Cairo: The world outside

Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt
May 26 2006

The world outside
Egypt’s varying degrees of historical independence reflected on its
foreign policy, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk

A great deal of information was put forth in previous issues of the
Diwan about the nature of Egyptian foreign relations in the
contemporary period. Among this was the fact that after Egypt fell
under Ottoman rule in 1517 and lost its independence, it no longer
had political representatives in other countries. Moreover, the
representatives of states, particularly European, within Egypt were
limited to a number of consuls concerned with the affairs of their
citizens and economic matters. Their meetings with Egypt’s pasha took
place in the presence of a high-ranking official called the “pash-
turgoman”, or chief translator, who was assisted by a number of
translators who were proficient in several European languages and who
were often Armenian.

With the establishment of the modern state at the hands of Egypt’s
remarkable governor Mohamed Ali Pasha and Egypt’s economic and
political debut in dealing with Europe, the pash-turgomans and their
assistants disappeared, to be replaced by a new administration. This
formed one unit among the seven departments Mohamed Ali established
and was called the Department of Commerce and Foreign Affairs. Its
specialisations varied in keeping with the state’s needs. Mohamed Ali
continued to depend on Armenians to head this department, the most
famous of whom was Bughus Youssefian. Yet because Egypt remained
subordinate to the Ottomans, the pasha was not allowed to send
political representatives abroad. Thus Mohamed Ali sufficed with
sending deputies to states such as Britain, France and Italy that
Egyptian interests required representation in.

During the era of Ismail (1863-1879), this department’s name was
changed to the Ministry of Foreign affairs, which soon became a unit
within the cabinet that was established one year prior to the famed
khedive’s ousting. For the first time, Egyptians held the post of
foreign minister, and while the Armenian Noubar Pasha held the post
during that period (five years), the Egyptian Boutros Ghali Pasha
held it for much longer (16 years) during the ensuing period.

This ministry continued to form one of the most important
institutions in the Egyptian political system until the announcement
in 1914 of the British protectorate over Egypt. The two foundations
upon which this system was established were that the protecting state
would assume responsibility of foreign relations and that it would
undertake administration of the military forces. This ministry was
dissolved following the declaration of the protectorate and replaced
with a department affiliated to the British high commissioner’s
headquarters, a fact that was a significant source of Egyptian anger.

The Foreign Ministry was re-established by the 28 February 1922
declaration that legally granted Egypt independence. Its
subordination to Al-Dubara Palace was cut, but instead of
transferring actual subordination to the cabinet as should have taken
place, it remained more closely affiliated to Abdin Palace, a
situation that King Fouad was most keen on maintaining.

Although the 1923 constitution deemed that the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs be included among the ministries, the opinion of Abdin Palace
following the establishment of partisan governments as authorised by
the constitution was to distance ministries from government
supervision so that they would not suffer from partisan struggles.
The palace would thus retain its control of them, including the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the armed forces, and religious affairs
as run by Al-Azhar Mosque and the religious endowments.

Concerning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most of the royal
appointment edicts for the new diplomatic corps were issued during
the terms of governments loyal to the king, not during the terms of
the Wafdist governments, which refused, whether in the time of Saad
Zaghloul or Mustafa El-Nahhas, to concede any of their powers to His
Majesty. It can thus be said that the periods of this ministry’s
animation always took place during the terms of minority or royal

The close relationship between the Foreign Ministry and Abdin Palace
is indicated by the fact that most of the royal cabinet’s cadre came
from this ministry. In turn, when political circumstances required
the ousting of a palace official, he was often placed in the Foreign
Ministry. This occurred with Hassan Nashaat Pasha and Zaki El-Ibrashi
Pasha, and it also took place during the reign of King Farouk. The
most famed of the palace’s men came from this institution — Ahmed
Hassanein Pasha, Hafiz Afifi Pasha, and Hassan Youssef Pasha. And it
is a custom followed until this day, for the spokesman of the
republic’s president is always chosen from among Egypt’s diplomatic
corps. Moreover, advisors close to the president, the most famous of
whom are Osama El-Baz and Mustafa El-Fiqi, who held the post of the
president’s press secretary for a short period, are also diplomats.
This confirms that it is an “old-new” relationship.

