Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (474)
Silent diplomat speaks out
Aziz Ezzat, Egypt's first ambassador to Britain, was the silent type. Either because he saw himself more as a representative of King Fouad I than of Egypt or perhaps because he was too pro-British, Ezzat declined to speak out publicly. But in a series of articles which appeared in Al-Ahram in 1930 and discussed here by Yunan Labib Rizk* , Ezzat let his views on Egypt's relationship with Britain be known
Egypt's first ambassador to Britain was Aziz Ezzat Pasha, who served for five years (1923-1928) as minister plenipotentiary. He was the last person students of modern Egyptian history might think would publicly declare his political position. This he did, however, in a series of articles appearing in Al-Ahram in March 1930, under the headline, "England and Egypt: recent debates in the House of Commons".
Why historians might peg Ezzat as a man who would prefer to keep his opinions private is apparent from his biography, which we cite from British Foreign Office archives. Born in 1867 and educated at Cambridge and Woolwich, Aziz Ezzat had many friends and acquaintances in Britain. That he married the granddaughter of the Khedive Ismail was certainly one explanation to his rise in government service. He began his career in the court of the Khedive Ismail and was then promoted to deputy minister of foreign affairs. From 1908 to 1923 he had no government appointment in part, perhaps, because he lived for most of this period (1914-1922) in Europe.
The biography continues, "He is more Turkish than British. Because of ill health, he carries a bottle of disinfectant in his pocket and surreptitiously washes his hands after having touched something suspicious or after shaking hands with strangers. He rarely eats outside of his home. As regards work, he is useless."
Given this clearly privileged background, one would suspect that Ezzat would be readily tagged as too pro-British, too pro- palace and too detached from Egyptian society to venture forth his ideas in a public forum, especially against the backdrop of the charged nationalist climate that prevailed at the time. That he did so is all the more remarkable due to the fact that his term as minister plenipotentiary to London saw a succession of major political developments in which he was directly involved. Not the least of these were the Zaghlul-MacDonald and the Tharwat- Chamberlain negotiations. Throughout this period he remained silent, perhaps because he saw himself more as a representative of King Fouad I than of Egypt. What made him break his silence after all that time?
The secret resides in the fact that his articles were published at a time when Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas was preparing for a new round of negotiations with British Prime Minister Arthur Henderson. Ezzat must have felt that Egyptian negotiators could benefit from advice drawn from his lengthy experience as Egypt's representative in the British capital. This is evident from his choice of subject. The discussions in the British parliament concerning Egyptian nationalist demands for the evacuation of the British and unification with Sudan received only scant attention in the Egyptian press. In Al-Ahram, for example, coverage of these debates had been largely restricted to the briefs in its column on foreign news agency bulletins.
Ezzat was well placed to offer advice. Beyond his expertise, he had cultivated many personal connections within the upper echelons of British society, not only during his lengthy period of service but well before that as a student in Cambridge and Woolwich. The latter period was of considerable importance since the schools were the seats of learning for the British upper classes, many of whom had since made their way into parliament and government.
In the first of a three-part series, the Egyptian diplomat responds to several commonly held views voiced in the British parliament. The first, originally championed by former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, was that to quit Egypt would be folly. The Suez Canal, the British Empire's vital artery, was located in Egypt and to abandon that would, quite simply, jeopardise the security of the empire.
The "silent diplomat" counters that in clinging to this position British politicians were ignoring certain basic facts. First, the Suez Canal concession was due to end in 1968, which was in 40 years -- "a trivial span of time in the life of nations". It did not stand to logic, therefore, that Egypt would embark on "a mad act that would destroy its precious heritage". Moreover, the Egyptian government had always abided by its contractual commitments, over the Suez Canal above all. Ezzat took the opportunity to remind his audience that the British had originally opposed the construction of the international waterway, and that during the 1882 uprising, Ahmed Orabi could have inflicted untold damage on the canal, but refrained from doing anything of the sort "because he realised that it was in Egypt's best interests to keep the canal safe and intact".
In all events, he continued, there was an international consensus over the need to preserve the safety and neutrality of the canal. An agreement to this effect was signed by Turkey and Russia during the war of 1877. In 1888, seven great maritime powers signed the Convention of Constantinople guaranteeing that the canal would remain open to shipping. During the Japanese-Russian war in 1904, the warring parties pledged to respect the neutrality of the canal. Even during World War I when, in 1915, Turkish forces crossed the canal, the forces made no attempt to damage it, although this would have been easy and desirable from the military standpoint. "Undoubtedly, this did not escape the general command of the German-Turkish forces, but they abided by the principle of the internationality of the canal," Ezzat wrote.
Another bone of contention between Egypt and Britain, raised by Sir Austin Chamberlain in the House of Commons, was Article 5 of the draft treaty between Egypt and Britain, which was the subject of negotiations in 1930. The article stated, "Both parties agree not to adopt a position that conflicts with the alliance or to conclude political treaties that conflict with the provisions of the current treaty." Chamberlain scoffed at this provision. "It is a mockery to suggest that the foreign policy of the British Empire should be subject to the exigencies and circumstances of the Kingdom of Egypt," he said.
