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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (444)

Talking with the British

Dr Yunan The course of Egyptian-British relations is marked by a series of negotiations in which Egyptians hoped to achieve their aspirations: the evacuation of British forces and the unity of the Nile Valley. To the British, on the other hand, the negotiations were an avenue for conferring legitimacy on their political and military presence in Egypt. That the two parties had such conflicting objectives was, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* , one of the major reasons why so many rounds collapsed


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Modern history buffs would certainly be familiar with the many rounds of negotiations Egypt had with Britain: the Zaghlul-Milner talks, the Yakan-Curzon negotiations, the Tharwat-Chamberlain talks and, finally, the Mahmoud-Henderson negotiations of 1929 which came the closest to reaching an agreement. Mohamed Shafiq Ghorbal's History of Egyptian-British Negotiations, published in 1952, would head their lengthy list of available sources on the subject. Yet, however numerous and valuable these studies are, because of their focus on the deliberations behind closed doors, they tend to ignore the surrounding political environment. The talks took place against a background of highly complex circumstances, of power struggles between rival political forces and of contending political demands and ideological trends. That the successive negotiating rounds did not take place in a vacuum is abundantly clear from the contemporary press which covered them in assiduous detail and which mirrored the battle lines between contending political forces.

As the negotiations in London between Egyptian Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud and British Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson came within a hair's breadth of an agreement, it was only natural that the interplay on the fringes would have a more powerful impact than during any of the earlier negotiating rounds.

Before examining this dimension, however, it is important to take note of a number of anomalies. Firstly, the 1929 negotiations were the first to be sought after by the British rather than the Egyptians. When Mohamed Mahmoud travelled to Britain that summer negotiations were the last thing on his mind. Rather, the purpose of his visit was to attend a ceremony in Oxford in which the famous university was to present him an honourary degree. Moreover, it is unlikely that Mahmoud would have wanted to enter into negotiations at that time. The Mahmoud government was feeling relatively secure, having introduced a range of reforms over the previous year. Secondly, Mahmoud knew that to enter negotiations would spell the collapse of his government -- whether they succeeded or failed. If they failed, his government would collapse, just as had those of Zaghlul, Adli Yakan and Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat. But success also meant that his government would be ousted, for no British government was prepared to sign an accord with an unconstitutional government. (Mahmoud had suspended parliamentary elections for three years). The British initiative, therefore, must have come as a surprise, yet it was an initiative Mahmoud could not refuse.

Another anomaly was that in 1929, the British government, headed by the Labour Party, was prepared to make more concessions than ever before. This was the first time that Britain was prepared to acknowledge that the Egyptian government was responsible for the lives and property of foreigners living in Egypt. The British government was also willing to remove British officers from the Egyptian army, albeit on the condition that Cairo pledged to abide by the advice of a proposed British military consultative body. Thirdly, Britain had declared that it would consider a proposal that would permit the return of an Egyptian regiment to Sudan.

Ghorbal described Henderson as "the sincerest of all British politicians in his commitment to trying to satisfy Egyptian national aspirations." This commitment, he said, was manifested in the Nile Waters agreement concluded shortly before the negotiations, in May 1929. In an exchange of memorandums between the Egyptian prime minister and the British high commissioner in Cairo, the two sides resolved that Egyptian irrigation authorities had the right to ascertain that water distribution in the Sinar reservoir proceeded in accordance with the determined allocations for Sudan and that any irrigation or electricity-generating activities undertaken in Sudan would not diminish the quantity of water or alter the schedule for the arrival of water destined for Egypt. As Ghorbal pointed out, the Nile Waters agreement allayed many Egyptian fears over their water resources, as well as certain aspects of Egyptian claims to Sudan which, in turn, enhanced the prospects for the success of the negotiations that were to be held later that year.

While the aforementioned information is readily available in the many studies on the Mahmoud-Henderson negotiations, the neglected area, that of the general climate, is considerably vaster. To better appreciate its impact, we turn to Al-Ahram which, in August and September of that year, brought the human dimension of that climate to life, unlike the dry and dispassionate scholastic works.

