Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 June 2006
Issue No. 798
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (644)

What European papers said

From the fall of the Sidqi government to the coronation of King Farouk, stories in the European press about Egypt were prominently displayed in Al-Ahram. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk sees how the foreign dailies treated the nation's local developments

It was customary for Al-Ahram to occasionally allocate space on its inside pages for the transmission of the most important news published in other newspapers, whether local Arabic or foreign ones. There was nothing new in this other than selecting from Arabic newspapers or translating from the languages foreign papers were published in, such as English in the case of The Egyptian Gazette and the Egyptian Mail or French in the case of La Reforme.

Click to view caption
French newspapers took interest in King Farouk's coronation ceremony

Among these selections was that found in the European press, foremost the English press due to its interest in Egyptian affairs and particularly those related to direct and indirect relations between the two countries. Priority was also given to French newspapers given the long-established relations between the two countries, particularly with regard to cultural affairs and as a result of the numerous interests of the French community in Egypt. In terms of size, it was the largest foreign community after the Greek, Italian and English communities.

Next in order of importance of Al-Ahram 's transmission were the Italian, Greek and German papers. The first were interested in the developments of events in Egypt due to the size of the Italian community, which was the second largest in Egypt. This community had penetrated the human fabric of Egypt, and many words in the Egyptian colloquial today are in fact of Italian origin. This interest grew following the Italian occupation of Tripoli and its authority being extended to cover the rest of Libya. This caused a border predicament between the two countries that was settled by an agreement in 1925 through which Egypt handed over Jaghbub Oasis, a source of displeasure for the Egyptian public. Reasons for this interest increased further following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, with all that it brought in terms of increasing Egyptian fear over threats to the sources of the Nile in the Ethiopian mountains.

Al-Ahram also transmitted from Greek newspapers, although such material was extremely limited despite the Greeks forming the largest European community in Egypt, the ancient ties between the two countries going back to the Ptolemaic era, and the fact that both countries were once part of the Ottoman Empire. This limited operation was perhaps due to the difficulty of translation, as Egyptians never learnt Greek and the schools of their large community spread across the country were limited to Greek children, unlike the French schools that widely targeted Egyptians and especially those from the upper classes. The Greek situation also differed from that of the English, which the occupiers imposed as a primary language in government schools and particularly during the term of the well-known education advisor Douglas Dunlop. Moreover, American missionary schools were established along the entire Nile River Valley, from Alexandria in the north to Assiut in the south. The American University was opened as one of these missionary schools in 1920, although it began as a high school and then over an extensive period added some university courses.

Remaining is the German press, which Al-Ahram transmitted the least of in terms of European newspapers. This fact may have stemmed from the German press' limited interest in Egyptian issues. In contrast, however, when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 and the German role in global politics grew, Egyptians, represented by Al-Ahram, sought out any news issued about them in Berlin's press.

These selections took place through the special Al-Ahram correspondents in London, Paris, Rome, Athens and Berlin, who would send their selection to the newspaper's headquarters in Cairo. This raises the question as to whether Al-Ahram had the capacity at that time to enable it to send Egyptians to all of these capitals in addition to its other correspondents in the capitals of many Arab countries. The answer can be deduced from Al-Ahram correspondents in Arab countries -- typically they were citizens of those countries from which they dispatched their news to the Egyptian capital in return for an agreed upon sum. The same situation was believed to be the case in European capitals, being that an agreement was made with one of the editors of the newspapers published there to provide Al-Ahram with news published about Egypt, also for an agreed upon sum.

Here we will restrict our selections to Al-Ahram 's transmissions from the European press' writings on Egypt during the three years prior to WWII (1936-1938). During this period, the development of events escalated following the fall of Sidqi's term and the student demonstrations, and the subsequent development of Egyptian-British relations culminating in the signing of the famed treaty between the two countries. This was followed by the death of King Fouad I and Farouk assuming his constitutional powers a few months later (July 1937). Egypt underwent a unique period with regard to the conflict between the Wafd Party and the royal palace during this new reign, a fact that deserves being followed.

LET US BEGIN with the British newspapers. Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in London transmitted from a number of newspapers published there and in other British cities, and yet showed special interest in that published by The London Times, which was known to be well-informed of behind-the- scenes information. It was also known for its high degree of credibility, something that Al-Ahram was also intent on from its inception. At an early stage, some even called its writing the "Egyptian Times".

