Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2005
Issue No. 756
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (610)

Return of the spirit to the Egyptian soldier

The 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty freed the Egyptians from the prejudicial conditions of the Declaration of 28 February 1922, in which the British retained for themselves the right to protect Egypt. A modern army was to be created, and in 1937 the military academy's enrolment soared. The new officer cadets, as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk says, were the very same officers who would take over power 15 years later

Tawfiq Al-Hakim rarely wrote straightforward political commentaries even if many of his works had strong political undertones. One of the few exceptions appeared on the front page of Al-Ahram of 7 February 1937. Beneath the headline "On the army and the capitulations system: Now is the time to don the helmet," the famous novelist and playwright contributed directly to the heated debate of the day over the implementation of the provisions of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936.

Click to view caption
The front page headline of Al-Ahram in 1937 reads, "the supreme army commander reviews the military forces"

In this article, Al-Hakim addressed an issue that formed an underlying theme in his novel Return of the Spirit (1933) and more explicitly in its sequel Bird of the East. This was the need to emulate certain aspects of western civilisation, which was now the predominant power on earth and which had "distinguished itself from its predecessors with its powerful desire to unify the attire of the diverse peoples of the world and to give the world a uniform outward appearance."

What specifically occasioned this appeal to conformity was the question of modernising the Egyptian army. The Anglo- Egyptian Treaty had just ended 54 years of British occupation. British forces would have to withdraw from the Suez Canal and the Egyptian army would have to fill the void. As Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas told parliament on 2 November 1936, "The responsibility for defending all quarters of our national territory has fallen upon our shoulders. This demands, of course, that our armed forces be in a condition to enable them to perform this task. However, as you know, our army in its current state is not in such a condition, for we have long been prevented from strengthening it. Yet, today, that obstacle exists no longer, for with the mutual ratification of this treaty we have become free to increase our armed forces and reorganise them as we wish so as to render them capable of repelling aggression against our borders and defending our territory."

To Tawfiq El-Hakim, one of the first orders of business in modernising the Egyptian army was to get rid of the tarboush and to replace it with the helmet. To keep the old head covering would make the Egyptian army look like the colonial contingents in the British army, such as the Indian regiment which was marked out by its turbans. More importantly, he asks, "what is the point of insisting on placing on the heads of our soldiers that red object that draws such attention and that if our victorious armies were to march to Europe to help defend our ally would make the perfect target for enemy bullets and bombs?"

A more serious problem stemmed from the policy the British adopted towards the army since their occupation of the country in 1882. The first cornerstone of this policy was laid the day following the entry of British forces into the Egyptian capital and appeared in the form of a royal decree dismantling the existing Egyptian army, which had risen up under the banner of the 'Urabi revolution. This was to be replaced by a small security force, consisting at first of no more than 6,000 conscripts. Henceforward, too, the senior ranks in the army would be held by British officers. Although the lower ranks were open to Egyptians, care was taken to ensure that these were filled by descendants of the old Turkish ruling class. Three years later the new military authorities introduced the badaliya or stand-in system. The principle was that an individual called up for the draft could avoid military service either by producing and personally guaranteeing a willing volunteer to report in his stead to the War Department for conscription or by paying an exemption fee of LE 100. The system thereby ensured that obligatory military service was intrinsically associated with poverty.

For some 40 years these policies succeeded in promoting the occupation authorities' aims of maintaining a gulf between officers and soldiers and a gulf between the army and the nationalist movement. This latter task became much easier following the reconquest of Sudan in 1898 when the bulk of the army was stationed in the southern half of the Nile Valley, at a distant remove from the developments in the nationalist movement in the north. At least that is how things stood until 1924, when the British Sirdar of the Egyptian army and governor-general of Sudan Sir Lee Harvey Stack was assassinated while visiting the Egyptian capital. One of the demands in the ultimatum British High Commissioner Lord Allenby delivered to Egyptian Prime Minister Saad Zaghlul following this incident was that he withdraw the Egyptian forces from the south, a condition the Ziwar government was forced to comply with after the Zaghlul government's collapse. Still, the army remained firmly under the British thumb. One means towards this end was to create a new rank -- the Inspector-General. A second was the newly created Army Council, which consisted primarily of British officers.