But let us return to the historical developments of Egypt’s foreign
relations. The 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty left a deep mark on them,
for on the one hand they rejected any British tutelage by raising the
level of diplomatic exchange with Egypt to the rank of ambassador
despite this move being incomplete as is made clear below. On the
other hand, it paved the way for Egypt joining the League of Nations
the following year after the capitulations were annulled at the
Montreaux Convention. This freed the Wafd government’s hand, if to a
relative degree, in foreign relations, a fact that was not a source
of satisfaction for Abdin Palace, whose lord, Fouad I, had in the
meantime passed away. His son succeeded him, and did away with
El-Nahhas Pasha a few short months after assuming his constitutional
powers. Following the formation of the Mohamed Mahmoud government in
early 1938, it seemed as though the issue of foreign relations had
become its primary preoccupation, a product of its desire to turn
Egyptians’ attention abroad, away from domestic tensions.

ONLY A FEW SHORT WEEKS had passed following the formation of the
government of Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha when foreign relations became its
primary preoccupation.

Al-Ahram recorded the changes that took place in these relations in
its editorial of 12 March 1938 titled “Egypt’s position among
nations”. It stated that following Egypt’s alliance with Britain and
the cancellation of the capitulations, “it has taken possession of
its own affairs as all independent states do. The states with which
we are connected via mutually shared interests feel nothing but
friendship and goodwill towards us.” It offered as evidence the
successive visits undertaken by various states’ politicians and
ministers, including the French minister of education, who inspected
the country’s scientific institutes and praised them upon his return
home, and Monsieur Pietre, the head of the Franco- Egyptian
Association, “which works to strengthen the ties of friendship
between the two countries.” It also noted the friendly reception
given to the members of the Egyptian delegation to the medical
conference held in Baghdad. Al-Ahram concluded by drawing attention
to the connotations of this all, and quoted the prime minister as
saying, “Our international position during the current period
requires from us the greatest alertness and awareness.”

A few days later it published an exclusive interview that Mohamed
Mahmoud Pasha had given to the British newspaper the Daily Mail. In
it, he defined Egypt’s foreign policy as defending the sovereignty it
had recently won, including the continued flow of water from Lake
Tana and the sources of the Nile, and safeguarding the status quo of
the Suez Canal. He lauded “Egypt’s geographic importance” in that it
is “the Western portal leading to the East and the ancient key to
Africa. Its land is the most fertile on Earth, and we have attempted
to mix the best of culture in the West with the most noble of
traditions in the East. This is a mixture that will last and whose
ties will hold firm.”

This lovely remark was put to the test of experience following the
clouding atmosphere of international relations that autumn (1938)
during the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. It appears that Egypt’s
representatives abroad were not up to par with the crisis. Al-Ahram
wrote that the reports received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
were inadequate, lacked a detailed conception of the situation, and
some contained information that had already been published by
newspapers. Al-Ahram wrote that this experience offered an
opportunity for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to learn the weak
points of its diplomatic corps, and it stressed Egypt’s unique
geographical position and the fact that its international future
depended on the aptitude of its representatives abroad. “The current
political crisis is a good opportunity to meet this goal.”

On this matter, Al-Ahram learnt from foreign representatives,
foremost the British ambassador in the Egyptian capital, of their
disregard of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and direct contact with
the prime minister. “Some of them meet some of the other ministers
and top officials without the mediation of the minister of foreign
affairs or seeking his permission as international convention
requires in other countries. This fact was recorded by the foreign
affairs committee in the senate in its report on the foreign affairs
budget: “It is necessary to point out the convention on which our
political traditions in Egypt are based. Ministers plenipotentiary in
Egypt have grown accustomed to taking recourse to the prime minister
regarding most affairs, while their reference should naturally be the
minister of foreign affairs.”

Once again, Al-Ahram stressed the necessity of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs exhibiting its interest and drawing the people into
following the developments of the current crisis so that a mature
public opinion could be formed that would have specific orientations
for foreign policy “just as occurred with domestic policy”.

The government at that time soon turned this into a fact. It began to
hold a series of meetings to study the effect of foreign policy
developments on the country. Instructions were issued from the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Egypt’s representatives in Europe
requesting communication with it on the current crisis. Coded
telegrams began to pour into Cairo, bearing the developments and
incidents they witnessed.

Al-Ahram commented on this interest by saying that the crisis
developments warned of British involvement in the war and the
possibility of Italy entering into it in addition to Germany. “If
this happens, and it is not unlikely, Egypt will have commitments it
must uphold with its ally Britain on the one hand, and there will be
danger threatening Egypt’s Western borders on the other.”

It seems that the global crisis grew more complicated still with the
appearance of Japanese intentions. Japan had previously been keen to
stay distanced from European conflicts, but the new Japanese
intentions were made clear by Japan’s ambassador in Berlin:
“Britain’s dominion in the Far East has ended forever. The new China
will become Manchurian again, for it is establishing several
independent governments in the manner of the United States of America
and allying with Japan, who administrates its political and military

This led Al-Ahram to comment that this meant tightening relations
between the Tokyo government and the Rome- Berlin axis, a fact that
warned of excessive danger. “It is incumbent upon Egyptian
politicians in these circumstances to end partisan animosity and call
on all children of the nation to unite so that the country can
address its foreign policy position with the wisdom and careful
consideration it requires.”

