|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 February 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (429)
Four years after the British succeeded in toppling Saad Zaghlul's "People's Government," the test of wills between Cairo and London resumed. In 1928, the focus of another head-on collision was a diplomatic exchange on a bill concerning demonstrations. The bill would introduce substantial amendments easing restrictions on the staging of rallies, a matter of great concern to the British who feared anti-British unrest on the streets of Egypt. The bill had two aspects: it became a formidable test for the new government of Mustafa El-Nahhas, who sought to prove himself. To Britain, it was an outright challenge to its authority, and it considered ultimately sending its fleet to Egypt's coast to protect its nationals. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* examines the big confrontation
High-handed and hard to pleaseBetween the time of the collapse of the Tharwat-Chamberlain negotiations on 5 March 1928 and the resignation of the Tharwat cabinet on 16 March of that year, the British high commissioner's office was planning how to test the mettle of the forthcoming cabinet headed by Mustafa El-Nahhas. This would be the second government to be led by a leader of the powerful Wafd Party. To the British authorities, it must have seemed like only yesterday when they succeeded in toppling the intractable "People's Government" of 1924, headed by nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and backed by an overwhelmingly Wafdist majority parliament.
London's test of wills with Cairo began in the form of a British memorandum, dated 6 March, referring to a draft law on "rallies and demonstrations" that was about to be put to a vote in the Egyptian parliament. The memorandum stated that the British government had serious doubts about certain bills of law that were to be put before parliament, and that should the bills be passed into law, "they would considerably weaken the powers of the administrative authorities responsible for the preservation of order and the protection of people's lives and property in the country."
The reason London had not commented on this legislation up until then, the document continued, was that it had entertained hopes that Egypt and Britain would soon be concluding a treaty delineating the rights and duties of both parties and that such a treaty would have forestalled this legislation. "However, now that talks with the Egyptian government have failed, the British government cannot allow any of the responsibilities accruing to it under the Declaration of 28 February to be jeopardised, whether by Egyptian legislation of the afore-mentioned nature or by any administrative action. The British government reserves the right to take any action it deems necessary."
To better put this strongly-worded warning in context, it is useful to consider certain previous developments that affected British attitudes towards the Egyptian parliament. Above all, to the British high commissioner in Cairo, George Lloyd, not only was this Egyptian parliament an overwhelming Wafdist parliament, but he had cause to fear that it had fallen under the sway of the radical wing of the Wafd, represented by Makram Ebeid, Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nukrashi. Evidence to this effect was the parliament's attempts at the beginning of 1927 to curtail the powers of the British inspector-general of the Egyptian armed forces and, simultaneously, to assert the authority of the Egyptian minister of war and his accountability to parliament. The so-called "army crisis" of 1927 culminated in a British ultimatum to Egypt and the deployment of the British fleet from Malta to the coast of Alexandria. Cairo capitulated to Lloyd's demands.
Nor were British anxieties over the parliamentary climate allayed by developments that occurred shortly after the army crisis. In April 1927, Prime Minister Adli Yakan interpreted the objections raised by members of parliament to the inclusion of certain phrasing in a bill as a vote of no confidence. This led to the first and only occasion in which an Egyptian prime minister tendered his resignation over a dispute with the legislature.
Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat, left , in 1928 following the resignation of his government, which was replaced by a cabinet led by Mustafa El-Nahhas, right. Centre, George Lloyd, British High Commissioner in Cairo. Egyptian government school demonstrations on 4 March of that year, top, protest against amendments restricting the staging of rallies
To further put the 6 March memorandum in perspective, it is important to note that the British had frequently cited the four points of reservations cited in the Declaration of 28 February as a pretext to intervene in Egypt's domestic affairs. During the so-called army crisis, for example, London had recourse to the clause that states that Britain "reserves the right to defend Egypt from all foreign aggression or intervention, whether mounted directly or through an intermediary." In fact, it was precisely because it had foreseen such a prospect that the Wafd had objected vehemently to the four reservations; indeed, the entire Declaration. And, once again, on 6 March 1928, the dreaded reservations reared their head again. On this occasion, it was the third reservation, in accordance with which the British had reserved themselves the right to "protect foreign interests and minorities in Egypt."
