Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life: (540)
Diplomacy on the hoof
The announced transfer from London of Egypt's Minister Plenipotentiary Hafez Afifi in 1934 caused an unusual diplomatic commotion. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk*
examines the incident
On 2 May 1934 the Morning Post announced the Egyptian government had decided to transfer Hafez Afifi, its minister plenipotentiary to London. "British officials have expressed their sincere regrets over this widely criticised decision and expressed their greatest esteem for Afifi whose adroitness and personal charm did much to improve the relationship between Britain and Egypt," the newspaper wrote, adding that the sudden removal of this highly admired figure "weakens the position of the Egyptian Embassy, all the more so as no official explanation has been offered for what in effect appears to be the removal of an outstanding official who adhered to the loftiest traditions of diplomacy in the service of his country."
Given the diplomatic stir this incident created, some background is in order, both on Afifi and the position from which he was to be removed. For the former, we turn to his file in the British Foreign Office archives.
"Born in Cairo in 1886, he was educated in Cairo, obtaining his diploma in medicine in 1907. Over the following year he served as an on-duty surgeon in Qasr Al-Aini Hospital after which he travelled to Ireland for a six-month internship at Rotunda Hospital. He then went to Paris for another six-month internship in the Pediatric Hospital after which he returned to Cairo.
"In 1912, during the Turkish-Italian war in Tripoli, he was chosen to head the Egyptian Red Cross mission in which capacity he spent nearly a year in Cyrenaica. During this period he became acquainted with Anwar Pasha, Mustafa Kemal and other nationalist leaders, who charged him with escorting Sheikh Ahmed Al- Senusi, the leader of the Senusi Brotherhood, from Taaza to Jaghboub. Upon his return to Egypt he took up work with the Children's Hospital in Cairo, of which he became director. In 1919 he joined the Wafd Party, led by Saad Zaghlul, and became a member of the nationalist delegation that travelled to Paris to press the Egyptian cause at the Versailles peace conference and then to London to negotiate with the British.
"In 1921 Hafez Afifi resigned from the Wafd and became one of the founding fathers of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. He founded Al-Siyasa, the party mouthpiece, which for a period became one of the most prestigious Egyptian dailies. Such was his influence in the Liberal Constitutionalist Party that he was elected its vice president. In 1925 the Egyptian government appointed him to represent Egypt at an international pediatrics conference held in Geneva.
"In May 1926 he was elected to parliament. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Adli in April 1927, Prime Minister Tharwat nominated Afifi as minister of war. Although King Fouad did not approve this nomination, he would later approve Afifi's nomination as minister of foreign affairs under Mohamed Mahmoud. Serving in this position from June 1928 to October 1929, he succeeded in improving his ties with the palace while simultaneously maintaining loyalty to Mohamed Mahmoud.
"If domestically he was instrumental in augmenting the autocratic tendencies of the Liberal Constitutionalists, in foreign policy he worked to sustain amicable relations while remaining committed to Egyptian interests. In 1929 he undertook two trips to England and other European countries.
"In June 1930 he was appointed again as minister of foreign affairs in the cabinet of Ismail Sidqi. However, he resigned in mid-July of that year in order to become Egypt's minister plenipotentiary to London. Although loyal to the new regime he was wary of the politics of the palace."
Although the Foreign Office biography ends here, four years before Afifi's dismissal as minister plenipotentiary to London, it is worth noting that Egyptian politicians of the period tended to be of two schools. The first might be termed the francophone school in that most of its adherents completed their studies, generally in law, in France. These for the most part dominated public life, both in government and in the vanguard of the nationalist movement. The second, the Anglo-Saxon school, found most of its adherents among the graduates of Victoria College in Alexandria, which is undoubtedly why officials at the British high commissioner's office often referred to them as the "Victorians". Among those to have made an important political mark were Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud, Amin Othman Pasha and the subject of this episode of the Chronicle, Hafez Afifi.
