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12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
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A Diwan of contemporary life (359)

Illustration by Makram HeneinThe 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

The bitter harvest

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.

Lee Stack
An artist's reproduction of the fatal attack on Sir Lee Stack, seen in the car and above

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.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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