Yet this call was not answered as wished for by Wafd Party circles.
The party’s mouthpiece, Al-Wafd Al-Misri, commented that Egypt had
grown to follow British policy. “It is being led this time to
agreement as it was led previous times to dissension. Our sole role
is to follow England in signing onto an international agreement on
matters that vitally affect us.”

There is no doubt that these developments breathed life into the
government departments and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which
began to leaf through its old papers. Among the news that leaked out
on this was the undertaking of a review of the international treaties
Egypt had signed that were related to states of war and international
conduct during times of war. The most significant of the treaties the
Cairo government had signed was the treaty on prisoners of war and
one that stipulated that submarines not attack commercial ships, as
well as the treaty on improving the status of ill persons and those
injured in combat.

Yet from another perspective, some newspapers wanted to exit the
crisis by drawing a picture of foreign policy that Egypt should
follow in all cases, what they described as “positive policy”.
Unusually, Al-Muqattam, which was known for its loyalty to Britain,
call for this in three successive articles. In its first article,
Al-Muqattam tried to answer a question it posed — “What positive
policies does Egypt choose?” It responded by saying that Egypt was
preparing means of defence to ward off the danger of war and its
disastrous consequences. “With this policy, the government has
received public support because Egyptians refuse for their country to
be a target of this danger when it has barely begun to enjoy the
blessing of its independence. If we follow the policy of giving in to
reality on the basis of nothing better being possible, then we will
be subject to the same consequences of overlooking policy related to
national defence.”

In the second article, Al-Muqattam drew attention to the issue of the
Nile sources that Italy had taken control of in Ethiopia and the
issue of the Suez Canal, which Italy was also turning to. It held
that the government should prove that Egypt was an independent and
sovereign state with dominion over its territory. This orientation
was supported, according to the paper, by the fact that the countries
of the east had their eyes on Egypt and that Arab states considered
it their elder.

Starting from that early time, Al-Muqattam drew attention to Egypt’s
possession of factors that allowed it to follow positive foreign
policies. This orientation was strengthened following WWII,
particularly in the period following the Wafd government (1950-1952).
This became a declared policy during the Nasser period, placing this
approach in the category of old-new policies.

Yet Al-Muqattam did not suffice with proposing this idea, rather
clarifying it in its third and final article. It held that pursuing
this policy required dependence on a strong economic base, something
that could not be actualised without a tight irrigation system and
the combating of pests that assailed the cotton crops. This was a
toilsome task, “but if we consider that done by others among those we
imitate, then it is clear that there is no escape from taking on this
serious work, especially as we live in a world that is floating, and
what all peoples need the most is the factor of stability.”

As matters escalated in this direction, it was natural that interest
was given to improving Egypt’s political representation abroad. The
Anglo-Egyptian Treaty’s provisions for raising the rank of Egypt’s
representative in London to that of ambassador was supposed to have
been followed by raising all the remaining ministers plenipotentiary
to the same rank. The Mohamed Mahmoud government did not do this,
however, a fact pointed out by a parliamentary representative who
expressed his conviction that establishing an Egyptian embassy in
Turkey would not conflict with the treaty’s provisions, particularly
after Turkey had signed “the two charters of the Balkan alliance and
the eastern alliance.”

This led Abdallah Hussein, a lawyer and writer in Al-Ahram, to stress
that the treaty did not bar Egypt from establishing embassies in
other countries. “As long as that is the case, it is possible for our
government to begin thinking about promoting some of our large
legations to embassies so as to close all doors of interpretation on
issues that affect our foreign command and attempt to limit it,
particularly since we now have a diplomatic corps and men qualified
to be ambassadors.”

IT WAS NATURAL for the Egyptian government to respond to these
raising voices within and beyond parliament. This fact is made clear
by a collection of various related news items that can be followed in
Al-Ahram over a lengthy period.

Some of this news was about Egypt joining the eastern alliance
through what was known as the Saadabad charter, which was signed
between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Rushdi Aras, the
Turkish foreign minister, was on his way to Cairo to negotiate on
this matter.

The Turkish minister indeed arrived in the Egyptian capital and an
Al-Ahram reporter rushed to learn definite news on this issue. He
confirmed that the Turkish government had made an offer and that it
was being discussed with top officials in the Egyptian Ministry of
Foreign Affairs. Abdel-Fattah Yehia Pasha was to present the Turkish
minister’s opinion to the cabinet.

