Allergic to the Wafd Party and to its leader Saad Zaghloul Pasha, as he was well known to be, King Fouad the First hastily accepted the Zaghloul’s Cabinet resignation.  For the King, the assassination of the Sirdar of the Egyptian Army and Governor General of the Sudan, General Sir Lee Stack Pasha, was a manna that came to him from heaven (1).  He looked around for a Prime Minister who would blindly obey his directives, and his choice fell upon Ahmad Ziwar Pasha.

Lawyer, Minister, Senator and Prime Minister.  Ziwar was born in Alexandria to a family of Circassian origin; he was educated at the Lazaryya College there, the Jesuit College St-Joseph in Beirut and the School Of Languages in Cairo.  He earned his Law Degree at Aix-en-Provence University in France in 1887. After working briefly as a Prosecutor, he moved over to the Bench in 1889, serving as a Judge and Counselor in the National Court Of Appeal for many years.  He was later appointed as Governor of Alexandria, then Minister of Awqaf (Religious Affairs) (1917 – 1919), Education (1919), Communications (1919 –1921 and 1923), Foreign Affairs (1924 – 1926) and also Interior (1925 – 1926). 

The Senate’s first President under the 1923 Constitution, he succeeded Saad Zaghloul Pasha as Prime Minister following the assassination of Sir Lee Stack Pasha in November 1924.  After the 1925 elections, in which the Wafd Party won a majority of the seats in the Chamber Of Deputies, he formed a Coalition Cabinet of Constitutional Liberals, Ittihad and Independents.  The newly elected Chamber was dissolved when it elected Zaghloul as its Speaker.  Backed by King Fouad, Ziwar’s Coalition amended the Electoral Law to keep the Wafd out of power.

His Government increased controls over the Egyptian Press, passed an Association Law to curb the Parties’ political activities, ceded the Jaghbub Oasis (2) to Italian ruled Libya, passed an Electoral Law raising the financial requirements and qualifications for both voters and candidates, and muzzled “Bolshevik” propagandists.  His Governments was viewed as Palace dominated and repressive.  Its fall in January 1926 was ascribed to High Commissioner Lloyd’s intrigues. 

Ziwar remained in the Chamber Of Deputies until 1930 and was appointed Senator from 1931 to 1934.  He then became King Fouad’s “Chef Du Cabinet” until he resigned in 1935.  Tall, stout, lazy and affable with foreigners, he ignored nationalistic attacks on his policies . (3)

Ziwar Pasha was selected by King Fouad to replace the first Democratically and freely elected Government under the 1923 Constitution; the King knew jolly well that it would be a rubber stamp Government and that He would have total control on the Ministers’ appointments and all the Cabinet’ s future decisions.  In all of that it is safe to say that the King was not disappointed.

The conflict between Egypt and England, caused by the assassination of General Lee Stack, gave the new Cabinet the cover to claim that it was appointed to rescue whatever could be rescued of the bad situation inherited from the Saad Zaghloul Pasha’ s Cabinet.

To appease the Occupying Power, the Cabinet agreed to evacuate the Egyptian Army from the Sudan and to submit to the request of the British High Commissioner concerning the modification of the indemnity law, adopted by the previous Cabinet, concerning the dismissed Foreign Employees of the Egyptian Government, which constituted a heavy burden on the Egyptian Budget.  Furthermore the new Cabinet agreed to give full support to the British Legal and Financial Advisers, and to “respect” the decisions of the British Authorities concerning the “respect of law and order” at the Egyptian Ministry Of Interior!!!


 Before proceeding with these new elections and at the request of the Ministry Of Interior (read the British officials working over there), the Cabinet agreed to prohibit any political demonstration and / or political speeches by school students under the age of 21 who, according to the law, had not yet the right to vote.

The withdrawal of the Egyptian Military contingent from the Sudan was carried on as imposed by the British Authorities, but, in the process of that withdrawal, 125 civilian employees working for the Egyptian troops over there found themselves unemployed; to remedy such a situation and at the request of the Ministry Of War the Cabinet distributed those civilian employees amongst the different Ministries, on a temporary basis, with the understanding that their employment would be permanent at the first openings.

On the positive side (yes there was one) a Royal Decree was issued establishing the Egyptian University, which comprised Faculties of Arts, Sciences, Medicine including a Pharmaceutical branch and Law.  More Faculties would be added according to the County’ s needs; the decree stipulated that the Minister of Public Instructions would also be the Chairman of the University Board, while each Faculty would have its own Dean.

On March 12, 1925, the Parliamentary elections took place under strong Government pressure, through its different Administrations, to ensure the success of those candidates supported by the Government.  At the request of those Candidates the electoral districts were reshuffled in such a way as to guaranty their success; but in spite of all that and in spite of the flagrant police and administrators’ interference, the result was a shock for the King and his Cabinet as the Candidates of the Wafd Party obtained 116 Parliamentary Seats while the Candidates of all the other Parties, along with the Independents obtained 87 Seats!!!

Shamed by this result Ziwar Pasha submitted his resignation, on March 13,1925, to King Fouad who urged him to form a new Cabinet.

The principal program of the new Ziwar Cabinet was to deal once and for all with the popularity of the Wafd Party and to insure the success, in future elections, of the Unionist (Ittihad) and the Liberal Constitutional (Ahrar Doustouryoun) Parties.

