Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (479)
The Western way
The Western gateway, one of Egypt's main sources of diversity in population and culture, has invariably played the least prominent role because of the forbidding desert stretch that separates the route from the Nile Valley. But Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes that this particular gateway has had its moments of significance
Because of the "genius" of its location, as the late scholar Gamal Hamdan described it, Egypt has never been isolated from the world around it. On the contrary, it has always been a "melting pot", in times of peace and of war, with all the advantages that brought, above all, different peoples and cultures that constantly generated something new and distinct.
Click to view caption
Omar Al-Mukhtar, chained to prison guards, heads towards his execution by a firing squad in 1931
These influences arrived through four gateways. They came from the Mediterranean to the north, in the form of the invasions from the sea's islands and northern peninsulas and in the form of commerce with the inhabitants of the cities of southern Europe. They came from the south, via that eternal artery that binds the peoples of the Nile Valley. And they came across the Sinai to the east, that most portentous of gateways that held the constant threat of invasion, from the Hyksos in Pharaonic times to Israel today.
The Western gateway, however, never figured as prominently in Egyptian history as the others because of the Great Sand Sea that separates it from the Nile Valley. This formidable natural barrier was the subject of a lengthy article by Al- Ahram Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat on 18 October 1931. Siwa, Barakat wrote, has forever prevented invaders from crossing the Egyptian desert. The passageway from the Nile Valley to that oasis is 1,400 kilometres long and 400 kilometres wide, and its flat barrenness and scarcity of water deterred most desert raiders from that direction.
Nevertheless, the Western gateway did play significant roles from time to time, inspiring a multi-faceted story in modern history. One chapter of this story opens in the early 20th century, from 1911-1912, with the Italian colonialist invasion of Libya. Egyptians refused to stand idle upon the outbreak of war between the invaders and the Turkish forces stationed in that neighbouring country, which was still under Ottoman suzerainty. They smuggled arms across the borders and volunteered their services to the Turkish forces. Ultimately, however, the decision of British colonial authorities to remain neutral, combined with the feebleness of the "Old Man of Europe", Europe's nickname for the Ottoman sultan, resulted in Istanbul's capitulation and surrender of Libya to Italy. An aggressive power now loomed hungrily at Egypt's Western gateway.
This hunger soon directed itself at Libya's border with Egypt. Italy was desperate to establish a clear frontier that would enable it to vent its anger at the Senousi resistance that was centred in Jabub, then part of Egyptian territory. There followed various levels of pressure upon the Egyptian government, not only from Italy but also from the British, which eventually resulted in an agreement in 1925 that ceded that oasis to Libya. Egyptian nationalists were incensed by the forfeiture of part of Egyptian territory, with their anger focussing in particular on then Minister of Interior Ismail Sidqi, who represented the Egyptian government in negotiations that produced an agreement that he refused to sign.
Another chapter in the story of the Western gateway found its way into the Egyptian consciousness at the beginning of the 1930s, as news filtered through on the resurgence in the Libyan national resistance movement, led this time by the illustrious revolutionary leader, Omar Al-Mukhtar. In order to counter the insurgence and strengthen their grip on the colony, the Italians resorted to numerous means, one of which was to extend railways across the country.
Under the headline, "The Italian position in Libya: the desert railway project", Al-Ahram of 26 January 1931 announced that plans for the project had already been drawn up and that it only awaited final approval. That approval had been delayed until this point, it continued, was due to insufficient finances. "However, the Italians could find the necessary money once they gain mastery over Libya and the oases in the interior. Once they succeed in this, the country would monopolise at the very least half of the commerce with equatorial Africa, through which Italy will secure for itself new sources of wealth and Libya will become a hub of transit trade and a market of considerable importance."
