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The Anglo-Egyptian Controversy

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

In the United States wets and drys are unable to agree about alcohol. In the Valley of the Nile it is water that keeps England and Egypt from coming to an understanding. The choice by Britain of a resolute Conservative as her High Commissioner and the results of the recent Egyptian elections tend to demonstrate that just as the anti-Volstead and the pro-Volstead factions are beginning to go on record, so too are London and Cairo now more unambiguously defining their respective attitudes. This does not mean that the pessimist should exult. On the contrary the very circumstance that the two contending groups know what each wants and what each offers is apt to clear the atmosphere. It is where men grope about in the dark or where ships navigate in a fog that collisions are most likely to happen. Clearly delineated perils are far less dangerous than hidden ones. There was a time when Egyptian statesmen inferred that Downing Street had lost the art of thinking consecutively or of having a fixed policy. It is of no importance whether such a deduction was or was not justified. The fact that it was widely disseminated in Egypt emphasizes the hazards of the past. It is because the difficulties of the present situation are vital, far reaching, and unmistakably outlined that the impartial mind is able to detect a silver lining in a very sombre sky.


The terms of the ultimatum sent by Lord Allenby to Zaghloul Pasha in November, 1924, a few moments after the burial of the murdered Sirdar, brought out in bold relief the significance of the all absorbing water problem. This ukase decreed that the Sudan Government was empowered to draw from the Nile as much water as its needs might require. Before this fiat was promulgated a different rule obtained. Until then the Nile was Egypt’s river. Not a molecule could be extracted from it without the consent of Cairo. While no one who knows the Hero of Jerusalem would think of questioning the righteousness of his ire or the purity of his motives, still history will be forced to record that his decision not only broke a tradition hallowed by centuries of observance but also that it brushed aside the plighted word of the British Government. To make matters more serious it affected the life blood of Egypt.

It would carry this article far afield to attempt to prove that there is not enough water in the Nile to irrigate the entire arable rainless surface of both Egypt and the Sudan. Suffice it to say that, when in 1913-1914 the former country had had under the plow but 5,200,000 acres of a potential net capacity of 7,100,000, it was forced to reduce the surface devoted to rice from a normal production of 200,000 acres to 25,000. The fact that Egypt, although then enjoying a monopoly of the life-giving fluid, was thus compelled to curtail the usual output of a staple food product shows the gravity of the situation which then obtained. It also emphasizes the menace which the future holds in store.

Lord Cromer knew that without the Nile Egypt would be a desert. The land, to all intents and purposes, is rainless. The Great Pro-Consul, therefore, conquered the Sudan to make of it an aqueduct for the irrigation of Egypt. Everything worked out according to the Cromerian schedule until the Egyptians began to desire to see the backs of the British army of occupation. Then the English presented to their wards, upon a silver platter, a delicatessen known as independence and said to them: “We have out of our bounty given you this treat. You may admire it to your hearts’ content. You may inhale its aroma without restraint. You cannot, however, partake of it unless you and we agree upon four points. They are: (a) the security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt; (b) the defense of Egypt against all foreign aggression; (c) the safeguarding of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities and (d) the Sudan.”

But England said more than this. She added a further clause which was meant to bind her as well as the country that was given a gift with a string tied to it. Here are the very words used by Prime Minister Lloyd George in the formal act of donation: “We are prepared to make agreements with the Egyptian Government upon these matters in a spirit of mutual accommodation (omissis) but until such agreements satisfactory both to ourselves and to the Egyptian Government are concluded the status quo will remain intact.”

When Sir Lee Stack was assassinated, Lord Allenby did not bother about the niceties of wax and parchment. He argued that the Egyptians should be punished for this murder. He felt that to tap their water was the best way to make the Kourbash sting. So, brushing aside Lloyd George’s assurances and all precedent, he wiped Egypt off of the map of the Nile and turned that river over to the Sudan, body and soul. But when London recovered its bearings, it saw that this could not validly be done without the formality of an agreement between Britian and Egypt. Correspondence, therefore, began to pass between the High Commissioner and Ziwar Pasha, the Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs. The upshot of these letters was that the Sudan instead of being allowed to withdraw an unlimited supply of water was restricted to the quantity necessary for the irrigation of 300,000 acres and at the same time a committee was appointed to define, among other matters, what the well informed London Times described in its issue of January 27, 1925, as “the vested rights of Egypt and of the Sudan.”