On March 23, 1925, the newly elected Parliament was inaugurated by King Fouad who read the throne Speech prepared by the new Cabinet.  That same day the Lower House elected its Chairman and King and Cabinet were again shocked to hear that the elected Speaker was Zaghloul Pasha who obtained 123 votes against the 85 votes of the King’s Candidate!!  Again Ziwar Pasha presented his resignation to the King who adamantly refused to accept it.

That same evening of the inauguration, the Cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss the events of the day and particularly the Zaghloul victory.  The debate ended with the King issuing a decree dismissing the Parliament on the same day of its inauguration; the decree also stipulated that a new Parliament was to be voted in, on May 23 and inaugurated on the first of June.  Two days later another Royal Decree was issued stopping the coming elections until the Cabinet amends the Electoral Law!!PM25a.jpg
The new Electoral Law approved by King and Cabinet was vehemently opposed by all the Political Parties; its reception caused so much turbulence that the British High Commissioner intervened personally with the King to cancel its application.

On the other side of the coin, The newly elected Parliament refused to accept the Decree of its dissolution, tried to force their way into the House and would have succeeded if not for the Army intervention.  Facing strong opposition from Political Parties, Public Opinion and the High Commissioner, the Cabinet with the King’s approval canceled the new Electoral Law and returned to the 1924 one.  The Cabinet also fixed a new date for the elections, which would take place on May 22, 1925.

For a better control of the different Political Parties, The King and Cabinet decreed that all political organizations, including Political Parties, were to notify the Government about the names of its members along with the addresses of its main offices and different branches; but here again the Parties’ protest was so loud that it forced the Cabinet to desist.

In preparation for the coming elections, the Cabinet mobilized all the Government Administrations and particularly the Ministry of Interior to do their utmost for the success of the Pro-Government Candidates specially those of the Unionist Party, and, it allocated a large secret fund for the use of the Ministry Of Interior to achieve that objective.  It also allocated the amount of 10,000.00 (ten thousands) pounds as a reward for whoever would give information leading to the arrest of the Lee Stack’s killers.

The Jebel Aulia dam,  south of Khartoum,  is a large dam (started in 1933 and completed 1937) that is used to control the flow of the Nile to aid the Aswan Dam in storing water for summer cultivation in parts of Egypt.

On the positive side the Cabinet allocated the amount of three millions pounds for the “JABAL AL AWLIYA’A” dam project and two millions for the “NAG-HAMADI” dam; only British engineering companies were to be chosen for these jobs.  The Cabinet also decided to build a new town, to be named Port-Fouad, across from the town of Port Said, at the entrance of the northern end of the Suez Canal.

A budget of 19 thousand pounds was authorized to buy 80 cars for the use of the Ministry Of Interior, which would help in the rapid chasing of criminals.  The Cabinet voted the amount of 400 thousand pounds to stabilize the price of the Egyptian cotton crop.  It also accepted the (forced) resignation of Youssef Qattawi Pasha, a leader of the Jewish Community and the newly appointed Minister of Communications, for stopping at Zaghloul Pasha’s home and leaving his business card on the occasion of the feast of RAMADAN!!!

In spite of the Government’s interference and manipulations, the results of the May 22 general elections were shocking to say the least.  The Wafd Party won 159 seats while the Government (ITTIHAD) Party won 4 seats with 72 seats that went to the Independents and other Parties candidates!!  It was obvious that the different Egyptian Governments at that time had not yet mastered the art of electoral manipulations!!!

As a result of that second failure, Ziwar Pasha had no choice but to submit the resignation of his Cabinet to King Fouad who promptly accepted it

(to be continued)

Kamal Karim Katba





The 1924 assassination in Cairo of Sir Oliver (Lee) Stack, the British governor-general of Sudan and Egyptian army commander, had dire consequences for Egypt. The British ordered the expulsion of Egyptian troops from Sudan, then ruled by a condominium of Britain and Egypt, while the latter was still occupied by British forces. The incident also resulted in the downfall of the one-year-old government of nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, who rejected a British ultimatum containing several demands, including the evacuation of Egyptian troops from Sudan. The government which succeeded Zaghlul's administration bowed to the British demands.Dr Yunan Labib Rizk  gives a blow-by-blow account based on reports published by Al-Ahram 

One of the most striking features of the Saad Zaghlul government, which held office between 28 January and 24 November 1924, is the unusual frequency and intensity of the clashes between it and the press. From what has been described as "the people's government," one would have expected the exact opposite; that the relations between it and the press would have been much more harmonious than ever before and that the press under that government would have enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom. In the century and a quarter, between 1800 and 1924, four assassination attempts against top officials in Egypt succeeded. 

The first victim was General J B Kléber, who had been appointed governor of Egypt in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte. On 14 June 1800, Kléber was taking his daily exercise in Rhoda Gardens when Suleiman El-Halabi, who had been posing as a beggar, followed him to his home, assaulted him with a knife and killed him. In spite of the appalling and dramatic end of both the victim and, as we learn from the contemporary chronicler Abdel-Rahman El-Jabarti, the perpetrator, the incident did not affect the fate of the French campaign in Egypt. Several months previously, on 24 January of that year, Ottoman-French negotiations had succeeded in reaching an agreement on the French withdrawal from Egypt. If, for a relatively short period, the British had obstructed the implementation of the agreement, it was eventually put into effect. Kléber's assassination had no impact on the ultimate outcome. 

