Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
27 May - 2 June 1999
Issue No. 431
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Front Page


A Diwan of contemporary life (287)

Egyptians and Arabs generally have on occasion pinned hopes on the policy of the United States and its much-vaunted democratic ideals only to be shocked and disillusioned by its actions. The futile quest for an "American solution" is not something of the recent past. It happened to Egypt as early as 1918 after US President Woodrow Wilson announced his famous 14 principles which, among other things, upheld the right of peoples to self-determination. He enunciated those lofty ideals in January of that year, to the joy of Egyptians, whose country then was under British occupation. Three months later, the US recognised the British protectorate regime in Egypt. Despite this, Egyptian nationalist leaders tried persistently to enlist US support. Their hopes were dashed once and for all in November with the US Senate move to shelve the Egyptian question, obviously under British prodding. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the sad story from reports published by Al-Ahram

A history of let-downs

Saad Zaghloul

Theodore Roosevelt

Some of the lines that formed the contours of the Egyptian peoples' image of the US before the 1919 revolution dated back to the last quarter of the 19th century. One line finds its point of origin with the activities of the American Protestant missionary who was influential in the field of education and whose work led to the spread of American schools an many provincial cities, notably Assiut in Upper Egypt and Tanta in the Delta. Other contours were created by the stories that appeared in the Egyptian press on the American lifestyle, imbuing the popular conception of the US with a sense of wonder and amazement and, at times, admiration. Also, although Washington did not play a political role in Egypt, Egyptians might have retained a vague memory that two American ships formed part of the international fleet anchored off the coast of Alexandria when the British bombed the port on 11 July 1882 and that the American marines moved into the city in order to protect the American citizens and consulate there.

Egypt's first direct political contact with the US occurred in 1910 with the visit of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Egyptians greeted the news of his visit with jubilation and high hopes. They perceived Roosevelt as a powerful advocate of democracy in a country whose people yearned for it in the face of the despotism of the khedive and the tyranny of British occupation. Also, the US up to that point had not participated in the imperialist drive that had afflicted the Arab World and Africa. Unfortunately, Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Egyptian University that was to bitterly disappoint nationalist aspirations. Against a backdrop of persistent Egyptian constitutionalist demands, he said, "You cannot make a person educated and refined simply by giving him certain textbooks. Similarly, you cannot equip a nation to rule itself merely by giving it a constitution on a piece of paper. The education and formation of an individual to equip him for working in the world takes many years. Likewise, for a nation to become successful in exercising the responsibilities of self-government, 10 or 20 years are not sufficient. Rather, it takes successive generations. Some ignorant charlatans claim that by merely giving a people a constitution, particularly one that contains a resounding, eloquent preamble, people will become capable of self-rule. Nothing could be further from the truth. No person in the world can give a nation self-rule. Nor can anyone give another the ability to help himself. As the Arab saying goes, 'Arise my slave and I will rise with you.'" Roosevelt concluded by quoting, in this context, the famous verse: "God is with those who have patience if they persevere." By telling Egyptians to wait for "generations" before being deemed suitable for self-rule and by indirectly accusing the leaders of the nationalist movement of being charlatans Roosevelt had splintered the Egyptians' image of the US.

Four years later, World War I erupted. Egyptians followed the American position closely. When, on 2 April 1917 the US finally decided to enter the war against Germany, the Egyptians greeted the news "with great interest", as Al-Ahram put it. The contribution of the giant on the other side of the Atlantic to the allied war effort would put a speedy end to the war it was hoped. "Interest" turned to jubilation when, on 8 January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson declared his fourteen points. To the Egyptians, it appeared that the American president had thrown them a lifeline, particularly in the form of that point regarding a nation's right to self-determination. It is little wonder, therefore, that, when Egyptian nationalist leaders began to appeal to foreign consuls in Egypt following the end of the war in November of that year, they delivered a special plea to the US president who was attending the peace conference in Paris at the time. They wrote, "You left your country to convey to the old world the true way and to demonstrate before all eyes the determination of free America to resolve the affairs of nations on the basis of right and justice. You added to your glory another notch that merits the gratitude of humanity." The letter went on to express "the admiration of the Egyptian nation for America's selfless motivation for entering the war." American idealism had raised the hopes of the Egyptian people that Wilson and the American people would respond favourably to their demands.

Once again, the Egyptians were in for a disappointment. On 8 March, the British arrested the nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and banished him to Malta, precipitating that storm of unrest that would force them, within less than a month, to release him and his colleagues and permit them to travel to Paris. In order to clip the wings of the nationalist movement that had gained such momentum in Egypt whose delegation, the Wafd, intended to present Egyptian demands before the peace conference in Paris, the British campaigned for international recognition for their protectorate regime in Egypt. The British singled out the US, upon whom Egyptians had pinned such high hopes, for special consideration. After all, the US consul in Cairo had expressed sympathy for the nationalists' aspirations. Less than two weeks after the Egyptian delegation arrived in Paris, the British succeeded in their task. On 21 April 1919, the US secretary of state informed his British counterpart that President Wilson had no objection to recognising the British protectorate in Egypt as long as that would help stop the bloodshed in the country.