In response to Chamberlain's contention, Ezzat turned to "a page in the history of the country", which recounted "the only time Egyptian soldiers heard the clashing of swords". This was in 1877, when Cairo was compelled to send a regiment of its army to "bring victory to the Ottoman sultan, the suzerain of Egypt, in the Russian-Turkish war". He then turned to the current situation between Egypt and the British Empire.
Egypt is "a small country located at the northeastern corner of the African continent and borders only a few nations. It has no desire for conquest and expansion, and its current borders (which include Sudan) are sufficient to accommodate the natural growth of its inhabitants for many years to come. Its people speak a single language and their hopes for prosperity reside solely in the tranquil development of their agrarian, commercial and scientific life."
The empire on which the sun never set, in contrast, had "obligations in every continent of the globe. It has many powerful neighbours who are jealous of its might and are eager to possess it. Its small, water-bound situation and its far-flung colonies and possessions overseas have compelled it to develop large, mighty naval and air fleets, along with fuelling stations, air and sea ports and suitable bases. In addition, there is its army about which one of its commanders said, 'It must be able to go anywhere and do anything.'"
He then asked, which of these two nations could drag the other into war? "Would it be the octopus whose tentacles reach every nook and cranny in the world or the poor, small Egyptian mouse who never peeps its head outside the borders of the Nile Valley?" The answer was obvious, if it entailed a slight shift in metaphor. The small mouse was so ensnared by treaties with "the mammoth, broad-shouldered elephant" that in the event of war, even over a dispute that the mouse had nothing to do with, it would have to furnish the elephant all available facilities and all possible assistance. Ezzat concludes, "Under the proposed article, the stronger party reaps all the glory and benefits of war while the weaker party who supplies all the assistance reaps nothing." Adapting British verse to the situation, he adds, "Yours is not to reason why. Yours is but to do and die, you poor little mouse!"
In another instalment, Ezzat took issue with two opinions aired by Lord Lloyd in the House of Lords. In the opinion of the British elder statesman, Britain should keep its forces in Cairo to ensure the preservation of order. Ezzat was surprised at this stand. During the four years that Lloyd served as high commissioner to Cairo there was not a single occasion that necessitated the use of British forces. "Nevertheless, he claims that their mere presence in the city is sufficient to prevent even the smallest ripples on the placid surface of the Nile as it passes through the country's capital."
Lloyd also maintained that the Egyptians were indebted to Britain for rescuing their country from bankruptcy, a claim which understandably angered Ezzat. Naturally, the British reiterate this hackneyed statement, he said, because it furnishes the pretext for them to perpetuate their control over Egypt indefinitely, "even though we have paid off a large portion of our debt and continue to regularly pay back the remainder".
The Egyptian diplomat then rallied to the defence of the Khedive Ismail, who was generally blamed for Egypt's enormous debt. Although Ezzat concedes that Ismail spent lavishly, he insists that the money was well spent. Were it not for the many public works he instituted, "Egypt and Sudan would have lapsed into a pitiful state far behind the progress of modern civilisation". It was to the khedive that Egypt owed the vast expansion of its railway network, the construction of suitable roadways and other modes of transportation, the expansion of a network of irrigation canals, the replanning of modern urban infrastructure in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities and towns and the creation of various government ministries and departments. In Sudan, the khedive introduced the first manifestations of modern civilisation and expanded the boundaries of that territory beyond the equator to the sources of the Nile. "In addition, there are those great services Egyptian officers contributed to science and geography through their surveys and mapping of previously uncharted Sudanese territories."
The dispute between Egyptians and the British over Sudan was a major cause of the collapse of the El-Nahhas-Henderson negotiations in 1930. Many of Ezzat's articles were devoted to rejecting British claims on the issue. Addressing the House of Commons, Lord Grey expressed his government's belief that the history of Sudan was entirely distinct from that of Egypt and that while Sudan had once been a part of Egypt the Sudanese had rebelled and expelled Egyptians from their country.
Ezzat countered that it was not Egyptian, but rather British policies and shortsightedness that caused Egypt to lose Sudan. Not only did the British command miscalculate the strength and strategies of the Mahdist forces that brought the defeat of the Egyptian army, but the Gladstone government forced the Egyptian army to evacuate Sudan. "Egypt protested but in vain. When the cabinet of Sherif Pasha proved unable to dissuade the British government from this course of action, it resigned."
Then, the British government refused to heed General Gordon's advice to appoint Zobeir Pasha governor-general of Sudan. "The reason London cited for its refusal was that Zobeir had once traded in slaves, but what ensued was completely the opposite to what the British government had intended. A decree was issued permitting the traffic in slaves and Sudan was declared autonomous under the authority of Gordon as governor-general."