That the bill concerning the proposed railway was currently before the Italian Parliament afforded the Italian colonial minister to outline Rome's policies on Libya. In Tripoli, the areas occupied the previous year had been reorganised. In Burqa, while military action there stirred international criticism particularly with regard to the appropriation of property belonging to the Senousis and the construction of concentration camps, the occupation of Al-Kufra in the southern portion of that province had greatly extended the Italian presence there. This, the minister added, would make it possible to take control over certain areas in the vicinity of the borders with Sudan.
He then turned to the frontier with Egypt. The area, he said, was vulnerable to disturbances because of insufficient security measures. The colonial authorities had been forced to close the borders with Egypt "because the rebels (referring to the followers of Omar Al-Mukhtar) have been receiving supplies smuggled across the border and all attempts to prevail upon the Egyptian government to prevent that have failed to bear fruit."
The statement was the prelude to a brief period of mutual accusations between Rome and Cairo. In a memorandum to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome complained of the repeated raids by Bedouin marauders across the border against Italian forces. After investigating the charge, the governor of the Western Desert replied that it was Italian soldiers who had crossed the borders into Egypt in their pursuit of the Bedouins, and demanded a halt to such incursions.
The situation continued in this vein throughout the summer of 1931, until news broke out of a development that Egyptians would certainly have found distressful. On 16 of September that year, the Al-Ahram correspondent sent a telegram reporting the capture of Omar Al-Mukhtar. He wrote, "On 11 September, the Italian 7th regiment surrounded the area of Salwenta and succeeded in capturing the leader Omar Al-Mukhtar. Italian forces left in the battle field 12 dead and 14 horses and seized seven horses and 10 rifles."
The Egyptian correspondent noted that an Italian newspaper had praised the revolutionary leader for his courage and military prowess. However, two days after his capture, Al-Mukhtar was brought to a summary trial, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad. "He was 80 years old and confessed to all the charges brought against him."
Al-Ahram condemned the brutal action of the Italian colonial administration in Libya; all other Egyptian newspapers shared its sentiments. Al-Balagh, the widest-circulating newspaper at the time, was shocked by the Italian offensive in Libya. "The country does not belong to them and there are no bonds of kinship linking the two countries. Omar Al-Mukhtar refused to accept that occupation, raised the banner of Jihad and appealed to the people of Tripoli to expel the colonialist intruders." The newspaper compared Al- Mukhtar to a man whose home had been broken into and calls out to family, friends and neighbours to catch the thief. "This is the man whom God willed to fall into the hands of his enemy to be executed by firing squad as though he were a criminal. The East has derived a lesson from this which is more powerful than that which dying in the field of battle could deliver."
Perhaps more significant than the mood of the press were the opinions of some prominent Egyptian personalities, above all Abdel-Rahman Azzam and Prince Omar Touson. The former, according to the file on him in the secret archives of the British Foreign Office, was of Bedouin origin and the son of the representative from Giza in the Legislative Assembly. Having failed in his studies in medicine, Azzam became a political activist. A supporter of the National Party, he was also a close friend of nationalist leader Mohamed Farid. With the outbreak of World War I, he joined up with the Bedouin tribes in the Western Desert where he narrowly escaped a death sentence for his role in defending the Senousis.
Following the war, he returned to Egypt where he once again embarked on a political career, becoming the parliamentary deputy for Al-Ayat. Although an extremist -- as the British dossier described him -- Azzam's Bedouin virtues and an incisive wit won him much admiration among the British. Indeed, these traits may have contributed to his nomination as the first secretary-general of the Arab League.
"How was Omar Al-Mukhtar killed and for what offense?" Azzam asks in an article published in Al-Ahram on 25 September 1931. He was horrified upon reading reports in the British press that the Italian authorities in Libya had rounded up 20,000 political prisoners and ordinary Libyans to watch the execution of the revolutionary who, according to the Italian press, confessed to all charges against him. In bitterly sarcastic tones, he asks whether Omar's executioners observed all the customary rites such as blindfolding him. Did they, in deference to his old age, lend him a stick upon which to lean as they led him to the execution grounds or did they find him smiling, rejuvenated, striding to his death with a clear conscience?
