Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (621)
Not to be forgotten
The 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, a momentous accord, also included little-known footnotes that had consequences as well. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk highlights some of the fine print
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Inauguration of the Suez Canal, the arrival of the Aigle bringing Empress Eugénie le monde illustré, 1869
The years 1919, 1922, 1936, and 1952 were decisive years in Egypt's modern history, for they each contained portentous events. 1919 was the year of the revolution led by Saad Zaghloul. 1922 was the year the British Foreign Ministry issued a statement, on 28 February to be exact, acknowledging, for the first time, the establishment of a conditionally independent state in Egypt. 1936 was the year the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was signed, and 1952 was the year of the national revolution led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, a revolution whose era Egypt remains in to this day, in one form or another.
It is the decisive event of 1936 that concerns us here, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. This document inspired much writing, ranging from that penned by politicians to academic theses. The most famed of the former was Mahmoud Suleiman Ghanem's The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty: A Scientific Study and a published example of the latter is Mohamed Farid Hashish's The 1936 Treaty.
Yet most of the written treatment of the 1936 Anglo- Egyptian Treaty is limited to either its signing and defence of it (Ghanem) or tracing its effects on Egyptian-British relations in the following period, as Hashish's work did up until 1945. None of those concerned with the treaty, whether politicians or academics, noticed some of its particular consequences that were overlooked with the exception of certain small details sometimes taken out of context.
Among these consequences were the events that took place following the Montreaux Convention when the Egyptian delegation travelled to Paris, home to the headquarters of the international Suez Canal Company, to reach an understanding with its officials on the nature of its relationship with the government in light of the new political and legal circumstances. Another consequence was what came of the treaty's treatment of the Suez Canal and Italy's concerted efforts to get a foothold into that channel that had become a vital artery between it and the empire it established at that time in Africa.
Al-Ahram took a special interest in those neglected events that were given short shrift in the well known writings on the treaty. Let us then follow the events as they were portrayed in Al-Ahram 's pages, beginning with the first overlooked consequence.
ON THE FRONT PAGE of Al-Ahram 's Sunday 30 June 1937 issue was an article headlined "The canal is Egypt's, Egypt is not the canal's". On the occasion of the agreements signed between the Egyptian government and the Suez Canal Company, Al-Ahram covered a particular aspect of the history of this venerable water channel. As the newspaper wrote, the Suez Canal Company was a state company founded by a royal decree issued by Mohamed Said Pasha, Egypt's wali, in 1854. It was officially inaugurated during the reign of Khedive Ismail in 1869, with a full exclusivity period of 99 years, to end on 17 November 1968. "Efforts were made prior to the war to extend the exclusivity rights another 40 years to 2008, but to no avail. The company's profits from this exclusivity are immense. Its administrative board in Paris includes 21 Frenchmen, 10 Britons, and one Dutchman."
Al-Ahram then digressed to the Constantine agreement signed on 29 October 1888, which stated that the canal would "always remain free and operative, whether in times of war or peace, for all ships, commercial or military, without any discrimination between nationalities. The contracting states therefore agreed not to intervene in the free use of the canal."
Despite the extreme economic importance of the Suez Canal, the author of this particular article, who was likely the paper's editor-in-chief, took special interest in its political significance, which he outlined in six points:
- The company had certain advantages in Egypt due to its exclusivity rights.
- In 1875 the British government bought out the Egyptian government's shares in the company, which numbered 353,204. The company's total shares came to 80,000, and so the British government owned 44 per cent, in addition to the holdings of British individuals, although the major influence in the company remained French.
- Before long the canal became a major channel for British transport, and its defence became a political priority for the Empire of Great Britain.
- The 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty addressed the Suez Canal in Article 8, which stated that "the Suez Canal is an indivisible part of Egypt, and at the same time an international channel between the various divisions of the British Empire. His Majesty the King of Egypt licenses His Majesty the King of England and the Empire to position forces on Egyptian territory beside the canal to cooperate with Egyptian forces in defending it...".
- When relations between Britain and Italy became strained in 1935 because of the Ethiopian problem, serious considerations were made in London and Geneva (the League of Nations headquarters) on punishing Italy and closing the canal to its ships. Those who called for this measure argued that the charter of the League of Nations replaced the 1888 Constantine agreement because one of its articles annulled all treaties that contradicted its text.
