Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (530)
Change in Dubara
After four lean years starting in 1929, the summer of 1933 brought signs of relief for the Egyptian nationalist movement. Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi was on a lengthy convalescence in Europe and there was reason to believe that the end of his heavy-handed era was at hand. Strengthening this hope were a number of crises that blew up in the face of this government, compelling a cabinet reshuffle. Then it was announced that as Sidqi's reward for producing those lean years, British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Percy Loraine was to be transferred. His successor, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk*, would give a clue as to British intentions in Egypt
The news appeared on page six of Al-Ahram of 14 August 1933. "Sir Percy Loraine appointed British ambassador to Ankara. Who will succeed him here?" read the headline. Naturally, the following day's editorial would focus on this subject, specifically on "Sir Percy Loraine and his policy in Egypt". The article relates that Sir Percy, the British high commissioner to Egypt, had arrived in the country when Mohamed Mahmoud was prime minister. Mahmoud had succeeded in hammering out an agreement with London over various aspects of the British military presence and level of diplomatic representation in Egypt. However, the British felt that any such agreement with Cairo needed popular backing which only the Wafd Party could provide. Mahmoud was compelled to step down and elections were held, bringing to power a Wafd government headed by Mustafa El-Nahhas. Then, "His Excellency El-Nahhas Pasha and his delegation travelled to London and resumed negotiations until the process was broken off entirely."
Sir Percy Loraine
The collapse of negotiations in May 1930 brought the collapse of the Nahhas government, the suspension of parliamentary life the following month and the "Sidqi coup". In the opinion of the Al-Ahram editorial, the installation of Prime Minister Sidqi and his pro-palace government could not have taken place without some form of assistance on the part of Sir Percy. "Although many are unable to pinpoint the role he played, they maintain that as the agent of the occupying power and thus responsible for its interests and the interests of foreigners in the country, he would have refused to have his hands tied while the country was in turmoil and blood was being shed." Although the commentator, too, rejected Sir Percy's claims that he was adhering to a policy of non- intervention in Egypt's domestic affairs, he felt that the high commissioner's strategy was to sit back and let Egyptians fight it out with one another, "in anticipation of the spoils to be gained from the victor, regardless of which team won". He explains, "If Loraine had entered the fray in the name of Britain and the British, the Egyptians would have rallied and turned their attention to the struggle against Britain. However, he did not because he had great political cunning, the same political cunning he brought to all events and affairs during the three or four years he has been here."
The editorial goes on to give a final account of Loraine's term in Dubara Palace, the British high commissioner's headquarters in Cairo. The assessment did not reflect well on the Egyptian nationalist movement. The unity of the Nile Valley had long been a nationalist demand, and on this issue the editorialist comments, "All forms of communications have been severed between Egypt and Sudan. Even in the Jabal Al- Awliya' talks the British governor-general of Sudan was given the right to speak on behalf of the Sudanese and to stipulate what he wants and whom he wants where. The same applies to all relations with regard to customs, commerce and other economic affairs, in spite of the fact that throughout this critical period Egypt was ever generous with the money it had dedicated to the revival of Sudan, regardless of how desperately Egypt itself needed that money."
Turning to other bones of contention between Egypt and Britain, the author wrote: "Nor did he provide the help he led us to believe he would give with regard to the national debt and the linkage between the Egyptian and British pounds, or with regard to the question of the Capitulations System. If it is indeed true that his sole virtue was his commitment to neutrality in Egyptian domestic affairs, we would have rather he had assumed the greater credit for turning this policy to the benefit of Egypt and the Egyptians' pursuit of their national rights. Then we might have felt that Britain, through its high commissioner, was keen to extend the hand of aid and cooperation."
Earlier that year, Al-Ahram had announced that Loraine had left Egypt on 25 February 1933 over family concerns following the death of his mother. In early April it was reported that Percy would be returning to Egypt on the 24th of that month. However, the Al-Ahram office in London had learned from "informed sources" in the British capital that the high commissioner would be transferred to another posting and that among those being considered as his replacement in Egypt were the governor-general of Sudan, the British ambassador to Iraq Sir Humphreys and the British minister- plenipotentiary to Tehran.