This board was made up of an Englishman and an Egyptian under a Dutch Chairman. The latter died before a report had been drafted. In the spring of 1926, however, the two remaining members submitted their recommendations. It is said that the British Residency is prepared to accept these findings and that the Sudan considers them equitable. The Egyptian Ministry for Public Works, however, showed no precipitate desire to commit itself. Its delegate had been chosen by a Cabinet which held no mandate from Parliament. Elections had already been fixed for May, 1926. Their result was a foregone conclusion. Those in office were therefore anxious to gain time. They accordingly referred the decision to a committee. Before its labors ended Zaghloul Pasha had been returned to power.

But just as William Jennings Bryan was the dominant spirit of the Baltimore Democratic Convention of 1912 and dictated its nominee but could not select himself, so also did Zaghloul Pasha see the necessity for placing his mantle upon the shoulders of another. His Woodrow Wilson is Adly Yeghen Pasha. And just as the Commoner became the secretary of state of the man of his choice so also has the Veteran Leader assumed the Presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. The combination made in 1912 insured the defeat of Roosevelt. It is hoped that the plan evolved in 1926 will enable London and Cairo to assure peace and goodwill to all men. The Egyptian Bryan, however, is still in office. He is the leader of his people. He has not resigned and is not resigned. His sage of Princeton has, therefore, a particularly critical task before him. And his Colonel House has not yet made an appearance.

But President Wilson, even before Lansing became his Prime Minister, accomplished miracles in the realm of domestic achievement. If he eventually failed to bend mankind to his will, it was largely because he went to Paris and attempted the unattainable. He sought to bring about the impossible and shattered health was his recompense. Had he been content to let well enough alone he might have added another triumph to his crown. It was his inability or his unwillingness to measure what could or could not be forced from the womb of destiny that laid him prostrate. Adly Yeghen Pasha would do well to hearken to the lesson taught by the career of one of the greatest of Americans.

He is face to face with a Power which can now sing with the comedian: “I want what I want when I want it.” It is determined to have Sudan. It is bent upon giving that country plenty of Nile water. It is resolved that Lancashire shall be able to buy its cotton within the Empire. The sentiment that makes England refuse to surrender Gibraltar to Spain will cause the Conservative Party, which at present rules Britain, to hold on to the Sudan until doomsday. Adly Yeghen Pasha is confronted with a condition and not with a theory. This paper is not discussing ethics or international morals. It is not seeking to define the rights of the two contenders in regard to the “river that is Egypt.” It is merely dealing with the facts as they are. Therefore, whatever may or may not be the metaphysical aspects of the case, if the Egyptian Prime Minister attempts to go to Paris his ship will be wrecked before he reaches the Galerie des Glaces. He can nevertheless, accomplish a great deal by making haste with imperceptible slowness.

As things shape up today the status quo in respect of the Sudan (or Nile water) does not stand where it did when Lloyd George spoke, on February 28, 1922. Lord Allenby has since then readjusted matters—or rather the men who murdered the Sirdar did so. The Black Country may now take enough summer water to irrigate 300,000 acres. Its rights are, however, limited to this quantity. The withdrawal of this amount of silt is considered by many students of the question to be a severe blow to Egypt. But the loss has its compensatory advantage. It wipes out the sweeping language of the Allenby ultimatum. It means that the Sudan is prevented from taking all of the Nile life-giving liquid. If Egypt is prudent she will hold on to this trump card like grim death.

