20 - 26 June 2002
Issue No. 591
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (447)
All in FrenchFrench influence, notably the language, was exceptionally strong in Egypt in the late 1920s. French was the second language in Egyptian schools and most Egyptian educational missions went to France. French became the language of the courts and a prerequisite for a public career. That French was everywhere in Egypt angered the British who felt that spreading an Anglo-Saxon culture in the country was just as important as the political and military domination they enjoyed. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* sees what Britain did to right the imbalance
There was little warning of the clandestine war that erupted in the spring of 1929 between King Fouad I and British High Commissioner Lord George Lloyd, a war which culminated in the use of a weapon British authorities had customarily resorted to in their confrontations with Abdin Palace: the ultimatum.
Click to view caption
Lord George Lloyd
All appeared calm on the surface. The "government of the iron grip" led by Mohamed Mahmoud still enjoyed the support of both parties, and as the prime minister knew that his stay in power was contingent upon Lloyd's and Fouad's continued approval, he did all in his power to ensure their satisfaction. Simultaneously, the nationalist movement led by the Wafd Party was being kept within bounds, all the more so since London had given its blessing to Lloyd's policy of non-intervention, which is to say letting Fouad loose on the huge populist party.
However, appearances can be deceiving. Glancing back at contemporary editions of Al-Ahram, it is difficult to imagine that its readers could have detected a crisis brewing between Abdin Palace and Dubara Palace, the headquarters of the high commissioner. Nor would they have realised that the following, seemingly ordinary news item appearing on 17 January was, in fact, a declaration of war:
"There is no doubt that of all the ministries, the Ministry of Education is the most suitable for assuming the administration of the fine arts, antiquities and everything related to literature, the arts and drama. We have long advocated this on the pages of Al- Ahram and today the Ministry of Education is about to realise this aspiration, having declared its firm resolve to bring the administration of the Egyptian, Islamic Coptic museums, the Opera House and the Fine Arts under a single authority, subordinate to this ministry and headed directly by the minister of education."
Commenting on the report, Al-Ahram remarked that this "noteworthy action fully conforms with the wishes of every Egyptian. It is similar in all aspects to the university system which unifies all the higher educational institutes and faculties under a single administration while preserving the autonomy of each school or faculty. Because of this system, the directorship of the new authority must be reserved for an Egyptian. No excuse is acceptable, for there are many qualified Egyptians available, if not today then tomorrow. For can Egyptians be assured of the directorship tomorrow if it is conferred on others today? Egyptian public opinion expects its government to remain vigilant over its rights. The directorship of that authority is one of these rights and the government must protect it without the slightest remiss."
The second salvo also appeared in the form of another supposedly ordinary news item, this one in Al-Ahram of 8 March under the headline, "His Royal Highness inaugurates book exhibition." That morning, it reports, "the royal motorcade proceeded from Abdin Palace to the site of the French book exhibition. Accompanying the king, in addition to members of the court, was the French minister of industry and trade and the French members of the exhibition committee. His Highness expressed his extreme pleasure at the exhibition in response to which the French delegates expressed their heartfelt gratitude."
Later that evening, Abdin Palace hosted a banquet in honour of the organisers of the exhibition. It was attended by "the French minister plenipotentiary and his wife, the members of the French delegation and their wives, officials of the French consulates in Cairo and Alexandria and their wives, and senior officials of Abdin Palace." The British were conspicuously absent.
Before proceeding from Al-Ahram to the British archives, in which the aforementioned events were clearly perceived as the opening volleys in Fouad's war against British culture in Egypt and a championing of Francophone culture, it is important to note that the rivalry between the two had smouldered beneath the surface since the beginning of the British occupation of the country.