George Lloyd was the first victim of the Mahmoud-Henderson negotiations. The British high commissioner was notorious for his preference for the "arm-twisting" school of persuasion. In the five years he served as high commissioner (1925-1929), rarely a year went by without him delivering an ultimatum to the current government and backing that up with the deployment of the British fleet to Egyptian ports.

When previous high commissioners left or were dismissed from their Cairo postings, health and personal reasons had been cited as the cause. This was not to be the case with Lloyd who had no compunction against declaring his true reasons for leaving. These reasons were revealed by Henderson to the House of Commons on 24 July 1929 and reported in Al-Ahram the following day.

In response to a question from the floor asking him if there was a connection between Lord Lloyd's resignation and the government's policy towards Egypt, Henderson responded that, yes, there was. The veteran colonialist Winston Churchill then asked whether the government had forced the high commissioner in Cairo to tender his resignation. The prime minister answered that he had sent a telegram to Britain's representative in Cairo worded in such a way as to convey an invitation to Lloyd to step down from his post.

Naturally, a resignation tendered in this manner would not pass without considerable comment in the Egyptian and the British press. Nor was it to pass without a stormy session in the House of Commons, especially in view of the person involved.

George Ambrose Lloyd began his career in the diplomatic service in 1910. Soon afterwards he was elected to the House of Commons. During World War I, he was involved in activities related to military developments through which he acquired an extensive familiarity with the Near East. Although he returned to the House of Commons in 1924 as a representative of the Conservative Party, the following year brought him to Cairo as high commissioner. During his five years in this post he locked horns on more than one occasion with officials in the Foreign Office. It is said that Lloyd did not so much implement British policy as impose his policies on London, which would often wake up to find that its high commissioner in Cairo had taken some heavy-handed measures and placed it before a fait accompli. In this, Lloyd was very much a disciple of Lord Cromer, the first high commissioner following the British occupation of Egypt and the architect of the stick-without-the-carrot method of pursuing British policy in Egypt. Indeed, such was his admiration for Cromer that he emulated him after leaving Egypt. Just as Cromer produced the two-volume Modern Egypt, Lloyd produced the two-volume Egypt since Cromer.

Under the headline, "Sharp and prolonged exchanges in the British House of Commons over Lord Lloyd and the negotiations: Labour government exposes Lloyd's activities in Egypt," Al-Ahram reported the events that took place in the British parliament on 26 July. The Conservative leader opened the day's session with a lengthy statement at the end of which he asked the prime minister to answer a number of questions intended to embarrass the Labour government that had dismissed an official as competent as Lord Lloyd.

When it came Henderson's turn to speak, he outlined the reasons his government adopted the policy that led to Lloyd's dismissal from his post in Cairo. Although his response was lengthy, perhaps the following extract best captures the prime minister's motives: "A few days after I became foreign secretary I received a letter from Lord Lloyd. Such was its tone that I immediately asked for the file containing his previous correspondences, most of which date to the period he spent in his post in Cairo. I must say all these correspondences made me realise that there is a vast difference in opinion and attitude between the Foreign Office and Lloyd." Henderson added that he wished his predecessor, Mr Chamberlain, could be there to corroborate.

Egyptians shed few tears over the dismissal of a British official who had been so inimical to the national movement. Al-Ahram encapsulated the general sentiment with a twist of malicious humour: "Egypt -- the graveyard of the repute of British representatives." Under this headline, the newspaper took a brief look at Lloyd's predecessors. First there was Cromer who, in spite of his reputation, was "not immune to poor policy, criticism and differences between the Foreign Office and himself." Next came Eldon Gorst, initially perceived by some as an apostle of peace between Egypt and Britain, "although the days revealed the illusion of this pacific repute." There followed Lord Kitchner, of great renown for the reconquest of Sudan and the suppression of the Boer rebellion. Yet, after only a short while in Egypt, "his policies proved a failure and it became clear that he excelled only at spouting folly and nonsense." Sir McMahon, who arrived following the British declaration of a protectorate over Egypt, proved no less inept, and his successor, Sir Reginald Wingate, whose reputation as an expert on Sudan preceded him, unwittingly did the most to help Egypt. "By preventing Saad Zaghlul and the other members of the Egyptian delegation from travelling to Europe (to attend the Versailles peace talks in order to present Egyptian demands for independence) he triggered the Egyptian revolution that led to his dismissal."