In response to the British memorandum, Al-Ahram published a lengthy account on the laws governing the right to assembly in Egypt. Undoubtedly, the most severe were those provisions that came into effect when the British declared a protectorate over Egypt and promulgated martial law upon the outbreak of World War I. The provisions remained in effect well beyond the end of the war, indeed, until the passage of Law 14 of 1923. This law, which came into effect on 30 May of that year, provided for the right to stage political rallies on condition that authorities be notified three days in advance and that a permit be obtained stating the subject of the rally. Article 4 of the law gave top governorate or provincial district officials the right to ban assemblies if there were grounds to believe that they would disrupt public order and safety, "whether due to the purpose of the rally or to circumstances surrounding the time and place it is to be convened, or for any other serious reason." The subsequent article cautioned against holding public rallies in houses of worship, schools and government buildings and stipulated that participants in such rallies must be limited to candidates for political office and the voters.
The bill currently before parliament would introduce some substantial amendments, a matter of great concern to the British high commissioner, as is apparent in a lengthy report he submitted to his superiors in London. One serious change, in Lloyd's opinion, was that the new legislation would lift the restriction on who could attend rallies, thus allowing for "the presence of rabble-rousers and troublemakers who will pose a threat to public order." More worrying to the British authorities was the proposed Article 9 which would curb the authorities' right to prevent public assemblies and rallies and to mete out punishment to offenders. Article 9, Lloyd grieved, would "obstruct the police in the performance of their duties."
Lloyd concluded his report with the observation: "Modern Egyptian history demonstrates the existence of a desire to raise unreasonable political aspirations so as to turn these to the advantage of political parties. Perhaps this tendency manifests itself most clearly among Egyptian students who seek to be political advocates and agitators. Undoubtedly, this policy bodes ill however we look at it, besides the inevitable result that it will lower the level of culture and education among the new generation. One hopes that Egypt realises in due time that if it goes ahead with this policy, it will regret it in the future as it strives to demonstrate that it is worthy of a place it aspires to among civilised nations."
The El-Nahhas government met the British test of strength head on. As both the new prime minister and the new head of the Wafd, El-Nahhas undoubtedly had to prove that he was a worthy successor to Saad Zaghlul. El-Nahhas evinced his boldness in his inaugural address before parliament: "I and my colleagues pledge ourselves to undertake the burdens of government and to bear the strains of promoting the cause of our nation in its adversity. In accepting power, we aspire to safeguard the rights of our country and the provisions of its constitution, but our acceptance should not be construed as assenting to any condition or action that conflicts with the independence and sovereignty of our country."
On 30 March, an Al-Ahram reporter noticed a delegate from the newly-installed government heading to the offices of the British high commissioner. Everyone knew that this delegate was carrying El- Nahhas' response to the British ultimatum. The reporter rushed to the government building where the cabinet was meeting in the hopes of securing an official statement revealing the substance of the response. Unfortunately, he writes, "we found all the doors closed," quickly adding, "however, we were able to learn from confidential sources that the memorandum is couched in amicable but firm tones."
Soon, on 3 April, Al-Ahram was able to present its readers with the actual text of El-Nahhas' response. It read: "The Egyptian government regrets to find itself confronted with a memorandum that does not conform with the friendly relations existing between our two nations. Were this memorandum to be viewed from the perspective of international law, it would be construed as violating its established and immutable principles which are universally accepted. According to these principles, no nation has the right to intervene in the affairs of another nation. The Egyptian government has always been committed to providing foreigners with all means to ensure their safety ... The British memorandum constitutes an intervention in the affairs of our nation, one that threatens to impede the right of parliament to legislate and monitor the executive authority. The Egyptian government does not believe that the British government intended such intervention with its memorandum, nor can it grant the possibility of such intervention."
The British answer was not long in coming. The British press went on the attack. The London Times urged its government to "fight!" El- Nahhas' memorandum was a slap in the face because he denounced the Declaration of 28 February which, he said, opposed the independence of Egypt. The Times went on to observe that even many Egyptians, including several highly-placed members of the Wafd, had shuddered when they read what El-Nahhas wrote. They felt it was far graver than a political blunder, "because it went beyond condemning the Declaration to opposing the status of Britain in Egypt."
The Manchester Guardian observed that the 28 February Declaration which the current Egyptian government sought to denounce was the foundation of the very constitution upon which El- Nahhas had rested his argument in his memorandum. The newspaper added, "Nations with interests in Egypt, such as France and Italy, have expressed the opinion that the only way they can feel assured over the safety of their foreign communities in Egypt is to depend on the British."
