Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
16 - 22 July 1998
Issue No.386
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A Diwan of contemporary life (242)

Aziz Al-Masri's was a legend in his own time. The Ottoman officer of Egyptian origin with the heart of a lion was hailed as a hero by Egyptians. From the pages of Al-Ahram, Yunan Labib Rizk* writes about a trial that caused an uproar

One of the truly legendary figures in Egyptian history was Aziz Ali Al-Masri, who still stands as a symbol of noble defiance. The young Ottoman officer of Egyptian origin refused to surrender, whatever the odds -- a steadfast advocate of the nationalist cause regardless of the consequences, selfless promoter of a better future for his people in spite of many hardships. The legend that is Aziz Al-Masri could never have been fabricated by the organs of propaganda, however powerful they may have been. What is commonly known about Al-Masri is largely restricted to the later phases of his life: in the 1930s he supervised the education of Prince Farouk; during World War II he attempted to lead an insurrection against the British, fleeing in a plane which never made it to the German lines; and during the Egyptian revolution his support for the Free Officers Movement earned him the officers' respect as their elder mentor. The earlier periods of Al-Masri's life, by contrast, are not as familiar to most people today, which is somewhat surprising, given that he was already a popular hero before World War I.

Al-Masri's early years were unremarkable. As a young man, he studied at the Military Academy in Istanbul and, after graduating, served in the Ottoman army. He first made his mark in Yemen in 1911. In the words of a contemporary newspaper, Yemen at the time was "the source of dissension and the weak point in the body of the Ottoman nation, reeling under the state of war between the sultan's soldiers and the Yemenis, where endless battles have claimed the lives of thousands upon thousands of Ottoman and Yemeni youth." In 1911, Al-Masri managed to engineer a treaty between the Imam Yahya and Izzat Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman campaign, bringing about a period of stability in that troubled corner of the Ottoman Empire. As such, Al-Masri earned the recognition of his superiors. Izzat Pasha wrote, "Aziz Bek is the true hero of this agreement. I can confirm to you that this man is the most sincere and dedicated person in the service of both the government and the nation."

The second phase in the making of the legend came during the 1911-1913 Italian invasion of Libya. Al-Masri participated in the Ottoman campaign to defend this portion of the empire against the Italians. Although he was by now a senior officer in the Ottoman army, his role in the campaign was not that of a traditional commander of troops. Rather, he traveled in disguise to Benghazi where he was appointed commander. Using Benghazi as a base he made contact with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sanusi in order to secure his support in resisting the Italians. At the time Al-Ahram reported, "Aziz Al-Masri is in the arena of battle, giving living testimony to his skill and valor as a leader of armies. We have received reports of his victories over the Italians for which we can only express our admiration and acclaim."

In October 1912 the Ottomans were forced to withdraw their forces from Libya. However, Al-Masri remained in the country for nearly nine months to organise the local resistance forces in coordination with the Sanusis. When he returned to Egypt on 23 July 1913, he was hailed a hero. Al-Ahram that day featured a lengthy interview with "the hero from Benghazi" in which he said, "I would have preferred to have remained in Benghazi in order to inflict as much damage as possible upon the Italians because they are my enemy. However, I needed ammunition, supplies and money. These things are essential for fighters and I had none. As for the Bedouins, they remained loyal throughout, and if I had the means at my disposal right now, I would return."

The same interview, however, reveals that relations had become fraught between the young commander and Sanusis with whom he was in league. He said, "Sanusis are like Russian priests -- their only interest is in putting food in their mouths. Some of them had already concluded a truce with the Italians while others had stopped fighting them a long time ago... The misguided policies of the Sanusis forced me to leave the general command to their elder. However, in the battle of 16 June, in which I fired the last bullet in my possession, I scored a tremendous victory, even though we were only 1,000 soldiers against 12,000."

Al-Masri's troubles at the front did not stop Egyptians from feting their returning hero. That summer, Al-Ahram featured numerous reports covering the many receptions that were held in honour of Al-Masri. One item, for example, read: "Fifty people gathered in a banquet held at the Continental Hotel in honour of Aziz Al-Masri Bek, the valiant hero from Benghazi. Guests included prominent dignitaries and notables, lawyers, doctors and men of the press."

