Egyptian Milestones and Zaghlul Pasha


IT is perhaps a mischoice of words to attempt, as we propose, to discuss Egypt and its recent history in the terms of Egyptian milestones. For in Egypt there are still only a few of the arterial roads which have become so great a feature of communication in other countries, and such few roads as there are are unadorned by milestones, or, indeed, by any other indication of distances. This phenomenon is eloquent of the Egyptian mentality even of to-day. For time and distance mean little or nothing to the average dweller in the delta and valley of the Nile. He rises with the sun and retires at nightfall, and he gauges distance, not in terms of miles or kilometres, but by the time it takes him to patter on his fast little donkey from one village to another.

So, just as the everyday housewife would not discuss with her cook the merits of her oven or gas stove in terms of heat calories, no student of modern Egyptian history would discuss with a native of Egypt the historical development of that country during the last century in terms of milestones. But in Western circles a review of the history of the land of the Pharaohs from 1800 until the present time can be lucidly and conveniently contemplated as if it were the passage of the political coach over the long and perilous road of Oriental pomp and circumstance, with its spurts and disasters, its hopes and despairs.

Modern Egypt dates from the rise to power, in the early years of the last century, of Mohammed Ali the Great, an Albanian adventurer, whose first connection with Egypt has come down in the record of his rescue from drowning in 1801 by British bluejackets then operating against Napoleon’s Army in Cairo. Fortune favored him then and continued to be his friend for the next forty years, during which, by a process of intrigue and ruthlessness, he rose to be master of Egypt and the Sudan; to be the conqueror of Arabia and the deliverer of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina from the power of a heretic Moslem sect, the Wahabis; and finally, after a successful military campaign against his suzerain lord, the Sultan of Turkey, to become a menace to Constantinople itself and sufficiently formidable to range against himself the concert of Europe, under threats from which he was forced to retire once more within the original territorial boundaries of the then Turkish province of Egypt. But, though thus rebuffed, he received lasting and practical compensation. He had had to reaffirm his tutelage to the Sublime Porte; but in return the Sultan recognized him and his heirs as the hereditary governors of the province of Egypt, under Turkish suzerainty and paying a yearly tribute, and since that time the house of Mohammed Ali the Great has been de jure as well as de facto the controller of Egyptian destinies. That is the first milestone in modern Egyptian history. The date was 1841.

Egypt then had thirty-eight years of independent freedom under two very unsavory rulers and a third remarkably clever and ludicrously extravagant one. The last-named was Ismail Pasha the Magnificent, who has to his credit the sanctioning of the building of the Suez Canal, but who otherwise ruined Egypt. His extravagance was unbounded and almost Bourbonesque. He made futile wars here, there, and everywhere; he built palaces, built roads, built canals, built anything, and, having pauperized and tyrannized his people and country, whose resources were totally inadequate to compete with such fantastic schemes, he turned to foreign capital for assistance, borrowed right and left, and finally went bankrupt with his country. He was deposed in 1878, when, on the demand of his European creditors, an international control of Egyptian finance was imposed on the country. For four years this inevitably unwieldy control worked somehow, though hampered at every turn by smouldering Egyptian nationalism, which eventually, in 1882, burst into flame in the Arabi rebellion. Chaos ensued, and on May 11, 1882, there was a massacre of Christians in Alexandria. The result was the bombardment and capture of the town by the British fleet, and the subsequent British occupation, by way of the Canal, of Cairo and the Nile Valley. This event constitutes the second milestone in modern Egyptian history.

The occupation was not a conquest, and did not alter the status of Egypt. The suzerainty of Turkey was confirmed, and indeed the occupation was really only the natural corollary to the institution, four years before, of international control of finance, to which Turkey had been a consenting party. The payment of the tutelar subsidy to Constantinople and the interest of the European bondholders was resumed, and the house of Mohammed Ali, which during the Arabi agitation had been reduced to complete impotence, was rehabilitated and restored. The moral and financial regeneration of Egypt dates from 1882. Under the patient and farseeing guidance of Lord Cromer, the Egyptian army was reorganized and rejuvenated; Egyptian credit was reëstablished in Europe; the masses — mostly illiterate — of the Egyptian proletariat were raised from the abject poverty and servility into which they had fallen under Ismail Pasha to prosperity and content; agricultural and irrigation schemes were inaugurated and developed; and finally the Sudan, which had been allowed during the decadent rule of Ismail Pasha to pass into fanatic anarchy under the Mahdi, was patiently recovered under British leadership and reorganized under a benevolent and liberal government of its own, as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. But, as was perhaps inevitable, the recovered prosperity and tranquillity of the country revived that feeling of nationalism which is after all the prerogative of every nation. Those who were mere children in the bad old days grew up in an atmosphere of freedom and emancipation. They were citizens of a modernized country, no longer puppets of an autocratic line of selfish rulers; and as they came to realize that independence of opinion was no more a menace to their existence, there arose an agitation against all form of control by a foreign Government that was Christian and not Mohammedan. For, whatever may be said on the banks of the Nile by Egyptians, the Egyptian question is at bottom the problem of religion.