In the opinion of British occupation authorities, political and military domination over Egypt after 1882 was not enough. British culture had to be given preeminence in a country in which French cultural influence had the advantage of precedence. Since the arrival of the French scientific mission at the turn of the 19th century, the City of Light was the destination of most of the educational missions sent to Europe. As a result, not only did the majority of the growing Egyptian professional and intellectual cadres receive their certificates in France but French became the second language in Egyptian schools. In addition, most of the European literary works selected by Refa'a El-Tahtawi and his disciples for translation were French.
Helping to promote the dissemination of French in Egypt was that the transition from a military to a civil hierarchy in government transpired along Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon lines. In the era of the Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) French became the language of the court and soon the acquisition of French became the sine qua non for the class of rural elite that began to emerge at that time. The Mixed Court system, established in 1876, was predominantly French inspired, with the result that not only did French become the language of litigation but also the corpus of law was largely based on French law and the Napoleonic code in particular.
By the end of the 19th century, French as a language of instruction had spread, not only in the Catholic missionary schools that had been founded throughout the country but, more importantly, in government schools and higher educational institutions. Instruction in the military schools, associated with the name of their founder, Colonel Seif, was in French, as was instruction in the school of medicine, in the establishment of which Frenchman Clot Bek was instrumental. More important was the School of Administration, founded in the age of the Khedive Ismail and which eventually became the School of Law -- the major font of the Egyptian intellectuals who played key political roles in the country before and after the British occupation.
French became a prerequisite for a career in public office. The most salient example of this was Saad Zaghlul, who had to learn French once he decided to embark on a career in law following the British occupation and who went to France to obtain his licentiate in the field. His knowledge of French was one of the qualifications that not only enabled him to advance in the political arena but in the social arena as well. Zaghlul married the daughter of a prime minister, from a family belonging to Egypt's Turkish aristocracy whose day-to-day language was French.
Colonial authorities pursued a two-pronged course of action in their attempt to promote Anglo-Saxon culture in Egypt. They targeted, firstly, the Royal Academy of Law, the seat of French culture in Egypt, eliminating the French director of that institute in the 1890s. Secondly, they introduced English as the language of instruction in the primary and secondary schools administered by the Ministry of Education.
These policies, however, failed to achieve their objectives. Alongside the Royal Academy of Law there arose the French School of Law, which attracted high levels of enrollment because of the continued need to learn the law in French in order to qualify for a career in the judiciary. Meanwhile, the conversion to the English language in Ministry of Education schools encountered strong resistance by the nationalist movement, culminating in an open clash between the British adviser to that ministry, Douglas Dunlop, and Saad Zaghlul in his capacity as minister of education from 1906-1908.
In all events, the small British expatriate community paled in comparison to that of the French, the third largest foreign community in Egypt after the Greek and Italian, and of disproportionately greater influence. For the French this was a source of considerable pride and they were keen to sustain this influence as is evidenced by the Entente Cordiale. Under this agreement, concluded in 1904, the British recognised the right of the French to head the Egyptian Antiquities Authorities and pledged to maintain their authority over French schools in the country.
In view of the foregoing, the rivalry between the Anglophone and Francophone cultures in the Egyptian arena remained a major preoccupation of the occupant of Dubara Palace. On the occasion of the founding of King Fouad University in 1925, for example, then-British High Commissioner Lord Allenby furnished his government with a range of facts and statistics in support of his plea for measures to redress the imbalance between French and British cultural sway.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Lord Lloyd should take exception to those seemingly ordinary events reported in Al-Ahram in the spring of 1929. In a dispatch to London he expressed his concern over the fanfare accorded by the king and the pro-palace press to the French book exhibition. Fouad's "pro-Latin" tendencies were well known, he said, and had manifested themselves on previous occasions.
For example, the British official complained that the Egyptian king had forbidden the queen and princesses from attending a charity hosted by Lady Lloyd in December 1927, ostensibly on the grounds that Muslim women could not attend such functions if they were not dedicated to Islamic philanthropic purposes.