The Morning Post was pessimistic about the likelihood of establishing a solid basis for friendly relations between Egypt and Britain. After condemning the "provocative El-Nahhas memorandum," it went on to say, "The Wafdists who hate Britain will never be satisfied with less than the end of its authority over the Nile Valley."
The commentary in the Daily Telegraph said the stance taken by the El-Nahhas government "challenges the status of Britain emanating from the Declaration of 28 February, not only with respect to details but also with respect to vital principles. There is no doubt that El-Nahhas Pasha and his colleagues would lose everything had they not had sufficient strength. It need hardly be said that the propagandists of the Wafd hope to persuade the people that Britain's opposition to those laws is a flagrant foreign intervention in the affairs of a civilised independent nation. With all due respect to the freedom of assembly, political rallies in Egypt inevitably degenerate into demonstrations coupled with much tension and violence."
Al-Ahram's correspondent in London was deeply concerned by the campaign in the British press. He feared that the British government would take public opinion in that country as a green light to take firm action against the Egyptian memorandum. He then wired a news item to Al-Ahram reporting that the British cabinet was scheduled to meet and that the response to the El-Nahhas memorandum was on the agenda.
The issue was then brought before the House of Commons. One tradition by which the British imperial rule paved the way for a certain policy was to have an MP pose a question on the floor of the House of Commons. The answer he received would be tantamount to the message London wanted to signal to the other party. On this occasion, it was the conservative MP, Deputy Mayor Churchill, who put the question: "Will the secretary for foreign affairs keep in mind that it is not desirable for us to let the world think that there is a powerful nation intimidating a weak one?"
Foreign Secretary Chamberlain was on hand to answer: "There are no negotiations at present with Egypt. Negotiations ended when Tharwat Pasha and I came to an agreement on the text of the treaty that was later rejected by the Egyptian government."
The scene was now set for Britain's response to El-Nahhas. Appearing in Al-Ahram on 5 April, it opened with a declaration that London rejected the memorandum of the Egyptian government, that it would continue to abide by the Declaration of 28 February and that it would not relinquish its responsibilities towards other nations. It then stated, "As British interests in Egypt are of vital importance to the British Empire, the government reserves the right to act on the four matters stipulated in the Declaration of 28 February. This shall remain the case until such issues are resolved by a settlement agreed upon by our two governments. The government believed it had found this settlement in the treaty it had negotiated with former Egyptian Prime Minister Tharwat. But as the Egyptian government has rejected the treaty, the government shall continue to reserve for itself the right to act on the points of reservation, and the Egyptian government may exercise its independent authority on condition that it satisfies the government of His Royal Majesty on these matters."
The Egyptian people greeted the British response with a political demonstration. On the same evening that Lloyd received the text of the response from London, El-Nahhas delivered a fiery speech in parliament. The Egyptian government, he declared, would not renounce the position it declared before parliament in its inaugural address. Simultaneously, he denounced the British response for alleging that at least two Egyptian ministers had voted against the memorandum delivered to the British high commissioner. The Egyptian memorandum "was approved by a unanimous vote," El-Nahhas insisted.
All Egyptian political parties represented in parliament were equally firm in their participation in the demonstration. Abdel-Hamid Bek Said stood up to declare that the National Party fully supported the government in its resolve to secure the full independence of Egypt and Sudan. He went on to say, "I am surprised that the British press maintains that our government does not have the support of all the people when clearly all the people stand behind the position it has taken." Similar sentiments were expressed by Abdel- Meguid Saleh, spokesman for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, who added, "It is our duty to thank the government for its determination and resolve, and I proclaim today the day of all Egypt, not the day of political parties." Saleh's address was received with loud applause.
The Egyptian press, too, was eager to take part in this show of national solidarity. In his editorial of 7 April, Al-Ahram editor-in-chief Daoud Barakat took issue with claims that the British government had scored a victory by twisting the arm of the Egyptian government. "The truth is that the British failed and retreated," he declared. "They failed because victory on this issue can only be achieved by reaching an agreement. He who succeeds in reconciling Egypt and Britain is the victor; the one who drives them further apart is the loser. What points to British politicians feeling they have been defeated is their anger, their threats and even their curses."