Lord Cromer had marked the development of Egyptian nationalism during the close of his proconsulship. He had repeatedly checked the dangerous intrigues of the new young Khedive, Abbas Hilmi, who had no memories of the past and vast ambitions for the future; and although up to 1914 the agitation for independence had kept within legitimate bounds, it persisted throughout as a vivid and ever growing force. British policy during this difficult period was one of gradual disengagement from executive control. As the country righted itself, more and more responsibility was placed on native shoulders, and it cannot be denied that progress was being made — faster, maybe, in some spheres than in others, but sensible.

The outbreak of war at once drew attention to the importance of Egypt’s strategic position, lying, as she did, athwart British and, to a lesser extent, French communications with their wide and essential Eastern colonies. The British garrison was strengthened against invasion,—and, as justification of these precautions, be it noted that Egypt was the first object of Turkish attack, —and the British Government publicly declared that it would guarantee the integrity of Egyptian frontiers against encroachment by land or sea. Meanwhile Abbas Hilmi, the Khedive of Egypt, who had never ceased to scheme for the advancement of his personal ambitions, was at Constantinople — ostensibly on a summer holiday. He never returned. The Turks soon entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, and, in the mistaken idea that they were bound to win, he ranged himself and his ambitions on their side. He was deposed in November 1914, and simultaneously the British Government declared a protectorate over Egypt. We have reached the third milestone in modern Egyptian history.

The declaration of the protectorate severed Egypt once and for all time from Turkey; it assured her position through the period of hostilities, and it changed to an amazingly small degree the existing methods of her government. The new ruler was of the house of Mohammed Ali, and a native ministry remained in power. The change from Turkish suzerainty was accepted with absolute calm, and indeed throughout the war the behavior of the Egyptian people was highly praiseworthy. But the calm of the country did not mean that the old nationalistic ideas were dead. They were only dormant in the minds of all Egyptians, who suddenly found their whole attention concentrated on the abnormal prosperity which came to them from the war. Egypt became a huge base for British and French effort in the Near East, and money flowed into her coffers. On the other hand, it cannot be overlooked that the Allies owe Egypt a debt of gratitude. She supplied vast labor corps in more than one theatre of hostilities, and she placed unreservedly the products of her fertile land at their disposal. But as it is true that Egyptians never remember the benefits and advantages which accrued to them from the immunity they enjoyed, thanks to the Allies, from the horrors of war, so it is equally a fact that, amid the strain and stress of post-war developments in Egypt, there was a corresponding inability in Great Britain to appreciate at its true value the help Egyptians rendered to the Allied cause.

The three years from the outbreak of the Egyptian rebellion in March 1919 up to March 1922, when the war-time measure proclaiming a British protectorate over Egypt was revoked by Mr. Lloyd George’s Government on the advice of Lord Allenby, were years of tension and disappointment, of sporadic outbreak and repression, difficult and harassing for British and Egyptians alike. But though, at the time, the situation often appeared well-nigh hopeless of solution, these years were not barren and eventually bore fruit.

Slowly a section of the Egyptian political world came to realize that the British Government was vitally interested in the integrity of Egypt and the maintenance of that integrity against aggression from without, and that, as guardian and sponsor of the rights of all Europeans in Egypt, it would not abandon its obligations in this direction. At the same time there developed in British circles a readiness to appreciate the advance which Egyptians themselves had made, under British guidance, toward a capacity for independent self-government. The result of these mutual adjustments of ideas was the famous declaration of the British Government to Egypt of February 28, 1922, which was accepted by the existing Egyptian Government and by the Sultan, who after an interval of a fortnight proclaimed Egypt as an independent sovereign State and himself as her first king, to rule as a constitutional monarch with a free parliament which would be elected by popular suffrage. Thus a new state of things was established in Egypt, a great advance registered toward her complete independence, and a partial solution reached of the vexed AngloEgyptian question. In its declaration the British Government reserved for future discussion and solution four points, on which no decision was possible at the time. They are as follows: (1) the safeguarding of communications through Egypt, particularly the Suez Canal; (2) the British Government’s retention of the control of the Sudan; (3) the protection of British and foreign interests in Egypt; (4) the defense of Egypt against foreign aggression.