Al-Ahram added that Aras would return within a month to complete the
documents related to the treaty of friendship and goodwill the
minister plenipotentiary had signed in Ankara. At that time,
negotiations would begin on Egypt signing onto the eastern alliance
charter. Yet Al-Ahram did not make reference to the issue again from
near or afar.

Confidential British documents, in contrast, indicate that the
British embassy headquarters intervened to prevent the Egyptian
government from advancing far in this matter, on the basis that
Egypt’s obligations through joining the alliance conflicted with the
stipulations of the treaty of alliance and friendship with London’s
government. At this point, Mohamed Mahmoud’s government halted its
impermissible talk.

Following that, Egyptian policy was transformed into a role of
leadership in the Islamic world. Information on this can be gleaned
from European newspapers including the English Daily Telegraph.

The Daily Telegraph presented an entire design of Egyptian officials’
thought on this matter, stressing that Egypt’s religious standing
allowed it to hold a special place in the Islamic world. The design,
according to the newspaper’s characterisation, had ripened in the
minds of experienced and trusted men, and was based on a number of
points. The most important of these were that the king would become
the head of the caliphate and the acknowledged leader of the Islamic
nations whose borders fell on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and
which controlled major sea and air routes between the East and West,
and that Egyptian princesses would marry Arab princes and kings.

A French newspaper confirmed that there was movement towards Egypt
occupying the role of leadership in the Islamic world. Its
correspondent in Cairo, Maurice Berneaux, drew attention to the fact
that during its term the El-Nahhas government had declined signing
onto the eastern charter and had exhibited solidarity with the Arabs
of Palestine. “Supporters of Islamic politics view that Egypt, which
is today at the forefront of Islamic states, must follow policy in
conformity with the public interest of Islam. They even make
reference to re- establishing the caliphate and granting its
authority to King Farouk.”

The paper closed by saying, “Egypt must not forget that 17 caliphs
succeeded each other in Cairo over two centuries of time, and that
the heart of Islam continues to beat in Al-Azhar University. The
feelings that will throb in the chest of King Farouk if he assumes
the caliphate will be that he is returning to Egypt the distinction
it was stripped of with the Turkish conquest. This theory has had a
strong effect on the heart of the young king since Egypt has regained
its independence and its feelings of the homeland’s glory and
greatness have increased.”

A surprising fact of that long-ago era is Egypt’s interest in playing
a role in the African continent despite most of it being under
European colonial control at the time. An Al-Ahram editorial titled
“Egypt between Africa and Europe” mentioned in its opening that all
of the African nations turned their eyes towards Egypt. It
ascertained that Egypt’s future depended on that of the Nile Valley,
and that “Egypt’s success is also based on its success.”

On this issue, Al-Ahram made a comparison between Africa during WWI
and the world war whose threat had begun to appear on the horizon. It
noted that the battles of the first had all taken place in Europe,
while the imminent war “is expected to be of paramount importance.
Italy has occupied Ethiopia despite the resolutions of the League of
Nations and the position of Britain, and the nationalist Spaniards
are seeking the aid of Moroccans from the countryside in their war
against Madrid. Italy has taken care to fortify Libya, and turned it
into an arena for military practice and manoeuvres. Recently, Germany
has risen up and demanded African colonies. As such, Egypt cannot
afford to close its eyes to what is taking place before it with
regard to the African continent.”

Egyptian interest in the African continent was highlighted in the
London Sunday Times in an article titled “Shared interests between
Egypt and South Africa.” It stated that South Africa had undertaken
leadership of the countries in central and southern areas of the
continent. “Yet the next step, in which our security is concerned, is
for measures to be taken to distribute the scope of our influence to
the shores of the Mediterranean and the banks of the Suez Canal.”

As the new system of governance in Egypt was concerned with
organising a modern army, and there was no doubt that the Egyptian
government and South Africa had some shared interests, particularly
in the security of the Suez Canal, it was possible for any
discussions between the two parties to have led to far-reaching
consequences affecting them both.

With this outline of all these policies, it is possible to see that
at that early period near the end of the 1930s, Egyptians had already
become aware of their position that made them a central link not only
in the Arab world but also the eastern and Islamic world and the
African continent. They turned to this fact even more following WWII,
and it was soon turned into a planned policy during the Nasser era
for the areas surrounding Egypt. Yet it seems that the principles of
foreign policies discussed by Egyptians at that time have remained
constant despite the succession of generations, for the realities of
geography have always made them old-new.


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