Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (639)
Palestine in parliament
In Cairo, in October 1938, an Arab parliamentary conference was the product of overwhelming concern over conditions in Palestine. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk follows the proceedings
An Arab parliamentary conference was held in Cairo from 7 to 11 October 1938, following immense developments in the Palestinian issue during the previous two years. It had been called for by the Arab-Egyptian committee for the defence of Palestine, which had been formed under the leadership of Mohamed Ali Alouba Pasha following the successive events that had taken place in the country neighbouring Egypt. These had begun with the 1936 Arab revolt, to be followed by the arrival of the royal commission known as the Peel Commission, and ended with a resolution issued by the British ministry of colonies that called for proposing the issue of partitioning Palestine. This came in the form of a letter from Ormsby- Gore to the high commissioner in Palestine.
In its 5 January 1938 issue, Al-Ahram published a translation of this letter that had been issued in a white paper and which approved the idea of a tripartite division of Palestine into an Arab region, a Jewish region, and a third, new region placed under British mandate. This was approved as long as a committee be formed to recommend borders for the Arab and Jewish regions and the points that would be placed under British mandate, with the stipulation that the number of Arabs in the Jewish region be minimal and vice versa.
Following the issue of this paper, talk commenced of the future Jewish state and the nomination of Weizmann to its presidency. This fact no doubt worried Egyptians, or at least a wide segment of them, for the conflict was no longer between Arabs and Jews in Palestine but rather had transformed into a political endeavour that might have led in the end to the presence of a "stranger state" on Egypt's borders, with all that would bring in terms of danger.
This was expressed by members of Egypt's parliament who held that the revolutions that had taken place in Palestine were to the first degree the result of Balfour's authorisation, "until the situation reached the point of dividing it into several regions, one of which would be a Zionist state that would threaten the Egyptian entity with intense danger through its establishment, whether in terms of politics, economy, or war." These representatives held that British policy that sought to Judaise Palestine was compromising for Egypt as both Britain's ally and an Arab country.
In her book Egypt and the Palestinian Issue, Aida Salima followed many details of the reactions of members of the representative council and the senate who expressed their overwhelming concern over conditions in their sister Arab country. Representative Abdel-Hamid Said, a representative from the Watani Party and head of the Muslim Youth Association, warned against partition and what it would bring in terms of "danger for Egypt itself and ending the future of an Islamic, Arab Palestine and all that it comprises of holy sites... Among all Islamic Arab states, Egypt is considered the leader of the general Islamic renaissance and a protector of holy sites, and it must be the first of all governments to prevent policy that would severely harm it and its interests." Representative Mahmoud Abdel-Latif directed a question to the government about what it would do about the partition proposal, and whether it had opposed it or not.
The remonstrators implored Britain to halt before exiling and dispersing the leaders of the country, arresting many of its prominent personalities including judges of Islamic law and religious figures, "and taking measures to do away with this Arab people that has committed no fault other than defending its threatened homeland and its right to a noble and free life."
It was in these critical circumstances that the Egyptian parliamentary committee for the defence of Palestine, led by Mohamed Ali Alouba Pasha, made its call for the holding of an Arab parliamentary conference.
THE FIRST NEWS OF THE ARRIVAL of Alouba Pasha's invitation came from Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in Beirut when the head of the Lebanese council of representatives, Betro Tarad, stated on 20 July 1938 that he had received an invitation to participate in an Arab parliamentary conference "to resist Zionist aspirations in Palestine and defend the rights of Arabs". While he welcomed the invitation, he also had some reservations concerning it, evident in his statement that he held it a duty to support the issue of Palestine's Arabs in order to maintain the ties of brotherhood, language and proximity, "but I do not believe that Lebanon should throw itself into the complicated problem of Palestine without a vision." The predicament was solved when the Lebanese representatives met in response to the call of the council president and, after declaring their support for the efforts exerted to save Arab Palestine, decided to excuse themselves from officially attending the conference "due to parliament's recess, and to leave the decision to the representatives who want to attend it in a personal capacity."
In Baghdad, Mawlud Pasha Mukhlis, the head of the council of representatives, contacted the council members and "discussed with them the issue of the Arab parliamentary conference that had been decided to be held in one of the Arab capitals to defend the Palestinian cause," without determining the identity of this capital. He then travelled to Damascus to discuss the issue with the head of the Syrian council of representatives. On this point, Al-Ahram noted that the invitation had been sent to all the heads and members of representative councils in Arab countries, "and as for countries that do not have representative councils, prominent personalities were invited."