In its analysis of British attitudes towards Egypt in light of the discussions in the House of Commons, Al-Ahram concluded that the Conservatives, Liberals and Labour were all in agreement that Egypt should remain under British control. "The only point of contention is that Labour, the Liberals and some Conservatives feel that it is possible to reach an agreement that will satisfy Egyptians and preserve Britain's status, while Conservative extremists will only be content when all power is wrested from the Egyptians and given to the British. These Conservatives believe in enslavement, not agreement."

The days that followed confirmed this assessment, as this faction of the Conservative Party lashed out at the Labour government's position on an agreement with Egypt. Under the headline, "Conservative attacks against the proposed treaty," Al-Ahram reported on a speech delivered by the deputy secretary of the Colonial Office who said, "Britain must be firm with regard to the Suez Canal and make it clearly understood to all that it not only defends the canal from Egypt's external enemies but also safeguards it from internal disturbances that could occur in Egypt itself. It is the duty of the government to state openly that Britain intends to continue as it is in Sudan."

Another opponent of the proposed treaty with Egypt was Winston Churchill who cautioned, "If Britain relieves itself of its duty to protect Egypt, withdraws the British garrison from Cairo to Suez, abandons its protection of minorities and refuses to grant other nations the right to protect them, then this would be weak and cowardly." He went on to warn that if the government pressed ahead with its policy, the results would be disastrous. "Either foreign powers will intervene to protect their subjects or we will be forced to return to Egypt with forces much larger than they are at present, and at enormous cost and heavy fighting."

Lord Lloyd soon made his views heard. In a keynote public address, he declared that the proposed treaty would be "greatly harmful to our military status, to our commercial future and to the Egyptian people themselves." He also charged that Henderson's project was frivolous and heedless of the masses of the poor and destitute "who have long looked to us to protect them." But it was not only a case of Britain forfeiting its greater commitments. "Matters grow stranger when one recalls that what some are ready to give away at the stroke of a pen today was obtained yesterday only at the greatest cost and sacrifice."

The issue engulfed the British press to the extent that Al-Ahram occasionally devoted a full page to relaying excerpts of the commentaries. While a few newspapers, such as the Times struck a balanced position, most others unleashed vehement attacks against the proposed treaty.

The Daily Telegraph said the proposed treaty represented "a dangerous general surrender of the principles that successive British governments had sought to maintain. Parliament must call on the British ministers to account for their misrepresentation and the manner in which they conduct policy. It is to be hoped that the proposed recommendations will come under harsh censure in parliament."

The Daily Express reminded its readers of the speech President Roosevelt had delivered while in Cairo in 1910, in which he advised the British to either rule or get out. Evidently, it suggested, the Labour government was bent on the latter course, for the treaty would sever the last links of authority "in a country that we rescued from bankruptcy."

That similar sentiments were echoed throughout the British press must have had a powerful effect on the course of negotiations. Certainly the outcry is what compelled Henderson to proclaim on more than one occasion that the provisions of the proposed treaty represent the most that the British government was prepared to offer.

In Egypt, the prospect of a forthcoming agreement generated no less tension. On the one hand, it seemed that the Mahmoud government would have no alternative but to resign, particularly after Henderson announced, on 26 of July, that "regardless of the Labour government's policy towards Egypt, it will not go into effect unless it is approved by the Egyptian people." On the other, Wafd Party leaders declared that they would only disclose their position on the British offer before a "legitimately elected parliament." A Wafd Party statement proclaimed that "to discuss such proposals under a dictatorship is to give play to deception, adversity and strife, whereas the constitution offers light, mercy and protection. Self-determination has no meaning in a nation that is oppressed from within and deprived of its rights and liberties."

