Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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A Diwan of contemporary life (314)

Dr Mahgoub Thabet was a unique figure in the annals of Egyptian history in the early days of this century. The bearded, bulky, cane-carrying, pipe-smoking politician and writer was eccentric in more ways than one -- not least of which was his awry sense of punctuality. His friends and the public at large frequently poked fun at him, but they never lost sight of the fact that he was a staunch nationalist, a devoted lover of Sudan and a fervent advocate of Egyptian-Sudanese unity. He has been classified as a forgotten celebrity. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * pieces together a portrait of the man and his views as expounded in the many articles he wrote for Al-Ahram

A forgotten celebrity

Dr Mahgoub Thabet was one of the most eccentric characters in contemporary Egyptian history. His actions on behalf of the nationalist movement should have placed him high among its champions. However, many aspects of his behaviour, which became the object of jest among his friends and adversaries alike, deprived him of much of the renown he merited.

Professor Fathi Radwan offers perhaps the most succinct portrait of the man. In his book Forgotten Celebrities, he describes Thabet, face framed with a beard, thick moustache so long as to join that beard, reminiscent of some French scientists. His characteristic cane and pipe -- the incessant smoking of which imbued the whiskers below his lower lip with a permanent tincture of nicotine -- together with his imposing frame and hunched back, created such a striking impression as to set him apart from the general run of public figures on the political and literary scene at the time.

Dr Mahgoub Thabet being hoisted by joyous countrymen in a march of patriots
Sheikh Abdel-Aziz El-Bishri, cited in Radwan's book, furnishes some insight into Thabet's character. Thabet, he writes, was "highly intelligent, perspicacious and an avid reader with an extraordinary retention of everything he reads". Unfortunately, El-Bishri adds, the man tended to be absent-minded. "If you made an appointment with him for lunch, he would show up at 5.00pm, unabashed and with no apology to offer. Once, a friend that we have in common invited him to break the fast in Ramadan. We waited for him for a while and then gave up and broke our fast. At about 11.00pm, the doctor arrived, sleeves rolled up in anticipation of the meal. What an expression of shock flooded his face when he learned that we had eaten four hours earlier."

Evidently, Thabet had been the owner of a car that had become the subject of anecdotes circulated among this friends. The car was an old jalopy that frequently broke down. Thabet traded in the car for a carriage and a horse that was so emaciated that its blood vessels protruded under its skin. His friends called the horse MacSweeney after an Irish governor who went on a 76-day hunger strike in protest against the actions of the British army, and eventually died.

Given the man's eccentricities, people found it difficult to take him seriously. Radwan writes that "as soon as Thabet enters a room or ascends to a podium, people's mouths crack into a smile and as soon as he begins to speak, they break into laughter, even if what he has to say is of the utmost seriousness". One source of Thabet's "plight", as the author of Forgotten Celebrities put it, was that his friends circulated jokes and humorous anecdotes about him. Many of these friends, such as Ahmed Shawqi, Hafez Ibrahim, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Gawish and Suleiman Fawzi, counted among the most famous literary and intellectual figures of his times, so their anecdotes about Thabet were certain to reach the public. As a result, concludes Radwan, "Egypt has lost the efforts of a sincere, dedicated, useful man who possessed a wealth of expertise and a vast knowledge of his country's needs."

However differently Thabet's contemporaries might have portrayed him, there was no disputing the fact that he was infatuated with Sudan and a staunch proponent of the unity of the Nile valley. Fouad Abaza Pasha, one of Thabet's biographers, recalled that whenever the subject of Sudan was brought up, "Dr Mahgoub's voice would rise in pitch, defending his cause or rebutting an utterance about the Sudan that he found distasteful. His passion for the Sudan lifted him to the forefront of experts on the affairs of that region."

Abaza explains that the source of Thabet's passion for Sudan resides in the fact that he was born in Dongola (a Sudanese town). His father had been a commander in Sennar and a deputy provincial director of Fazhughli province. Although Thabet left Sudan as a child, "his love for the country remained a constant and increased over time, a manifestation of his natural disposition to fidelity".