Afifi never denied his pro-British affinities, evidence of which can be seen in abundance in The British in their Country, his 500-page study on diverse aspects of government, politics, economics, the law and education in England and on the rule of the British Empire. Perhaps his closing observation on the Empire best illustrates his admiration for the British. The British Empire will grow stronger, he wrote, if Britain succeeds in sustaining its international might and reputation, whether economically, by remaining the largest financial market in the world and consolidating its industrial structures, or politically, by ensuring that its policies and its fleet continue to enjoy international respect. The Egyptian public was only able to ascertain the extent of his pro-British sympathies upon the publication of this work in Cairo in 1935 even though he had completed it a year earlier while still Egypt's minister plenipotentiary to London.
The position of minister plenipotentiary has been the subject of a number of academic studies on the history of Egyptian diplomacy, one of which, The History of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 1826-1937, is by the author of this series. The starting point for Egypt's modern diplomatic corps is 24 September 1923, the date on which a set of royal decrees appointed "ambassadors extraordinary and ministers plenipotentiary" to represent the country abroad. The prime postings of these officials were to the British, French, American and Italian capitals, of which the first was of the highest importance given the "very special" relationship between Egypt and Britain. An indication of the stature of this position can be found in the Foreign Office file on the Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Abdel-Aziz Ezzat Pasha whose curriculum vitae reads: "Of Albanian origin, educated in Cambridge and married to the granddaughter of the Khedive Ismail. At one point he served as deputy minister of foreign affairs, however he has not served in a government position for the past 15 years. He has close friendships with a number of British officials in Egypt, most notably Lord Cecil."
The importance which Egypt attached to its London embassy was not only apparent in the calibre of its staff but also in its number. In addition to the mission heads there was a chancellor, first secretary and two second secretaries. The Egyptian Embassy also had a rather prestigious address: Bute House, 75 South Audley Street. Unfortunately, staffing at the upper echelons was rather erratic. On 9 December, 1927 Abdel-Aziz Ezzat resigned. King Fouad, rushing to fill the post, offered the vacancy to Adli Yakan Pasha who had just stepped down as prime minister a few months earlier. Yakan decided that he would rather end his public career as a former prime minister than a representative of the palace in the Egyptian Embassy of London. Because of tension between the king and the Wafd Party no other candidates were forthcoming and the position remained unfilled for two and a half years. The rise to power of Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi resolved the standoff over this issue in favour of the palace, clearing the way for the appointment of Hafez Afifi as the new Bute House resident. The importance of this sensitive posting is epitomised by the fact that Afifi resigned as minister of foreign affairs in order to take up a subordinate position in the ministry.
We return once more to British Foreign Office archives in order to unravel the mystery behind Afifi's sudden removal from the British capital. These documents suggest that the king's chief representative in London did not implement the royal wishes as faithfully as he should have. As Afifi himself related to his friends, he saw himself more as a diplomat than a politician. In his opinion one of the reasons his relationship with the palace soured was his disapproval of King Fouad's policy of paying British newspapers to promote the palace over other Egyptian factions. Afifi felt such articles in the British press were counterproductive and that it was not the job of an Egyptian minister plenipotentiary to enter journalistic battles.
Meanwhile, back home, the influential economic official Ahmed Aboud was scheming to persuade the king that he could use his connections with British financial circles to influence London's policies. Indeed, Aboud said that he counted among his friends Mr Dudley Docker, who claimed to have the British prime minister in his pocket. The king was quickly won over to the idea of having Aboud replace Afifi.
Afifi soon found himself the subject of petty bureaucratic harassment, not least of which was the refusal to grant him leave in the winter of 1934. He had little difficulty in realising the quarter from which this trouble was coming and tendered his resignation.