- As for how these conditions affected Egyptian interests and relations between the government in Cairo and the international Suez Canal Company, they were summed up by the issue of two decrees. The first was issued in May 1935 and abrogated the condition of gold for international contracts. The second, issued on 28 April 1936, increased passage fares for the canal. In exchange, the company agreed to increase the number of its Egyptian employees until by 1958 they made up 25 per cent of the company's staff; to appoint two Egyptian members to the administrative board; and to pay LE200,000 annually to the Egyptian government.
All these developments took place under the government of Ali Pasha Maher, two weeks before the Wafd Party took over and four months before the signing of the 1936 Anglo- Egyptian Treaty. It was not expected for the situation to remain as it was after all these significant changes.
The canal remained present in the Egyptian national consciousness, a fact bespoken when the members of the Egyptian delegation to the Montreaux Convention left for London and then Paris following the signing of the treaty on 8 May. The reason for their trip was to negotiate with the Suez Canal Company on the initial agreement between it and the previous government in light of the changes that took place following the signing of the treaty. Another impetus was the fact that the negotiator this time was a majority government able to comply with the agreement, as opposed to the interim government of Ali Maher, which did not enjoy any popular legitimacy.
Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in the French capital was the first to reveal the nature of the agreement reached between the Egyptian government, represented by prime minister Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha and minister of finance Makram Ebeid Pasha, Egypt's minister plenipotentiary in Paris, and the Suez Canal Company, represented by the director of its administration board the Marquis de Fougee and several of the board members. The agreement was revealed in a report published on page nine of the 8 June 1937 edition of Al-Ahram.
In this report, the Paris correspondent noted the company's increased income, pointing out statistics showing that in the first three months of 1936 a total of 1,552 ships passed through the canal and during the same period in 1937 that number had increased to 1,679. The correspondent then went on to discuss the efforts made by Makram Pasha to review the prior agreement signed with the Maher government and revealed that the discussions revolved around the following three points:
Firstly, the parties discussed raising the amount the company had agreed to pay annually to the Egyptian government, which was LE200,000 according to the previous agreement, to LE300,000, while Egypt would also receive LE3 million, "a significant amount not to be taken lightly," during the 30 years remaining of the exclusivity rights. Of course, they didn't realise at the time that Egypt would take over the entire company before two decades had passed.
Secondly, a military road was to be constructed between Port Said and Suez. Some sources reported that, according to statements made by the marquis in the annual shares meeting, the company would make a large contribution towards the costs of building this road, although the exact amount was not determined. Al-Ahram 's correspondent, however, confirmed that "among the reliable information I secured last night is that the company will in fact cover the entire expenses of constructing this road. It is understood that His Excellency Makram Pasha requested during his negotiations in Paris an amount of money from the company that would be sufficient to cover the costs of the new road. It is also understood that the company is free, in this matter, to either repair the existent road or construct a new one to replace it." The correspondent then revealed the relationship between this and the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. "It is indisputable that this is another victory for the government that will save the Egyptian treasury a large sum of money it was supposed to spend on construction of this road, which is one of the military roads stipulated in the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty."
And finally, the negotiations in Paris addressed the issue of significantly raising the percentage of Egyptian employees serving in the company from 25 per cent, "which is the percentage that was agreed to be raised during the government of Maher Pasha". The correspondent did not pinpoint the number of this ultimate raise, stating only that it would be at least a third, which in fact turned out to be correct.
A week later the news report became fact when Al-Ahram published on the front page of its 15 June issue, in bold print, "On the Egyptian government's agreement with the Suez Canal Company," followed by the text of two statements issued by Makram Ebeid Pasha to the Senate and the Marquis de Fougee to the company's general assembly meeting.
The Egyptian minister of finance's statement did not add much to the previous report except for providing some additional details, such as that the company's initial offer was limited to the amount of increased payments made to the government. These payments were called itawa, or tribute, but it was not clear who was levying the tribute on whom -- those with rights or those whose rights had been usurped.
Makram Pasha added that the Egyptians had put forth two other demands the company agreed to: to "assume responsibility for constructing a road along the length of the canal in accordance with the conditions stipulated in the Anglo- Egyptian Treaty and to cover its costs up to LE300,000." It is natural that the first demand was not present in the previous agreement because the treaty had not yet been promulgated. As for the second demand, it called for an increase of Egyptian employees in the company to 33 per cent, a full third, the same figure Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in Paris had predicted.
