Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2005
Issue No. 757
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (611)

Ministry of Education Centennial

Egypt's induction into the League of Nations was belated, its delayed appearance caused mainly by British reservations. But as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk writes, Egypt's desire to join the community of nations proved too strong to subdue

Click to view caption
The Egyptian delegation at the League of Nations in May 1937. Seated from L-R, members included Ali El-Shamsi, Wasef Ghali, Mustafa El-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid

On 26 May 1937 Egypt was formally admitted as the 56th member of the League of Nations. The unanimous vote in favour of Egypt's membership was only one of the manifestations of the warm welcome Egypt received in the international organisation.

The League of Nations, as we know, emerged from the tragic embers of World War I, in application of one of US President Woodrow Wilson's famous Fourteen Points. It came at a heavy toll, and its purpose was to ensure that humanity never had to pay that price again.

As we know as well, after Egypt obtained its independence in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922, it had the right to become a member of the league. It took 15 years for this right to become a reality.

The obstacle was none other than Great Britain. Evidence for this is to be found in the British Foreign Office archives which yield, for example, a letter from the foreign secretary to the high commissioner in Cairo instructing him not to encourage Egypt to apply for membership in the league. London's fear was that Cairo would raise the issue of the "four reservations" that Britain stipulated in the Declaration of 28 February before the league's assembly or one of its organisations such as the International Court of Justice. This would bring a third party into Anglo-Egyptian relations, which Britain had to take all possible measures to avoid.

But Egypt's desire to join the league would not be denied. Egyptian negotiators brought it up in every negotiating round between the two sides over the provisions of a treaty between them. In the Tharwat-Chamberlain negotiations of 1927, this demand appeared as the fourth point in the Egyptian proposal for a treaty. It stated, "the United Kingdom will mediate for Egypt's admission into the League of Nations and support the application Egypt submits for this purpose." Two years later, in the Mohamed Mahmoud- Henderson negotiations, Article Three of the Egyptian proposal read, "as Egypt intends to request membership in the League of Nations, His Majesty of the United Kingdom recognises its right as an independent sovereign nation to become a member of the League of Nations when it applies for this in accordance with the conditions stipulated under the covenant of the league." This text was modified only slightly in the Nahhas-Henderson negotiations in 1930, the last unsuccessful round before 1936: "As Egypt intends to apply for membership in the League of Nations, the government of His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom recognises its right as an independent sovereign nation to become a member of the league upon undertaking the provisions of the league's covenant."

As for the negotiating round that concluded with the signing of the treaty, these were dominated by several more pressing issues. Firstly, there were numerous military questions that had to be resolved in light of the growing international tension at the time. Then there was the question of Sudan, one of the major stumbling blocks over which all previous rounds had collapsed. The Capitulations System was a third item that took up a considerable amount of negotiating time, for Egyptian negotiators rightly felt that the abolition of this system would give their country's independence more substance than admission into the League of Nations.

All other negotiating issues were secondary, including Egyptian membership in the League of Nations. It appears, moreover, that Egyptian negotiators that year had lost some of their ardour over this demand. The league was looking particularly fragile that year, having failed to protect one of its members, Ethiopia, from invasion by another of its members, Italy. In all events, the final negotiations over this point took up only part of a single negotiating session, that held in Alexandria on 10 August 1936. Britain presented its version of how it wanted that article of the treaty to read: "The government of His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom will support any application Egypt makes to the League of Nations in accordance with the conditions mentioned in Article One of the League's Covenant."

The Egyptians wanted the text to approximate that which had been agreed upon in 1930. The British had no major objections and were feeling magnanimous having succeeding in obtaining the Egyptian approval over the provisions pertaining to military matters. It was thus that, after a little more haggling, the article was reworded as it would finally appear in the treaty: "Egypt intends to request to join the League of Nations. As His Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom recognises that Egypt is an independent sovereign state, it will support any request the Egyptian government presents for entry into the League of Nations in accordance with the conditions stipulated in Article One of the Covenant of the League."

In so agreeing, London had given Cairo the green light to apply for membership. If the insight into some of the subtleties of the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations was gleaned primarily from British Foreign Office documents, we turn now to Al-Ahram to follow the process leading to Egypt's admission into the largest international body to have existed in the period between the two world wars.