The second assassination took place on 14 July 1854. The victim this time was Abbas I Pasha, ruler of Egypt from 1848 to 1854, who was murdered by a group of his Mamelukes. Although the circumstances surrounding his assassination are obscure, the incident falls neatly within the category of the palace coups that proliferated during the Ottoman era both in Istanbul and the Ottoman provinces. Thus, to the cry, "The Pasha is dead. Long live the Pasha!" Said, Abbas' uncle, assumed the throne, while the system of rule remained unchanged. 

Just over another half a century later, on 21 February 1910, Prime Minister Butros Ghali Pasha was assassinated. This tragic event has been heavily documented, furnishing evidence that conflicts in many aspects with commonly held impressions. It is not true, for example, that it was a crime motivated by sectarian hostilities directed against the Coptic minority to which Ghali belonged, as the perpetrator's testimony makes explicit. Nor was it the case that the victim had risen to his lofty position in government at the behest of British occupation authorities. Quite to the contrary, British High Commissioner Sir Eldon Gorst had initially opposed Ghali's appointment as prime minister and only relented following considerable persuasion by the Khedive Abbas Helmi II. 

The incident did nothing to alter the existing situation in Egypt, apart from furnishing the Khedive and the British authorities with the pretext to intensify their clampdown on nationalist activities, a policy that had already been initiated well before the assassination of Ghali with the reinstatement of the Press and Publications Law in April 1909. Under this law, albeit reintroduced under the Ghali government, a number of National Party newspapers were closed down and several of that party's leaders were prosecuted and sentenced to various terms in prison. Foremost among these were Abdel-Aziz Jawish, editor-in-chief of the National Party mouthpiece, and the leader of the party himself, Mohamed Farid. In other words, the only effect of this assassination was to create an atmosphere that would give greater impetus to the government's anti-nationalist drive. 

The fourth assassination, however, was to have by far the most disastrous and far-reaching consequences. The assassination of Major-General Sir Oliver Fitzmorris (Lee) Stack, governor-general of the Sudan and commander-general of the Egyptian army, on 19 November 1924 precipitated a number of radical changes, all to the detriment of the nationalist movement and the accomplishments that had been made possible by the 1919 Revolution. 

Within weeks of the assassination, British officials evacuated all soldiers in Sudan, effectively rupturing the historic links between Egypt and the southern portion of the Nile Valley. This was a major setback for one of the cardinal demands of the nationalist movement -- the unity of the Nile Valley. The Lee Stack affair also brought down Egypt's first democratically elected government -- the Saad Zaghlul cabinet that was dubbed "The People's Government." This development, in turn, led to the revival of the autocratic powers long sought after by King Fouad I.  Ahmed Ziwar Pasha, who succeeded Zaghlul, headed the first of Egypt's royal cabinets and used every means at his disposal to suspend the national constitution for the next two years. Ziwar also forced the Egyptian government to yield to the humiliating ultimatum issued by British High Commissioner Lord Allenby, thus fulfilling the nationalists' worst nightmares. 

In short, the fourth assassination of a top official in modern Egyptian history brought an unmitigated triumph to the policies of Abdin Palace, the seat of King Fouad, and Dubara Palace, the seat of the High Commissioner. Allenby neatly encapsulated the situation from the British perspective when he said, "Destiny has sent us the body of the Sirdar (the governor-general) as a solution to a situation that was no longer tolerable." Zaghlul, meanwhile, issued his famous statement that epitomised the sentiments of the Egyptian people: "The bullets that were fired were not targeted at the chest of Sir Lee Stack; they were targeted at mine." 

The assassination of Sir Lee Stack marked a particularly low ebb in modern Egyptian history, and has, therefore, been the focus of numerous and varied studies. However, Al-Ahram stands out among all these sources for its unique and valuable chronicle of this tragic event, which we can follow here. 

Thursday 20 November 1924: "The Sirdar is Shot -- Criminal Gang Throws a Bomb and Fires Seven Bullets at His Excellency --Sirdar Critically Wounded in Stomach -- Adjutant and Driver Injured -- LE10,000 Reward for Information Leading to Whereabouts of Gang," blazoned Al-Ahram in the largest and boldest font available at the time. Under this headline, Saad Zaghlul expressed the general horror at this act and, perhaps too, the alarm at its impending consequences. He said, "I feel the profoundest distress at this atrocious crime. I do not know what purpose the perpetrators sought to accomplish, nor to which segment of the nation they belong or to which political organisation or party they are affiliated. However, I believe that those who committed this appalling evil aimed only to disrupt the peace and security of this country." 

Friday 21 November: "The Sirdar Dies of his Wounds at Midnight," the newspaper announced. "This is the most horrendous calamity that has befallen us and the most detrimental to the honour and reputation of the country," declared Saad Zaghlul. The prime minister went on to exhort, "Anyone who has any pertinent information must report it to the General Security Authority. Every person must know that his assistance in this matter is a national duty and a noble service to the country. All must know that the recourse to violence and criminal activities constitutes the greatest treachery against the nation and its holy cause." 

The newspaper also reported that authorities had apprehended the driver of the taxicab in which the assailants had ridden and he pleaded that he had thought they were ordinary passengers. In addition, the public prosecutor lauded the courage of a soldier who had been in the vicinity of the shooting and who, in the course of pursuing the gunmen, received bullets in his hand and his head. The police then learned that the assassins made their way to the Sayida Zeinab quarter where they split up and vanished. 