The promulgation of this declaration marks the fourth milestone in modern Egyptian history.


The reader who has persevered thus far through what can only be a cursory study of modern Egyptian political history may perhaps be wondering at the absence of reference to Saad Zaghlul Pasha, who is, and has been for the last ten years, by far the most prominent figure in Egyptian politics. His power over his countrymen is undeniable, but the absence of reference to his activities has been intentional. This article is set forth to register the political emancipation of Egypt since 1800 — milestone by milestone. Zaghlul Pasha has not materially contributed to this advancement. Such a highly controversial statement calls for elaboration and explanation, and we feel that the enlightenment of our readers will best be effected by a summary of the career of this very remarkable and personally sympathetic old man. For he is very old.

He was born about 1850, the son of farmer parents, in the Nile Delta — an origin of which he is justly proud. He is and boasts himself to be an Egyptian of the Egyptians, a son of the soil and, in his own vernacular, a fellah of the fellahin (a peasant of the peasants). He did not, however, remain on the soil, but early migrated to Cairo, studied the law in the great Moslem university, El Azhar, and, once qualified, started a practice in the courts and dabbled in Arabic journalism. He soon attracted attention both as a lawyer and as a pressman. It is said of him by his own people that he has a tongue of gold, a pen of fire, and an eye bright as the stars; and the description is not excessive. He has tremendous personal magnetism. As an orator, he is amusing, persuasive, and impulsive, inspiring and combative, and his early training in the Mohammedan law has left him with a unique knowledge of the Koran, which he will quote, appositely and dramatically, with great effect to his fanatic Moslem audiences. His writings are marked by similar features. And in appearance — though we must now speak of the post-war Saad Zaghlul — he is commanding and eminent. He is tall, — about six feet,— spare, and broad-shouldered, and carries himself deliberately, though with a slight stoop, due to his advanced age. His features are of the Mongol type — high, flat cheek bones, a slightly receding forehead, and blue tilted eyes set widely apart. His complexion is sallow, but not in the least swarthy, and his broad, firm mouth can harden with determination or relax under a very attractive smile, when his clear eyes sparkle. He has a pleasant, ringing voice and graceful, courteous manners.

Such is the man; but we must now return to his career. He witnessed the deposition of Ismail Pasha in 1878 and the rise of the military dictatorship of Arabi Pasha, and in that turmoil he participated until finally he found himself a British prisoner charged with incitement and sedition. But, after summary punishment, he was quickly released to devote himself once more to his legal practice. His reputation as a lawyer had been enhanced rather than lessened by the advertisement of his arrest and penalty, and he quickly advanced in his profession and was shortly absorbed in the Egyptian political world. But in those days he was no extremist. His first wife had died, and in the nineties he contracted a most advantageous second marriage with the daughter of the then Egyptian Prime Minister, Mustafa Pasha Fahmi, who was perhaps the foremost of all the Egyptian politicians of that period. He was the friend and ally of Lord Cromer, and his policy for Egypt was one of cautious retrenchment and development along conservative lines. He quickly enlisted the support and collaboration of his brilliant young son-in-law, who entered the government service and in due time rose to ministerial rank.

Lord Cromer was a man sparing in compliments where they were not deserved, and highly critical and observant of those who worked with him or within his sphere. He liked and admired Zaghlul Pasha, appreciated his ability, his independence of thought, and his constructive powers; and when, on the conclusion of his long mission to Egypt, the great proconsul delivered a public speech in the Cairo opera house, he went out of his way to mention the services which Zaghlul Pasha had already rendered to Egypt, and recommended him to his countrymen as a future leader of their destinies.

Zaghlul Pasha was in those days the head of an Egyptian political party, — the People’s Party, — which, with a moderate programme, had come into being to combat the extremism of the other political party in the country — the Nationalists. This fact is remarkable, though now almost forgotten. It throws a light — an illuminating light — on the Zaghlul of twenty years ago, the brilliant and respected politician, the leader of the moderate party in Egypt, and the firm friend of the British representative.

