Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A high commissioner in Egypt

What did the British occupation really do for Egypt, asks Samir Sobhi

Although the tale of the British high commissioner of Egypt is an old story, its shadows are still ongoing and we still sometimes ask whether the people of Egypt benefited or were harmed by the British occupation that started in the later decades of the 19th century and continued until the early 1950s. 

How did the British high commissioner deal with the Egyptians and the country’s nominal ruler, the khedive, along with the government, the aristocracy and the people in general? What were the reactions towards the national movement at that time, especially during World War I and from 1914 to 1924?

We should pause a little here to review the historical research done by distinguished researcher Magda Mohamed Hamoud, who has explained how the role of the British consul-general during the British occupation of Egypt later changed to that of high commissioner. This change began when Hussein Kamel was declared sultan of Egypt on 19 December 1914 after the occupying British forces had deposed his nephew, the khedive Abbas Helmi II, on 5 November. The newly created Sultanate of Egypt was then declared a British protectorate.

The office of high commissioner was the same office used by Lord Allenby as commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, the name of the British army in Egypt, and it witnessed many of the most important incidents in the history of modern Egypt, being used by all British officials from Lord Cromer onwards.

The high commissioner’s expenses in 1913 and 1914, including the salaries of the employees, were some 12,261 pounds sterling, and in 1925 they had reached the amount of 9,434 pounds sterling. The number of employees on the high commissioner’s immediate staff was six in 1914 and had gone up to 20 in 1925.

On 9 January 1915, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon arrived in Egypt as British high commissioner. A lot of reforms were expected with the arrival of McMahon, but little was done because he was not aware of the real problems of Egypt.

It is unfair to compare McMahon to his predecessors Lord Cromer, Sir Eldon Gorst and Lord Kitchener, however. It is said that the British government wanted a neutral and more consensual representative in Egypt instead of a powerful authoritarian to avoid future conflict and disagreements with the military. Hence, McMahon was a temporary appointment until the return of Kitchener.

In an interview with the Al-Mokattam newspaper at the time, a pro-English paper, McMahon said that all he knew about Egypt was the knowledge that any tourist might have, having passed through Egypt more than 40 times during his trips to India. He also stated that he could not speak but that he could read Arabic.

When he was asked whether he intended to make fundamental changes in Egypt, he replied that the proper protection of Egypt required fundamental changes to be brought about, but that he would need to be fully aware of conditions in the country before speaking about his plans. Despite the fact that he had spent most of his political career in India, he said, what worked for India would not necessarily work in Egypt.

McMahon relied on the aid of the British staff in Egypt and the guidance of his predecessors Cromer and Kitchener. In fact, Britain’s policy did not change under his administration, except for some minor changes brought in because of the war.

Handling both the civil and the military administration of the country was difficult. Sharing responsibility with both the British advisors and the Egyptian ministers was unclear and became more ambiguous with the declaration of martial law when the Egyptian ministers became mere advisors. Moreover, McMahon met with the country’s officials to discuss military matters, education, work and finance, as if he were the prime minister.

It is remarkable that during the rule of McMahon he made several visits around Egypt, and these made him appear as if he were the actual ruler of the country. As well as meeting with senior officials and dignitaries to hear complaints and demands, he also inspected schools and hospitals. 

One visit was to the Sharqeya governorate, where his reception made the headlines of the Al-Ahram newspaper. At the train station, Hassan Hassib Pasha, the governor, members of the municipal council, the heads of various departments, and reporters were there to meet him.

In Cairo, McMahon visited the Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sharia Law School, the Royal Higher School of Engineering, the School of Accounting, and the Higher School of Commerce. He and his wife accompanied by Adli Yakan, the minister of education, visited the Sanneya School in Nassereya and the teachers school in Bulaq.

They toured the classes and were very pleased with the cleanliness and professionalism of the institutions, the newspapers said. McMahon also visited the country’s Legislative Assembly with Sir Ronald Storrs, the British oriental secretary in Cairo. McMahon made sure to give the Egyptians the impression that despite the circumstances of the war things were going on in the ordinary way.

In an interview with the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, McMahon discussed the possibility of reconvening the Legislative Assembly, but McMahon insisted on postponing this until the war was over. Zaghloul argued that it should resume its duties and discuss matters of welfare and the war, mentioning that its members had been neglected on important matters and the budget had been decided without taking their opinions into account.

McMahon replied that the non-convening of the assembly was not because of a lack of government confidence, but due to the pressing needs of the war. When the meeting was over, Zaghloul commented that he had met with a “friendly, agreeable, considerate and cautious gentleman”.

The return of McMahon to his country after spending 22 months serving as British high commissioner in Egypt was marked by praise in the press, where he was noted for his efficiency and ability to perform the duties assigned to him.

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