As for the statement by the Marquis de Fougee, it admitted that the agreement reached was based on two significant events. The first was the signing of a treaty of friendship and alliance between Egypt and Great Britain, "a positive step towards the desired goal of independence", and the second was the gains made by the Egyptian government at the Montreaux Convention, "the crowning victory of which was Egypt's inclusion in the League of Nations".
In romantic prose the marquis expressed the company's delight over Egypt's gains, for the company and Egypt had friendly relations. This led the company to, in his words, view what had taken place as good reason to share the government in its joy. He also confirmed that the large profits of the company were set to increase, and provided statistics showing that the cargo of ships passing through the canal during the first quarter of 1936 and 1937 had increased from 6,055,000 tonnes to 7,861,000 tonnes, a 30 per cent rise.
The two chambers of Egypt's parliament approved the agreement that was reached in Paris, while the company's general assembly agreed unanimously on it after hearing the above statement by the director of its administrative board. But as we are approaching this issue as a consequence of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, we must also look at the position of the other party to the treaty -- Great Britain.
Al-Ahram 's correspondent in London noted that a number of the members of the House of Commons directed questions to the ministers of foreign affairs and commerce following the agreement. Sir John Miller asked if the opinion of the British government had been taken into account when amending the agreement. The response from minister of foreign affairs Anthony Eden was that the canal company was a private enterprise "and therefore there is no need for the agreement of the British government or otherwise on decisions made by the company's administrative board".
In response to another question about the value of fees paid by British commercial ships, the minister of finance explained that the cargo of ships that had passed through the canal during 1936 indicated that LE5 million had been paid, excepting fees paid by travellers.
A final question concerned the British government's delegates to the company's administrative board, the number of sessions held by the board during the last 12 months, and the compensation it received during that period. The response was that there were three delegates appointed, in 1920, 1922, and 1926, and that the "company's administrative board meets every month and the entire amount distributed during 1936 among all members of the company's administrative board, which is composed of 22 directors, was 12,515,800 francs."
The only other issue Al-Ahram mentioned with regard to this agreement was a reference to the company's acceptance of the request to appoint two Egyptian members to the administrative board. The Egyptian government proposed appointing Sherif Sabri Pasha, a member of the Regency Council whose term had ended, and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi Pasha, the minister of transport, as compensation for being let go from the new government formed after Farouq assumed his constitutional powers. He was not, in fact, satisfied by this compensation, but that's another story.
THE SECOND OVERLOOKED CONSEQUENCE of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty had to do with Italy's position vis-à-vis the Suez Canal when its interests grew following its 1935 invasion of Ethiopia and the formation of an empire in East Africa that included Eritrea and Somalia. This development increased its commercial and military transport along the canal, a fact confirmed by statistics published by Al-Ahram in its 21 January 1938 issue about the movement of ships through the Suez Canal during the previous month. The total number of southbound ships was 244, with Britain taking the lion's share (118) followed by Italy (44), and France in sixth place (with 11 ships) after Germany, Holland and Norway. As for Egypt, it came in at the tail end with only one ship, as did Romania and Russia. Northbound ships totalled 270, with Britain again taking the lion's share (134), again followed by Italy (43) and France in fifth place this time after Germany and Holland.
It was therefore not unusual that Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in Rome sent a dispatch in late February of that year indicating that Egypt was not far removed from the negotiations intended to be held between Italy and Britain on the general state of affairs in the Mediterranean Sea. It also mentioned that the British government was surprised by the news being circulated about the Italian government insisting that the interests of its East African empire meant that it had the right to participate in defending the Suez Canal.
The Egyptian authorities shared Britain's surprise, and asserted that the defence of the canal was a matter solely concerning the Egyptian government. The argument went that Egypt was the sole authority in determining how the canal would be defended, and that "in fact, the British right to its defence is determined by the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and is limited to the short but necessary interim period to allow for the re-organisation and strengthening of the Egyptian army."
International developments increased Egypt's doubts over the true intentions of Mussolini's government towards the Suez Canal. These developments were one of the most important reasons for speeding up the signing of the Anglo- Egyptian Treaty, in particular those concerning the Italian presence in Libya and on the Western borders of Egypt, which had begun to form a threat to Egyptian territory. Another influential development was the Italian presence in the Ethiopian foothills, where the source of the Nile lays, providing Egypt with its primary water needs.