Adly Pasha is admirably placed for taking advantage of the opportunity thus open to him. The Sennar dam, recently built South of Khartum, is reported to have been partially emptied shortly after it was inaugurated last February. It seems that the official world has been told that the Sudan does not require, for the present, as much water as it was thought that it would. It has, therefore, been able to release part of what had been earmarked for it. Without pushing this inquiry any further the statement may be hazarded that as the Sudan is not for the moment dying of thirst for the lack of a drink, England will possibly be willing to let matters rock along. In other words Kismet has been kind to Adly Pasha. He has been called to power when circumstances are such that Britain may not care to force his hand. He may be able to set the pace. But he must watch his step. A few months ago, when the Sennar dam was inaugurated, it was believed that London would insist upon an early decision allocating to Egypt and to the Sudan their respective shares of Nile water. Times occasionally play strange pranks. At the present moment the element of hurry appears to be no longer in the foreground of the picture.


If the future of the water of the Nile may perhaps be considered a purely domestic question which does not concern the United States there are, nevertheless, two of the Lloyd George reservations which do affect America. They are those which deal with “the protection of foreign interests in Egypt” and “with the security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt.”

In considering the first of these two points it may be well to recall that until 1921 the policy of Great Britain in Egypt was to absorb all of the “Capitulatory” rights of foreigners and to make England the Trustee for such privileges. This program went upon the rocks when Secretary Hughes put his veto upon it. Of course, he did not object to other Nations transferring their Capitulations to England. What he did refuse to admit was that Washington should do so. His reply made it clear that it was against the traditions of the United States to entrust to any third power the safeguarding of American interests anywhere in the world. This lucid statement preceded the declaration of Egyptian independence by barely six months. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that London understands that any agreement it may make with Egypt about the protection of foreign interests in no sense binds the United States. It might be argued, however, that because Washington recognized the unprecedented type of independence granted Egypt, it forgot in the spring of 1922 what it had said in the summer of 1921. But diplomatists still have ample time to wrestle over this point.

The clause about “the security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt” is of still more far reaching effect. This language, in plain English, refers to the Suez Canal. Technically speaking it makes no difference to the United States what Britain and Egypt may covenant about that waterway. Such an accord would not bind America. But the fate of that stream is of vital importance to Washington. If its eventual destiny is of sufficient interest to London for the matter to enter into the Egyptian reservations the subject is too momentous for the Department of State to allow it to pass unobserved.

It may have been forgotten that on October 28, 1888, a Treaty was entered into by and between the several Maritime States of Europe which specifically says that the Suez Canal shall always be free and open in time of war as well as in peace to all vessels of commerce or war without distinction as to flag. Article IV of this Pact sets forth that even belligerent men of war may use the Canal provided that they leave its waters as soon as possible. The next section reads that during war belligerent powers shall neither embark nor disembark in the Canal or its ports, troops, munitions or war material. England is one of the signatory nations to this accord. Nevertheless, during the Great War, Kantara-on-the-Canal became a military base; and troops, munitions and war material were steadily embarked and disembarked in the Canal and in its ports.

It has been urged that the Turks were menacing Egypt and that the defense of that country made imperative the violation of the Treaty of 1888. Let the dead past bury its dead. It is useless to delve into ancient history except in so far as its lessons may deal with the future. But why is England today so concerned about controlling this Isthmian waterway if it cannot be fortified or used as a naval or military post? Does not the Pact before quoted guarantee the neutrality of the pass? Does Britain, now that the League of Nations is in existence, still doubt the efficacy of written assurances? Is it her purpose to make herself the supreme mistress of the silver link? These are pertinent questions. America is a maritime power. Washington cannot as a practical proposition stand aloof when access to the high seas is under discussion. Any Anglo-Egyptian understanding that bears upon Suez may become of vital concern to the United States. It should at all events form the subject matter of a dignified protest if it impinges upon the vested rights of this country.

All of these considerations show that, while Egypt may be thousands of miles away from the American Atlantic Seaboard, the Department of State cannot dissociate itself from what takes place in the Nile Valley. British and Egyptian statesmen have a difficult problem before them. Luckily the alternative for a failure to effect a settlement is nothing more ominous than a continuance, in some form or another, of that control which since 1882 has given prosperity to Egypt. An agreement to disagree would assure to Cairo the great bulk of the water of the Nile. Complete independence would, in such a contingency, of course be deferred. But Henry IV of France said that “Paris was well worth a Mass.” Adly Pasha would, perhaps, be justified in remarking that “water without independence is better than independence without water.”


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