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28 March - 3 April 2002
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A Diwan of contemporary life (435)
The nightmare of World War I brought the hope for peace embodied in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. Egypt was not as removed as some might have thought from the interplay between international powers over the pact. Despite the pact's lofty aspirations, Egyptians were concerned about the repercussions it would have for their country. Because of concerns that the accord would only strengthen colonial powers, creating tension with Britain in particular, Al-Ahram unleashed a fierce attack against it. However, a reversal soon followed when the government was persuaded by the accord's signatories that the time had come for Egypt to assert itself as an independent nation. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* covers a period of hope and fear
Short-lived peaceThe horror, unprecedented loss of life and destruction of World War I ushered in a decade of efforts to prevent the recurrence of such a global catastrophe. Epitomising this drive was President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, declared in 1918, which held out the promise of a safer world, one less bristling with arms and greed. In this world, all nations would defer to the decisions of an international organisation which, indeed, eventually materialised as the League of Nations. The Fourteen Points established, among other principles, the right of all peoples to self-determination, conferring upon colonised nations the right to dream of horizons clear of the injustices perpetrated by foreign domination.
Aspirations for world peace were given further impetus in the Locarno Pact, signed in the Swiss city by that name in 1925 by the representatives of those nations whose complicated networks of alliances and counter-alliances triggered World War I: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Poland. The pact aimed to establish and safeguard recognised borders between these nations and to ensure that all future disputes be resolved though arbitration.
Several years later came what historians describe as the pinnacle of the attempts during the period between the two world wars to establish world peace: the Kellogg-Briand Pact, named after the US secretary of state and his French counterpart. Unfortunately, the rise to the zenith is frequently followed by a descent to the nadir, which is precisely what occurred during the following decade when dreams of peace dissipated as the world plunged inexorably towards war. In 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchuguo, heedless of the condemnations of the League of Nations. Similarly defiant of the international organisation's will, Italy, in 1935, colonised Ethiopia. However, the most ominous portent of the impending conflagration came with Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Naturally, the rise and fall of fortunes of peace affected Egypt profoundly. When the guns fell silent in 1918, Egyptian nationalists felt it their duty to lodge demands for political rewards for having remained quiescent during the war years. Wilson's declaration of the right to self-determination lent force to these demands and sustenance to the 1919 Revolution after the British failed to respond. Then, as the world slid towards war, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia triggered anxieties over the sources of the Nile, all the more so when it became clear that Italy and Britain would be among the powers facing each other across the battle lines.
The international interplay and its effects on Egypt have been thoroughly covered in many historical works. Lesser known, however, is the Egyptian reaction to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which Al- Ahram provides in detail.
Frank Billings Kellogg (1856-1937), had been serving as secretary of state since April 1927. He had been previously elected to the Senate, representing the Republican Party, in 1918, and from 1924 to 1925 served as US ambassador to Britain. His French counterpart, Aristide Briand (1862-1932), was an active member of the Socialist Party, from which he was ejected for shifting his political beliefs. In 1906 he served as minister of education and in 1909 he became premier. During Word War I, he headed two successive coalition governments. His last position in government was as foreign minister, in which post he served from 1926 to 1932.
On 6 April 1927, Briand approached the US with a proposal to conclude a treaty condemning war "as an instrument of international policy." Kellogg was wary of the proposal, which he perceived as a bid to draw the US into an alliance with the French against Germany. Still, the French initiative inspired Kellogg to propose a multi-party pact against war.
This appeared in the form of a "US memorandum to international powers regarding a peace treaty," as an Al-Ahram headline on 25 May 1928 announced. The memorandum opened with the declaration that, in its desire to realise the abolition of war, the US "is prepared to conclude with the governments of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan a single treaty which other governments of the world may join as soon as it comes into force, obliging the signatory parties to renounce war against one another."
The proposal contained three articles:
"Article I: The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war as the solution to international controversies and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relationship with one another.