Barakat went on to assert that, contrary to its claims, London had not abided by the provisions of the Declaration of 28 February. Proof of this could be found in former British High Commissioner Allenby's ultimatum to the Egyptian government following the assassination of the British governor- general of Sudan in November 1924. This ultimatum, Barakat charged, undermined the very spirit and purpose of the reservations. Now, particularly in the wake of the latest British memorandum, "it is abundantly clear that the British alone are free to interpret and act on those reservations and that we shall have no say whatsoever with respect to what they plan and carry out. Everyone knows this only too well. But the amazing thing is: we told them that we understood all that and we could not accept it. In response, they howled and wailed and screamed that we are a nation of madmen and fools who do not appreciate the meaning of generosity and kindness."
In a subsequent article, Barakat pointed to what Saad Zaghlul had said: "Show me the point where British demands end so that I can find the path that takes us there with the certainty that the British will not go beyond it." Barakat, too, subscribed to this belief, which is why he charged that British policy was "to ask for the other arm after you've given it one."
Zaghlul also said, "Give me guarantees that the British will not find Egyptians to rely on in every action they take against Egypt and I will guarantee the success of negotiations between Egypt and Britain." Indeed, writes Barakat, whenever things come to a head between Britain and Egypt, the British are confident that they will find Egyptians to help them, if only to "salvage what can be salvaged," as Ziwar Pasha said when he assumed power after the collapse of the Zaghlul government.
"Pleasing the intransigent is difficult" was the title of another editorial. Offering a detailed picture of the public mood at the time, this article opens: "When an Egyptian says, 'I extend my hand to shake the hand of the British, the British say coward! When an Egyptian says I cling to my rights and reject intervention, they say he's a rebel and an enemy. Should the Egyptian remain silent in the face of injustice, they say silence means consent. And if the arrow they shoot backfires, they shout and wail to the world and say look how they hate foreigners and what a precarious state foreigners in Egypt are in!'"
Despite all the proof of goodwill the Egyptians had given the British government in their negotiations, Barakat concludes, "Ultimately they want no less than to control all the affairs of our nation. Regardless of what we say they will use it as a pretext to tether our government to their will. Pleasing the intransigent is not only difficult, but virtually impossible."
On 30 April Al-Ahram announced that on the previous day, the British high commissioner had presented an ultimatum to the Egyptian government over the bill on public rallies. The following day, it published the full text of Lloyd's ultimatum: "I have been charged by my government to notify the Egyptian government that if the bill of law on public assemblies is brought before the Senate, the British government will take the measures it deems necessary to protect the interests of foreigners." Lloyd gave the Egyptian government a 48-hour grace period, beginning as of 9.00pm on 29 April. If Cairo failed to respond appropriately, he warned, the British fleet would sail from Malta to Alexandria and Port Said in order to take all necessary measures to protect foreigners, including the occupation of the Egyptian customs and the confiscation of its revenues, its most important asset.
On the two previous occasions, when Egypt faced a British ultimatum over legislation -- in 1924 and 1927 -- the government responded by shelving the bill. In 1928, the scenario repeated itself, albeit following a stormy meeting in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate that lasted for several hours. According to Al-Ahram, the government voiced a "valuable and convincing" argument that "Egypt must do what it can to douse the fire set by the British."
Soon afterwards, the government delivered its response to the British high commissioner. This carefully-worded document reiterated the Egyptian position on the draft and stressed that the Egyptian government continued to abide by the substance of its previous memorandum to the British government. However, it continued, "Whereas it is our desire to maintain peaceful relations, the government of Egypt has advised the Senate to defer the bill to the next session."
Although this response can only be described as a face-saving formula in reply to the British ultimatum, it was the opinion of Al-Ahram that Egypt had benefited in several ways from the crisis. Firstly, it held, it demonstrated the nation's support for and confidence in the Wafd. Secondly, it affirmed "the vast difference between our circumstances today and those of yesterday when ministers were advised by British advisers and inspectors and had little choice but to comply." Finally, the newspaper held that the crisis put paid to claims that political acumen was the preserve of a few, which to the British meant "those who nod their heads to everything." While Al-Ahram readers may have found some consolation in this analysis, the fact could not escape them that the British had succeeded in testing their strength against another majority Wafdist government.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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