While the transfer rumour proved correct, none of the three nominees would end up in Dubara Palace. Nevertheless, that these names were being mooted at all gave a clue to British intentions in Egypt. "Britain wants to change to a military skin, which is to say to adopt a 'do as you're told' approach to our affairs. It is difficult for the diplomat to transform into a military man and vice versa because each approach has its own intrinsic codes and morals." At the same time the newspaper counselled against "seeking inspiration and looking for portents of good and evil from the skies over London". Rather, it was to the skies over Cairo that eyes should turn, for it was "the Egyptian people who must say what they want and what they do not want. Only then will they be respected."
Although the Egyptian press in that scorching month of August 1933 was filled with rumours regarding the changing of the guard in Dubara Palace, the British had yet to give Cairo official notification. Apparently it was deemed sufficient that Deputy High Commissioner Ronald Campbell whispered the news in King Fouad's ear while paying a courtesy call on the royal stalls in the Racing Club.
In Cairo it was simply accepted that Loraine was getting a promotion. After all, as British representative in Egypt his rank was minister-plenipotentiary whereas in Ankara he would be a full-fledged ambassador. However, the British press was of another opinion. Commenting on the importance of the high commission to Egypt, one London- based newspaper remarked, "Some imagine that the mission of this post is restricted to Egypt and Sudan. The reality, as we have learned from the memoirs and activities of previous high commissioners, is that the high commissioner is also the commander-general of the occupation army in Egypt, a duty that could extend its influence to all or most other Arab countries. Egypt is viewed internationally as a political pivot in the world. An indication of this is that when Britain declared Egypt a protectorate, it called upon international capitals to recall their political consuls and restrict their representation to the level of commercial consuls, as is the case with other protectorate countries. The response of these countries was that the case of Egypt was unique, located as it is at a vital political and geographical juncture in the world and that no nation can dispense with a political man in place in Egypt from where he can oversee developments in the surrounding environment, the path to which leads through Egypt."
Given the importance of this position, it was only natural that attention would turn to Loraine's successor. In the opinion of the London-based Financial Times, whoever that person turned out to be, his task would be easy in some respects and very difficult in others. The departing high commissioner, it wrote, "filled his arduous post with great skill and restored to it the dignity that was needed by the Egyptian government and that was often feared to be at risk. Percy received his appointment to Egypt at an inopportune time. His predecessor Lloyd George had just been recalled in a manner equivalent to a public rebuke, contrary to Sir Percy Loraine who leaves Cairo to the sound of fond farewells and best wishes." Nevertheless, if Sir Percy's successor would encounter a more favourable climate, he would still have before him the task of pursuing the stalled agreement between Cairo and London and of enhancing political relations between the two countries in general.
Finally, after much speculation in the press, the question of who the next high commissioner would be was resolved. On 19 August, Al-Ahram's London correspondent dispatched the following report:
"Upon his return from holiday in Britain, British Prime Minister MacDonald met with the permanent deputy of the Foreign Office to discuss the appointment of the new high commissioner to Egypt. In spite of the official silence surrounding the issue, informed sources have indicated that Sir Miles Lampson is the person to be selected."
Apparently the "sources" were so close to the decision- making centre in London that the Al-Ahram correspondent felt confident enough to furnish a brief biography of the man he believed would be the next incumbent of Dubara Palace. Born on 24 August 1880, Lampson was educated at Eton and joined the Foreign Office in 1903. His first posting was as second secretary in the British Embassy in Tokyo from 1903 to 1910, after which he was posted to Sophia, Peking and then, in 1920, to Siberia as high commissioner. In 1921, he served as a member of the British delegation at the international disarmament conference in Washington and in 1925 he represented Britain in the Locarno Conference. The following year he was appointed minister plenipotentiary at the British embassy in Peking, from where he would now be heading to Cairo.