In Ezzat's opinion, Zobeir had been the natural candidate for the post in Khartoum. "The tribes were threatening to resume fighting and they were restless. They had savoured the taste of blood and victory and they were thirsting for more. Had Zobeir gone to Khartoum, disastrous consequences could have been avoided." In the absence of a leader of Zobeir's calibre, tribal chiefs pressed their demand for the handover of Khartoum. "The contest between them intensified over which of these chiefs would seize the city that belonged to no one." Then, on 16 March 1885, Gordon went on the attack, but the Mahdists quickly routed his forces, "which were slaughtered while fleeing like startled rabbits, while those still alive were executed". The only sensible plan, according to Ezzat, would have been for the British-led forces "to remain in their trenches behind the walls of Khartoum until they were trained sufficiently to mount a decisive strike."
In sum, Ezzat said, Egypt was forced to temporarily evacuate Sudan because of the fatal error of the British army command, the determination of the British government to evacuate Egyptian forces against Egyptian will and because of the refusal of that government to appoint Zobeir governor-general of Sudan. Furthermore, the claim that Britain had more rights in Sudan than Egypt because of the assistance Britain gave towards reconquering Sudan did not hold water. "If the right to joint sovereignty on the basis of offering military assistance applies to Sudan, then Egypt has a greater right to demand sovereignty over Palestine and Syria. In the last war [World War I], Egypt contributed 1,200,000 soldiers to the campaign in the Levant (of whom a great many did not return), in addition to considerable funds to purchase food and supplies. Were it not for this assistance, the campaign would not have met with such success, as Lord Allenby himself has testified."
Egypt's former ambassador to London took exception to another assertion by Lord Grey in the House of Commons, which was that "the Sudanese would not agree to have Egyptian rule imposed on them again." Among the members of the house to second his opinion, one said, "The thought that Egyptian soldiers could return to Sudan haunts Sudanese patriots and threatens the excellent work that has been achieved in that country."
"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Ezzat proclaimed. The Egyptian army protected various parts in Sudan for more than 25 years during which time "our soldiers met the complete satisfaction of the Sudanese officers who commanded them, and of all the British officers." In addition, "Our men lived in total friendship and harmony with the Sudanese and married into Sudanese families. Indeed, a part of the Egyptian army was made up of Sudanese soldiers."
British MPs seized upon the assassination of Governor-General of Sudan Sir Lee Stack in 1924 to warn of the consequences of allowing the return of the Egyptian army to Sudan. Ezzat rejected the basis of this claim as well. "The assassins were not soldiers and they had no relationship with the Egyptian army. It is unfortunate that political assassinations occur in all countries of the world and Britain is no exception. Little good can come of reviving the memory of such atrocious acts."
Before letting the subject drop, Ezzat used "testimony from a Briton". In a recently published book on Egypt, the British author John Young maintained that Sir Lee Stack was assassinated in Cairo in his other capacity as sirdar, or commander-general, of Sudanese forces, rather than in his capacity as governor-general of Sudan, and that this was part of a conspiracy "to damage the relationship between Egypt and Britain". Young adds, "We played into the hands of the conspirators by attributing to the assassination all issues that have not been resolved in our relations."
There was an economic aspect to the Sudan question, voiced in parliament by members of the Liberal Party. British entrepreneurs had made huge investments in cotton cultivation and other commercial activities in Sudan and they feared that their interests would be imperiled were Egypt to regain control of the country, or so argued a Liberal MP. Responding to this concern, Ezzat maintained that Egypt would never bring harm to a legitimate commercial enterprise, whether that enterprise existed in Sudan, in Egypt or elsewhere. In defence of this claim, the diplomat took advantage of another recently published book on Egypt, from which he cited extensively. The author, a certain Mr Robertson, first examined the legal bases of the evacuation of Egyptians from Sudan. This evacuation was explicitly understood to be temporary, he wrote, and was recognised as such by the European powers that were scrambling for control over the Nile Valley in the late 19th century.
Specifically, on 12 October 1898, Lord Salisbury informed the French ambassador to London that the Nile Valley was and still remained an Egyptian possession. He added that if there had been any obstacle to or infringement of Egypt's rights due to the conquest and subsequent occupation by the Mahdi of Sudan, all trace of such violations had been immediately effaced with the victory of the Egyptian army in Umm Dorman.
Indeed, on that very day, one lord announced to parliament, "We are about to restore to Egypt what is deemed Egyptian territory." Another member of the House of Lords, referring to the face-off between the British and French in southern Sudan, observed, "The French have nothing to be ashamed of in withdrawing from Fashuda since the government of France has declared that the land under dispute was the property of Egypt." Finally, in a report on Egypt in 1899, Lord Cromer stated, "The purpose of raising the British flag over Khartoum is to prevent the spread of foreign privileges to that part of Egypt, by which I mean Sudan."
It seems appropriate that Ezzat should conclude his lengthy defence of the Egyptian cause with regard to Sudan as follows: "Those who live in the Nile's lower regions cannot inflict material harm on those who dwell in its upper regions. However, those who dwell in the areas where its waters first flow can tamper with these waters and inflict damage upon those who dwell in the river's lower regions." In so saying, the once silent diplomat underscored an important and incontrovertible truth.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.