"Article II: The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin shall never be sought except by pacific means.
"Article III: This treaty shall be ratified by the High Contracting Parties cited in the preamble in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements, and shall take effect as soon as all instruments of ratification have been completed."
Naturally, the British reaction was of immediate concern to Egyptians. This was quickly forthcoming in a memorandum written by the British government "in response to the Americans regarding a treaty for peace and the renunciation of war," as Al-Ahram reported. The memorandum contained 12 paragraphs; the most disturbing to Egyptians was the 10th, which read:
"With regard to the first article in the proposed treaty for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy, it should be mentioned that there are certain regions in the world, the welfare and integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for the peace and safety of Britain.
"The government has been at pains to make clear in the past that interference with these regions cannot be tolerated. Their protection against attack is to the British Empire a measure of self-defence. It must be clearly understood that Britain accepts the new treaty upon the distinct understanding that it does not prejudice their freedom of action in this respect."
Perhaps sensing that the British reservations might meet with resistance in Washington, the following passage was suggestive:
"The Government of the United States has comparable interests, any disregard of which by a foreign power would be regarded an unfriendly act. The government, therefore, believes that this delineation of its position also expresses the aims and intentions of the United States."
The next scene takes us to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris where, on the afternoon of Monday, 27 August 1928, Al- Ahram's special correspondent was on hand to cover the events. He reports:
"With Monsieur Briand presiding, the delegates, all in official attire, took their seats around the horseshoe-shaped table. Although they were 14, they represented 15 nations, as Lord Cushendun represented both Britain and India. Then, Briand stood to address this venerable assembly. Following a brief historical prelude, he said that although it was his deepest sense that silence would have been more appropriate in such a solemn occasion, he was duty-bound to express the great pleasure and honour that his country had at having its capital, Paris, chosen as the venue for the signing of the Treaty of Peace."
The French foreign minister then invited the delegates to sign the document, after which each delegate proceeded in turn to a long table upon which the treaty rested and took hold of the gold pen which had been presented to Kellogg by the city of Le Havre. "The first to sign was the German delegate, as his country preceded the others alphabetically, followed by his colleagues. The event was transmitted by wireless to countries around the world. The spectacle was also filmed and shall be soon screened in all parts of Europe and the US."
During the four months between the Briand proposal to Kellogg on 6 April 1928 and the signing ceremony of what has also become known as the Treaty of Paris on 27 August, Egypt was not as removed as some might have thought from the interplay between international powers over the famous pact for the renunciation of war. True, political storms brewed and erupted at home, notably the constitutional crisis that culminated in the downfall of the first El-Nahhas cabinet on 28 June, bringing in Mohamed Mahmoud who suspended the constitution for three years running. However, that did not keep Egyptians from worrying about the repercussions the new treaty would have on Egypt, despite its lofty aspirations.
Anxieties first surfaced following the publication of the British response to the Kellogg proposal. Al-Ahram commented that the treaty "met no insurmountable obstacle in France, nor will it encounter such an obstacle in other nations with the exception of Britain. This obstacle is none other than Egypt, to which Britain referred in its memorandum to the US. The question now is: will the Americans return to discuss this crucial matter with Britain? Will they put the cause of Egypt under study so as to remove all obstacles from the path of the Pact of Peace?"
The British press conceded that Egypt had been referred to in paragraph 10 of the memorandum to Kellogg. The Daily Telegraph wrote, "Egypt, of course, is among the nations referred to in paragraph 10 of the British memorandum." Not only did other British newspapers point this out, but the Daily Express went so far as to ask whether the US itself was prepared to withdraw its support of the Monroe Doctrine.