But Zaghlul Pasha’s success and the position which he had won for himself made him a target for intrigue. Intrigue is endemic in Egypt. Fathers will scheme against sons, sons against fathers; the office boy, when he can, against the managing clerk, the scullery boy against the head cook. The reason may be that Egypt is overpopulated, and that, to an extent which cannot exist in roomier quarters of the globe, there are always too many candidates for every post, however lowly. Those who have lived in Egypt will remember the tension and excitement in domestic circles when the news goes forth, as it does like wildfire, that the master has sacked Mohammed the boot-boy. Applications rain, supported by dazzling testimonials from generals and pashas galore, and in the end a new Mohammed is selected at the princely salary of seven dollars a month — for in Egypt we talk of dollars.

And jealousy and intrigue attacked Zaghlul Pasha insistently from 1905 to 1915. On more than one occasion he held ministerial rank, but he had a jealous enemy in the Khedive, Abbas Hilmi, whose ambitions did not appeal to Zaghlul, and the result was frequent eclipse and finally retirement altogether from direct participation in affairs of State. This period also records the drift of Zaghlul Pasha from intimacy and friendship with British circles in Egypt.

British policy had changed in 1906 under a Liberal Government in England, and its new line was to dissociate British influence from direct interference in purely Egyptian affairs. Zaghlul Pasha’s differences with the Khedive fell into this category, and when he sought support against his royal master in British quarters it could not be given him. He was humiliated and disillusioned. His eclipse became a topic of discussion in the press and clubs; the Khedive triumphed openly, stressing the inability of the British to help his victim, and Zaghlul Pasha himself had no counter-weapon. He had fought a losing battle with the same courage and determination that had marked his early career, but in the struggle the iron had bitten into his soul and he emerged after the war an extremist, intensely hostile to the British, and full of vindictiveness against those Egyptian politicians who during his overshadowment enjoyed and benefited from the fruits of office. A story is told of a very garrulous and obese Egyptian pasha, who in the old days prided himself—he was slimmer then — on his close resemblance to the best type of English manhood. He had, he would say, learned to sing in his bath and to eat bacon and eggs every morning for breakfast. But one thing he could not accomplish: he always looked a bounder in a bowler. During the war he received a decoration. By mischance one of his enemies — also an Egyptian — received a higher grade of the same order. Now the man is blindly Anglophobe.


Egypt, as we have said, benefited from the war, but she also suffered — though, in comparison with other countries, to a negligible extent. There were grievances against the methods of recruiting for the labor corps and the system of collecting cereals and supplies for the fighting services. Traveling facilities were restricted and the movements of individuals controlled. The post and the press were censored and paper money was introduced. In his scheme for a return to power Zaghlul Pasha constituted himself as a clearing centre for all such grievances, however trivial. He listened to all, promised redress to all, and contrived to exaggerate in the minds of his countrymen the extent of their suffering. As can be imagined, he soon had a mighty following in so credulous a country as Egypt; and with this support he formulated a programme for the redress of Egypt, constituted a delegation of which he was the head, and demanded from the British representative the right to lay the grievances of his country and his programme, which involved a total British withdrawal from Egypt, before the British Government in London. His request was refused. He had not legitimate claim to represent his country. There was a tried and conscientious Egyptian Government in being, whom the British Government did consent— though tardily — to receive. But Zaghlul Pasha and his friends were imperium in imperio; they had no status, no official qualifications to negotiate on behalf of Egypt, and their following, though vast, was mainly illiterate and certainly did not then or since grasp the full meaning of his programme.

Zaghlul Pasha took up the refusal of the British Government as a challenge, and, with a subtlety and an application that deserved a better cause, set himself to undermine the authority of the Egyptian Government in power. He enlisted in his support uncontrolled and unoccupied hordes of students and young officials and dispatched them throughout the country to spread the propaganda that Great Britain was about to seize Egypt for her own imperial and commercial ends and that the existing Egyptian Government were but puppets in British hands and had sold themselves to the foreigner. Zaghlulist committees were formed in every town and hamlet. Incidents occurred, the government machine faltered, and, in March 1919, Zaghlul Pasha himself was arrested by the British, with three of his leading supporters, and deported to Malta. His removal was the signal for the outbreak which his lieutenants had been organizing for three months. It lasted three weeks. Outrages of the most brutal nature were perpetrated, communications were cut, and the life of the country was temporarily paralyzed. Zaghlul Pasha’s internment at Malta lasted only a month, but he did not return to Egypt for two years; and although in his absence Zaghlulist propaganda, organized from his headquarters in Paris, kept the agitation alive, somehow progress was made toward a settlement. Lord Milner, on behalf of the British Government, conducted an inquiry into the causes of Anglo-Egyptian friction and subsequently negotiated personally with Zaghlul for a treaty between the two countries. Agreement was practically reached, when at the eleventh hour Zaghlul Pasha evaded signature of terms to which he had previously raised no objection, and once again the question was thrown into the melting pot.

