Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (613)
The price of friendship
No longer content to be in the shadows of the British Empire, Italy under Mussolini decided to assert itself more abroad. One such endeavour was a visit by Mussolini to Libya in 1937 which had Egyptians as well as the British wondering what Rome was really after. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk recounts the trip and the suspicions
It was only after numerous rounds of negotiations that the Egyptians and British finally concluded the "Treaty of Friendship and Alliance" of 1936. The primary reason that the last round of negotiations succeeded where its predecessors failed was that international circumstances compelled both sides to compromise on some of the demands to which they had clung so adamantly to in previous rounds.
The most important of these circumstances was the new military situation that had arisen from Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and its subsequent campaign to expand its hold on eastern Africa, heedless of the outcry from Britain, France and the League of Nations. Both Egypt and Britain were deeply concerned by the possible repercussions of the control by an increasingly belligerent fascist power over the headwaters of the Nile. To make matters worse, the Italians were already present on Egypt's western borders. Italy had invaded and conquered Libya in 1911-12. Following the rise of the fascists to power in Italy in 1922 and the official downfall of the Ottoman Empire, which had had nominal suzerainty over Libya, Italian forces went on the offensive to extend their control over the entire country and, by the early 1930s, managed to quell all forms of national resistance. In short, Egypt was caught in the jaws of the Italian pincer.
It is little wonder, therefore, that the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty accorded such emphasis to military matters. Under the agreement, the Egyptian government pledged to undertake the construction of additional barracks for British forces in the Suez Canal Zone and to equip these with rest and recreation facilities and an emergency water supply. It also pledged to construct a road from the canal zone to Alexandria and from there to Cairo. The Egyptians further conceded that the British air force would fly over any part of Egyptian territory that was deemed necessary for training, and they agreed to provide sufficient land for landing strips for British aircraft. Under the agreement, too, the British pledged to provide a team of military consultants to help with the training and modernisation of the Egyptian army.
The Egyptians and British knew that Rome was keeping close track of these developments, not only because of its presence beyond Egyptian borders but also because of the Italian expatriate community in Egypt, the second largest European community in the country after the Greek. Italians in Egypt were excited about the changes taking place in their homeland. Many had joined the Fascist Party and even small bands of Black Shirts could be seen parading around the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
The Egyptian government contemplated notifying the Italian ambassador in Cairo that some Italian subjects in Egypt were violating the local prohibition against joining paramilitary groups. It deferred to the advise of British officials in Cairo and put off this task for fear that it might obstruct progress in the Montreaux negotiations aimed at ending the capitulations system, of which Italy was one of the beneficiary states.
Italy under Mussolini was not about to be diverted from its objectives. It was in the process of changing the rules of the game in the relations between Rome and London. At one time, Italy had wallowed in the indulgence of the British Empire as it expanded its own colonial possessions in Libya and East Africa. Indeed, at one point Rome had depended so heavily on the protection of the British fleet in the Mediterranean that it ignored the development of its own fleet. However, it was clearly no longer content to be, as the French had once put it, the "guard dog" of the British Empire, and Egypt was one of the areas where it planned to assert its new role, as can be seen in a number of articles that appeared in Al-Ahram in the spring of 1937.
ON 10 MARCH 1937, Al-Ahram reports: "Señor Mussolini sets sail tomorrow for Libya. He will be accompanied by 140 journalists, among whom 75 are foreigners from 15 European and five American nations. The remainder have been delegated by Italian news agencies and newspapers. Among them, too, are representatives from Italian and foreign cinema companies. The ship is scheduled to arrive in Tubruq on 11 March."
The Italian dictator had obviously embarked on a full-scale promotional campaign. In Libya itself Italian colonial authorities were busily preparing for Mussolini's impending visit. The governor-general set the tone in an impassioned announcement on the radio. "Il Duce," he said, was not only the president of Italy but also of the people of Libya. "He is a warrior like you and like you he does not tolerate offence. He is the guardian of Rome's influence with all peoples of the Mediterranean."
In keeping with the tradition of Western colonial powers ever since Napoleon set foot in this corner of the world at the turn of the 19th century, the Italian propaganda machine played on the religious theme. The Italian colonial mouthpiece Illustrated Libya proclaimed that the Muslim people admired Mussolini's policy towards the Arab world, "a policy steeped in the principles of justice which are incumbent upon all to observe".