Naturally, Egyptian patience with this situation was beginning to wear very thin, a mood expressed on numerous occasions. Towards the end of January 1927, for example, National Party MP Fikri Abaza fired five questions at the Minister of War, all revolving around the delays in implementing promised reforms in the army. The incident deeply disturbed the then British High Commissioner who wrote to the Foreign Office to convey his suspicions that Wafd Party leader and speaker of parliament Saad Zaghlul was behind the campaign, which was ultimately aimed at politicising the army and recruiting it into the service of the nationalist movement.

As the high commissioner feared, the situation escalated, erupting later that year into what has become known as the Egyptian army crisis. When the Wafdist minister of war Ahmed Mohammed Khashaba took measures to clip the wings of the British Inspector-General and diminish the influence of the British officers, the British high commissioned wired off a hasty missive to London, which with equal haste responded with a memorandum to be handed to the Egyptian government, requesting that the Inspector-General's contract be renewed, that the Inspector-General, himself, be promoted to the rank of major general, be given the authority over the appointments and promotions of all officers, and have the authority to submit all decisions taken by the Army Council directly to the king instead of to the minister of war. Then, so there would no mistaking the intent of this letter, three British warships set off from Malta bound for the northern Egyptian coast and the high commissioner called upon the king to deliver what could only be interpreted as an ultimatum. Speaking before parliament on 16 June 1927, Prime Minister Tharwat announced the Egyptian response: His government had decided "to maintain the current system of the army and the border authority and to keep the powers of the minister of war and his responsibility to parliament as they currently stand." He added, "The government has thus succeeded in reaching a satisfactory solution to the problem." Satisfactory to the British, of course.

The Egyptian press had every right to rue this dismal conclusion to the crisis. In Al-Ahram it occasioned a series of editorials which led the oriental secretary in the high commissioner's office to conclude that our newspaper felt that Great Britain, the sponsor of the constitution, had denied Egypt the right to put its provisions into effect.

EGYPTIANS HAD TO WAIT more than nine years until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty freed them from the prejudicial conditions of the Declaration of 28 February 1922, in which the British, although recognising Egypt's independence, retained for themselves the right to protect Egypt. This "reservation," one of the four stipulated in that declaration, stood in the way of every attempt to modernise the Egyptian army, which by the early 1930s was in a wretched state indeed. According to Abdel Azim Ramadan in The Egyptian army in politics: 1882-1936, the size of the Egyptian army had dwindled steadily from 12,377 soldiers in 1930, to 12,292 the following year and 12,206 the year after. Even these numbers are deceptive, for of these more than half worked as orderlies, leaving only about 5,000 engaged in any form of military activity. It is little wonder, therefore, that the issue of upgrading the Egyptian army loomed as such a monumental task when the opportunity finally presented itself.

If Tawfiq Al-Hakim, focused on appearances, albeit with his tongue somewhat in cheek, others homed in on matters of substance. On 16 March 1937, an Al-Ahram editorial took advantage of the presence of British forces in the country to conduct the first joint military manoeuvres after the treaty to urge the need to "kindle the military spirit." Strengthening the Egyptian army will require sacrifices, the commentator wrote. He explains, "As training and equipping the army for the purposes of defence will require a considerable amount of time, the government should work to build a national military spirit. One way to do this is to organise frequent military parades to instill in the public pride in their army and a patriotic fervour for national defence... The government should also strive to shake people out of their lassitude and indifference and turn the attention of the various social strata from their obsession with their narrow demands to nobler and loftier matters."

Another individual addressed the change that had to be made in the leadership of the "new army." In an interview with Al-Ahram 's Abdallah Hussein, a "senior officer" voiced his fear that the concern for equipping the army with the latest arms and machinery would detract attention from the need to bring officers up to scratch to their command responsibilities. "The history of warfare from ancient times until the present day informs us that victory or defeat is not only contingent upon the size of the armed forces and the quantity and sophistication of arms, but also upon the quality of command," he said. He went on to air several suggestions for "instilling a military spirit in our military students from an early age." One of his suggestions was to emulate the modern Turkish system, which was founded upon three stages of military education, beginning with a primary level in which students enrolled at the age of seven and ending with the higher military academy. "This system is designed so that students acquire not only outstanding competence in the military arts but a deeply ingrained military spirit. This cannot be acquired through a civilian education, which imparts a delicateness and softness that kill the spirit of courage and adventure."