On 14 February 1937, under the headline, "Preparing the way for Egypt's entry into the League of Nations: the Iraq memorandum", Al-Ahram reports, citing a Havas news release, that the Iraqi government had informed the secretary-general of the League of Nations that it had written to the Egyptian government inviting it to apply for admission into the league. In his statement to the league secretary, the Iraqi foreign minister said, "if the government of the Kingdom of Egypt accepts this invitation, the government of Iraq will do its utmost to have the league consider the Egyptian application as soon as possible. The government of Iraq believes that its support for the Egyptian request is both a duty and an honour."

At first Al-Ahram misinterpreted the Iraqi gesture. It suggested that perhaps Baghdad wanted to demonstrate its concern for the future of the Near and Far East and thought that the above- mentioned letter was the best way to make the league hold an extraordinary session. The newspaper added, "however, officials in Geneva do not perceive what advantage Iraq and Egypt might gain from this hasty and unusual measure."

By the following day the newspaper realised its mistake and announced that there was nothing unusual in the Iraqi action. It explained that there were two ways for a nation to join the league. Either it applied to the league directly or current members invite it to apply and pledge their support for its application. "Evidently, the second method offers better prospects than the first for it is an indication of the level of esteem for the country nominated to join and of the extent that international cooperation, as embodied in the league, will benefit from admitting the state as a new member."

But neither Al-Ahram nor the British archives offer an answer as to why it was Iraq that took this initiative. Was it as straightforward as the Iraqi prime minister's letter to the League of Nation's secretary-general made it seem? Was it because Iraq, the only Arab member of the League of Nations at the time -- having joined it following the signing of the Iraqi-British treaty of 1930 -- was in a position to help a sister Arab nation and felt duty bound to do so? Or did London nudge Baghdad into taking this action so as to ensure that the initiative came from a country under the British sway? After all, Iraq at the time could not undertake any independent foreign policy decision without first consulting its British ally. Probably an element of both reasons was involved.

In all events, just over a week later other countries stepped forward to encourage Egypt to join. Most of them were countries that had a long history of close ties with Egypt. One was Greece, which informed the league secretary-general that it had invited the Egyptian government to apply for membership, in response to which the Egyptian minister plenipotentiary to Athens, Ali Sirri Omar, wrote a letter to the Greek minister of foreign affairs expressing his government's gratitude. Ankara came next, adding in its letter to the League of Nation's secretary-general that it hoped the council would hold an extraordinary session for the purpose of hastening the approval of the Egyptian request. Soon a host of other governments followed suit: Poland, Colombia, Australia, Switzerland, Great Britain, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Austria, Chile, China... In all, 23 league members invited Egypt to join.

After studying the procedural process of joining the League of Nations, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wasef Ghali penned the following application letter addressed to the secretary-general:

"The devotion that Egypt has always demonstrated to the mission of the League of Nations, to which testify her continuous contributions to many of its activities and its continual participation in several of its organisations; the dedication of the Egyptian people to the ideals of justice, harmony and brotherhood among the peoples standing together in the institution of Geneva; and the international friendship that was manifested so clearly by the many nations that had recently extended warm invitations to Egypt to assume its place among the community of nations are all reasons that have behooved me to request, with unreserved enthusiasm, and in conformity with Article One (paragraph three) of the Charter of the League of Nations, the admission of the Kingdom of Egypt into this body. I would be grateful if Your Excellency would kindly enter this request in the agenda of the soonest possible session of the assembly and would also kindly notify all members of the league of this request at your earliest possible convenience."

The foregoing text appeared in Al-Ahram which then explained to its readers what procedures would follow. The league's political committee, it said, would meet to determine whether the applicant state could be truly regarded as a country that governed itself by itself. The application would then be turned over to the general assembly for a vote. A two-thirds majority was sufficient to award membership.

During this interval, an MP in the House of Commons put the question to his prime minister as to whether all independent members of the British commonwealth had participated in the drive to invite Egypt to join the League of Nations. The deputy prime minister responded that His Majesty's governments in Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa had indeed done so.

On 25 March, the League of Nations secretary-general wired the Egyptian foreign minister to inform him that an extraordinary session had been set for the General Assembly on 26 May for the purpose of voting on the Egyptian application. Immediately afterwards, the Egyptian Ministry of Finance instructed the National Bank to transfer 15,000 Swiss francs, the equivalent of a quarter of a member country's annual membership fees, to the secretary- general. It was also reported that Ali Shamsi Pasha would represent Egypt in the above-mentioned session and that he would be accompanied by George Domani and Salaheddin Bek as first and second secretary respectively.