Naturally, the press in Britain was quick to seize on this claim. The Daily Telegraph expressed its surprise that Italy, which had just trampled underfoot the rights of an independent nation -- Abyssinia -- with a population of large numbers of Muslims and Christians alike, would suddenly show concern for the legitimate rights of independent Islamic governments. The newspaper was also amazed at how casually the Italian government boasted of its support of the Islamic movements in countries it did not have the power to intervene in directly, notably Palestine and Syria. "Italy is currently trying to woo the Near East, towards which end it finds it useful to denigrate any rival Western power," the Telegraph concluded.
When Mussolini arrived in Tubruq, some of the fears of the Egyptians -- especially those regarding his PR trip extending beyond Libya -- were confirmed. In his first statement, Mussolini said, "the first part of the westward road that starts from Egypt and that was inaugurated today will be of great importance to the economic and tourist relations between Italy and Egypt. In opening this road, we are celebrating the addition of a new link between our two countries to the ties of friendship that have bound us from antiquity and that can be strengthened and developed in the present." Naturally, the British were not overjoyed at this statement, which they described as "Mussolini's pledge to Egypt".
Instead of relying on the wire releases from the official Italian news agency, Al-Ahram thought it prudent to send one of its own correspondents to cover Il Duce's tour first-hand. He sent in his first report from Benghazi, where the Italian leader received a tumultuous welcome and delivered an impassioned speech to the local Black Shirts. He quoted Mussolini saying, "I see in your salute to me the fervour of your fascist creed, that creed with which we have spread throughout the empire and which we are prepared to defend under all circumstances and conditions."
In continuation of Mussolini's propaganda campaign aimed at Muslims, he addressed the local inhabitants of the city, thanking them for the loyalty and faith they have shown to Italy. He also donated 120,000 liras to the religious institutes and charity societies in Benghazi, topping the 80,000 lira donation he had made to Islamic institutes in Daranah. An Italian newspaper took the occasion to reassure Egyptians. "There is no evidence in Italy's history to support the contention that it has ambitions in Egypt. Italy has never undertaken, or even contemplated undertaking, any action in Libya or Abyssinia that could be considered hostile to Egypt or to the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan. The expansion of the Italian empire has increased the areas of contact between Italian and Egyptian possessions. This is why the two nations must cooperate and reap the desired benefits of this cooperation."
After a 250-mile trek at the head of a 200-car convoy, Mussolini arrived at the great victory arch that had been built in the middle of the desert to demarcate the border between the provinces of Burqa (Cyrenaica) and Tripolitania. The Al-Ahram correspondent was very impressed with the dramatically lit monument -- the description of which he must have written before turning in for the night -- along with the rest of the convoy, in the tent city that had been set up for this stop in Mussolini's tour.
On the evening of 16 March, Mussolini reached Tripoli. The Al-Ahram correspondent relates, "he entered the city as a victorious commander, astride a white thoroughbred Arabian stallion. The Arabs greeted him with loud cheers, which were interspersed with the booms of artillery salutes. There must have been about 5,000 of them, among whom were many Arab notables who were seated at the tables that were laid out for his reception and who rose to greet him." The Italian press naturally seized upon this spectacle, which it described as proof of the Arabs' "esteem for Italy and their appreciation of Italy's promotion of cooperation between the Italian and Islamic civilisations. These two civilisations are bound by the strongest ties that date back to the earliest ages of antiquity, during which neither has encroached on the other, especially with regard to the respect for the family and those traditions that are deeply steeped in faith."
It was the Manchester Guardian that spoke out this time for the British view. It reminded its audiences of what it described as the "Italian atrocities in western Tripolitania" and observed that Islam demanded independence, not the replacement of one colonial power with another. With regard to Mussolini's statements on Egypt, the newspaper commented, "Mussolini is looking as fondly at the coasts of the Mediterranean as Hitler is at the Balkans. In both cases, it is difficult to discern the boundary between wishful thinking and concrete plans. The Duce says that he harbours no ill towards Egypt at the present time. However, he has insinuated -- and all his propaganda backs up this insinuation -- that Italy has its eyes on certain parts."