A third article, appearing on the newspaper's front page and bearing the bold two-word headline, "The Army" stressed the urgency of getting the army up to combat readiness. Its author wrote, "Egypt is situated at the juncture of two continents and at the crossroads between east and west... The world today is filled with grim signs, all portending evil, and Egypt is within rifle range of the danger zone. We cannot afford to remain still while everything else is moving around us." The writer went on to urge the Ministry of War to intensify its efforts to overcome the deficiencies inherited from the past. "The men in this ministry might be satisfied with what they have done so far. However, we must remind them that their sense of satisfaction will double when it is shared by public opinion. The intentions might be good and the resolve praiseworthy, but intentions must be paired with work and resolve with action."

As eager as Egyptians were to seize the long-awaited opportunity to "revive the spirit" of their army, after the first flush of zeal subsided some serious questions arose. Some began to contemplate the political repercussions of the rise of a real army, as opposed to a small domestic security force, especially in the context of the long-standing conflict between the nationalist movement, epitomised by the Wafd Party, and the British authorities in Egypt, on the one hand, and the palace on the other.

The British position was clear cut. The Anglo-Egyptian treaty contained a number of provisions geared to ensuring the continued British influence over the army. Although they agreed to abolish the post of the British General-Inspector, which since 1924 had been filled with a senior British officer, they won approval for a British military delegation to be attached to the Egyptian armed forces. They also succeeded in providing for the continued presence of their forces in the Suez Canal zone and in obtaining the approval of the Egyptian negotiators for the principle that British forces would be allowed to circulate freely throughout Egypt "in the event of war, the threat of war or a sudden and perilous turn in the international situation." In addition, the Egyptians pledged that if they sent members of their new army abroad for education and training this would be to Great Britain alone, and that Egyptian land and air forces would use the same models of arms and equipment as those used by British forces. On this point the treaty added, "His Majesty's government pledges to use its good auspices to facilitate the supply of these arms and equipment to Egypt at the prices with which the British government obtains them."

ABDEEN PALACE was in an entirely different situation. The Egyptian government had signed the treaty at a time a regency council still ruled in the name of King Farouq. Now that the king had assumed his constitutional powers, it had to be demonstrated that he was the supreme commander of the armed forces and that these forces would be loyal to the throne. The solution was to stage an enormous military parade, which took place within the same month of his coronation. The occasion was accompanied by great fanfare and widespread publicity. The following day's Al-Ahram, for example, featured a huge photograph, taking up most of the front page, of the king in field marshal uniform astride his horse, with chief of staff Mahmoud Shukry Pasha on another horse next to him as the various army units passed before him.

All the regiments were represented in the parade: the horse and camel cavalries, the tank and artillery divisions, the engineering corps, the first and second infantry divisions, the medical and veterinary corps, the mechanised division and the marching bands. In its tally of the forces that passed before the king that day, Al-Ahram wrote that there were "267 officers, 5,382 non-commissioned officers and soldiers, 22 field artillery guns, 8 mobile artillery units, three all-purpose vehicles, 31 transport vehicles, 22 light armoured vehicles, 37 mules, 168 camels and 298 horses." To complete the spectacle, the artillery issued a hundred-shot salute to announce the arrival of the king and seven files of aircraft soared overhead, "filling the skies with an awe-inspiring roar." Al-Ahram also reports that a live commentary was broadcast over the radio, "thereby enabling the entire nation to participate alongside with the spectators in this grand ceremony." To conclude the parade, the military band struck up the royal anthem after which General Shukry Pasha called out three times, "Long live Farouq I, King of Egypt," which salute was echoed by all soldiers and spectators "in a chorus that echoed like thunder."

Then, as a further demonstration of his powers as supreme commander of the armed forces, the king invited all the officers to a tea party held that same evening in his palace. Al-Ahram relates, "His Majesty praised the officers for their efforts and expressed his royal hope that the army adhere to its time-honoured traditions and especially its tradition of non- involvement in politics."