Egyptians were on tenterhooks as they awaited news of the fate of the "government of the iron fist." One imagines that Mahmoud himself knew that the end of his cabinet was near. As Al-Ahram observed, "It must be said from the news standpoint that the major activities of the cabinet came to a halt several days ago, that His Excellency the Prime Minister has been unable to obtain an interview with His Royal Majesty for 12 days and that it has been many days now that the government has not taken significant decisions, issued decrees or draft laws. The only thing that is preoccupying government circles at present is the question as to what the outcome will be."

The same question preoccupied the public and Al-Ahram allocated considerable space to the various conjectures on the subject. One of the most significant contributions was that of Mahmoud Azmi, who advocated convening a national general assembly instead of holding new parliamentary elections. "If parliamentary elections were to be held at this time, in which acrimony between the political parties is at its height, the polls will reflect the popularity of individuals rather than consideration for the issue of the treaty and its effect on the fate of the country."

In an article devoted entirely to the proposal of a national assembly, Azmi proposed that its functions be restricted to only a handful of issues. It would study the British proposals, the constitution, the electoral law and the nationality law. The assembly itself would be elected through direct popular ballot, with no restrictions on voter eligibility apart from age and legal competence. The assembly would also provide for representation of the executive and judicial branches of government, the selection of which would be contingent upon "the extent to which they are associated with the constitutional entity on the one hand and the non-intervention of any authority in the designation of the individual representatives and their number on the other."

Another reader, Ahmed Zaki Pasha, produced three articles, which appeared in Al-Ahram under the headline "My opinion on the British proposals -- Egyptians before all else." Above all, the writer warned of "national divisions" under the current circumstances. All should have one goal, which is "to reach an understanding with the British over the elimination of the privileges accorded to foreigners and the abolishment of the four reservations (stipulated in the Declaration of 28 February)." Zaki appealed to Egyptians "to scrutinise the proposed treaty on the basis of their patriotism and not to allow partisanship to stand in the way of the establishment of Egypt's independence and sovereignty." In Zaki's opinion, the British proposals as a whole offered considerable hope, adding that a Labour government that could be so indulgent with Mahmoud would perceive it in its interests to "cooperate with the united leaders of Egypt over a formula conducive to harmony and mutual affection."

Al-Ahram was not to serve merely as a forum for its readers' opinions on an issue so crucial to Egypt's future. In late August and early September its editors, too, made their input, as can be observed in a series of articles that appeared in the form of "an appeal to the nation." Like Ahmed Zaki, Al-Ahram feared the consequences of partisanship and dissension. It, therefore, appealed to the people to join forces under the banner of a single party, the "Party of Egypt," and to set aside all other affiliations. People should understand that the treaty the British were proposing this time "is the best offer they have ever made to Egypt and no other document has gone so far to meet the aspirations of our country." It added that, ultimately, the proposal was "the fruit of the fight for the Egyptian revival, paid for by the blood and souls of the victims and martyrs of this struggle."

The newspaper went on to caution against procrastinating in accepting the British offer, which was at that moment jeopardised by the weak position of the Labour government that proposed it. Citing a popular saying to the effect that complicating matters only makes matters worse, Al-Ahram went on to urge politicians to choose the wisest and easiest course, which would smooth the path to an agreement and end all bitterness.

Such level-headed opinions voiced in one of the most influential newspapers of the country did much to temper the appeals of opponents to negotiations with the British. For example, the National Party, which had proclaimed "No negotiations until evacuation," felt obliged to issue a statement that concluded, "In spite of the fact that all previous proposals have fallen short of realising the full aspirations of the people, the administrative committee of the party has unanimously resolved to form a committee to draft a report over the new proposed treaty."

Meanwhile, proponents for negotiating a treaty based on the British proposal remained active. Al-Ahram reports that a number of "Societies for the Treaty" had been formed in Cairo and the provinces under the sponsorship of Ahmed Zaki. The aim of these committees was "to promote the treaty on an entirely non-partisan basis" and their membership represented "all classes of the people, including doctors, lawyers and workers." In spite of their efforts, "the wind does not always come from where the ship would like," as the Arabic saying has it, and Egyptians would have to wait another seven years until an Anglo-Egyptian treaty, in 1936, could finally be concluded. In the interim, yet another negotiating round would run aground, this one between Henderson and Mahmoud's successor, Mustafa El-Nahhas.

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

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