News of the resignation of the Egyptian minister plenipotentiary to London did not long remain secret. On 7 May an Al-Ahram headline blazoned, "Reshuffle in the diplomatic corps". The article opens with the assertion that the diplomatic corps was intended to serve the nation, not a specific cabinet, "however short or long it remains in power," for "if every new cabinet took the freedom to engage and dismiss such functionaries as it pleased our diplomatic affairs would be in complete chaos."
After demonstrating the need for stability in the diplomatic corps with a lengthy account of the history of this institution in the US and Britain, the newspaper turned to "reports circulating several months ago regarding the intention of the Egyptian government to effect significant personnel changes in the diplomatic corps, notably in our embassy in London. It has been our hope that the government would revise this intention," the article commented, "because Egypt has only just begun to venture into the realm of diplomatic representation and it is in its interests to ensure that its representatives abroad are of the highest calibre, possessing the skills and finesse needed to win respect for their country, to enhance its international prestige and to defend its interests whenever necessary."
Turning to Afifi, the newspaper remarked, "We are unaware of the exigency that prompted our government to withdraw its minister plenipotentiary from London or of the circumstances that caused him to resign. However, we do know that, being new to the world of diplomacy, we have a paucity of competent men, that we might find astute and competent candidates but lacking in training or the veteran diplomat with the training but not the competence."
Clearly, the newspaper believed that Afifi was one of the rare individuals to combine all the necessary virtues for "that post so vital to our foreign policy, the minister plenipotentiary to London, in which capacity he has served for more than three years with consummate adroitness". It continues, "The government may have a reason that we are unaware of for its inclination to transfer him from this position. However, we cannot help but feel that the vacancy he will leave in London would be a grave loss, regardless of who replaces him. We would like to call the government's attention to the lack of prudence or poor wisdom of such transfers by virtue of which the nation forfeits its most competent and capable men while gaining nothing to compensate for such a loss."
Al-Ahram was not alone in the field to criticise the palace's meddling in the diplomatic service, widely perceived as another bid by King Fouad to consolidate more power into his hands. Against this background we can understand the outcry in the Wafd Party press, even if at first glance it seems inconsistent with the long-standing differences, if not open hostility, between the party and Afifi. The crisis over the London portfolio provided a perfect opportunity to get back at both Afifi and the palace. Thus, in a lengthy editorial, Al-Jihad suggested that Afifi's resignation had not been motivated by principle. It was well known that he had no bones to pick the government's methods of rule that were plaguing the nation or its policies with respect to Britain. "It therefore does not stand to reason that his resignation was inspired by pity for the nation and the desire to defend it from tyranny. What does stand to reason is that Dr Afifi and his erstwhile master -- a reference to the king -- were pursuing the same ends and at half-time, it was inevitable that his brother would meet the same fate.
Nor were some British newspapers all that mournful over the dismissal of the Egyptian minister plenipotentiary, if we are to judge by the sarcastic tones of a commentary in the Evening News. Describing Afifi and his wife as among the luminaries of life in the West End, it remarked, "He hosted some of the most splendid parties ever arranged by foreign political representatives in London. In these Egyptian Embassy parties, he proved his genius at gathering together the cream of London's dignitaries and celebrities and his flare for preserving an opulent grandeur unrivalled by his diplomatic peers in recent years. The elegance parading around the ballroom in these affairs was reminiscent of the lustrous soirees before the war with their gatherings of princes of the Orient, eminent consuls in London and the most beautiful women."
If many imagined that the London embassy crisis would quickly subside following Afifi's resignation they were mistaken. Successive editions of Al-Ahram over the following months indicated that it remained an issue for the next eight months until 14 November 1934, when the vacant position was filled.
