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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, 'The Egyptian Problem'

The Egyptian Problem By Sir Valentine Chirol.
(Macmillan and Co. 7s. 6d. net.)

Observer, 19 September 1920

Egypt has been fortunate in her recent political historians. Milner, Colvin, and Cromer set out her progress at various stages, and now Sir Valentine Chirol has shown himself of their succession. His long experience of all the East, and particularly of its unrest, qualifies him to pronounce on the new nationalism of Egypt; but what distinguishes this book is the sympathy and sanity of its tone, the acute and fair survey of the present situation. He seems to have found some charm to keep the stiffness of years out of his judgement.

The book follows the historical method, and traces the course of party politics in Egypt from the time of Mehmet Ali. The materials are largely from public sources, but the author has made a consecutive story of them, and has illustrated the recent periods from his personal knowledge. The whole is a sufficient account of the growth of nationality, though the share of unofficial foreigners (like Mr. Wilfrid Blunt) in the political education of the modern Egyptian is not insisted on. The Egyptian leaders have always been in touch with European movements, and have imitated them, at times closely.

This review of the Cromer period shows once more the wisdom, efficiency and tact of Lord Cromer. He did his work with little local friction, with little outside help (and great outside hindrance), acting mainly through native means, as an omnipotent adviser, who dominated rather by the excellence of his advice than by his omnipotence. Under him Egypt increased enormously in population and in wealth, public and private; meanwhile, the complexity of government increased, and the technicality of its services. Its development (especially since his day) was accompanied by a progressive decline of the Egyptian share in responsibility and a larger participation of British officials.

Sir Valentine Chirol lays his finger on our faults, and especially on the weakness of the education department as a part-cause of this gradual alienation of government. Today ninety-six per cent of the population of Egypt are still illiterate. He ascribes this partly to finance (economy was the crying need of the nineteenth century Egypt), and partly to the mentality of Lord Cromer, whose illuminating quoted defence of his moral and intellectual work in Egypt is a catalogue of reforms, most of which could be as well classed 'material.' Financial reform is hampered by the Capitulations (the privileges of foreign residents in Egypt), which, by preventing the equitable imposition of taxes, prevent nearly all new taxation. The nationalists to-day affect to make light of the burden of the Capitulations: when they are as responsible in finance as we now are, they will share our feelings about them. However, there is now a reasonable education budget in Egypt; but the author says boldly that it is mis-spent, and that the government schools under the regime of the late British adviser were positively bad. Most people who know Egypt will agree with him.

He condemns particularly some other British senior and junior officials in Egypt, with the searching observation that the lower the Englishman's rank, the greater the jealousy he will rouse. This is a motto for all advisory systems. He brings out faults in manner, and in matter. They are too numerous, insufficiently trained, too exclusive. The last is a burning question, complicated by the Egyptian's lack of sporting instincts, and by the segregation of his women. It is difficult for the two races to meet either in clubs or at home. It is good to hear that the emancipation of women is in the nationalist programme.

Sir Valentine has a considerate statement of the faults of the Egyptians. They lack a sense of compromise, and too often insist on the absolute. We, as a nation, are fond of make-shifts. The more logical peoples of Egypt and France reject half loaves. Today the nationalists want complete independence, but they are provoked by the unfortunate word 'Protectorate', whose Arabic translation means far more than the English version. Here is a case for both sides giving way.

This logical sense deprives the Egyptians of self-help. They have not, for instance, supplemented the government failure by good native schools. Their idea of remedy is to criticise the Government. They are deficient in philanthropy, though this year a co-operative relief scheme has been successful in Damietta. Their village communities, which should be self-governing, are, as a matter of fact, most unsatisfactory. They are copies of a French system, and date from before our time; but the hideous proportion of violent crimes among the peasantry points to wide-spread depravity. The author thinks this partly due to our haste to humanise the police methods on European lines.

The Egyptian has been inactive in finance, industry, wholesale trading; and swarms of Greeks, Italians, Syrians, French, and Jews control all the big business of the country. This is a heavy argument against the nationalist claim to be self-sufficient; but the Capitulations help alien businesses, even more than the usury regulations of the Koran hinder native businesses.The intellectual movements of the people of Egypt are not praiseworthy. They have a noisy, abusive, vernacular press, poor in style and in argument. The few decent Arabic newspapers are controlled by Syrians. However, in this matter the foreigners live in glass houses, for the papers published in Egypt in English and French for the foreign colonies, share the faults of the native papers. There is a blight on journalistic Egypt. In higher knowledge Egypt has the Azhar, the Moslem University. This is out of date, a hot-bed of fanaticism, of crude theology, of inhumane letters. Sir Valentine makes perhaps a little too much of its influence in the nationalist movement. The Young Egyptians find it a useful ally, since its character saves them from the charges of unorthodoxy brought against the Young Turks; but one of their first intentions is to modernise it, and the Azhar may well be feigning violent nationalism in the hope of savings its skin.

In fact, the author finds grave faults on both sides. We have put a sorry sequel to Lord Cromer's magnificent beginning. The war made our failure patent to all classes, and the risings of 1919 followed. The present situation he finds intolerable, and in his last chapter he suggests an honourable way out. Into this we need not enter. To read the book is to learn that the diseases of the Government of Egypt are mostly mental, and the statement of the causes nearly cures them, like psycho-analysis. Lord Milner and Saad Pasha Zaglul are two of Cromer's men, and Sir Valentine has obvious hopes of a successful issue coming quickly out of their joint efforts. It is very necessary, both for us and for them.

Source: Observer
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 4 January 2006


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