Al-Ahram transmitted the opinions of the English press as represented by the Manchester Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and the Evening Standard on what was termed the "incidents of the students" in its 4 January 1936 edition. The Manchester Guardian 's correspondent in Cairo described the students as being a small minority and yet having succeeded in their most recent demonstrations in holding up an international surgery convention. "Some of the foreign delegates, especially the British, withdrew from the convention." A reporter for the Daily Telegraph held that those he called "conspirators" sought to break the united front that had been formed at that time between top politicians of all affiliations and that they were discussing the formation of a student front. As for the Evening Standard, it took interest in the participation of Al-Azhar students in the political demonstrations, for they had not previously done as they had a day earlier.

Such news was of a documentary nature. More extraordinary was that found in the dispatch of the " Times reporter" who indicated that there were two parties among the students. The first included those who wished to return to their studies, most of whom were supporters of the Wafd Party. The second included those calling for their colleagues' amnesty. "These, as it appears, receive instructions from non-Wafd parties whose animosity towards the government of Nessim Pasha is growing." The famous English paper concluded by saying that if the united front remained in place, "the appearances of a split will be made clear to the eye if the leaders are unable to overcome personal and partisan considerations".

Al-Ahram also reflected some of the interest of English newspapers in the budding negotiations between the two countries. From the Lincoln Echo, which it characterised as a provincial newspaper "and which does not have any major importance", it sent a strange dispatch about the imminent signing of a treaty between Egypt and England. It wrote that the Egyptian-English committee in the House of Commons was studying at length the trade conditions of the treaty that those in-the-know expected to be accepted. The "unimportant" newspaper added that it was likely that Egypt would gain a degree of independence equal to the status of independent possessions.

On this occasion, Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in London granted himself the right to criticise this paper's opinions. He wrote, "it is not unlikely that such talk was born of confusion or muddling in the reporter's mind. On the other hand, however, it may be a revival of the notion formed previously in some circles that every effort spent in the future on the settlement of political relations between England and Egypt must be met by other efforts to place trade relations on a satisfactory basis. It is impossible to obtain proof that such an endeavour is being studied officially. It is, however, extremely likely that some of the representatives have submitted a request of the sort to officials."

Most of the English newspapers' interest following the decease of King Fouad was in the issue of the regency council that had been decided to be formed until King Farouk came of age. Al-Ahram transmitted from the Daily Telegraph 's reporter in the Egyptian capital news that there was a strong inclination among all involved parties to not take any interest in the wishes of the deceased king on this matter. "Rarely does one hear someone wanting to wait to know the names of those the deceased king had chosen, and the time has not come for guessing. It appears that there is little hope that Nessim Pasha, even though he was among those chosen by King Fouad, will be appointed, while there is a very strong likelihood that Prince Mohamed Ali will be selected. Due to his personal traits and the great respect he commands, he is the royal family member most worthy of the trusteeship."

The same newspaper added that the prince had long been the highest ranking member of the Egyptian royal family, and that in contrast to the other princes, "his interests lie in the arts more than in political affairs or sports games. His vast wealth has aided him in becoming a champion of the arts and sciences in Egypt. He has hosted many prominent European artists, writers and musicians in Manial Palace."

The Daily Telegraph concluded by saying that the issue of trusteeship was possibly one of the thorniest in Egyptian politics, as the regency council members simply had to be appointed. "This matter is much more important that the appointment of senators. Yes, King Fouad appointed regents, but will the Wafdists accept those selected by the king who was inimical to their rule? Agreement to those King Fouad selected would be a shock to them, while their being overlooked would incite the animosity of the young man who will one day become the country's king in word and deed."

In another edition of the paper, after the regency council's members had been decided on, Al-Ahram transmitted the opinion of British newspapers of them. Again, it started with the Daily Telegraph, which seemed to be the British newspaper most interested in this issue. It was the opinion of its reporter in Cairo that the parliament had completely ignored the king's final wishes regarding the regents and he praised its selections in frank support of the parliament's authority. It had chosen Prince Mohamed Ali, who had previously been appointed by Fouad as a minister plenipotentiary in London and a minister of foreign affairs until only a few weeks earlier, and who "enjoys splendid advantages that assist him in providing guiding advice to men of politics." It had also selected Sherif Sabri Pasha, the queen's brother and the new king's maternal uncle, "who belongs to a family that has worked in politics and whose father participated in two governments, and who was an undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

It was natural for the English press to give attention to the two major events that the two successive years witnessed -- the signing of the treaty of alliance and friendship between Egypt and England (1936) and then the decision to cancel the capitulations in the Montreaux agreement (1937).