Naturally, an Al-Ahram correspondent was on hand to cover the events of that historic day. In his first report, dispatched three days beforehand, he noted that the foreign ministers of eight nations had confirmed that they would be attending that session, which would be recorded as the 97th of the international organisation. The assembly, he continued, would be discussing three issues in that session. The first, the question of Egypt's admission into the assembly as a full member, was a foregone conclusion as two-thirds of the members had invited Egypt to nominate itself. The other two items on the agenda were the situation in Spain and the Alexendretta question. The session was not expected to last more than a week, he added.

That same day, the Al-Ahram correspondent in London wired home to report that the London Times had remarked that the vote admitting Egypt into the League of Nations would be "the happiest day in this session". The British newspaper went on to say, "in their negotiations over the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and over the Montreaux Treaty abolishing the capitulations the Egyptian leaders demonstrated a perspicacity and political acumen that will be of great value when applied to the problems brought before the league in Geneva."

The day before the scheduled meeting, Al-Ahram came out with an editorial, "Egypt in the League of Nations". The international organisation no longer enjoys the great prestige it had when it was first founded and began its work, it observed. "It has not met the great hopes that had been pinned on it. It was not fated to succeed in the cause of international disarmament, nor even in restricting and reducing armament. Nor has it succeeded in solving several international problems such as those in China, Ethiopia, Spain and elsewhere." Nevertheless, "Egypt, which has regained its independence, is keen to register this achievement through its membership in the League of Nations, thereby rendering its independence an incontrovertible international reality."

But, the editorial continued, there was another reason why Egyptians should look forward to their country's admission into the league. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty stipulated that certain issues in Egyptian-British bilateral relations would henceforward be referred to the authority of the League of Nations or the provisions of its covenant. Article Six of the treaty, for example, stated that in the event a dispute between one of the parties to the treaty threatened a rupture in relations, the two parties shall then confer over a solution to a peaceful solution to that dispute in accordance with the provisions of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Another example was to be found in Article Eight, which stated that if in 20 years the two parties disagree over the continued presence of British forces, this dispute may be brought before the League of Nations for arbitration in accordance with the provisions of its covenant. Finally, there was Article 10: "Nothing in the provisions of this treaty is intended to encroach in any manner whatsoever upon the rights and obligations of the signatory parties under the Charter of the League of Nations for the Prevention of War, that was signed in Paris."

Al-Ahram readers now eagerly awaited their newspapers of 27 May 1936. They were not disappointed. "Fifty nations welcomed Egypt into the League of Nations. Egypt takes its place among the community of nations," the newspaper blazoned in large font. Below was a minute-by-minute first-hand account of the events of that historic day by the Al-Ahram correspondent in Geneva.

At 11am, he reports, the international delegates arrived at the League of Nations headquarters. Leading the way was British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and Swiss President Giuseppe Motta. As everyone took their seats, the Al-Ahram correspondent cast his eyes around the hall and noticed a group of 20 Egyptian students who had come to Switzerland especially to observe the proceedings. The rest of the spectators section was filled with people of all nationalities -- Japanese, Indians, Chinese, North and South Americans -- and of all hues from white-skinned Scandinavians to dark- skinned Haitians.

At 11.20 the session was called to order by Ecuadorian President Antonio Quevedo, chairman of the general assembly's previous session. Señor Quevedo expressed his delight at having the good fortune to preside over this particular session. "The nation that is knocking on our doors today represents the world in all its antiquity and youth. Despite the disparities and contradictions between the manifestations of these two qualities, they merge together harmoniously in this nation to create a single, complete entity which is valuable to us all. Egypt has arrived today wreathed in a crown of incomparable glory, for it is the country in which many civilisations have their roots and in which land are preserved many magnificent testimonies to this genius."

The session was adjourned for half an hour to review the delegates' letters of accreditation, after which it reassembled to elect a new chairman. This turned out to be the Turkish delegate Rushdi Aras, who received the support of 46 out of the 50 delegates present. The meeting adjourned again until 5pm.

The first order of business when the new chairman reopened the session that evening was the consideration of the Egyptian request for admission into the League of Nations. Aras read out the recommendation of the admissions committee which stated that on the basis of the invitation extended by many of the league's members to the Egyptian government and of this government's application for admission, the committee recommends that the General Assembly approve Egypt's admission to the league and determine its share of the league's expenses for 1937, 1938 and 1939.