Fathi Radwan
Abdel-Aziz El-Bishri
Ahmed Shawki

In A'lam wa As'hab Aqlam (Literary Luminaries), Anwar El-Guindi devotes an entire chapter to Thabet. The author writes, "Sudan was the enchanted melody that he never stopped singing. It inspired volumes of books and dozens of articles in defence of the unity of the Nile Valley and it drove him to personally call upon prime ministers to argue ardently on behalf of his cause." Thabet concocted slogans to epitomise and promote his cause upon need. These included: "The people of the Nile Valley are one people, not two", "Egypt and Sudan are a single entity and do not endorse the 1899 condominium", and "Sudan is Egyptian and Egypt is indivisible".

El-Guindi also reveals that in 1922 Thabet began writing a column in Al-Ahram that continued for 10 years. However, in our perusal of back issues of the newspaper, we discovered that the beginning of Thabet's contribution dates earlier. Between April and October 1921, Al-Ahram featured seven articles by him, five of which appear under the headline "Remembrance and History."

In 1922, Al-Ahram and other national newspapers were replete with articles on the question of Sudan in response to the British unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence in February that year, in which Sudan was one of the "four matters absolutely reserved to the discretion" of the British government. Beginning in 1922, Thabet's column would have been part of the general outpouring of reaction to the British declaration and its reservation on Sudan in particular. However, as one of the few writers who treated the subject in the year leading up to the British declaration, the earlier articles of this impassioned exponent of many Egyptian opinions on the status of the southern portion of their valley acquire a unique status.

Before proceeding to these articles, however, it is important to stress that Egypt's claim to Sudan remained a central nationalist tenet despite the sweep of tumultuous events that tended to divert attention away from the southern half of the Nile Valley. In the 20 years leading up to the 1919 Revolution, the British persistently sought to sever Sudan from Egypt. Nevertheless, the events of the 1919 Revolution and the course of Egyptian-British relations proved that the dismembered limb could be reattached, in a process that astounded British policy makers in London and in Khartoum.

The reverberations of the revolution resounded more loudly in Sudan than anyone had expected. True, a considerable part of the echo rebounded from the Egyptians residing in Sudan. Many Upper Egyptian farmers had settled in various quarters of the country, numerous sons of the Delta were employed in various Sudanese government agencies, notably the railway authority, and of course, Egyptian army personnel had been stationed throughout the country following the successful campaign to reclaim Sudan from the Mahdist insurrection. However, the spirit of the revolution also had a profound impact on the indigenous Sudanese, a phenomenon which deeply disturbed the British authorities.

Beginning in October 1919, British intelligence reports in Khartoum noted the emergence of several secret societies agitating for the unity of the Nile valley. The Society for Urgent Action sought to exhort the Sudanese people to revolution in solidarity with their Egyptian brothers. The White Hand Society, based in the northern provinces, threatened Sudanese officials who cooperated with the British. The Black Hand Society disseminated a bulletin threatening to assassinate senior British officials in Sudan. The actions of these secret societies intensified in 1921. The Society for Action to Save the Country, for example, distributed leaflets attacking the massive British irrigation projects and all other ventures in which there was British capital investment. Another group, the Society for the Defence of Islam, appealed to the Sudanese people to "join our Egyptian brothers" in a jihad against the British.

At the level of Egyptian-British negotiations, the question of Sudan seemed to become the major stumbling block to an understanding between the two sides. Perhaps to Egyptians, the most provocative British stance was expressed in the wording of a memorandum from Lord Milner to the Egyptian negotiating delegation in London in 1920: "It is impossible to resolve the question of Sudan in accordance with the same principles upon which it is desired to resolve the Egyptian question." In defence of this position, the British argued, firstly, that Sudan did not share the homogeneity of Egypt, but consisted of two major ethnic groupings -- Muslim Arabs and non-Muslim Africans. Secondly, the British argued that Egypt's links to Sudan in the past were tenuous. Milner, of course, had no choice but to grant that Egypt had an enormous interest in the Sudan -- the Nile. Thus, he wrote, "It is possible to envision a permanent political bond between the two countries, provided that the nature of this arrangement does no subject the Sudan to Egypt." The alternative, Milner argued, was "to hand over the administration of Sudan to indigenous governors under British supervision".