In Cairo, Alouba Pasha did not suffice with private invitations but rather directed a "call to the Arab and Islamic world" that Al-Ahram published in early August 1938. In it, he first outlined the developments of events in Palestine during the previous two years and spoke of the invitation he had directed to the representative bodies of all countries. He noted that a group of leaders and intellectuals in many countries had agreed that the conference would be held in Cairo, and that the opening ceremony would be on Friday, 12 Shaaban 1257 H (7 October 1938) and that the meetings would be held on the following days. Alouba ended his call by directing an urgent request to "all those with an active conscience and sincere and earnest concern among Arabs and Muslims in all Arab and Islamic countries to write to the conference secretary at the office of Alouba Pasha in Cairo with their thoughts and opinions on this conference."
During this period, the head of the Arab-Egyptian committee for the defence of Palestine received two letters. One was from Abdel-Aziz bin Saud, king of the Hijaz, thanking him and the committee members for their earnest concern "and asking God to make everyone successful in that which is good for Islam and Muslims, and for Palestine to be saved from its current ordeal." The other was from the minister of foreign affairs in the Kingdom of Yemen, thanking him for his interest in Arab affairs and national concerns. He shared the committee's decisions, and hoped that they would bring the desired effect.
In the senate, Abdel-Satar El-Basil and Hussein El-Guindi raised two questions on this same issue. The first was whether since "near the Egyptian borders human massacres are being committed against Palestine's Arabs, shouldn't the prime minister hold that it is Egypt's obligation, in its capacity as the Islamic Arab kingdom neighbouring these people and its always having been tied to Palestine by historical, social and cultural connections, to fulfill its duties towards these neighbours?"
It was under these conditions that the idea of forming an Egyptian parliamentary committee for the defence of Palestine was sown. Alouba Pasha invited a large number of representatives and senate members irrespective of their party affiliation to a meeting in his home during which they formed the committee and selected the pasha as its president.
Let us stop for a moment here on his role in the Palestinian cause. British documents report that Alouba Pasha was born in 1877, and was intelligent and a competent lawyer. He began in the Watani Party and then joined the Wafd Party and left it in 1921. He then joined the Liberal Constitutionalists Party and was among their prominent leaders until he resigned from the party in 1934 to become an extremist element in the Watani Party.
The British documents add that he was the minister of awqaf [religious endowments] in the Ziwar government from March to September 1925. He resigned with his colleagues in the Liberal Constitutionalists Party in protest over the removal of Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, the minister of justice, following the crisis over the book Islam and the Sources of Rule. In 1928, he waged a campaign to annul private religious endowments, and in 1929 began to take interest in Islamic concerns. He became a member in the permanent executive committee of the Islamic conference and, as a representative of it, made a tour of India in the summer of 1933. He took charge of the Ministry of Education in the government of Ali Maher between January and May 1936, and became a member of the senate following that. At the time these documents were written, 1937, he had a strong relationship with the Watani Party, Misr Al-Fatah and other "extremist groups".
Let us return to those concerned with the Palestinian cause in Egypt whose worry grew with talk of some of the Arab countries' plans to invest in the situation to serve their interests. For example, in its 25 January 1938 issue, Al-Ahram published that Nouri Al-Said Pasha was preparing a proposal to unite Palestine and East Jordan with Iraq "and allow the immigration of two million Jews to these countries following their unification. This news has caused immense reverberations among political circles," as Al-Ahram put it.
Although Tawfiq Al-Sweidi, Iraq's foreign minister, denied this proposal, the writings of newspapers issued in Baghdad and known for their relationship with Nouri Al-Said confirmed it. Al-Balad newspaper called for interest to be taken in it. As for Al-Zaman newspaper, it held that the proposal consisted of two parts. The first sought to unite Palestine and East Jordan with Iraq, while the second sought to open the arena to the immigration of two million Jews. It welcomed the first part, but rejected the second and considered it an immense danger.
A group of Egyptian representatives expressed this concern in the objection it sent to the British ambassador in the Egyptian capital. It stated, "The Palestinian Arab people, who have not held back evidence of their desire to maintain friendship with Great Britain, have in recent years become subjected to threats to its existence and its nationalism due to the policy whose unsoundness has been proven by the acknowledgment of the British government itself."