Saturday, 22 November: "Progress in the Investigations into the Assassination of the Sirdar -- Taxi Driver Confesses -- One of the Gang Members is Arrested," announced Al-Ahram. On this day, Mahmoud Saleh Mahmoud, the taxi driver, in the wake of various forms of physical and psychological coercion, admitted that he could identify the suspects. The newspaper reports that the investigators had discovered that Mahmoud had in his possession one pound in excess of the fare he should have earned that day according to the taxi metre reading. When confronted with this rather unusual piece of evidence, the driver confessed that the assassins had given him a pound as a tip. "The government now has a grip on a thread leading to the criminal gang," commented Al-Ahram. "We believe that every fair and impartial person, everyone who is not motivated by spite or envy, must recognise that the Egyptian government is not incapable of enforcing the law and bringing criminals to justice." 

This commentary came in response to an article in the British Evening News, which charged that the Saad Zaghlul government actively fostered violence. It read, "The insane act that claimed Sir Lee Stack as its victim was the product of the deliberate inflammation of hatred and malice against the British. There are people in England whose softheartedness has rendered them tolerant of and sympathetic to such provocation. Yet, we are all aware that the party that was so quick to express its horror at violent acts and bloodshed is that selfsame party that dedicated itself to creating a breeding ground for murderers. Such attitudes must be met with the greatest consternation, for those in England who tolerate them are perhaps no less responsible than Zaghlul Pasha for breeding the malevolence that claimed the life of a gallant soldier at the pinnacle of his career." 

As though to prove that the indignation felt in Egypt after the assassination was no less intense than that expressed in the British press, telegrams poured into the offices of Al-Ahram condemning such acts of violence. Among the many published in Al-Ahram were telegrams from the Rector of Al-Azhar, the Lawyers Club, the Coptic bishop in Alexandria, the Wafd Committee in Bulaq and Senate member Mohamed Hashish, parliamentarian Abdel-Sadeq Abdel-Hamid, the Nubian Federation Society. 

Sunday, 23 November: "The British Ultimatum -- Chamber of Deputies Gives Unanimous Vote of Confidence to the Government and Entrusts it with Drafting a Reply to Safeguard the Dignity and Rights of the Nation -- Investigations Progress with the Arrest of Another Criminal." 

Under these headlines, Al-Ahram reports, "At 5.00pm yesterday, the British high commissioner called upon His Excellency the prime minister. The automobile, bearing him and his adviser, was escorted by members of the British 11th Cavalry Regiment with spears and swords raised. When it reached its destination, the high commissioner went into the prime minister's residence to deliver the official British notification. The meeting took no more than seven minutes. When Lord Allenby emerged again, the British regiment struck up the British royal anthem. Then he entered his automobile and returned to his residence amidst the same militaristic pomp with which he came. 

The British ultimatum was indeed severe. In addition to a formal apology and the commitment to apprehend the assassins, it demanded that the government prohibit political demonstrations, pay an indemnity of 500,000 pounds, order the immediate evacuation of Egyptian troops from Sudan and, finally, acquiesce to the Sudanese use of the Nile waters to augment the land area under large-scale cultivation. 

In the same edition, the newspaper reported that three hours after Allenby delivered his ultimatum, the Chamber of Deputies met in a closed session to discuss what action should be taken. It voted unanimously to support the government in its rejection of the humiliating conditions of the British ultimatum. 

Monday, 24 November: "The Egyptian Government Responds to the British Ultimatum -- the High Commissioner Notifies the Egyptian Government of Britain's Determination to Implement the Conditions the Egyptian Cabinet Refused to Accept -- Egyptian Forces Leave Sudan." 

At 4.00pm the previous day, Al-Ahram reports, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wasef Ghali Pasha called upon the High Commissioner to present the Egyptian reply to the British ultimatum. Two hours later, in an open session, the reply was read out to the Chamber of Deputies. The Egyptian government denied all responsibility for the assassination and rejected out of hand the notion that the crime was in any way the product of its actions or comportment. The only responsibility it would assume was to take all measures to apprehend the assassins. It refused to comply with all the British conditions, apart from the payment of the indemnity, "as a demonstration of its profound sorrow." 

Three hours after he received the Egyptian reply, Allenby dispatched an aide from his office to the Chamber of Deputies to convey his intention to see the British demands implemented. Through his messenger Allenby informed the Egyptian government that he had issued instructions to the government of Sudan to expel all Egyptian military officers and troops and to take the necessary measures to increase the land under irrigation. He also ordered the Egyptian government to pay the indemnity before noon the following day. 

At 11.00 on that day -- 24 November 1924 -- Zaghlul met with King Fouad in Abdin Palace, after which he returned to the cabinet offices and met with his ministers until 2.00pm. Then, as Al-Ahram relates, "at 3.30pm, the prime minister received His Excellency Said Zulfuqar, the envoy of His Majesty the King." The implication was clear. Zaghlul had presented his resignation to the king and the king accepted it. 

The fall of the "people's government" brought the dissolution of the "the people's parliament" by royal decree three days later, bringing to a close the first chapter of the tragic consequences of a tragic incident. 

