared to entertain the notion of an army of and for Egyptians, leading to the crisis of the summer of 1927, which Al-Ahram covered extensively.
Towards the end of January 1927, Parliamentary Deputy Fikri Abaza asked the minister of war the following questions: "First, what has been done to amend the military conscription law after the parliament voted that military service should be reduced from five to three years? Second, what progress has been made with regard to the reform of the military academy? Third, why has the army been left without an Egyptian commander until now, who is currently undertaking the responsibilities of that post and what is the extent of the powers of the person in charge of military affairs? Fourth, what are the principles of the military restructuring policy that was promised in the speech to the throne and what measures have you taken to increase the size of the army?"
Abaza's questions encroached upon forbidden terrain for each of his questions targeted the cornerstones of British policy with regard to the Egyptian army. Amending the conscription law in the manner he described would greatly increase the number of Egyptian reservists. Reforming the military academy was simply another way of telling the British to relinquish control over the institution, which would eliminate barriers to training and promotion, a point driven home forcefully by the question regarding the appointment of an Egyptian commander. Augmenting the size of the army meant increasing the number of Egyptian conscripts. Since the Egyptian contingents had been ordered out of Sudan and many conscripts discharged, the army had shrunk to 10,000. The British high commissioner hoped to keep it that way.
Al-Ahram described the parliamentary meeting of 17 February 1927, in which Abaza put the four questions to the minister of war, as "the session of the Egyptian army and the military restructuring policy." Although Abaza was a member of the minority Nationalist Party his views were lauded by most members of the predominantly Wafdist parliament. Disturbed by this development, High Commissioner Lord George Lloyd wrote to the Foreign Office to report that he suspected that the Wafd, specifically its leader Saad Zaghlul, who was then speaker of the house, were behind the demands Abaza voiced and that the demands were at the root of an attempt to politicise the army and involve it in the nationalist movement.
Secret Foreign Office archives contain around 100 documents pertaining to the flurry of communications that followed Lloyd's report, all of which had been filed under the heading "The Egyptian Army Crisis." The documents reveal that the British felt the Egyptian parliament had dangerously encroached upon one of the sanctities of British policy in Egypt and that definite action had to be taken to keep the Wafdist drive in check, even if that involved the threat of recourse to force, then known as "gunboat diplomacy."
The crisis naturally attracted the attention of Egyptian historians, most notably Abdel-Azim Ramadan, who devoted an entire chapter to it in The Egyptian Army in Politics: 1882-1936. However, so as not to repeat what was written in this and other studies, only Al-Ahram and British confidential archives will be used to relate the developments of the 1927 army crisis precipitated by the British policy that insisted on promoting an army for Egypt but not an army of Egyptians.
Following the 17 February session, the parliament's War and Naval Committee endorsed Abaza's demands in slightly modified form. Soon afterwards, Lloyd wrote to London that the committee's action represented the culmination of the nationalist campaign to weaken British control over the Egyptian army. This campaign, he asserted, had begun subtly in 1922 when then Minister of War Azmi Pasha created an administration under his direct supervision to rule on certain minor matters that had formerly been under the jurisdiction of the British commander. However, since then the situation had grown increasingly perilous. In January 1924, under the popularly elected "people's government" headed by Zaghlul, an Egyptian was appointed commander of the Egyptian force in Cairo and two other regiments in Egypt came under Egyptian command. In March, a senior officer was dismissed for having used excessive force against protesters. The dismissal took place without the approval of the British commander. Then, in May, Zaghlul openly declared that it was incompatible with national dignity for a foreigner to remain commander of the Egyptian army. At the same time, Minister of War Hasib Pasha was also trying to undermine British policy towards the army by continually vetoing the appointment of British officers, much to the British commander's irritation.