Before leaving Libya, Mussolini delivered a final address in Tripoli. In its commentary on this speech, Il Giornale d'Italia reiterated the Italian leader's invitation to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, notably Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, to cooperate with Italy. "Italy's past 50 years of relations with Arab countries are proof of its desire to strengthen the bonds of friendship and economic and cultural cooperation with them," the Italian newspaper declared.
The Italian leader's Libyan tour may have ended but it left a strong residue of foreboding in British and Egyptian official circles. Many could not help but recall Kitchner's remark of nearly a quarter century earlier when the Italians seized Tripoli: "This was a blow aimed at the Egyptians."
1937 BROUGHT A HOT SUMMER in Egyptian-Italian relations. Temperatures began to rise with a report from Egypt's Reuters bureau on the Egyptian government's plans to tighten national defence and, in particular, fortify the area of Marsa Matrouh. It was not long before Egyptians learned the secret behind this activity. In mid-July news began to filter through that the Italians were amassing forces along the Egyptian border. Some reports cited figures as high as 50,000 troops. Italian sources in Libya and Egypt denied the reports. They had no basis in fact, said Italian reports in Tripoli. "The situation in eastern Libya, and particularly at the border, has not changed at all." The Cairo-based Il Giornale d'Oriente was also quick to refute stories that appeared in the Egyptian press to the effect that Italian authorities in Libya were fortifying their defences and that Italy had sent over more regiments. It would be impossible to conceal such massive activities, if indeed they were taking place, the newspaper argued. As for the barbed wire that stretched along the border between Egypt and Libya, it continued, this had existed since 1933 and its purpose was to prevent arms smuggling and to facilitate the suppression of insurrectionist movements.
British confidential documents told a different version of events than that in the Egyptian press. In a lengthy telegram to his superiors in London, dated the same day as the Il Giornale d'Oriente article appeared, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson relates that the Italian ambassador to Egypt had visited Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas to inquire about the purpose of the security measures Egypt was taking on its western border. The prime minister responded that if the Italian diplomat wanted to know the reasons why Egypt was undertaking these measures he should read the "Treaty of Friendship and Alliance" Egypt had signed with Britain. Under this treaty, El-Nahhas explained, Britain would be withdrawing its forces to the Suez Canal Zone, which meant that the task of defending Egypt's western borders now fell upon the Egyptian army.
The Egyptian prime minister, in turn, took the occasion to ask the Italian ambassador the meaning of the noticeable increase in Italian forces along the Libyan border with Egypt and of the enormous 62 million lira allocation to these forces. El-Nahhas related to Lampson that the ambassador had been completely taken aback by this question and mumbled some feeble response. Italy had only the best of intentions towards Egypt, he said, and the troop increases were intended for the Tunisian, not Egyptian, border. El-Nahhas put an end to the meeting before the Italian ambassador could spout more nonsense.
The Italians now realised that the Egyptians were fully aware of the situation at the front and that any further attempt to deny it was futile. Soon afterwards it was revealed that Rome had dispatched an entire new phalanx to Libya, bringing the forces there up to 30,000. "The three divisions that make up this new phalanx had just taken part in the military manoeuvres that were held in Sicily," Al-Ahram reports. "They were then temporarily billeted in the southern Italian ports. Italian authorities decided to send this phalanx to Libya in relatively small sections rather than to use large transport ships to take them all at once. One reason for this was that the construction of barracks and other preparations to house and accommodate all these forces take a considerable amount of time."
As the build-up of Italian forces continued in Libya, El-Nahhas informed the British ambassador that he had received a letter from former prime minister Ismail Sidqi who was at the time on holiday in a Belgian spa, suggesting that Cairo conclude a non-aggression pact with Rome. Sidqi argued that there was nothing in the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty to prevent such a pact as it was a purely defensive arrangement.
Apparently, Sidqi had somehow managed to publicise his proposal, for an editorial in Al-Musawwar magazine observed that the subject that most concerned Egyptians at that time was the Italian danger looming from the West. The magazine went on to argue, "since deterring this danger requires military expenses too heavy for the Egyptian budget to bear, there is nothing to prevent Cairo from concluding a non-aggression pact with Rome."