That autumn the young Egyptian officer returned to Istanbul. Egyptians back home expected to hear further accounts of his military valour, this time on the Balkan front where Ottoman forces had been fighting a protracted war against insurgents. However, the news of Aziz Bek that did reach Egypt in early February 1914 stunned the nation. "On 9 February, at 2pm, Aziz Al-Masri, the famous Arab hero, was walking in Bek Oghli in the company of Dr Ibrahim Thabit when an Egyptian police officer in royal uniform approached. The police officer trembled as he asked Al-Masri to accompany him to the director of police in Istanbul. Aziz Bek took leave of his companion and accompanied the policeman to the offices of Badri Bek, the director of police. When he was summoned into the director's office, he was followed by several members of the secret police. Badri told him, 'You are under arrest and are to be prosecuted for certain matters concerning Benghazi.' Then, Aziz was taken away and led to the Ministry of War where he was put into a room. A short time later, several armed policemen and armed soldiers entered, bound his hands tightly behind his back and took away the gun which he, like all army officers, carried."

Although the director of police cited allegations relating to "matters concerning Benghazi," the true reasons for Al-Masri's arrest came to light a little later. The most obvious was the personal animosity between Al-Masri and Anwar Pasha, the minister of war. Anwar Pasha had been in command of the Turkish campaign in Libya. As a volunteer and in a position of command in a different theatre of operations, Al-Masri did not fall directly under Anwar's line of command. Not only did Al-Masri have to continuously press Anwar for arms and ammunition, the two differed over the correct policy to adopt towards the Sanusis. Whereas Anwar favoured appeasement, Al-Masri was prepared to clash with any party that he believed was not fully committed to the resistance against the Italian invasion.

The more immediate reason for Al-Masri's arrest was his affiliation with clandestine societies in Istanbul. In the interval between his return to Istanbul and his arrest, Al-Masri had become involved in the activities of a number of Pan-Arab societies. He was particularly active in the Ahd, which comprised a number of Arab officers in the Turkish army. Al-Masri's arrest coincided with a massive purge of Arab officers in the Turkish army. Al-Ahram's correspondent from Istanbul reported on 21 March, "The government has begun to expel senior Arab officers from the army. After Hadi Pasha, unquestionably one of the most prominent generals of the state, had been forced to retire, the government dismissed Abdel-Fattah Pasha and Shukry Pasha Ayyubi. Now, the only senior military officer left is Rida Pasha Rukab, known for his support for the present government. As for the lower-ranking officers, they have been sent to the interior."

Still, the ruling Union and Progress Party in Turkey continued to demand that Al-Masri be tried for acts he committed while serving in Benghazi. As Al-Ahram's Istanbul correspondent wrote on 30 March, "The charges are to be confined exclusively to events in Benghazi. The government has summoned eight officers to bear witness against Aziz Bek." A later report suggests that Anwar Pasha was not having an easy time putting together a case against Al-Masri. "I have received information that the government has exerted considerable effort to find witnesses against the accused from the ranks of Arab officers, so as to divert suspicion from itself. However, it has not succeeded. The best it could do is to find two, or at most three, out of the eight witnesses it wanted. And, when these were brought to the military tribunal, one of them refused to testify, upon which he was stripped of his rank and discharged from the army." In spite of these difficulties, the trial of Aziz Al-Masri opened on 4 April, 1914. Few, if any, were in doubt of the nature of the trial. Al-Ahram's correspondent on the scene wrote, "The tribunal consisted of 13 officers, only one of whom was an Arab. This officer never dared to open his mouth for fear that he would be discharged like some of his other Arab colleagues." The reporter also remarked on the curious procedures taken to hear the testimony of the witnesses: "The witnesses were asked to testify only after Aziz was taken out of the courtroom. Once they had given their testimony, Aziz was brought back in. If the court needed some clarification, they brought Aziz in to hear the testimony. If Aziz attempted to refute the testimony, they told him, 'Your statement is not valid because this witness is under oath.'" Of course, the man orchestrating the proceedings was the minister of war. As Al-Ahram's correspondent recounts, "Anwar Pasha was constantly on the telephone to the court inquiring about the progress of the trial and conveying his wishes and commands. If he required a lengthy conversation, Aziz would be removed from the courtroom until after the telephone conversation was completed. Then he would be brought in and the proceedings would commence once more in accordance with the instructions of the minister."