Because of concerns that the Kellogg-Briand Pact would only further entrench the territorial prerogatives of colonial powers, Al- Ahram, among other sections of the national press, unleashed a fierce attack against the proposed treaty. Under the headline, "Will America commit the crime of enslavement of other peoples?" it wrote that Egypt, as one of the nations alluded to in paragraph 10 of the British memorandum, "cannot but lift its voice to tell those Americans who seek to conclude a pact to renounce war: 'If you agree to Britain's conditions you will have committed the gravest crime against humanity in the history of international treaties and conventions!'"
As was its custom, Al-Ahram opened its pages to its readers. The most significant contribution was made by Hassan El-Sherif, who wrote three articles, appearing on the front page of the newspaper over three successive issues. The articles carried the headline, "Egypt in danger."
"It is important to remind governments and peoples of the world of the impact of the Egyptian question on international politics," El-Sherif wrote in his first article. For this reason, the Geneva Peace Conference of 1892 determined, "There can be no peace for the world as long as Britain is in Egypt," adding, "The neutrality of the Suez Canal should inevitably entail the absolute recognition of the independence of Egypt and its right to complete and unrestricted self-government." Taking another tack, El-Sherif cited a Russian politician who remarked that no nation could be assured of its possessions in Africa once Egypt became a stronghold in the hands of the British. The opinion was supported by a senior US army official who had worked in Egypt and who, therefore, argued for the need to grant Egypt its independence, to be realised through an international conference convened for that purpose.
In his second article, El-Sherif urged Egyptian parliamentary deputies to rise to the defence of their country. "Once the treaty is concluded, no politician will be able to call for the evacuation of the British from Egypt," he warned. "Nor will any political party be able to include the demand for Egypt's independence in its platform without facing accusations of upsetting the international balance of powers and exposing the interests of international powers to the wiles of Great Britain as it straddles the banks of the Nile and the Suez Canal."
In the face of the impending threat, El-Sherif made an impassioned plea for action. "Is there not a wise man among you?" he asked Egyptian cabinet members in his third article. However, government was not solely to blame," he said. The press, too, was at fault for "diverting the minds of the people from the impending danger by suggesting that the treaty will never be ratified and that we will lose nothing by waiting to see how international powers will react toward Britain and its alarming reservation."
He then turns to El-Nahhas, as the leader of the Wafd Party, and asks why he, whose patriotism is above suspicion, is also hesitant to take a stance, especially when such wavering "lets the imagination of every foolish and envious man run wild and puts in peoples' heads the idea that the cabinet is quivering with fear after its last confrontation with the British high commissioner and is frightened of clashing with him again."
It was not long before El-Sherif's pleas were taken up in parliament when Liberal Constitutionalist MP Hefni Mahmoud, referring to the British reservation of the right to defend Egypt and Sudan, asked: "Does not the Egyptian government think that this (reservation) will impede a political solution to the Egyptian question and constitute an encroachment upon the independence of the nation? Does it not require the government of Egypt to call the attention of Britain and the other nations party to the treaty to the danger of ignoring Egypt's legitimate rights?"
Although the El-Nahhas government was dismissed at the end of June, the Wafd Party moved to present the Egyptian point of view to the parties that were to be the initial signatories of the Kellogg- Briand Pact. In late August, Party Secretary Makram Ebeid travelled to Paris bearing with him a memorandum from El-Nahhas to the ambassadors and delegates who were then arriving in Paris. The memorandum conveyed Egypt's concerns about paragraph 10 of the British memorandum referring to certain regions of the world, the integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for Britain, "as the commentaries in the British press and the clarifications that have been expressed in the House of Commons lead us to believe that Egypt is one of these regions." Following an exposition of modern Egyptian history in order to demonstrate the fallacy of British claims, the El-Nahhas memorandum concluded with the "hope that the signature and observations of Egypt receive the sympathy of the nations whose worthy intentions have inspired them to propose a treaty for the prevention of war and aggression."