The four days that passed between the assassination of Stack and the fall of the Zaghlul government were, of course, insufficient to apprehend the perpetrators, and this onus, therefore, fell upon the next government. The Ziwar government put all its energies into this task, and to its advantage was the new Minister of Interior, Ismail Sidqi, known for his strictness and perseverance. The process nevertheless took some time, during which security authorities used every legitimate -- and illegitimate -- means at their disposal. 

Under the headline "LE10,000 Reward", Al-Ahram reports that 38 parliamentary deputies, government employees and students had been taken into custody for investigation. "Of these seven were detained by the National Public Prosecutor and the rest by the British military authorities and the Egyptian police." 

In addition, security authorities used their powers very loosely. The London Times, for example, remarked that "preventive detention is the best means to suppress criminal elements, and certainly the spate of murders came to a complete stop during these arrests." 

The hunt also was an occasion to clamp down on the powerful Wafd Party. A number of Wafdist MPs and former leaders were arrested in connection with the crime, in response to which dozens of famous lawyers stepped forward to offer their service in their defence. 

However, it was when one of the detainees, Mahmoud Ismail, an employee of the Ministry of Waqfs (endowments), asked for a personal interview with the Minister of Interior that the police were put on the proper track to the discovery of the assassins. According to Al-Ahram, the information Ismail volunteered led to the arrest of four individuals, and the admissions of these, in turn, led to the apprehension of two more suspects who proved to be central to the conspiracy. 

The story of the arrest of the brothers Abdel-Hamid and Abdel-Fattah Enayat reads like a cinematic chase scene. On 2 February 1925, they boarded the train from Alexandria to Mersa Matrouh, from where they hoped to escape across the border into Libya. The police, who had been prepared for such an eventuality, fanned out throughout the train and, when they discovered the brothers' presence in one of the carriages, they brought the train to a stop just three kilometres short of Al-Gharbaniyat. A search of the captives revealed guns and bullets of the same type that killed Stack. 

It would be more than three months before the prosecution brought the two brothers in addition to seven other defendants to trial in connection with the assassination of Sir Lee Stack. Al-Ahram was quick to observe that one of the defendants was Shafiq Mansur, 38, a lawyer who had twice run as a Wafdist candidate in parliamentary elections, winning both times, even though Wafd leaders denied all connections with him. The newspaper also noted that the defendants faced charges of committing five politically-inspired murders before assassinating Stack, murders which claimed the lives of two Egyptian and three British officials in the Egyptian government. 

Naturally, Al-Ahram was on hand to cover the opening session of the trial on 12 May. Security surrounding the trial was strict. In addition, photographing or sketching the procedures was prohibited, canes and umbrellas were not permitted into the courtroom and entrance was restricted to bearers of tickets issued in their name only. 

All of the lawyers present had refused to defend Mahmoud Ismail, the Ministry of Waqfs employee who had informed on his fellow conspirators. The correspondent also painted brief sketches of the other defendants. Abdel-Fattah Enayat, for example, was described as "an elegantly dressed, striking figure," Ibrahim Mousa, 31, as "stern and heavily bearded," and Shafiq Mansur as "downcast, dispirited and frequently bursting into tears." 

During the first day's questioning, the newspaper reports, the Enayat brothers and Shafiq Mansur confessed, while others adamantly denied any connection with the crime. One, Mahmoud Rashed, 33, an assistant urban planning architect, protested that "he couldn't kill a chicken." The trial also brought to light some poignant life histories. The Enayat brothers, the two principal defendants, had been so aggrieved when their father divorced their mother that they were driven to "patriotic madness," or so their lawyer argued. 

In all events, after weeks of depositions and pleas, the court announced its verdict on 7 June 1925. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to death while the ninth, Mahmoud Saleh, the driver who had led investigators to the beginning of the thread, was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Upon hearing the sentences, "the defendants were stunned," Al-Ahram reports. 

If the sentencing on 7 June 1925 brought Al-Ahram's chronicle of the assassination of the Sirdar to a close, it nevertheless proved to be the prologue to commentaries on the ramifications of the incident. The most important was the way in which British occupation authorities exploited it, ways that were so excessive that they cost Allenby his position as British High Commissioner to Egypt.


A barren oasis, hundreds of miles from nowhere, Al-Jaghbub was, nevertheless, the site of a major power struggle in the 1920s between Egypt, where it was located, and Italy and Britain who thought the area should be elsewhere. Al-Ahram was, like all Egyptians, adamant that not one square inch of the oasis be relinquished. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* explains the significance of this lazy but potentially explosive expanse of land 

A deal that was never ratified

During the first quarter of the 20th century Egypt signed several agreements with colonial powers. Perhaps the best known is the Entente Cordiale signed between Britain and France in 1904, in which France agreed to recognise Britain's de facto control over Egypt in exchange for a similar British guarantee with regard to France's control over the Maghreb. Several years later, during the post-World War I peace conference in Paris, London managed to conclude a series of pacts with the participating countries, securing from them the recognition of Britain's protectorate over Egypt. If the 1919 Revolution succeeded in forcing the British to admit that by1921 the protectorate relationship was no longer satisfactory, then terminated the protectorate in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922, there remained one colonial pact that the British could not or did not wish to back out of. The victim of this pact was the Egyptian oasis of Al-Jaghbub. 