Given the importance of the diplomatic post in London, the shaky circumstances of the Abdel-Fattah Yehia government and the knowledge that the government was about to announce a number of new diplomatic postings, it was widely expected that some prominent figure would soon be northward bound to take up the reins at Bute House. Yet when readers opened their Al-Ahram on the morning of 31 July they found that among the many diplomatic and consular appointments that were listed, that for the minister plenipotentiary to London was conspicuously absent. The newspaper reported that Mahmoud Fakhri Pasha was designated minister plenipotentiary and ambassador extraordinary to both Spain and France and that Hassan Nashat Pasha and Mohamed Abdel-Malak Hamza Bek would be leaving their postings at the same grade in Czechoslovakia and Romania respectively. The only mention made of the London mission was that Abdel-Wahab Dawoud, "advisor with the political bureau of the government of His Majesty the King of Great Britain", was to become chargé d'affaires.
In an attempt to explain this mystery, Al-Ahram held that the critic who took the missing appointment of a new minister plenipotentiary to London as a lapse on the part of Foreign Ministry officials was far from understanding the intricacies of diplomatic life. "What to the simple critic is weakness is in fact strength as it takes into consideration the numerous political and social subtleties involved in a diplomatic posting of the magnitude and sensitivity of the minister plenipotentiary to London."
Other newspapers were of a different opinion. Al-Siyasa wondered whether perhaps the prime minister was not fully aware of the importance of the diplomatic office in London. "This is the centre that should occupy the central focus of every foreign minister who assesses the nation's affairs properly. If, in his exhaustive deliberations and extensive study, the minister overlooked this highly sensitive post and instead poured his attention into the routine transfers among diplomatic corps personnel in other countries, what possible name could we give to such cogitation? We shall leave it to Abdel- Fattah Pasha to issue his assessment on the depth of such thinking and the extent to which it serves the national interest." The mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party went on to surmise that the government had left the London posting vacant because it had the good fortune to count among its dearest friends those upon whom it could relay to perform its mission in the British capital. It added, "Even assuming that that is the case, what is its excuse for leaving the Washington embassy without a minister plenipotentiary after having had all that time to study and select from among the qualified candidates for that posting?"
In a similar vein, Al-Jihad remarked that the London portfolio was not the type of position that should be left vacant. "The special relationship between Egypt and Britain is of such a delicate nature that, in a moment, even the slightest change could have a profound impact on this relationship." The Wafdist newspapers took the opportunity to write that while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs overlooked a diplomatic office as sensitive as that of the London posting, it had taken the pains to replace the Egyptian consul in Jeddah, "in spite of the fact that relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are still as hazy as ever".
Undoubtedly, such criticism prompted the Al-Ahram editorial of 3 August 1934 to observe, "Had the recent ambassadorial and consular appointments included the minister plenipotentiaries to London and Washington, the government would have escaped the charge that it was remiss in filling the two most important political positions in the Egyptian diplomatic corps."
Apparently, opposition to the government over this issue gained such momentum that a member of parliament, Mohamed Allam, representative of Al-Sunta, directed the following question from the floor to the prime minister who was concurrently minister of foreign affairs: "The government has chosen to ignore the task of filling the position of minister plenipotentiary to London at a time that Britain is most concerned to have it filled. Is this action commensurate to the level of attention that should be given to relations between the two countries? Does His Excellency not believe that it has weakened the position of the Egyptian diplomatic mission to have chosen this particular time to replace the chancellor and the secretary who have served for so long under the supervision of the former minister plenipotentiary? Based on the foregoing, is it not the view of His Excellency that the matter of appointing a new minister plenipotentiary to London requires all due haste?"
Needless to say, Prime Minister Yehia never issued a response. In fact, Egyptians had to wait until November when the Yehia government fell and Tawfiq Nassim was appointed to form a new government. This, along with King Fouad's growing illness and the pressures exerted by the British high commissioner to fill the vacant post combined to produce the necessary royal decree to fill the vacant post. Thus, within a week of the formation of the Nassim cabinet on 14 November, Hassan Sabri was appointed to fill the vacant post. If Sabri was a figure satisfactory to all parties concerned, except perhaps national leaders, at least his appointment drew to a close one of the many crises in the history of the Egyptian diplomatic corps.
* The author The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.