We also gain some insight into the character of this long- term member of the diplomatic corps. "His acquaintances describe him as mild-mannered, even-tempered and resourceful... From his experiences in the Far East it is clear that the power of his sagacity enabled him to become an arbitrator in many affairs, especially at the height of the Sino- Japanese crisis when the Japanese fleet entered Chinese territorial waters and ports."
That the British press did the same as its Egyptian counterparts further confirmed the Lampson appointment. The Evening Standard provided a verbal portrait of the next high commissioner to Egypt. At six foot five inches -- nearly two metres tall and 95 kilogrammes, he was of strong and sturdy build and considerable equanimity. "Far from nervous in temperament, he is one of the most competent officers and top crisis solvers ever to come out of the Foreign Office. He combines many fine traits, among which are an impressive composure and ability to influence others. His passion for work is such that he needs an entire team of secretaries working in rotation in order to keep up with his indefatigable activity."
Amidst all this praise for the forthcoming high commissioner, many in Egypt began to protest against the impending fait accompli. Among these was MP Abdel-Latif Helmi Ghanam, representative of Talkha who, in a letter to Al- Ahram, complained, "It is as though Egypt does not even exist, as though it is not an independent sovereign nation, as though it does not have a great king who is bound by nothing but the provisions of the constitution in his conduct of the domestic and foreign affairs of the state. It is as though it does not have a standing parliament that represents the people who are the sole source of authority and that confers its confidence to the government or withdraws it if the situation demands. It is as though this high commissioner is the people and the government wrapped up in a single individual and all the Egyptian government can do is to readjust and reshape itself whenever that individual changes."
Al-Ahram could not help but agree with Ghanam. British tyranny, it wrote, had never had to confront a successful passive resistance. "If our governments were founded on this principle, and if individuals and parties would refuse to accept power except in response to the express will of the people, then Egypt would attain the goal to which it aspires. However, as long as the aim of politics is merely to get into government, the British will be able to impose their will and their high commissioner will issue his dictates, while every contending camp scrambles to help him in the hope of attaining positions of power."
In spite of this declaration, Al-Ahram appeared reconciled to the fait accompli and joined others in the attempt to interpret the change in high commissioner. On 28 August 1933, under the front page headline, "The appointment of the new high commissioner and British policy in Egypt," Al-Ahram's London correspondent remarks that the adamancy with which British officials claim that London's policy towards Egypt would not change suggests that the opposite would be the case. The new incumbent in Dubara Palace was coming in order to put an end to that vicious cycle of a Wafd government followed by an anti-Wafd government, then a neutral interim government followed by a Wafd government again, "while on the British side, the iron fist alternated with the velvet glove, with moments of biased neutrality in between".
That Lampson was perceived as the person to break this cycle was based on the fact that he had no past history with Egypt. "He is coming to Cairo from the Far East with an open mind. He is also the type of person who immediately sets about to thoroughly familiarise himself with local affairs. It is known, for example, that when he first arrived in Japan and China he undertook to study the languages of those countries, languages, we might add, that are not easy for Europeans to learn. It is therefore not odd to hear that he has already begun to study Arabic. In all events, his arrival in Egypt is certain to prelude increased British interest in Egyptian affairs."
On this latter point, the newspaper was more explicit when, several days later, it asked, "Will the new British high commissioner bring with him a new policy?" The writer had little doubt that he would. After all, the transfer of Sir Loraine had not occurred out of the blue. The former high commissioner and his policies had come under harsh criticism by his British compatriots in Egypt. "Many of them had accused him of ruining British prestige in the Nile Valley and weakening Britain's control over Egypt. Some British visitors to Egypt supported this view and, upon their return to Britain, aired their criticisms of the current order in Egypt and demanded a change in policy that would at least partially restore British control to its earlier level."
As only the new high commissioner would be able to confirm such conjectures, all awaited his arrival. Little did they expect that when the SS Esperia docked in Alexandria on 11 October 1933 it was not Sir Lampson who stepped out but rather Percy Loraine. This did not prevent the reception from proceeding according to protocol: "Mr Ronald Campbell, acting high commissioner, and General Wales Pasha, director of the Port Authority, greeted Sir Percy as the regimental band of the British garrison struck up the British royal anthem and an army column issued an honourary salute as per custom."