On 2 September 1938, more than a month before the date set for convening the conference, the conference secretariat published a list of responses it had received. From Iraq: King Ghazi, the head of the council of representatives, and the head of the committee for the defence of Palestine. From Al-Hijaz: King Abdel-Aziz bin Saud and the head of the Shura [consultative] Council. From Yemen: Imam Yehia Hamideddin, the minister of foreign affairs, and the prince of the high palace. From Syria: the president of the republic, the head of the council of representatives, the head of the parliamentary committee for the defence of Palestine, and the head of the national office. From Lebanon: the head of the council of representatives. From East Jordan: Prince Abdullah bin Al-Hussein. From Algeria: Sheikh Abdel-Hamid bin Badis, the head of the Scholars' Association.
Several other responses came from beyond the Arab world. From India: Sir Mohamed Yaqoub, president of the Islamic Party Mohamed Ali Jinna, Abdel-Rahman Al-Sadiqi, and Muthareddin Sahib. From Yugoslavia: the president of the Islamic association Fahim Bey Siahu. From America: Fouad Shatara and Habib Ibrahim.
With time, the characteristics of attendance grew clearer. In Lebanon, it was decided that 10 members of the council of representatives would attend the conference, including a number of well-known figures -- Abdullah Al-Yafi, Jubran Tweini and Khalil Abu Jauda. They held several meetings before travelling to "represent Lebanon in best form." In Palestine, it was decided that the Grand Mufti, Aouni Abdel-Hadi Bey, and Ezzat Druza would attend. From Syria, a large delegation led by Shukri Al-Qutli, Sabri Al-Asli, and Makram Al-Atasi planned to attend. What was unexpected was the Yemeni delegation, for Imam Yehyia sent for his son, Seif Al-Islam, who was in Tokyo, to travel to Cairo, in addition to Prince Abdullah bin Al-Wazir, the prince of Al-Hadida.
While the members of delegations were arriving, a higher committee for supervising the means of organising the conference was formed in Cairo. The Lutfallah family palace in Al-Gezira was selected as the venue for the conference opening. Invitation cards were sent to 15,000 individuals, not only to the members of the council of representatives and the senate, but also to "princes, great individuals, notables, prominent personalities, and men of science and literature."
In Port Said, Al-Ahram 's special correspondent lay in wait for the arrival of the delegations. The first to arrive was the Indian delegation, which arrived on the Victoria steamboat and included India's grand mufti, the president and secretary of the Scholars' Association, the secretary of the Caliphate's Association, and a number of journalists. It was followed by the Syrian delegation, which arrived by ship along with the Lebanese delegation accompanied by the Egyptian consul in Beirut.
At Almaza airport, another Al-Ahram reporter awaited the arrival of the delegations coming by plane. Among them was the Iraqi delegation led by the head of the representative council himself. In Alexandria, a third reporter greeted the delegations arriving from North Africa. The first to arrive was Abdel-Khaleq Al-Taris, the president of the Moroccan Reform Party.
The final activity Alouba Pasha undertook in the few hours before the opening of the conference was to call on Egyptian members of the senate and council of representatives not to disappoint him and to attend. He ended by saying, "If Indians, Yugoslavs, Iraqis, Moroccans, and others have borne the inconvenience of travel and being away from their homelands, then Egyptians, right at home, must not tire from taking a few steps to attend the conference."
Alouba was joined in his call to attend the conference by some groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, which had revealed its political side that year, 1938. It ended its call for attendance by urging it "out of loyalty to the relations and proximity tying Palestine to Egypt." The executive committee of Dar Al-Ulum and the Public Schools Organisation invited all graduates to attend the conference, and all looked forward to Friday, 7 October.
THAT MORNING Al-Ahram allocated a significant proportion of its page nine to conference news. The first news item was the honouring of delegation heads in the home of the president of the representative council, Mohamed Baheyeddin Barakat Pasha. A special commemorative medallion had been prepared on which was depicted all the Arab and Islamic countries that participated and the name and date of the conference. There was also news that the conference's committees had been formed to study proposals. At the same time, a meeting place had been prepared in the Lutfallah family palace and before it had been erected a wide pavilion for holders of yellow invitation cards.
Under the title "Palestine Day -- the opening ceremony of the parliamentary conference of the Arab and Islamic countries for the defence of Palestine," the following day, Al-Ahram published the details of the ceremony. Firstly was the dissipation of Alouba Pasha's fears that Egyptians would not respond, "for the invited masses went to the pavilions early on, and they were filled with arrivals led by Sheikh Mohamed Mustafa El-Muraghi, the sheikh of Al-Azhar. He was followed by a large group of representatives and senators. The area was filled with raised flags of Arab and Islamic states, and the chairs of the delegation heads were lined up on the presidential podium."