The focal point of Azzam's article, however, was a parody of Al- Mukhtar's trial in the form of an interrogation between the revolutionary and his interrogators:
"Do you love Italy?"
"Have you ever bowed to its authority?"
"Have you ever asked it for anything for yourself?"
"Have you ever been offered a gift, post, rank or honour and refused?"
"Did you fight the Italian army since the day it invaded Tripoli?"
"Have you continued in this endeavour for the past 20 years?"
"Did you assume general command in 1923?
"Did you realise that the Italians outnumbered you in every way?"
"Do you know that your shrewdness, cunning and skill cost the Italian government millions of francs and tens of thousands of lives?"
"Why did you do what you did?"
"Because I am an Arab Muslim."
"Are you still determined to remain an Arab Muslim?"
Even the Italian press, Azzam remarks in conclusion, described Al-Mukhtar as "selfless, devoid of personal ambitions and preoccupied solely by the case of freedom for his people". Two years earlier, the Italian governor of the colony had fallen into Omar's hands, yet he treated him with the utmost respect, in stark contrast to the infamy of the Italians towards him.
Omar Touson was the grandson of the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha. According to British Foreign Office archives, he lived in Alexandria and possessed vast tracts of land. A widely respected figure, he was also an ardent supporter of the nationalist movement and was active in many fields of public and intellectual life. With regard to the current subject, Touson had an avid interest in exploring and surveying the Western Desert, an interest that yielded numerous articles that appeared in Al-Ahram and other newspapers.
Touson drew attention to the fact that Al-Mukhtar's execution coincided with a conference on colonial affairs that met in Florence. Of particular note in the conference was a paper delivered by Dr Giuseppi on North Africa in general and Egypt in particular. The lecture was very revealing with regard to Italy's intentions in the region.
The Italian professor observed that Egypt's population had risen from two million in 1800 to 15 million in 1927, of which only 200,000 were Europeans. "The presence of such a large non- Christian and non-European kingdom necessitates the creation of a European nation of comparable population density next to it," he said. However, as Libya could not possibly absorb the necessary number of Europeans, the Italian, French and Spanish colonies of North Africa could amass, collectively, tens of thousands. On this basis, he issued an ominous appeal: "As the native inhabitants in those colonies are relatively few and, therefore, incapable of exploiting the resources of those lands to the fullest, Italy, France and Spain, which are all Latin, Christian nations and have extensive interests in the Mediterranean, should send to North Africa large populations of Europeans of diverse skills and industries." Prince Touson took the opportunity to alert his fellow Egyptians to "the dangers that lurk in the future" and urged them to "take heed of what is taking place around them".
Omar Touson was not alone in his sense of foreboding. The execution of Al-Mukhtar, combined with the ideas aired in the Florence conference, instilled many Egyptians with the fear that the winds that were blowing from their Western gateway were much more ominous than the khamasin winds that also blow from that direction.
It was only natural, therefore, that government officials and ordinary Egyptians began to pay closer attention to the portion of the country adjacent to the Libyan border. As the Western Desert at the time fell under the Border Authority, it is not surprising that an official from this agency was among the first to alert the public to how "backwards" and "stagnant" that area was. The cause of this state of affairs, in his opinion, was the centuries-long influence of tribal customs and traditions.
However, the person to offer a broader perspective was Prince Touson. The area had not always been so underdeveloped, he maintained. According to historical sources, he wrote, at the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, an uninterrupted chain of gardens extended westward along the coast between Alexandria and Burka, extending inland to a depth of between 15 and 20 kilometres. "This fertility would not have existed were it not for rainfall," he added. Restoring this once cultivable region to its former fertility would require considerable manpower, which would simultaneously provide a human shield against Italian ambitions. It was thus to this issue that Touson devoted the rest of his article.