The British authorities did their very best to spread the news that the US had consented to the protectorate amongst the widest circles of Egyptians, in the belief that this would weaken their resolve. But the events which followed came as a shock to Egyptians just as they and the Arabs to this day are usually shocked whenever they pin their hopes on Americans. The Egyptian delegation remained for some time in Paris searching for the "American solution", but eventually was compelled to alter its plans. Instead of appealing to governments, the delegation decided to make its case before the public and solicit the support of members of representative assemblies who were known for their sympathy for the just cause of small countries. In its endeavours, the delegation took two courses of action:

First: It held banquets for American journalists like the one which, as reported by Al-Ahram, was held on 2 May when Mohamed Mahmoud explained to the guests the circumstances which "had led to the grave crisis our country is facing today," adding, "I would like to be frank with you, but we rely fully on your goodwill."

Second: Hafez Afifi Bek, a member of the delegation, was to broker an agreement with a high-ranking American official, to bring the case of Egypt to the attention of the US public. The American official was Joseph Folk, the former governor of Missouri, who acted as the judiciary adviser to the Egyptian delegation in the United States. Folk began his mission on 15 August 1919, by submitting a long memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US Senate. Its opening phrases read as follows: "Great Britain is subjecting Egypt to its rule against the will of its people, claiming for itself sovereignty over their country." He proceeded to review the long history of Anglo-Egyptian relations, highlighting the numerous promises of the British to evacuate, and finally summed up the situation saying that "the war has provided Britain with the pretext to renege on its promises." In the following section of his memorandum, he raised the question whether Egypt "is being delivered to Britain as war booty in violation of the provisions and principles enshrined in the Charter of the League of Nations in defence of which America had gone to war." He concluded that delivering Egypt to Britain "as a war booty could not be considered a British internal matter" but that "America remains a haven for the persecuted in all countries, and a country naturally disposed to inquire into grievances about acts of aggression. To destroy Egypt, by keeping it under British subjugation will be quite useless; it would only lead to more Egyptians aspiring for freedom, dying by British guns."

On 29 August, 1919, Saad Zaghlul promptly reported to Egypt that the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee had decided that "from the political viewpoint, Egypt was attached to neither Turkey nor Britain but was independent, and takes charge of its own affairs."

No wonder, therefore, that the decision of the Senate was received with joy and jubilation by the masses of Egyptians. On Tuesday 2 September, Al-Ahram commented on the news on its front-page under the headline, "The Egyptian Cause in the American Senate: The Peace Treaty from the American Perspective". The newspaper explained the significance of the position of the American Congress. The peace treaty, which contained recognition of the British protectorate over Egypt, was currently before the Congress. If the Congress responded to the request of the Foreign Affairs Committee and asked for some amendments, that would represent a great victory for Egyptians. It would constitute an affirmation that the Egyptian people were successful in "raising our voices so that they could be heard overseas." It continued, "As long as our voice is heard and our delegates advocate our cause, we shall await the ruling with calm and composure."

As though in response to Al-Ahram's explanation, American congressional officials received a deluge of telegrams from Egyptians. The Wafd's central committee dispatched a lengthy telegram in which it expressed its gratitude and its confidence that "the democratic American people will help us achieve our aspirations." It continued, "You entered the war in the defense of the principles of liberty. The world is anticipating the victory of these principles through your efforts towards ensuring that the treaty is grounded on the principles of right and justice."

To read Al-Ahram those days one would think that virtually all Egyptians participated in the telegram campaign. In addition to numerous organisations, US officials received telegrams from individuals and groups all over the country.

Al-Ahram also covered the reaction in the US to the congressional decision. On 9 September 1919 it wrote that the US press was preoccupied by "the Egyptian question." Some articles pointed to the Egyptian peoples' contribution to the allied war effort, which evoked a response from the British ambassador in Washington. He said that very few members of the Egyptian armed forces took part in the war and that no more than 12 Egyptian soldiers were killed in action. Al-Ahram naturally took offense. Over a million Egyptians served during the war in many support capacities, it said. The number of Egyptian dead was also very inaccurate. The 12 Egyptians the British ambassador had referred to were only those who died in one battle along the Suez Canal on 3 February 1916. Finally, it took the occasion to remind its readers of General Allenby's testimony that "the Egyptian people were instrumental in the victory of the allied forces in Palestine."

A communiqué issued to the Egyptian people by the Egyptian delegation in Paris, and published in Al-Ahram on 8 October, testified to the interest the Egyptian cause had aroused among the American public. It read: "Perhaps the Egyptian people will be surprised to learn that more than 600 American newspapers are currently writing on the Egyptian question and defending the cause of the Egyptian nation from New York to San Francisco to New Orleans." With the Egyptian question on the floor of the American Congress, in conjunction with this publicity, the Egyptian delegation in Paris decided to send one of its members to the US. The choice fell on Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha.