Egypt's membership was then put to a vote. The names of the 46 delegates who had presented their papers of accreditation that morning were called out in alphabetical order and each, upon hearing his name, responded in the affirmative in either English or French. The four remaining delegates arrived as the oral balloting was taking place, conveyed to the chair their approval of Egypt's membership, bringing the vote into its favour up to a unanimous 50 out of 50 member nations. Aras then invited the Egyptian delegation to take their seats among their fellow members of the league.

The Al-Ahram correspondent relates that the door to the assembly hall was then opened to admit Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha, Wasef Ghali Pasha, Makram Ebeid Pasha and Ali Shamsi Pasha, "all wearing their tarboush ". In their wake followed George Domani, Fouad El-Farouni, Leon Dishi, Aram Estafan and Hassan Lutfi Qabdaya. "When the Egyptian delegates entered, all the other delegates stood and received them with a long and enthusiastic applause."

Chairman Aras then delivered a welcoming address to the Egyptian delegation in the course of which he praised Egypt's long and glorious history. El-Nahhas, in his capacity as head of the Egyptian delegation, expressed his gratitude for the friendship the international community had shown to his country. His country, in turn, realised the responsibilities it was undertaking towards the realisation of world peace. "Egypt had been applying the principles of the League of Nations before joining your assembly," he said.

The Iraqi delegate was the next to speak. Five years earlier, he said, the League of Nations welcomed the first Arab nation into its fold. This nation was Iraq. Today, it has welcomed Iraq's sister nation, Egypt. He went on to relate that when Egypt made known its intention to join the League, Iraq was the first nation to extend an invitation. It was so inspired because it wanted Arab culture and civilisation to be represented by two member states in the League.

This occasion, of course, would not be complete without a word from British Foreign Secretary Eden. Not one of the 50 nations assembled in this hall today is not indebted to some extent to the advanced ancient civilisation of Egypt, he said. "Long before some of the nations we represent emerged from their primordial darkness, Egypt had bestowed upon the human race precious gifts of science and literature, not to mention the matchless treasures of its arts, which remain until the present day a source of admiration and wonder."

The delegates of France, India, China, South Africa and 20 other nations all rose in turn to offer their congratulations to Egypt. Each delegate, after completing his speech, went over to the Egyptian delegation to shake their hands. Before that joyful meeting adjourned for the day, the chair announced that Egypt's annual dues to the League would be 30,000 Swiss francs.

Al-Ahram that day also covered the response to the events in Geneva in other parts of the world. From the mouthpiece of the British National Labour Party it cited an article declaring that with Egypt's admission into the League of Nations Britain was now guaranteed a close friend in Geneva. The article added that Italy and France were aware that Arabic was the language of culture not only in the countries along the southern shores of the Mediterranean but also in the remotest countries in Asia.

From Iraq, the Al-Ahram correspondent in Baghdad reported on the speeches that were delivered in the Iraqi parliament to mark this occasion. Iraq's invitation to Egypt to join the league was also a call to Arab unity, one speaker said, adding that if Egypt was some cultural stages ahead of Iraq, Iraq had reason to take pride in its strength, courage and heroism. The Egyptian politician Mahgoub Thabet also addressed the assembly, saying, "[Egypt] would do well to cooperate with Iraq for our mutual cultural and material benefit. We should send to Iraq the professors they require and we should also enroll our youth in their military academy to learn first-hand the Iraqi spirit of strength and valour."

Egypt's admission into the league inspired many new hopes. One was that Arabic would be recognised as one of the league's official languages. On 16 September, Ali El-Shamsi explained to his fellow delegates the great advantages of introducing Arabic as an official language alongside French and English. Al-Ahram reports, "he presented this proposal with consummate eloquence and supported it with incontrovertible arguments, whereupon it was approved by all members present. Arabic thus made a splendid entry into the international arena."

Another hope was raised when the end of the Turkish chairmanship of the assembly neared. No less than 10 countries expressed their desire to fill the vacancy, although Iran and Afghanistan, as eastern countries, seemed to stand the best chance. Al-Ahram continues, "Political circles in Geneva have begun to speculate over Egypt's prospects for the chair. They believe that the wisest action eastern nations could take would be to nominate Egypt, for if they did Egypt would receive a clear majority, if not a unanimity of the votes." This aspiration, however, was not to come to pass.

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