The following year further efforts were made to reach agreement. A strong Egyptian Ministry took office, and invited the coöperation of Zaghlul. He refused the responsibilities of office, but demanded presidency of the treaty delegation over the head of the prime minister himself, who was to be a mere member. It was once again imperium in imperio. His demands were refused; he declined to collaborate on other terms, and the negotiations took place while he stayed in Egypt and pursued his tactics of intimidation and intrigue. The negotiations in London did not succeed, but the experience gained by both parties from them, and from Lord Milner’s previous negotiations with Zaghlul Pasha himself, provided a degree of accord which was embodied in the British declaration of 1922, from which dates the independence of Egypt as a sovereign State. But before this was accomplished Zaghlul Pasha was once more deported.

On the failure of his rivals’ mission to London, he had intensified his propaganda to bring the Government in being into contempt, and to reduce it to impotence by incitement to agitation and subversive tactics within the various departments. He had no constructive policy, and his insistence, like a true Oriental bargainer, on his maximum demands had provoked, first, unrest and agitation, and finally murder. He did not return to Egypt till the autumn of 1923. By that time the new régime of independence was well in the saddle, the constitution had been promulgated, many outstanding questions had been settled with Great Britain, and finally the first elections ever held in Egypt took place. Zaghlul Pasha was returned with a sweeping majority, and in January 1924 — at long last — he had to take official responsibility for the government of his country. His record as prime minister was pitiable. In the short space of ten months he had fomented riots in the Sudan, had exasperated the British and foreign colonies in Egypt to breaking point, had lost the sympathy of the Socialist Government then in power in London, and had produced a state of excitement and indiscipline in Egypt which culminated in the terrible murder of the British sirdar of the Egyptian army. The result was the severity of the British Ultimatum delivered by Lord Allenby in November 1924, and Zaghlul Pasha’s own inglorious disappearance from the political arena.

The last eighteen months in Egypt, if politically unsatisfactory, have at any rate restored the country to calm and prosperity. And now, as a result of the latest elections, Zaghlul Pasha is once more at the head of a sweeping Parliamentary majority. Events and the intrigues of others have greatly assisted his rehabilitation, but the sober fact remains that his countrymen have elected him to be their representative, and it is yet to be seen in what mood he contemplates a resumption of official responsibility. It is vain to attempt to anticipate what his attitude will be, but it is not impossible to assess his problems of the future. His former programme is known, and it proved disastrous to his own country, impossible of realization, and dangerous to the peace and good order in Egypt. The British Government endured much during his previous tenure of office in the hope that good might come out of evil, and that he might eventually abandon his attitude of barren intransigeance and come to a sane agreement on the questions outstanding between the two countries. Their patience was unproductive of any result, and, as they have already shown, they do not intend again to allow conditions of life and safety in Egypt to deteriorate into the state which rendered possible the murder of Sir Lee Stack.

There can be no question that Zaghlul Pasha realizes these hard facts as clearly as do all Western students of recent Egyptian history. But, we repeat, he is an old man, and old men do not quickly change their ideas. He is also a hero to his own countrymen and owes his position — apart from his personal magnetism — to his obstinacy. He is vain and enjoys his popularity, which, he fears, might disappear were he to compromise in a statesmanlike way. He is selfish in that he is indifferent to his country’s ultimate welfare, so long as he maintains his position. He is vindictive, too, and has many accounts still to settle. But let him, as the lesser lights of this world all must do in their turn, from time to time pause to consider facts and their relation to policy, and then perhaps he may be reckoned in the eyes of the world as a great man.

Great political agitators of the past have either compromised and failed or compromised and won, but they have never earned a place among the truly great without compromise. Zaghlul Pasha may have few or many years of life before him, but he has yet to demonstrate his appreciation of the power of mutual arrangement and good will.