The year following the signing of the treaty, Chamberlain's government was formed and, to maintain peace, preferred to make concessions in Czechoslovakia to the Nazi government in Germany. It also attempted to return to the old alliance with Italy to prevent Mussolini from allying with Berlin, particularly as the Spanish Civil War had brought the two closer after they had both supported the Falange government led by Gen Franco. This policy of the new prime minister caused conflict with the minister of foreign affairs, Eden, who resigned a few months later.
In light of all these developments, on 18 February 1938, the Italian ambassador to London, Count Grandi, sent to the minister of foreign affairs a memorandum whose contents officials refused to reveal. Al-Ahram thus relied on what was published in the British papers. Quoting The Daily Telegraph it stated that Italy held that its newly established empire in East Africa gave it the right to defend the Suez Canal and in fact made its participation in doing so a given certainty. To lighten the import of Italy's demand, the Daily Telegraph added that the Italian memorandum had also granted the same right to France.
In light of the agreement between the British and Italian governments to negotiate over this demand, Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in London wrote that political circles in the British capital had called on Egypt to remain alert. According to them, it was not unlikely that Italy would stipulate, due to the reduction of its military garrison in Libya, to undertake a share in the responsibility for the security of the Suez Canal. They held that it would do so on the argument that its lack of such an advantage would otherwise make it necessary to maintain massive Italian forces near the Egyptian borders to secure the safe passage of its transport to and from East Africa. These political circles added that the Italian government had asked Britain to act as an intermediary with the Egyptian government on this regard.
Yet as British-Italian negotiations were under way, a fierce internal battle was taking place between the government led by Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha and the Wafd Party, whose newspaper had waged a harsh campaign against the government for accepting the fact that the two negotiating parties had overlooked it. This drove the prime minister to look into the matter, "whereby His Excellency the minister of foreign affairs provided the assembled ministers with the information at hand on this matter. The ministers then discussed the right of Egypt, in accordance with the treaty, to enter as a third party into these agreements, which have a direct connection to Egyptian interests. The cabinet decided to take urgent diplomatic measures in order to officially examine the details of the negotiations under way so that Egypt can form a position on them."
The Egyptians had no other option than to depend on what the British newspapers published on this issue. Al-Ahram quoted The Daily Herald as saying that if the British government did not gently warn Mussolini, two interrelated issues would come up in his talks -- the British occupation of Egypt and the defence of the Suez Canal. According to the paper, Mussolini would argue that Egypt's security could be safeguarded jointly by Britain and Italy, which both ruled countries that border Egypt, and which together constituted the strongest powers in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Daily Herald 's foreign desk editor added that in the Italian government's opinion, such safeguarding would make a large foreign military presence unnecessary, especially given that it was said the British military garrison's presence on the two banks of the canal would always be considered a threat to Italy, the freedom of whose passage to and from the Mediterranean via the canal had become a matter of life and death.
But Al-Ahram held that this demand had neither basis nor justification, particularly as Egypt had respected the right of military ships to pass through the canal during the Ethiopian war, which had enabled the Italians to send their forces to successfully invade the country. "There is no doubt that Egypt rejects another state participating in defending the canal and will oppose any such request as it views it as threatening its independence," wrote the newspaper.
Egyptians were not reassured until early March 1938 when news arrived that the British government had resolved to seek the opinion of the Egyptian government in negotiations with Italy "and thus all traces of worry vanished. The Egyptian government was reassured of the results of the preliminary measures it had taken towards joint work with the allied state."
Britain kept its promise and reported the results of the talks as they took place to the Egyptian consul in Rome, while Sir Miles Lampson himself, the British ambassador in Cairo, remained in constant contact with the prime minister. The matter came to a close when the Egyptian government issued a statement on 18 April confirming that the Suez Canal was not up for negotiations, and that the accord that had been reached between Britain and Italy was based on respect for the Constantine agreement ruling on the freedom of shipping, as the two countries were keen to stress to Egypt. Yet Italy did not come out with nothing, for it succeeded in securing an agreement from the Suez Canal Company to allocate seats for Italian delegates in its administrative board.