As for the first of these two events, the Economist showed interest in what it referred to as the British government holding to the promises the late Henderson (the British foreign minister in 1930) had made to El-Nahhas Pasha. After the paper had referred to Sudan as the boulder on which negotiations had wrecked, the two parties agreed in the treaty that the primary goal of their administrating the country would be the welfare of the Sudanese. And "because this means that the Egyptians have conceded their old view of Sudan and their consideration of it as an Egyptian colony, Egypt has the right to invest in it for its own benefit."

One of the readers of the Morning Post wrote on this same topic, and Al-Ahram described him as the "just Englishman." He wrote that he had lived in India and Egypt, and that "it was clear to anyone who had lived there that it is impossible for the native residents to forever remain under foreign rule. The obstacles preventing the rule of these throngs by a group of whites grow day after day. It is only fair to leave these peoples to decide their destinies themselves, although I agree that it is necessary to bring in the necessary changes permanent civil servants point to, and that these changes be implemented without taking recourse to British voters."

As for the second of these events, which resulted in the cancellation of the capitulations and Egypt joining the League of Nations, the Manchester Guardian described the later upshot as "the most recent stage in the liberation of Egypt. It is incumbent upon the Egyptian government to show us how it is able to govern the Egyptian people well." The Daily Telegraph commented by saying, "while there are some who believe that following the interim period the Egyptian courts may do wrong in their treatment of foreign litigants, and that industry and capital that has come to Egypt from abroad will slip away again, the participants in the convention do not hold these pessimistic views. The interim period, which will last 12 years, will be sufficient for foreign holders of capital to adjust their ventures and activities as required by the administrative and judicial changes."

In this connection, the Times published an exclusive measurement of Egyptian public opinion concerning the agreement as gauged by its correspondent in the Egyptian capital. It noted that public opinion had on the whole expressed its satisfaction with the successful results of the convention and the assistance the British delegation had offered so that Egypt could gain these results. The correspondent added that there was a general feeling among Egyptians that their representatives in the convention were readier to make concessions than was necessary, driven to that by a desire to appear as though they were fully imbued with a European spirit.

Al-Ahram greatly expanded its transmission of English newspaper coverage of Farouk I's induction as the country's king. Nearly every page included a transmission on this royal event. The Morning Post wrote that there was great joy over the arrival of the Sudanese delegation similar to the Egyptian one that had travelled to London at the time of the coronation of King George. The Manchester Guardian wrote that the mission of the young king would clearly not be easy, for Egypt had achieved its independence and now had many domestic concerns to turn to. The Times wrote, "The ceremony today is neither religious nor semi-religious as is the British coronation ceremony. Neither is it like the Turks' ceremony of ornamenting the sultan with the sword of Osman. Rather, it is a purely civil and military ceremony." The Yorkshire Observer wrote, "The coronation of the king of Egypt is not as it once was -- an imitation of foreign customs. Rather, it is now a license by a free people for its national sovereignty. This is called for to support the peoples of the Near East on their path towards modern civilisation and high culture."

Al-Ahram warmly welcomed some of the British newspapers allocating a portion of their supplements to Egypt, as occurred on 26 October 1937 when the Times allocated half a page of its travel supplement to the land of the Pharaohs. In it, the newspaper summarised Egypt's panoramic vistas and sites that attracted tourists. Yet Al-Ahram 's correspondent in the British capital expressed his surprise when the British paper published with this article an average picture of a group of workers looking at a truck full of watermelons near Damietta.

It even more warmly welcomed the Economist' s 24-page supplement on Egypt's general affairs on 8 December of the same year. It included an introduction penned by El-Nahhas Pasha, an article on the treaties and capitulations by Hafiz Afifi, Egypt's ambassador in London, and another article on the government's economic programme by the finance minister, Makram Ebeid Pasha. This all made it appear as though the supplement had been prepared in coordination with the Egyptian government.

Although the Wafd Party government was brought down at the end of that year (1937), the Mohamed Mahmoud government that followed it employed the same approach. This is made clear by the special supplement published by the Manchester Guardian on 3 April of the following year. It commenced with an article by the prime minister and another by the minister of agriculture, Murad Pasha.