Then, more recently, Minister of Education Ali Maher, a palace puppet in the opinion of Lloyd, succeeded in transforming the Faculty of Letters at Fouad University into a "bastion of French culture". Soon afterwards Maher was appointed to the university's board of administration, a decision that followed closely on the heels of the appointment of Tawfiq Rifaat as chairman of that board. Both these individuals were "in the king's camp and of pro-French sympathies", Lloyd wrote, adding that the majority of members of that board were Francophiles. This development was particularly worrisome in view of the part the board was playing in rooting out the remaining British professors in the Faculty of Letters. In a lengthy report to London on 22 March, the high commissioner wrote, "The minister of education has informed me that Fouad was adamant upon the appointment of Tawfiq Rifaat in spite of the government's reservations. This provides yet another example of the king's antagonism towards the influence of British culture in the university."
In a subsequent letter, Lloyd listed the number of professors of Latin (Italian, French and Belgian) cultural leanings who held chairs in the Egyptian university: six out of nine in the Faculty of Law and six out of 10 in the Faculty of Letters. He urged his government to approve measures to stop this trend. One course of action Lloyd proposed was to make English the language of instruction throughout the university. This should apply in particular to the Faculty of Letters with the exception of the departments of French literature and Arabic literature. In the interests of implementing this proposal he suggested that four British professors be appointed to chairs in that faculty, specifically the chairs of mediaeval history, modern history, history of the ancient Orient and geography. He further recommended that if no Egyptian or British candidates were available for those posts, Scandinavians should be considered.
Exactly how these recommendations were to be applied practically Lloyd failed to clarify, which undoubtedly is at least part of the reason officials in the Home Office gave them no further attention.
In addition to the French book exhibition and the situation in the university, there were other Francophone-related activities that ruffled the British high commissioner. On 26 April, he conveyed to the Foreign Office his anxiety over the intention of the Paris-based Association Litteraire et Artistique Internationale to hold its next annual convention in the Egyptian capital. It had come to his attention that the chairman of that association, Monsieur Maillard, had approached Mahmoud Fakhri, the Egyptian minister plenipotentiary in Paris, for this purpose and the minister had responded that he would do his best to help realise the aim.
Lloyd feared that such a conference would constitute a demonstration in favour of the French cultural influence in Egypt. He had learned that the French chairman of the Suez Canal Company had put his weight behind Maillard's project and that many French scholars of Arab and Islamic studies were equally eager to help bring the conference to fruition. In addition, sources close to the king had informed Lloyd that Fouad welcomed the idea enthusiastically. Concluding, the British high commissioner urged his government to ask Paris to prevent the French association from pressing ahead with its proposed conference.
Fine Arts was another battleground for the Anglo-French cultural confrontation. Lloyd believed that the new administration was created in response to pressure from Fouad and that Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud had no choice but to agree. In spite of the fact that Naguib El-Hilali was to head the authority, the high commissioner felt that the French influence would dominate through M Hautecoeur, the chairman of fine arts. "This action will bring French influence into the secondary schools where British culture currently prevails," Lloyd fretted.
Many Egyptians felt differently, as was apparent in a lengthy article in Al-Ahram, arguing for the need to promote art instruction in Egyptian schools. In the newspaper's opinion art instruction in the country's schools had been unjustifiably neglected. "We thought it was something of no value," it wrote. "Nor did we have qualified, or even semi-qualified, art teachers and drawing classes consisted of giving the students prints of Arabic ornamental designs for them to copy. However, the programme of art instruction has changed now. Students are taught the principles of colour, how to create decorative patterns and not just copy them, and how to draw from nature rather than imitating model paintings. These elements of the programme are clearly delineated in the curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education."
The article went on to contend that the purpose of providing children with art instruction was commonly misunderstood. "The aim is not to produce painters, but rather to refine the senses and to hone aesthetic discernment, the results of which process will manifest themselves in the design of furniture and cabinetry, in the acquisition of artistic collections and in the decoration of offices and assembly halls."
