Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian snippets: The British high commissioner in Egypt

Looking back at the colonial period in Egypt’s history at the turn of the 20th century

In order to comprehend Egypt’s modern history one has to study the roles of the British consul-general, the  British high commissioner and the British ambassador in the early 20th century. Magda  Hammoud did just that. Her study included examining the role of the British high commissioner in ruling Egypt after the 1919 Revolution.

The study confirmed that the British high commissioner was much more than a tool to implement the policies of the British government, but often quarrelled with the British Foreign Office. Sometimes these disputes ended with the British high commissioner accepting the viewpoint of London, and at other times diplomats acquiesced to the demands of the British high commissioner. These wrangles depended on the personality of the British high commissioner and his ability to pressure Foreign Office officials.

The era of Lord Cromer, the founder of the colonial era in Egypt, was an engine for taking control of all the affairs of the country, both political and economic, as well as controlling Khedive Tawfik and Khedive Abbas Helmi, the cabinet and military. Also, creating an Egyptian army under British protectorate control and British control of the Egyptian police force.

And thus, the protectorate system and position of British high commissioner were put in place. But why replace the British consul-general with the British high commissioner? Hammoud’s study looked at the beginnings of the 1919 Revolution and events at the British high commissioner’s headquarters (the British Agency) at Al-Dubara Palace, the 13 November meeting, until the departure of Reginald Wingate from Egypt, handing over power to Milne Cheetham, the acting high commissioner, to rule Egypt until the exile of Saad Zaghloul and his comrades in Malta. Field Marshal Edmund Allenby was appointed the British high commissioner in Egypt between 25 March 1919 until 21 May 1925 and confronted the revolution. This was followed by a quarrel with the Milner Mission that proposed independence for Egypt, and then the failure of the Adly-Curzon negotiations.

Lord Cromer was the first British consul-general who previously served in Egypt during the rule of Khedive Ismail and was also posted to India. He came with a powerful mandate that gave him the status of the king’s viceroy of governor-generals of the colonies. Egypt remained under his control for 24 years and he became known as “Egypt’s uncrowned khedive”. His policies remained effective after his departure in 1907 and continued until 1924. Key features of his rule included the press law that continued to the start of the 1952 Revolution, and even until the departure of the last British soldier from Egypt on 18 June 1956.

Despite the many political changes and rotation of British high commissioners, Cromer’s policies remained the gold standard to measure the success of any British high commissioner to Egypt.

The position of British high commissioner was created after Cromer left Egypt, and the declaration of Egypt as a protectorate came on 18 December 1914. Negotiations between the British high commissioner and the British government to decide Egypt’s status continued for four months. The British Agency in Cairo preferred declaring a protectorate as a step towards self-rule and paving the way for Egyptians to cooperate with Britain in the war. The British government agreed to the proposal of its representatives in Egypt, and declared martial law in Egypt. When martial law was declared, John Maxwell, commander of the British Forces in Egypt, said he was given orders from London to guarantee Egypt’s safety.

Egypt came under British military rule. It is noteworthy that on 7 November, five days after the declaration, Britain declared war on Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. After the declaration, relations between Britain and Turkey were severed. London justified this as guaranteeing Egypt’s peaceful prosperity, which it enjoyed for 30 years under British occupation. It is ironic that since that moment Egypt entered a state of war with the country that had legal sovereignty over it.

The declaration of a protectorate did not only mark a change in the title of the British consular-general, but also extended to Al-Dubara Palace. The British government decided to expand the British Agency, buying 95 square metres of land belonging to Garden City Company, adjacent to the British Agency. After Egypt was declared a British protectorate, a decree was issued the next day appointing Prince Hussein Kamel as Sultan of Egypt, and that the role of the Foreign Ministry would be nothing more than the executor of the orders of the occupying power. A new position was created, the general director of the Foreign Ministry, which would be a bridge between the British high commissioner and the Foreign Office in London.

The policy of the Conservative Party, writings by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and criticism by George Bernard Shaw, especially his book  John Bull’s Other Island, all forced Cromer to resign in 1907. Here, we should not forget Cromer’s role in the Denshway trial and wholesale executions in public squares, and how the local press criticised him and the British press itself blamed him. We should also remember the poetry verses by the Prince of Poets Ahmed Shawki: “Nero, if you knew Cromer’s reign; you would know how to apply the law.”

Cromer resigns and a farewell party is hosted at the Royal Opera House. Mustafa Fahmi makes an address to bid him farewell. At this moment, when souls should purge themselves after the departure of the worldly sultan, Cromer maintained his arrogance and ego.

He stood up and told those who came to celebrate him, “My departure from Egypt does not mean the end of British rule in Egypt. Britain lives on.”

Like other British rulers, Cromer returned to Britain and wrote a two-part tome Modern Egypt — a tradition among top British politicians. Cromer was succeeded by Sir Eldon Gorst for four years, followed by the arrogant Victorian military officer Kitchener.

Cromer’s statement still echoes: We don’t rule Egypt, but rule those who rule Egypt.

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