A noteworthy occurrence took place at this ceremony. In addition to placing a photograph of King Farouk on the presidential podium, cheers for his long life were called out at which point "long and fervent applause broke out in which all delegations represented in the conference participated." This occurrence fell in line with a wish Farouk hoped to bring true after his predecessor had failed to. He wanted to become the caliph of the Muslims and use religion to shore up his autocratic rule. This issue had been a point of dispute between him and the Wafdist government the previous year when he had wanted to hold a religious ceremony on the occasion of his coronation. El-Nahhas and his colleagues had prevented the realisation of this desire.
Speeches were made by the heads of delegations and begun by Alouba Pasha, who outlined the developments of the Palestinian cause up until the dangers of the current situation. "The number of Jews in Palestine in 1915 was approximately 46,000. Now it has reached more than 400,000 while the number of Christian and Muslim Arabs is 950,000. Before the war, Jews owned more than 100,000 dunams, and in 1936, owned one million and 400,032 dunams."
His speech was followed by words given by the representative of Iraq, the head of the representative council Mawlud Mukhlis Pasha, the representative of Syria, Faris Khouri Bey, and the representative of Lebanon Khalil Abu Jauda. The representatives of India gave three speeches, one for each of the organisations they were affiliated with. The head of the Yugoslav delegation, a member of his country's senate, said a few short words, as did the delegates from Yemen, China, and Palestine.
It was decided during this ceremony that the conference presidency would be rotated among the heads of the delegations. It was also decided that its sessions would be held in the same palace, although attendance would be limited to the members of Arab and Islamic delegations, Egyptians senators and representatives, and newspaper reporters with invitation cards.
The following morning, on 8 October, the conference commenced its sessions. After the executive and proposal committees were formed, each delegation began to present its proposals. The Syrian delegation began, with participation from the Palestinian delegation. Their proposal was to call for the reunification of Syria, which had included Lebanon and Palestine, on the basis of it having formed an economic, national and historical unit under Ottoman rule. Their second proposal was to consider the Balfour promise null in its very foundation and "abrogated by Article 20 in the charter of the League of Nations." It called to condemn the policy of the British mandate that "is incongruous with the protection of a people's rights and dignity," and to reject the continuous immigration that does not serve the interests of the country's people, who "fear the encroachment of these newcomers upon them and their stripping them of their rights." Finally, it called to reject the partition proposal for it is impossible for there to be a "shared life between an indigenous people and an introduced people."
Discussion of these proposals took up the sessions of the entire first day. It seems that it went as far as worrying some of the members of the Palestinian delegation, who held that it was unwise to issue resolutions that are impossible to implement. They requested that the proposals first be transferred to the committee designated to studying them in a calm atmosphere "so that there is no room for disturbing the activities of the conference."
In the second session, the proposal committee presented a complete report on the Balfour pledge that concluded with "proof of its invalidity regarding a Jewish national homeland in Palestine as well as the invalidity of all that based upon it in way of actions that have aggravated the Palestinian problem."
In the third session, Alouba Pasha submitted a report he had prepared with Aouni Abdel-Hadi that included evidence and support proving the right of Palestine in its cause, the invalidity of the Balfour vow, and English non-compliance with it. The report also addressed the issue of Zionist immigration with a careful analysis, and delineated the dangers ensuing from its continuation and the problems it would cause, whether in politics, the economy, or society.
On Tuesday, 11 October 1938, the closing session was held. The head of the Egyptian delegation presented the report of the committee formed by the conference to study the proposals submitted by delegation members. It included a long historical survey of the Palestinian cause and then announced the conference resolutions. These were to:
- Consider the Balfour authorisation null in its foundation and worthless in the view of Arabs and Muslims;
- Necessarily and absolutely bar Jewish immigration to Palestine from now on;
- Reject the partition of Palestine in any way and for it to remain an Arab country;
- Necessarily establish a national constitutional government with an elected representative council of proportionate representation of Arabs and Jews, and to sign a treaty of alliance and good will between the English and Palestine that would end the mandate;
- Provide comprehensive general amnesty to those charged and convicted in incidents of the Palestinian revolution, and to free detainees and prisoners and return all political exiles;
- Urge the kings and governments of Arab and Islamic nations and their peoples to implement these resolutions through all means possible.
The final resolution was to form a committee under the presidency of Alouba Pasha consisting of nine members including four Egyptians, with their headquarters in Cairo, to follow up on the execution of the resolutions the conference had issued.
Opinions differed on the success of the conference. English newspapers stressed its failure, citing as evidence the lack of attendance by a sufficient number of Egyptian parliamentarians in its meetings. Arab newspapers, led by Al-Ahram, saw the conference as a great success, although history says otherwise.