Enthusiasm in Egypt for the promotion of the arts and art education was met with similar enthusiasm in France, fuelling the fires of the covert war. The French periodical, L'Art Vivant, published a special issue on Egypt, "containing exquisite photographs of ancient buildings and natural vistas in the country". The magazine also included an article by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hafez Afifi, another by curator of the Louvre entitled "An Egyptian statue speaks", a brief history of the development of Egyptian art by a professor of linguistics, an article on Pharaonic art by the curator of the Royal Museum in Brussels, another on the fine arts in Egypt by Hautecoeur, in addition to many more on the Islamic Museum, the Coptic Museum, Islamic architecture in Egypt and dress and jewellery in Egypt since the Arab conquest.
The magazine, along with the fact that many of its articles were translated and republished in Al-Ahram, confirmed Lloyd's suspicions that the French were bent on a war of cultural penetration in Egypt. The high commissioner's dispatches to London grew increasingly fervent until finally his superiors began to take action, in the form of an instruction to the British ambassador in Paris to protest the surge in French cultural activity in Egypt. At the same time, however, Chamberlain cautioned Lloyd that his reports did not offer sufficient grounds to provoke a crisis between London and Paris and that he preferred to defer the entire issue until they could discuss it face to face when Lloyd returned to London.
Before acting on his instructions, Sir Tyrrell, the British ambassador to France, thought it best to do some background research first. What he discovered was that the Association Litteraire was a small organisation with only a handful of French members and whose director hoped to promote it by calling it "international". The ambassador did not believe that the situation was of such gravity as to merit lodging a protest with the government of France. Tyrrell then tossed the ball into Lloyd's court. He agreed to bring the subject up with the French minister of foreign affairs, but at the same time Lloyd should put some pressure on the Egyptian king, who was "the source of the evil".
Lloyd acted accordingly. On 29 May 1929, he went to Alexandria where Fouad resided in the summer in his palace in Ras Al-Tin. The meeting between the two men was not pleasant. Lloyd reports that after the opening courtesies he went straight to the subject, going over the actions the king had taken to undermine the influence of Anglo-Saxon culture in favour of Latin cultural influence. Fouad objected to what he called groundless accusations. With regard to the university, for example, his aim was only to procure the best professors regardless of their nationality.
The high commissioner responded that he preferred to refer to the points he had outlined as "protests" rather than "accusations". He added that if His Royal Highness had no ulterior motives then the king's representatives must have implemented his policies -- especially with regard to the staffing choices for the Faculty of Letters -- in a manner that London took to convey as an anti- British spirit.
Fouad was furious. "The university can go to hell!" he shouted.
As for the Administration of Fine Arts, Fouad claimed that the creation of this authority had originally been the idea of Ali El- Shamsi, adding that Lutfi El-Sayed pursued a similar policy when he was minister of education. Lloyd was not convinced. He found it difficult to believe such policies could go into effect without the blessing of Abdin Palace, especially at a time when the king had the upper hand in directing the course of Egyptian affairs.
Lloyd continued to batter away at Fouad's pleas of innocence until the king finally gave in and tendered an apology. But for the British high commissioner in Egypt this was not enough. He continued to press for lodging an official protest with the government of France and soon his wish was granted.
At a meeting with the French foreign minister on 3 July the British ambassador raised the issue. As Tyrrell had expected the French official vehemently denied that his government was pursuing a policy of promoting Latin culture to the detriment of Anglo-Saxon culture in Egypt and charged that Lloyd was blowing the situation all out of proportion.
This was to be the final chapter in the battle between Lloyd and Fouad over Anglophone versus Francophone cultural influence in Egypt. The Conservative government led by Chamberlain fell, bringing into power a Labour government in which Henderson was given the portfolio of minister of foreign affairs. Henderson, in turn, was dissatisfied with the way Lloyd was managing his office with Egypt and soon had the high commissioner recalled. It was then not long before the government of Mohamed Mahmoud resigned, constitutional life was restored and the king no longer had such a free hand in managing the country. With these developments the warring parties were neutralised.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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