Still, Cairo could not consider this unanticipated alternative without first consulting its foremost ally. The British responded that in view of the current tension between Britain and Italy, especially now that the negotiations between the two countries had reached a dead end, London advised Cairo not to embark on such a step which would conflict with Egypt's obligations under the treaty of alliance. Nevertheless, it appeared that Sidqi's proposal might not have to be shelved indefinitely, for at least Egypt won a pledge from the British Embassy that London would keep Cairo up to date on the status of British-Italian talks.
However, as the summer dragged on there was no sign that talks, which had been taking place in Geneva and in which the French were also participating, would resume. In the meantime, the situation was growing tenser by the day along the Egyptian-Libyan border, and both sides began to gear up for what appeared to be an inevitable confrontation before the year was out.
Italy still tried to camouflage the military build-up that had begun immediately after Mussolini's visit to Libya in March. The incoming forces were no more than routine replacements for those that had completed their tour of duty in the colonies, Rome maintained. Aware that such claims were not succeeding in pulling the wool over Egyptian eyes, the Italians tried another gambit. On 8 October, the Italian Ministry of Propaganda issued the following statement: "The surprise that has overtaken Egyptian officials in reaction to the arrival of new Italian forces in Libya is unfounded. The decision to transport a phalanx of Italian forces to Libya was taken by the Italian government last April, and it stirred no noticeable anxiety in Egypt at the time. This is the decision that is currently being put into effect. And, if circumstances require more forces, Italy will send them."
Having finally admitted to the troop movements it had long been trying to deny, Italy still hoped to allay Egyptian suspicions. The same Ministry of Propaganda statement continued, "however, there is no reason for Egypt to be disturbed by this. The Egyptian government knows full well that Italian policy towards Egypt has always been inspired by the spirit of pure amity and friendship. For this reason, the Egyptians have nothing to fear from us. Nevertheless, there are exigencies of an international nature, which have nothing to do with Egypt's status or political affairs, that have compelled Italy to strengthen its garrison in Libya. And it will continue to do so if the need requires."
The Italians had two reasons for this stance, as contradictory as it was. On the one hand, Rome was keen not to jeopardise the interests of the large Italian community in Egypt. On the other, it was playing for time as it continued its rapid arms build-up. Al-Ahram adds, "Mussolini has been encouraged in his scheme by General Franco who has assured him of the political and military benefits Italy would gain from Spain if he won."
Naturally, Al-Ahram along with the rest of the Egyptian press wondered how Egypt would respond to the Italian troop reinforcements in Libya. A lengthy article in Al-Ahram of 18 October 1937 addressed the issue. The newspaper relates that several official sources informed it that following intensive talks between Egyptian and British officials, it was agreed that the situation could not be ignored or taken lightly. The two sides therefore decided to draw up the necessary plans for all eventualities that could arise at present or in the future. Once all preparations are made, "all that will remain is for the orders to be given and within a few hours the border area will be teeming with soldiers, aircraft and every type of weapon." Nevertheless, the newspaper added, there was no reason at present to amass troops at the border in response to the military activities in Libya, "in view of the Italian government's repeated assurances, both at the official and unofficial levels, of the sincerity of its friendship with Egypt under all circumstances."
It is doubtful whether officials in Cairo or London were as confident in these reassurances as the Al-Ahram article made it appear. Certainly, they would have been alerted by the Italian propaganda campaign among the Bedouins in the Western Desert who after a previous winter of poor rainfall which aggravated their destitution, were only too ready to lend an attentive ear. In all events, some alarm bells must have gone off in Cairo and London for it was not long before the Manchester Guardian announced that officials in Cairo had decided to deploy Egyptian forces to military stations at Egypt's western border. The British newspaper added that although the Italian garrison in Libya outnumbered the Egyptian forces currently at the border, Egypt possessed far larger numbers of forces in reserve.
The troop build-up along the Egyptian-Libyan border formed the first harbinger of the impending desert war in World War II. That Egypt would be involved in this was one price it had to pay for its treaty of friendship and alliance with Britain. But that story is still several years away.