Al-Ahram took great interest in what was written about it in this supplement, and published the entire text: "The largest of the Egyptian daily newspapers is Al-Ahram, which is independent and does not belong to any political party. It is the oldest Arab newspaper around, and has an incredibly large distribution, surpassing that of any other daily newspaper in Egypt due to the precision of its published work, especially its news. It is widely found outside of Egypt in all Arab countries in the Near East and bears great influence as there are no daily newspapers like it or of such importance in any of those countries."

ON TO EUROPEAN NEWSPAPERS outside of Britain. Their interest in Egypt was significantly less than that of English newspapers, as mentioned above. Among them, the French newspapers showed the most interest in Egyptian affairs. And the French press' interest in Egypt grew, with Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in Paris sending dispatches on special occasions that interested the French for one reason or another.

Among such occasions was the arrival at the Montreaux agreement. France was one of the countries most against the agreement's text, due to the historical fact that it had been the first state to have come up with the capitulations system with the Ottoman Empire. It was then applied to Egypt given that it was one of the states within the Ottoman Empire.

La Journal published a report it received from its special correspondent in the Swiss resort where the convention took place. In it he wrote of the end of the system that he described as antiquated, as 400 years had passed since its inception. He wrote that the negotiations were extremely difficult and that success depended on congruence between the British and French views on the system to replace foreign capitulations.

La Nouvelle wrote that Egypt had become an independent state, and had won acknowledgment of the abrogation of the foreign capitulations system by all states of consequence. It said that all states, including France, who had the most interests in Egypt, had obtained the assurances they needed.

L'action Francaise criticised the plan of the French delegation in Montreaux for not defending French interests as much as necessary. It concluded by saying that France depended on its great and ancient friendships in the Nile River Valley, "so that we can look to the future of French institutions in Egypt without fear or concern".

Wrote another, "Our position is critical, particularly given the statement of the head of the French delegation to the convention that if all the articles or paragraphs that begin with 'the Egyptian government intends or does not intend and is prepared to, etc' with regards to the agreement, there would not be much left. The fact is that these expressions are not contractual in international or private law, but rather are amiable words of friendship without any scientific value."

The French newspapers also took interest in King Farouk's coronation ceremony. Strangely enough, La Republique newspaper showed the most interest in this issue. It mentioned that Farouk was the first king to have ascended Egypt's throne simply by it being passed to him through inheritance. It was right in saying so, for the last two Egyptian rulers (Hussein Kamel and Fouad) had ascended the throne through a decision issued by the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before that, rulers had assumed their power through a firman issued by the Sublime Porte.

La Journal turned its attention to an unusual issue, that being that Egyptian royalty did not possess a crown. It wrote that an endeavour was underway on which most opinions concurred, and that this was to select the crown of Tutankhamen to crown Farouk with. "Yet some religious authorities do not view that with satisfaction."

Paris-Soir wrote that canons were fired in Egypt on this occasion and that the people exhibited the greatest signs of joy and enthusiasm.

As for the Italian and German press, particularly following the decline of relations between the governments of Rome and Berlin and the government of London, they took on an incendiary role, goading the Egyptians against their governments loyal to Britain and against Britain itself. There are numerous examples of this, such as when the German Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung published a long interview with Ahmed Hussein, the leader of Misr Al-Fatah with Fascist tendencies. It included Misr Al-Fatah's agenda and ended with the words, "We are confident that we will not earn our rights except by force alone. This will only occur by grasping the appropriate opportunity." Another example is found in the Italian La-Stampa during the crisis that broke out between the palace and the Wafd Party and which led to the fall of the final El-Nahhas government. The newspaper claimed Egypt's position to be "more fitting than Ireland's to not accept British oversight".

Al-Ahram also published some of that printed in Greek newspapers about Egypt, which was sparse and limited to occasions affecting relations between the two countries. One newspaper published a lengthy article on the occasion of the Montreaux Convention on the capitulations system and indicating that the Greeks had interests in Egypt. It wrote that the system that would replace it would provide them with enough guarantees, but that the most important guarantee and that bringing real peace of mind was good relations between Egypt and Greece, relations which would grow stronger as time passes. The Greek newspaper had no choice but to play this tune that clashed with those played at the same time by the Italian and German newspapers.

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