In rehabilitating agriculture in that region, he proposed as the first step extending the Nubariya Canal westwards, thereby bringing to it the waters of the Nile floods. The project would yield multiple advantages. It would be possible to put the land on both sides of the canal under cultivation, up to a total width of 60 kilometres. The canal would also have the effect of raising the water table to the south and, through the process of natural filtration, the water would be desalinated. This, in turn, raised the possibility of creating artificial fisheries but with the vast amounts of water that would become available it would also be possible to form inland lakes near Alexandria. These lakes could be used for recreational purposes, such as boat racing, which would attract much needed tourism to the city. Finally, as the ground level rose over the years with the accumulation of fertile alluvial soil from the Nile, it would eventually become possible to stop irrigation from the Nile and use, instead, the existing surface water which will be suitable for agriculture.
The area would also have to be linked to the Nile Valley by road, which Touson suggested should extend along the coast from Al- Maks to Abu-Sira in its initial phase. The road would bring the additional advantage of promoting commerce and tourism "for the excursion lovers from Alexandria". Finally, he turns to the cisterns, some of them very old, located along the coast between Alexandria and Sallum, as well as southwards between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa. The most famous were Al-Astabl Cistern, located on the Marsa Matrouh-Siwa road that had taken the name of the cistern, and Abu Mukhit cistern between Al-Harawala and Umm Al-Saghir. Prince Touson urged the government to clean and repair the cisterns which would then serve to collect rainwater. He adds that it would be impossible to consume the collected water in these receptacles which "today are far fewer than they were in ancient times".
With all this public attention on the Western frontier, it was not long before the government of Ismail Sidqi turned its attention in that direction as well. One issue that immediately aroused the government's interest was the response of the inhabitants of the area to the above-mentioned report by an official in the Borders Authority complaining of their backwardness and lawlessness. In a letter to the minister of war, the "notables, merchants and Bedouins of the tribe of Awlad Ali state that the laws in effect in the Western Desert are just, legal and conform with our customs as acknowledged in the era of the dearly departed Mohamed Ali Pasha. We enjoy justice, freedom and order in our area and we do not accept the intervention of others in our affairs."
Commenting on this development, Al-Ahram reported that the government had no intention of changing the system of government there, which was perfectly acceptable. With regard to the system of justice, it had a three-tier system. There was a preliminary court whose rulings were approved by the directorate head. At a higher level was a court that was overseen by the governor of the Western Desert province, and finally there was a supreme court that was founded and supervised by the minister of war.
More importantly, however, the prime minister decided that now was the time to take a tour of Egypt's Western gateway in order to reassure the people of the Western Desert and Egyptians in general that the government was aware of the situation on the other side of the border. However, the stated purpose of the visit, as Al-Ahram reported, was "to appraise the situation in the Western Desert and, in fulfillment of the wishes of His Royal Majesty the King, to examine possible means and measures for developing it and advancing the welfare of its people."
The prime minister's tour began in Marsa Matrouh, where he was received by local officials and notables, among whom were members of the Senousi clan, "chief among whom was Al-Sayed Safieddin Al-Senousi". Although Al-Ahram does not comment further on this reception, its significance would not have escaped Egyptian readers at the time.
At 8am on 14 October 1931, Sidqi and his retinue left the northern coastal town for Siwa, where it arrived six hours later. Following a short speech to the inhabitants of the oasis, Sidqi went to the military outpost on the Egyptian-Libyan border in an area called Bir Shiba. From the other side, a group of Italian officers approached and presented Sidqi, on behalf of the commander of Libya's eastern quarter, with best wishes for the welfare and prosperity of Egypt and his majesty the king. In spite of this gesture of goodwill, which Sidqi acknowledged gracefully, the Egyptians remained apprehensive over the possible dangers that continued to lurk on the other side of their Western gateway. Their fears were not misplaced. Less than a decade later came the start of World War II and the subsequent invasion by the legions of the Axis powers into Egyptian territory.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.