Mohamed Mahmoud was a natural choice. The son of Mahmoud Suleiman, the chairman of the Wafd's central committee in Cairo, he was also one of the three leaders whom the British exiled to Malta on 8 March. He was also highly proficient in English, having graduated from Oxford University in History.

Mohamed Mahmoud left for Paris on 1 October and arrived in New York 10 days later. "The climate in the United States inspires great hopes," he wrote to the Wafd in his first dispatch. In order to present himself properly, the Egyptian delegate drafted a "white paper" in English outlining all the activities of the Wafd and the communications that had been exchanged between it and the members of the peace conference. It also contained a brief about the history of the Egyptian cause along with photographs illustrating the damage caused by British armed forces in Egypt. Al-Ahram writes, "The document was distributed to the members of the Senate and all politicians and the press."

Mohamed Mahmoud's most important achievement was the reservation that the Democratic Party Senator Mr Owen proposed to introduce to the congressional bill on the treaty. The text of the reservation, which Owen admitted was based on the information furnished to him by the Egyptian delegate in Washington, read: "The protectorate which Germany recognises for Great Britain over Egypt is understood to be no more than a means in accordance with which Turkey's nominal sovereignty over Egypt is transferred to the Egyptian people. It shall not deprive the Egyptian people of any of their rights to self-determination." In a report appearing in Al-Ahram on 19 October, Mahmoud described Owen's motion as highly significant as "it was forwarded by a pro-government Democratic member of the Senate and was well received, although the vote on it will only be taken several weeks from now." He expressed his optimism on the outcome in another dispatch from Washington, in which he wrote, "I am certain that our struggle can only meet with victory. It only requires time, patience and persistence."

As the vote on the Senate bill drew closer, the Egyptian delegate in the US capital stepped up his activity. At the beginning of November he wrote to Mr Marshall, the speaker of the Senate, appealing to the senate not to ratify the article in the Versailles Treaty containing Germany's recognition of the British protectorate over Egypt. If congress ratifies it, he wrote, "you will hear the wailing of wretched Egypt which entered the war on the side of the allies as a free nation and emerged from the turmoil four years later as a captive slave of Great Britain." He further compared the Egyptian struggle to the American struggle for independence in 1775. The American people will not hold back their compassion for Egypt "when they realise that the struggle of the Egyptian people today is the same as that of the American people. There is a drive to suppress the desire for independence. Today it is being directed against Egypt as it had been directed against the US yesterday. The pretext is the same. They say the people are not ready for self-rule. The Egyptian people cry out to the American people to prevent the British colonialists from taking over control of their fate."

At this point, however, Al-Ahram falls suspiciously silent on news from the Egyptian delegate in the US. The mystery is only clarified by resorting to British Foreign Office documents, which reveal feverish communications between London and Washington in order to thwart Owen's proposed reservation. We learn, for example, that the US secretary of state asked the British ambassador in Washington to convey to London an informal proposal. He suggested that London issue a statement to the effect that its declaration of a protectorate over Egypt was not intended to breach the sovereignty of that country or to encroach upon the rights of the Egyptian people to self-rule, but, rather, that it was to safeguard Egyptian sovereignty until the appropriate time came to put the issue before the League of Nations or to reach an agreement among the great powers that would restore tranquillity in the country.

The British ambassador was annoyed. He told the American official that to accept such a position would cast Egypt back to the whip, corvee labour, oppression and other such tragedies of oriental despotism. However, he promised to convey the proposal to London.

The response in London was as one would have expected. Addressing the House of Lords, Lord Curzon delivered a lengthy statement on conditions in Egypt. Egypt needed Great Britain to defend it, he said. Yet, within these bounds there is a broad arena in which Egyptians can be called upon to participate in the government of their country. The scope of this arena is certain to increase in time. "We recognise the legitimacy of these hopes and we want to pave the way to satisfy them. The gradual evolution of systems of self-rule in Egypt is an aspiration in which we share."

The text of Curzon's speech was dispatched to the British ambassador in Washington who was instructed to publish it in the American press and to convey it to the American secretary of state. The British move threatened to undermine the appeals of Mohamed Mahmoud. Then came bad news for Egypt. In an article to Al-Ahram on 25 November under the headline "America rejects the treaty: the effect of this on the Egyptian question and the international situation", the lawyer Amin El-Rafie writes, "The political climate is cloudy. It appears to herald the end of a treaty between governments and the rise upon its ruins of a treaty between peoples which still restore to nations their usurped rights and recognise Egypt's right to full independence." El-Rafie's optimism was misplaced. Only a few weeks later Mohamed Mahmoud returned to Paris and Saad Zaghlul was forced to write to the Wafd secretary in Egypt: "The Senate has shelved the proposed reservation pertaining to Egypt. It appears that the British intrigues were highly effective."

Egyptian hopes for an "American solution" were dashed. It was by no means the last disenchantment.

Dr Yunan

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

   Top of page
Front Page