Thabet's seven articles in Al-Ahram in 1921 were essentially a lengthy rebuttal to the Milner memorandum. His first thrust was to establish the deep historical bond between Egypt and Sudan, a bond that dated back to the earliest eras of antiquity. In the most ancient times, he wrote in one article, Egyptians and the people to the south constituted a single nation. "We shared the same divinities and religious totems, such as the white egret, the serpent and other such symbols associated with the crowns of the pharaohs, their gods and their temples, and the Sudanese, like us, were pyramid and temple builders." In support of his claim, Thabet cites the Roman historian, Pline, who wrote that Sudan was a powerful and flourishing Egyptian province under Amenhotep.

Thabet went on to demonstrate that Egyptians and Sudanese were bound by more than the geopolitical unity of the Nile. In this, he had recourse to anthropological evidence. "Since the earliest epochs of history the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula migrated to Egypt and spread southwards along the Nile valley into Sudan," he wrote. This occurred again on a larger scale at the time of the Islamic conquests, when "the tribes migrating to the Nile valley settled in both Egypt and Sudan". Again, Thabet offers numerous examples to corroborate his claim. The Joheina tribe, from which most of the people in the northern Sudanese Nile Valley hail, has offshoots in both Upper and Lower Egypt. Thabet also cites the Hawari, Beni Salim, Mahamid and Raziqat tribes as having extensions throughout the Nile Valley.

Given Thabet's extreme obsession with Sudan in conjunction with the general revolutionary climate that prevailed in Egypt at the time, it is not surprising that he saw a conspiracy in the British drive to sever Sudan from Egypt. For example, he charges that the reason the British declared a protectorate over Uganda in 1894 was to control the equatorial sources of the Nile, thereby rendering themselves able to put a stranglehold on Egypt.

Although recent studies based on British colonial office documents indicate that Thabet's theory had an element of validity, they simultaneously demonstrate that controlling Egypt was only a subsidiary consideration in London's Ugandan policy. The decision to declare a protectorate over Uganda was more closely bound up with the British empire's designs in Central Africa, which were associated with perhaps the most famous architect of European colonialism in Africa, Cecil Rhodes, and his vision of extending British possessions from the Cape to Cairo.

As is apparent from the title of his article on this issue -- "Uganda under Egypt and after it was wrested away" -- Thabet holds that Uganda had been in Egyptian possession until the British conspired to take it over. Uganda was not only a strategically valuable country, according to Thabet. The 345,000-square-mile country lying between 1,200 and 1,800 metres above sea level possessed "abundant pasture land and mineral resources, the most important of which is iron ore". It also had excellent soil, a moderate climate and temperatures that remained relatively constant for most of the year. As for its inhabitants, they were "tall, kind-faced, of strong build and of chocolate coloured complexion".

In 1860, a decree placed Uganda under the protection of the Egyptian Khedive. Thabet writes. "Throughout Uganda's period of association with Egypt, peace and security prevailed throughout all its territory." However, in 1890 the British forced the Egyptian government to relinquish their authority over Uganda in favour of the British African Company, a prelude to the British declaration of a protectorate over Uganda four years later. Before the British protectorate, Thabet continues, "the beloved Egyptian flag fluttered over the Nile from Damietta to Lake Victoria, over the entire 6,270 kilometres or a distance of 31 latitudinal degrees of the earth's circumference, and peace and prosperity prevailed from its lowest to highest reaches". However, by securing control over Uganda, the British cunningly ensured that "Egypt would remain at their mercy even if they agreed to grant Egyptians freedom and independence".