Egyptians were naturally dumb struck and in an attempt to unravel this mystery Al-Ahram surmised that Loraine's return did not necessarily mean that the British government had changed its mind about his transfer. Firstly, it explained, the decision to transfer the high commissioner had only been made relatively recently, in fact after the Foreign Office announced its annual postings. Meanwhile, Loraine had been on sick leave for many months, during which period Campbell had shouldered his responsibilities and was now due his annual leave. Secondly, London had learned that Prime Minister Sidqi, who had also been in Europe for health purposes that summer, was planning on tendering his resignation. "As the Foreign Office expected some development, whether large or small, to occur in Egyptian politics in the coming months, it felt it wise not to leave the high commissionership without a senior official to monitor events and take action if necessary." Thirdly, the Foreign Office did not want Lampson to arrive in Egypt before the political situation had stabilised somewhat, "so that he can have the opportunity to study local circumstances in a climate of relative calm". The article explained, "The Foreign Office recalls that when Loraine arrived at the end of 1929, he had to immediately contend with a number of new developments, such as the proposed treaty, the end of the dictatorial period and the holding of new elections, without having had the opportunity to acclimatise and familiarise himself with Egyptian affairs."
As predicted, Loraine spent just over two months back in the country, giving Campbell the opportunity to go on leave and recover from an illness that had struck him. Those two months was a crucial period for Egypt. Sidqi had resigned on 27 September, marking the first time a high commissioner had no say in a prime minister's departure. This went strongly against the grain of how the British liked to run affairs in Egypt, which explains why one of Loraine's first actions upon his return was to raise the issue with the king. Fouad's response, we learn from British Foreign Office archives, was that Sidqi's influence had become so strong that it was feared he would become a dictator and that he -- the king -- did not approve of so much power being concentrated in the hands of a single individual such as Sidqi. Loraine then went to Sidqi to get his version of the story. The former prime minister responded that his resignation was the price he had to pay for having worked to enhance the powers of the king, the result of which was that the palace was now meddling too much in the government's affairs which was unacceptable in view of the "lack of effective constitutional controls over the actions of the king".
Subsequent to these interviews, Loraine set about what was undoubtedly the main purpose of his brief return to Cairo: reasserting his presence and preparing the ground for his successor.
After Loraine's departure, Dubara Palace prepared to receive its new master. Unusually, the handover took place in two phases, which we might term the assumption of the post and the assumption of responsibilities, with approximately a month separating the two. The reason: Lampson was coming direct from his posting in China but he was still owed home leave. Thus, barely two weeks after his predecessor left, the new high commissioner stepped off his homeward bound ship once it docked in Port Said and headed straight for Dubara Palace in Cairo. Much to everyone's surprise there was no official reception. Moreover, contrary to the custom upon the arrival of other foreign diplomatic representatives, he did not present letters of accreditation, causing Al-Balagh to remark that this implied that the British still perceived Egypt as part of the realm of the British crown.
Lampson's second arrival a month later was even more unusual. It was the first time since the occupation that Britain's representative to Egypt arrived by air. The new high commissioner flew by aquaplane to Alexandria where he transferred to another aquaplane that landed on the Nile, in front of Dubara Palace in Garden City. The arrival made for considerable jest in the Egyptian press, which spoke of the high commissioner who descended from the heavens. Aside from the humour with which Egyptians famously greet such oddities, it was quickly noted that Lampson's arrival by air was a smooth way to avoid the protocols other foreign representatives had to observe when assuming their posting in Egypt. That the new government, headed by Abdel-Fattah Yehia, appeared to sanction this came under heavy criticism from the opposition Wafd Party, and the fallout from that controversy would be the first problem Lampson would have to face. Evidently, his new posting was not destined to begin as smoothly as he and the Foreign Office had hoped.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.