The Anglo-Italian pact over this area was sealed by virtue of two separate agreements. The first was contained in the Treaty of London, signed in 1915, in accordance with which Italy agreed to join the Allies in the war against the Central Powers. Article three of this treaty stated that, in the event of an Allied victory, Italy would have the right to modify the borders of its colonies in Cerenaica (Barqa) and Somalia. With regard to Italy's Libyan colony it was evident that the border adjustments would come at the expense of Egyptian territory. 

The second component of the pact was an exchange of memorandums between the British secretary of the Colonial Office and the Italian minister for foreign affairs. In the first memorandum, dated 10 April 1920, Rome declared that the Egyptian-Libyan border would extend southwards from a northern point 10 kilometres to the west of Sallum and that "the area located within this border will be perfectly appropriate so long as Al-Jaghbub is included within Italian territory." The response, dated two days later, contains the British assent to Rome's definition of the eastern Libyan boundary. 

The origins of this pact date to the Italian-Turkish war over Libya (1911-12), during which the Italians captured the coast of Libya up to the 27th degree longitude. Since the territory captured from one of the former Ottoman provinces in North Africa encompassed Sallum, the British objected in the name of the Egyptian crown, in response to which the Italians withdrew from the contested area and Egyptian forces entered the important port city. 

In Al-Ahram of 6 April 1925, Lutfi El-Mandarawi, "chief interpreter for the British forces on Egypt's western front during the Great War," discusses the strategic significance of Sallum. The topography there formed a natural barrier from which "any small, well-equipped force can resist a tremendous army and navy." The author explains, "There are several reasons for this; the most important is that it overlooks the Barqa desert and towers directly over the port, rendering it impossible for a hostile vessel to approach the coast without risk of destruction. In addition, the Sallum Citadel, constructed high on the summit of Mt. Sallum, is virtually invisible to approaching warships and, if they sought to target it, could only strike the uppermost portion of the edifice, causing only negligible damage." British records offer a third reason: the waters in the port were deep enough to serve as a naval base. 

The British, therefore, had strong reasons to want to hold on to that strategic stronghold and, consequently, to insist that the Egyptian-Libyan border start 15 kilometres to the west of Sallum and to concede to Italy and Libya Al-Jaghbub Oasis in return. 

From 1912 to 1920, Italian colonial forces encountered considerable problems in asserting their control over the interior of eastern Libya. According to The Daily Telegraph, Rome was aware that members of the Senussi tribe resided beyond the Libyan frontier in Egypt and suspected that many people of this nomadic tribe infiltrated across the border into Al-Jaghbub, "a sacred site in which they receive religious instruction." The London-based newspaper continues, "Outlawed Senussis generally find a safe haven in Al-Jaghbub. The Italians estimate that the number of guns smuggled into it exceed 3,000 per month, ostensibly for political and military purposes, but also because the oasis is located at the juncture of caravan routes." 

Communiqués issued by the Italian Ministry of War corroborate this. On 13 February 1925, for example, it announced, "Necessary military action was taken in southern Barqa between 2 and 9 February leading to the demolition of 16 Senussi bases in nine intensive engagements. Two hundred Senussis died in the battle while the Italians took 14,000 sheep and 400 camels as spoils. Two Italians were killed and 10 were wounded." 

Some Egyptians could not understand why the Italians were expending so much energy on Al-Jaghbub. A lengthy Al-Ahram article at the time commented that it took 45 days by camel "through scorching heat, parched and barren desert" to reach the oasis, located hundreds of miles south of the Mediterranean coast. "It is not a military base, there is no agriculture and there is not enough food or drink to sustain hundreds of people. It is a small oasis of no more than 150 people, where a Senussi elder chose to live as a recluse, attracting a number of spiritual adherents and disciples who began to derive their livelihood from this Egyptian oasis. As the tribal chief was a pious and learned man, the Egyptian government in the age of the Khedive Tawfiq had a shrine, mosque and hospice built there and sent a team of engineers to dig wells to serve its small population, actions undertaken because the government considered this small oasis Egyptian and the people who lived there Egyptian citizens." 

By 1925 the understanding London and Rome reached in 1920 had not yet been put into effect. In the wake of the 1919 Revolution, British authorities were reluctant to take measures in this direction for fear of fuelling the already heated situation in Egypt. Following the promulgation of the 1922 Declaration of 28 February, the British were once again forced to postpone the implementation of the memorandums. In a letter to the Italian ambassador in London the British Foreign Office wrote, "The termination of the protectorate over Egypt has entirely altered the situation. It is no longer possible for the British government to continue its negotiations [over this matter] without the participation of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and without the cooperation of the Egyptian government." The ball was now in the Egyptian court and the British observed closely how Cairo would react. 

When the "people's government" under Saad Zaghlul assumed power in 1924, the Italians thought the time was ripe to make a move. British Foreign Office archives reveal that when the Egyptian prime minister returned to Paris in the summer of that year, following the breakdown in negotiations with his British counterpart, the Italian ambassador to the French capital secured from him a promise to study the question of Al-Jaghbub when he returned to Egypt prior to opening negotiations on the matter. However, the tensions in Egypt that brought down the Zaghlul government in November of that year precluded further talks between the two parties. 

The Italians resumed their pressure on Egypt following the rise of the Ziwar government to power, lured by the fact that it was essentially brought into power by King Fouad and easily manipulated by the Egyptian ruler who, in turn, had a special attachment to Italy where he received his education. However, to the Italians' surprise, the situation in Egypt was not as propitious as they had thought for bringing the Anglo-Italian memorandums into effect. The response of the fascist government in Rome was to bring matters to a head. 