Another political issue that rose to the fore again was the capacity in which the Egyptian army would return to the Sudan. Egyptian public opinion wanted more than just a token military presence in Sudan. Egyptians also objected to the prospect that their returning soldiers would fall under the Sudanese Defence Command, which the British established following the expulsion of Egyptian forces from that country in 1924. Rather they wanted to restore the system that had prevailed before that year, "whereby the four Sudanese regiments were part of the Egyptian army and their soldiers and officers were considered Egyptians, in that their salaries were paid out of the Egyptian Ministry of War."

This issue, in turn, drew attention again to the relationship between the Egyptian and British armies. In a lengthy speech before the Senate, Senator Ahmed Kamel posed the question as to the purpose of founding a new army. Was the objective that the Egyptian army should take the brunt of a foreign assault while the ally gave it tactical support, or was it to be responsible first and foremost for the defense of the country, he asked. His fear was that in three years time the size of the army would not exceed at best 20,000 men, "who might die in a single battle. An army like that would plant the British forces in the country once again, at which point we can say goodbye to independence."

WHILE PARLIAMENT AND THE PRESS were discussing such issues, Ministry of War officials got down to the job of building the new army, as can be seen in various news items that appeared in Al-Ahram throughout 1937. Firstly there was the task of restructuring the armed forces, in which regard the government created a Supreme Defence Council and a general staff. The bill to this effect was brought before parliament on 17 June. The final version of the law that was passed stipulated that the chief of staff would be appointed by decree and that the other members of the general staff would be appointed by the minister of war. Legislators also insisted that the English names that were then in current usage for certain ranks -- such as adjutant-general and quartermaster- general -- be rendered into Arabic.

In another development, the Ministry of War asked to be allocated a large tract of land upon which had formerly stood the Ismailiya Palace so that it could build a new ministry building. Its current premises were now far too small to cope with the ministry's steadily growing operations, it pleaded. The Ministry of Finance turned down the request. Sources in the ministry of war hinted that if the ministry of finance stuck to its refusal, the ministry of war would have to requisition the vast Qasr El-Nil barracks compound for this purpose. They also said that the ministry was contemplating constructing a large officers club, "which type of establishment is to be seen in all quarters of the world."

The recruitment system was another item on the agenda for change. The first order of business was to amend article 118 regarding voluntary military service. It was argued that the period of service that was currently stipulated in the law was not sufficient to train and benefit from the services of the volunteers. To adhere to this provision was a waste of great time and effort, "because no sooner do those volunteers acquire valuable skills and expertise than they have the right to leave their posts at a time when the army is in the direst need of them."

Also at this early time, military officials took the first steps towards targeting qualification holders for the draft. Because of the new arms technology that was being introduced into the army, there was an increasing need for conscripts with a certain level of education and skills so that it would be easier to train them on the new machinery. Therefore, the law was amended, abolishing the draft exemption that had been formerly given to certain sectors of society, such as Bedouins and industrial school graduates. Also, the draft exemption fee was raised to a more prohibitive level so as to ensure that the army could benefit from the services of a greater number of "enlightened youths."

Several news items focused on the British military delegation, which Egyptians believed was not living up to its commitment to help modernise the Egyptian army. In July 1937, Al-Ahram remarked that although this delegation had been in Egypt for more than half a year, "we have not seen an ounce of progress. They've talked so much about their projects, but, as the saying goes, we hear the creaking but we see no mill."

Meanwhile, the Egyptians were stepping up their military training programmes and, in keeping with the provisions of the treaty, they were sending their trainees to British military academies. Reports on these activities were appearing with increasing frequency. In January, a team of eight officers from the artillery corps were sent to the UK for specialised training and another team of airplane pilots were sent there for training in various skills such as pursuit and tracking, air combat, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and aerial navigation. Several more training missions were sent off in May, one in anti-aircraft combat and the other in wireless communications, and a third soon followed to be trained in mechanised artillery. Then in mid-May Al-Ahram announced that 12 more military training missions were bound for Britain, one of which was to specialise in military intelligence.

However it was in October that year that Al-Ahram announced what was perhaps the most far-reaching development: the opening of several new faculties in the military academy. In tandem with the new facilities for training officers for the engineering corps, the general staff, the artillery corps and others, the academy's enrollment that year soared from 50 to 300 officer cadets. The lower middle class had just begun its assault on what was once the preserve of the old aristocracy. It was precisely officers from this class who would take over power 15 years later.

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