In January 1899, Britain and Egypt signed the Anglo-Egyptian condominium agreement that established joint control over the administration of Sudan. It was on the basis of this agreement that Milner, in his 1921 memorandum to the Egyptian delegation, had insisted separating the northern and southern halves of the Nile Valley. Thus, in one of his seven Al-Ahram articles, Thabet turns to the condominium agreement in order to refute its validity. This agreement, he argues was founded upon the Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of Sudan, as though it were a joint endeavour. As such, "the very basis of the agreement is invalid, because the reconquest took place in the name of Egypt alone. Moreover, that the British garrison assisted in the conquest of Sudan can be viewed in no other context than that of a guardian assisting his ward in reclaiming a portion of territory that had been lost as a result of the guardian's mismanagement. For, if Egypt had followed the advice of Abdel-Qader Pasha and had not yielded to General Hicks' demand to dispatch the Egyptian army to Kordofan, the army would never have been defeated and Egypt would not have lost the Sudan". Thabet not only likens the condominium agreement to a contract between a guardian and his ward, but also asserts that the guardian is bent on usurping all the benefits of the ward.

Thabet goes so far as to present General Gordon's campaign in Sudan in 1884 as a link in the British conspiracy. The purpose of this campaign, he wrote, was to "sever Sudan from its elder sister, Egypt, and deliver its people into the hands of brutality and savagery". For what other reason, he asks, was Abdel-Qader Pasha recalled from Sudan, where he had served as governor and commander of the army at the beginning of the occupation? "The Egyptian government had originally entrusted him with the task of suppressing the Mahdist uprising and the flags of his garrisons fluttered securely over east Sudan," but evidently the general's victories did not serve the British design to sever Sudan from Egypt.

Thabet takes the occasion to scoff at British High Commissioner Lord Allenby's boast that 110 British military and civilian officers ruled Sudan. Were it not for the millions of pounds Egypt spent and the thousands of lives it sacrificed to reconquer Sudan, Allenby would never have been in a position to make that boast. In order to afford the costs of the Sudan expedition, Egypt had to "sell off its commercial fleet and various government estates and lands to British companies at the most paltry prices, to the extent that newspapers of the time featured the headline 'Egypt on auction'." He goes on to ask, "If all this was done to regain Sudan in the name of Egypt, for Egypt, with Egyptian money, what possible basis is there for the legitimacy of the 1899 Condominium agreement?"

One of Thabet's later articles in the seven-article series was written shortly before Prime Minister Adli Yakan travelled to London for negotiations with the British over independence. He thus found it opportune to offer the Egyptian Prime Minister and his delegation advice. Firstly, he cautioned them not to be taken in by smoothly worded promises that any treaty between the two governments would guarantee Egypt's water requirements. They should first ask themselves what possible guarantee could there be for that unless Sudan and Egypt are joined as a single entity under a single government. He added, "Nations and people work not only for their present but for their future. If the Nile provides Egypt with its water requirements today, can we be certain that it will supply the needs of both Egypt and Sudan tomorrow, especially after their population has increased and all available patch of land has been settled?"

At the same time, Thabet sought to refute the assertion, circulated by the British and their Sudanese supporters, that Egyptians wanted to rid Sudan of the British so that they could colonise it themselves. Nothing could be more absurd, he countered, since "the two peoples were fused in a single melting pot, and their blood is ours just as ours is theirs and they worship what we worship. In this instance, we are only following the law of nature, nature which can never be vanquished however mighty the hand of politics and however strong the desire to vanquish it, nature which has ordained that this Nile River form a solid bond for all who reside along its course".

The climate generated by Mahgoub Thabet's articles on Sudan was one of the causes of the breakdown in the negotiations between Egyptian Prime Minister Adli Yakan and British Foreign Office Secretary Lord Curzon several weeks afterwards. But, even in later negotiations between the Egyptians and the British over independence, Sudan, for many of the reasons Thabet cited, was the rock upon which the negotiations foundered.

Dr Yunan

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

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