On 10 February 1925 reports reached Cairo that Italian forces had entered Egyptian territory up to a point called Al-Shaqqa, "located a third of the way between Sallum and Al-Jaghbub and a considerable distance inside our side of the frontier." Simultaneously, the Italian minister plenipotentiary in Cairo demanded that Egypt recognise the Italian claim to Al-Jaghbub. Egyptian Prime Minister Ziwar Pasha responded that Al-Jaghbub was situated within Egyptian territory and the Egyptian minister plenipotentiary in Rome conveyed the same message to the Italian foreign minister. Rome's representative in Egypt then pursued another channel, asking the British high commissioner to prevail upon the Egyptian government to submit a written pledge declaring that Al-Jaghbub belonged to Italy. As the Ziwar government knew that to commit itself to such a pledge would bring the already shaky government down, it declared its refusal to recognise the Anglo-Italian memorandums. 

On 20 February 1925, Al-Ahram explained to its readers the Egyptian government's position. Italy may have inherited the Ottoman province of what is now Libya, but "it has no right to territories beyond what Turkey possessed." It continues, "Although there was no official boundary between the Turkish province and Egypt, there was a de facto boundary which was termed the "line of distinction," or dividing line, between the two states. A map containing this line exists in the Istanbul archives and demonstrates that Al-Jaghbub is situated within Egyptian territory." 

The Italian press responded with a campaign of its own. "The Al-Jaghbub Oasis never belonged to Egypt at any point in time; not in name and not in practice," declared the newspaper Epoca. "Yet Egypt, ecstatic after its independence, has decided to take it as its own without having the slightest justification to support this claim." 

The British high commissioner, meanwhile, refused to lend his good offices to the escalating tension between Egypt and Italy. He informed the Italian minister plenipotentiary in Cairo that he would not comply with the request to have the Egyptian government submit the desired pledge. He asked him to suggest to Rome that it follow a less confrontational policy, particularly in view of the forthcoming elections in Egypt in which the Ziwar government would have to use all its resources to compete with the highly popular Wafd Party. 

Rome's answer's came in the form of a personal letter from Mussolini to the British foreign secretary stating that Italy had endured great sacrifices in its quest to bring peace to Cerenaica, a task that could not be fully completed unless it secured control over Al-Jaghbub, the centre for the Senussi faction. Il Duce, nevertheless, took Britain's advice to put off the matter until after the Egyptian elections. In response, the British notified Rome that, after the elections, should the Egyptian government not take a more flexible position with regard to the contested oasis, London would let the matter pass (in the Declaration of 28 February Britain reserved the right to defend Egyptian territory against any foreign aggression). At the same time, the high commissioner, acting on instructions from the Foreign Office, "advised" Ziwar to "bring the Al-Jaghbub matter to an end as quickly as possible," adding that it would be wise for the Egyptian government to resolve the question "rather than let the Italians settle it without us being able to offer any assistance to Egypt." 

The Ziwar government was caught between the pressures exerted by Italy and Britain and the weight of Egyptian public opinion, as voiced in the press, which rejected out of hand the notion of handing Al-Jaghbub over to the Italians. Al-Ahram was representative of the many newspapers that called for the Egyptian oasis to be protected, and to this end it solicited articles from experts on the affairs of the Western Desert. One such man, Mohamed Ibrahim Lutfi El-Masri, a former employee in the Senussi government, suggested that from the outset the Italians had designs on Egyptian territory. In their campaign to wrest Libya from the Turks, El-Masri writes, the Italians occupied the port of Tripoli, proceeded eastwards to take Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk, "then advanced towards the border and began to bombard the nearby ports of Dagna and Marisa. Were it not for the natural defences of these ports, the Italians would have struck with greater ferocity in order to secure their ambitions at both ends." Later, in 1914, El-Masri writes, the Italians opened negotiations with the Khedive Abbas II over the purchase of the Mariout railway line, which he owned. They were ready to pay an outlandish price for the railway, writes El-Masri, "however, Egyptian newspapers got wind of the matter and argued that while the khedive might own the tracks and trains, the ground on which they ran was the property of the Egyptian government. Having found himself in an uncomfortable situation, the former khedive decided not to sell at all." 

On 10 April, Al-Ahram reported that the specialists whom the government consulted on the western border were of one mind. The government "should not squander one inch of Egyptian land which the Egyptian military commission, appointed in the summer of 1922 to survey the western borders, regarded as vital for technical military reasons." 

Following the elections in March 1925, which led to a Wafd majority in parliament and the consequent dissolution of parliament for a second time in less than a year, the British no longer had any pretext to put the Italians off again. Once again, the British pressured the Egyptian government to begin negotiations over the contested territory and Ziwar agreed. To be fair to the government, it could have easily delayed the issue. When, on 31 March, Italian representatives in Cairo approached Egyptian officials on the subject, Ziwar said he had to dispatch a commission to the borders to prepare a report on the strategic considerations of the subject. Although the Italians countered that the Egyptian government had already done so in 1922, the Egyptian government maintained its position and succeeded in gaining a two-month reprieve. 