The mock trial became too much for Aziz, who, at its conclusion, burst out, "To what end are these ignoble proceedings? Is this a court or a committee that has been appointed to condemn me? If your intent is to sentence me to death, then why bother with this farce? Since it appears to be your intention to condemn me to death, I refuse from this point on to attend these proceedings, so sentence me as you wish!"

The court did precisely that. On 14 April, it pronounced its ruling: "This court finds Aziz Bek Al-Masri guilty of having released Hussein Baskari, accused of spying for the Italians in Benghazi, without subjecting the aforementioned suspect to interrogation, trial or punishment. It also finds him guilty of refusing to cooperate with Ahmed Al-Sherif Al-Sanusi, the general commander of the Arabs in Libya, and, moreover, of sowing dissension between Al-Sanusi and the Ottoman command in Libya. Furthermore, the court finds him guilty of negligence in engaging the Italians in battle in Shuweimar, where his lack of planning and foresight caused the needless death of a large number of Ottoman and Arab officers and soldiers. Finally, this court finds him guilty of the unauthorised appropriation of 3,000 Ottoman liras. For these reasons, the court rules that he shall be sentenced to death."

Nevertheless, when the sentence was handed down to the Council of Deputies for ratification, it was commuted to 15 years of hard labour in one of the Ottoman fortresses. The reduction of the sentence, however, did not forestall the outcry the trial provoked in Egypt. No sooner was Al-Masri arrested in Istanbul than "the Egyptian nation went into action" to deliver him from the claws of the Turkish minister of war. Delegations from Cairo, Alexandria and the provinces traveled to Istanbul "to express the wishes of the Egyptian people for the release of that valiant officer and his return to his family and loved ones at home, now that he has finished his battle and fulfilled his patriotic duty to the government." Prince Omar Touson sent a telegraph to the Sublime Porte in order to "convey the wishes of the Egyptian nation." Al-Ahram comments, "We have no doubt that the Ottoman government will hear the demands of the Egyptian people and will soon notify us of his release, putting an end to this distressful event."

Al-Azhar, too, sprang into action and created a committee headed by Sheikh Salim Al-Bashri, sheikh of Al-Azhar, "to examine what course to take in the matter of Aziz Bek Ali Al-Masri, as all are aware of the news of the arrest and imprisonment of this hero in Istanbul." After some deliberations, it was decided to send a delegation of dignitaries and Al-Azhar officials to appeal directly to the sultan and seek the mediation of foreign consuls in Istanbul. In the interim, Sheikh Al-Bashri sent a telegraph to Anwar Pasha appealing to him to issue a pardon in the light of Al-Masri's service to the nation. The minister of war's response was not reassuring. He wrote, "I am unable to release the prisoner until he has been acquitted. Even if acquitted, it is possible that he will not be permitted to reside in Egypt." Already at this stage, the Turkish government, appeared to have, at least, considered a sentence of exile.

In spite of the outcry, the court proceeded with its trial. But what authorities in Turkey could not have predicted in the wake of its ruling against Al-Masri was the depth of Egyptian anger and the reactions of the British authorities in Egypt who feared rioting on behalf of the imprisoned officer. Following the announcement of the sentence against Al-Masri, a London Times article commented, "This judicial crime will be very detrimental to relations between Egypt and Turkey." It was not odd, then, that London should attempt to intervene. The British Foreign Office, as Al-Ahram reported, "sent strict instructions to its ambassador in Istanbul regarding the matter of Aziz Al-Masri. The British ambassador met with the Sublime Porte and Anwar Pasha in order to request a pardon. It is believed that the Ottoman government will comply and release Al-Masri."

Events turned out as predicted. On 22 April, Al-Ahram announced that the government of Istanbul had issued a pardon and released him the same day. The action, it continued, "was the result of the intervention of a number of highly influential people who "had advised the government of His Royal Highness the Sultan of the wisdom of moderating its stance on this issue in the light of the propitious effect it would have in the Islamic World and on European public opinion." Ending his coverage of the case, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Istanbul described the "large number of Arabs and loyal friends who cheered Al-Masri upon his release from prison." His reception there, however, could hardly be compared to the throngs that greeted him on his return to Egypt. The welcome led Al-Ahram to remark, "If Aziz Bek had not already been a hero -- and he is a hero by the admission of his adversaries -- his trial would have made him one."

Dr Yunan

The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.