Lloyd also records that attempts to shake British control over the army continued after the collapse of the "people's government," through the creation of the army council, by royal decree, which eroded many of the British commander's powers to appoint and promote officers. Then, in 1925, the Border and Coast Guard Service were placed under Egyptian supervision. These developments, the high commissioner continued, were the prelude to the attempts of Wafdist Minister of War Ahmed Mohamed Khashaba (June 1926-April 1927) to clip the wings of Inspector-General Spinks Pasha. Not only did Khashaba refuse to adopt the inspector-general's recommendations regarding appointments and promotions, but took advantage of Spinks's holiday leave to wrest the Military Academy from his control and weaken the influence of British officers on the army council. Khashaba justified his actions on the basis of the parliamentary War Committee's report which stated, "The entrenchment of the authority and sovereignty of the people has rendered the parliament the supreme authority in all affairs of the nation, of which the army is a part, and rendered the minister of war, delegated by parliament to work in the ministry, solely responsible before parliament and the king and, accordingly, rendering the presence of the (British) commander incompatible with that responsibility."
In light of these developments, it was not surprising that, on 31 May 1927, the high commissioner presented a memorandum from the British to the Egyptian government. According to Al-Ahram, the document contained nine sections in addition to its preamble. In the first three sections, the British government expressed its good intentions. In the fourth, it referred to the negotiations with Tharwat Pasha while the remaining sections discussed its observations with regard to the inspector general and the Border and Coast Guard Service, which had long been subject to British command.
The high commissioner recognised the validity of some of the Egyptian demands regarding army reform, such as reducing the period of service from five to three years and increasing the size of the Egyptian army by some 1,600. Nevertheless, he insisted upon a number of conditions. One was to renew the contract of Spinks for another three years and to promote him to lieutenant general, the highest military rank. The inspector-general was also to have the authority to appoint and promote officers, to submit the decisions of the army council directly to the king and not to the minister of war, and to delegate a British officer of the rank of general to stand in for him during his absence.
As the Egyptian government was in the process of formulating its response to these conditions, Britain took to its customary measures. At the end of May, Al-Ahram published a Daily Mail report that, on the evening of 29 May, three British warships left Malta bound for the Egyptian coast to counter what Lloyd claimed were "signs that nationalist extremists, led by Saad Zaghlul, have begun to get out of control." Lloyd emphasised "the resolve of the British government to engage a British officer in the position of the commander."
The Egyptian response to the British memorandum was, as Al- Ahram described it, five pages long and friendly in tone. However, the newspaper was only able to give a summary of its contents, having apparently been unable to obtain a copy. British archives, on the other hand, are more revealing, and indicate that although Lloyd felt that the response was formulated to placate both sides -- the high commissioner and Zaghlul -- it only acknowledged one of the British conditions, which was that the minister of war abide by the decisions of the army council. That the government's response avoided addressing the other conditions stated in the memorandum, particularly those pertaining to Spinks, did not, in Lloyd's opinion, constitute an outright rejection. Lloyd believed that with a little more pressure in the form of the three warships now anchored off Alexandria and Port Said, along with the 7,000-strong British garrison in Egypt, the government would soon agree to the remaining conditions as well.
On 7 June, the high commissioner went to Abdin Palace to present to King Fouad a letter just short of an ultimatum, restating the British conditions. The Egyptian government, it said, should acknowledge the influence and prestige of the inspector general by granting him the rank of lieutenant general and the authority to appoint a high-ranking British officer as his deputy. The British should also have an effective presence in the Border Authority, particularly in view of policies that had reduced that presence from 43 officers in 1923 to only seven in 1927. Finally, the letter stated that London believed that these and other outstanding matters could be resolved through amicable negotiations between the two governments.
On 16 June, Prime Minister Tharwat Pasha briefed parliament on the Egyptian government's response. After recapping recent developments, he said, "The government shall retain the current system in the army and the Border Authority and maintain the powers of the minister of war and his responsibility before parliament. In this manner the government has found a satisfactory solution to the problem."
The compromise was definitely "satisfactory" to the British, but occasioned mournful commentaries in the Egyptian press, including a series of editorials in Al-Ahram, which were summarised for the Foreign Office by the high commissioner's oriental secretary. He wrote that Al-Ahram observed that Britain, the upholder of constitutional rights, had deprived Egypt of implementing the fundamental ABCs of its constitution and that London was still haunted by the officers' insurrection led by Ahmed Orabi.
If the resolution of the Egyptian army crisis sustained the British policy of ensuring that the Egyptian army would not become an army for Egyptians, the situation would not remain that way for long. Less than a decade later, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 reopened the doors of the Military Academy to the descendants of Egyptian peasants, ultimately paving the way for the July Revolution just a quarter of a century after the 1927 crisis.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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