By mid-April the border commission had returned to Cairo and the Egyptian government finished its study of the report. It was now time to resume business with the Italians. Rome had placed considerable confidence in the British ability to prevail upon the Egyptians to recognise the Anglo-Italian understanding over Al-Jaghbub. The Italian negotiators were, thus, surprised to hear from their Egyptian counterparts that they knew nothing of such an agreement and were only aware that "there had been preliminary negotiations between the Italian and British ministers of foreign affairs over Egypt's western borders at a time when Egypt was still under the British protectorate. The British government had asked the opinion of the Egyptian government on the subject, to which Cairo never responded." 

On 23 May Al-Ahram reported that Mussolini declared his government had insisted on more than one occasion that Al-Jaghbub must be included within Libya's eastern border and that it was preparing to enter decisive negotiations that would conclude the dispute by political means. The implied threat, in view of earlier British commitments to the Italians, was not lost on the Egyptians and on 8 July, in response to more British pressure, the Egyptian cabinet appointed Minister of Interior Ismail Sidqi to head the negotiating team. 

Thus, in mid-August, the "tiger of Egyptian politics," as Sidqi was dubbed, travelled to Rome to meet Mussolini, after which he announced in a press statement that an Egyptian-Italian committee would be formed to study the border question in the second half of October. The summer holiday season was the reason he gave for the two-month delay. 

In Egypt's Western Border, Fatma Alameddin Abdel-Wahid discusses the negotiations, which did begin in October, in considerable detail. It becomes clear that Sidqi was not only a tiger but a fox. When he realised he had no alternative but to accept the British-Italian agreement over Al-Jaghbub, the cunning Egyptian statesman countered with several demands: the border was to be pushed seven kilometres westward; certain places were to be respected as sites of religious worship with free access to Muslims from Libya and Egypt and into which Italians would not be permitted to enter; and Italy would guarantee the security of the Egyptian frontier against possible Bedouin raids from Al-Jaghbub. 

Although the Italians agreed to the last two demands, as did Ziwar under British pressure, Sidqi refused to put his name to an agreement that did not meet the first demand as well. His stand, however, was overruled. On 6 December, the prime minister met with senior foreign affairs officials, then held a cabinet meeting, after which he made his way to the royal palace. Just before 8.00pm, the Italian representative in Cairo arrived. Precisely 20 minutes later, at 8.20, the two sides signed the agreement over Egypt's western border. Shortly afterwards, the first secretary of the high commissioner's office stopped by to make sure things were going smoothly, then returned to Dubara Palace to inform his superior that all had proceeded according to plan. 

If the high commissioner was pleased with the outcome, the same cannot be said of Egyptian public opinion which protested this surrender to a pact concluded by colonial powers. Under the headline, "On Al-Jaghbub Oasis," Abdel-Rahman Azzam, who was to become secretary-general of the Arab League and a close friend of the Senussis, wrote, "With the disappearance of Al-Jaghbub from the map of Egypt gone, too, is Egyptian peace and security. Now more than ever before we must rely on British assistance. Can the Egyptians understand that? Did British politicians plan this? Did our current ministry really salvage what it could? Now is the time for the nation to wake up!" 

No less incensed was Mohamed Shawqi El-Khatib, a parliamentary delegate from Al-Santa, who proclaimed that the oasis would "remain Egyptian spiritually, morally and physically." He continues, "While it may have been severed from Egypt by force, the hearts of its populace will continue to be bound to their country and there will come a day when the colonialists will return to their lairs and the vanquished nations will enjoy their freedom and independence." 

Indeed, even the well-known satirist Fikri Abaza found himself unable to inject his customary levity into the subject. "Adieu Al-Jaghbub," Abaza wrote. "Farewell to the trust Islam had put in Muslim Egypt's hands. Farewell to the meeting point for neighbours and brothers, to the refuge for visitors and pilgrims. Good-bye, may you rest in peace." 

The popular outcry extended beyond the pages of the press and onto the street. Students from the College of Education, Dar Al-Ulum, the School of Commerce, Saadiya and Giza Secondary Schools, the Coptic, Ismailia and Al-Rashad schools and the Faculty of Fine Arts staged big and angry demonstrations against the agreement. The demonstrations did not mark the end of the affair. The agreement signed on 6 December 1925 has never been ratified by an Egyptian parliament. 


Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., is Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at Pennsylvania State University. He is (with Lawrence Davidson) the author of A Concise History of the Middle East, Eighth Edition, and is the author as well of Modern Egypt: Foundation of a Nation-State, Second Edition. He is the recipient of the Amoco Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching and the 2000 Middle East Studies Association Mentoring Award. Goldschmidt has been known during his years at Penn State for having created a series of courses that stimulated undergraduate interest in Middle Eastern history and culture. Educated at Colby College and Harvard University, Goldschmidt has held fellowships from the Social Science Research Council and the Fulbright Faculty Research fund, among others. He is author of numerous books and many articles and essays on Middle Eastern history. He was an elected faculty senator, chaired its committee on student affairs and served as secretary. He chaired the Middle East Studies committee for 25 years. He also was instrumental in helping to devise courses in non-western history and in developing the successor to those courses for the general education curriculum.

In addition, he is one of the most respected authorities on Egypt's Modern history. Prof. Goldschmidt is a frequent contributor on the Internet, including the prestigious and oldest forum: Egypt Net.

For meaningful and serious discussions about the History of Modern Egypt,  join Egypt Net group (The oldest ? continuous Egyptian forum on the internet since 1985.) 


© Kamal Katba 2008


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