Al-Ahram, along with other Egyptian newspapers, praised the Wafd leader's memorandum. However, Makram Ebeid did not limit himself to circulating the memorandum among the visiting delegates in Paris. He also held several press conferences in the French capital voicing Egypt's objections to the British memorandum as well as "the protest of the Egyptian people against the isolation and exclusion that certain powers wish to impose upon our country."
Apart from Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all nations of the world signed the Treaty for Peace and the Renunciation of War, including Egypt. The treaty had a total of 57 signatories, including the nations that initially signed it in Paris.
On 29 August, two days after the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed in Paris, the chargé d'affaires of the US diplomatic mission in Egypt presented Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hafez Afifi a copy of the treaty, explained its purpose and conveyed the wish of the original signatory parties to circulate the treaty to all other nations East and West. Al-Ahram welcomed this move, which it took as an "acknowledgment that Egypt is among the ranks of independent nations." It went on to observe that the signatories to the Paris accord did not commit themselves to the British memorandum and, therefore, urged Afifi to add Egypt's signature to the treaty, appended with a clarification to the American representative in Egypt that "Egypt is an independent, sovereign nation unfettered by any declaration or note of any other country."
Al-Ahram was concerned that there was a body of opinion in Egypt opposed to signing the treaty for fear of creating tension with Britain. It condemned such spinelessness and argued that Egypt must take every possible step to assert itself as an independent nation, and such an opportunity currently presented itself in the fact that Egypt was invited to sign the treaty by 15 nations, among which was Britain itself. Such was its enthusiasm for the treaty that Al-Ahram published the observation of one US commentator who wrote: "The treaty is not the gateway to a golden era but it is a sign of the beginning of a new, safer and more peaceful age than any preceding it. It is a small step but one that brings us closer to the day in which peace prevails among mankind."
On 3 September, the Egyptian cabinet, meeting in Alexandria, agreed to sign the treaty providing that Egypt would not be bound by any of the British reservations. The statement announcing the Egyptian decision to sign stated: "The Egyptian government is convinced that it is faithfully expressing the feelings of the Egyptian people in conveying its full agreement to the noble aims that inspired the US to propose a universal treaty to renounce war as an instrument of national policy." Al-Ahram goes on to report that the government sent its response to the US diplomatic mission in Cairo at 5.00pm on Monday 3 September and that it was received there by Winshop, acting minister plenipotentiary, who immediately telegraphed the response to his government.
The headline of Al-Ahram's next editorial summed up the newspaper's sense of jubilation: "Signing the treaty and refusing the reservations -- a good omen for Egypt." The article praised the US for neither accepting nor rejecting the British reservations. Rather, "the US government told Britain that it wanted the treaty signed by all countries regardless of other considerations and when the treaty was ready, Washington offered it to Egypt to sign."
Egypt had every reason to rejoice. "Until now," Al-Ahram said, "Egypt has never signed an international treaty or convention as an independent sovereign nation. Therefore, our signature today on the treaty to renounce war is a major landmark because the name and seal of our foreign minister appears in the document side by side with the names and seals of the plenipotentiaries of 57 other free and independent nations."
The newspaper went on to observe that in signing the treaty, Egypt, for the first time in its long history, had entered the civilised world. Moreover, this entrance was marked, not by a treaty of alliance or defence, "or other such treaties that are signed between parties against others," but rather "by a peace treaty between peoples and nations." This treaty "ushers in a new philosophy of humanitarianism, which is that peace rather than war should prevail among peoples and nations of the world as a means to regulate their affairs."
Finally, to mark the occasion, Al-Ahram did something that underscored its uniqueness among its contemporaries. It published a documentary about the history of the Kellogg-Briand pact from its inception as a French proposal for a non-aggression pact with the US to a universal treaty for the renunciation of war. Then, Al- Ahram, together with the Egyptian people and all other peoples of the world, awaited the fruits of the onset of universal peace. The dream did not last long, for soon the world became embroiled in the head-long rush towards war and even greater devastation than that wrought by World War I.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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