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Churchill Salvages the Settlement

In March 1921 Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill convened a conference at Cairo. Churchill wanted to formulate a policy to insure British imperial control of the Middle East, while drastically reducing the expense of direct rule. The Conference’s immediate imperative was the expensive and deeply unpopular military suppression of revolt in Iraq. Former Arab Bureau chief Kinahan Cornwallis advocated Faysal, and the attendees agreed that Faysal should become king of Iraq, and that his brother Abdallah would receive a temporary governorship centered on the town of Amman, where he happened to be encamped. Abdallah would thus become a cheap means of ensuring some order in the zone between French-mandate Syria and British-mandate Palestine, rather than a potential source of disorder along with his armed retainers. Lloyd George feared that the benefit from finally conceding the French occupation of Syria would be destroyed by French anger over renewed British sponsorship for Faysal and Abdallah on the borders. His fears were well founded, but Churchill successfully persuaded him that the plan’s merits outweighed its dangers.

The conference’s location in Cairo was an accident of convenience. But the choice of Cairo, dictated by its proximity to Palestine, Iraq, and London, had consequences on the British Protectorate of Egypt too. Egypt had been effectively apart from the Ottoman State throughout the nineteenth century, and state modernization was quite different in Egypt than in the Ottoman realms. The British occupation had been a fact since 1882, but the enduring fiction of Ottoman sovereignty over the country was severed in 1914 when Britain declared Egypt a protectorate under direct martial law. Egyptians opposed martial law and the imposition of the protectorate status. At the end of the war, Saad Zaghlul and other nationalist leaders citing Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Speech, petitioned the High Commissioner to end the protectorate and allow a delegation to attend the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919.

The petition was denied and as the leaders of the delegation, or wafd, began to speak publicly throughout the country, a protest movement emerged in support of the delegation, and in opposition to British occupation. After the High Commissioner ordered the arrest and exile of Zaghlul, Egyptians began to attack symbols of British domination throughout Egypt. The British military killed thousands of Egyptians in suppressing the revolt, and eventually determined that the maintenance of British control required a political settlement with Egyptian nationalist leaders.

The political settlement emerged from a commission of inquiry report, coincidentally published as Churchill arrived in Egypt. As elsewhere, British fiscal strain dictated a low-cost facade of native rule, and in early 1922 Britain unilaterally declared Egypt independent, reserving a series of exceptions by treaty that insured the British High Commissioner ruled the country despite the presence of an Egyptian king and elected prime minister.63 The treaty exceptions provided a template for Iraq a few years later. The British government reserved control of imperial communications, defense, foreign interests and minorities. In practice, the treaty removed most practical matters of sovereignty from the Egyptian government.

The eventual assertion of French and British mandatory rule made life harder and more dangerous for former Ottoman officers and guerillas. British airpower and ground troops had crushed the insurgency in

Iraq in late 1920 and ex-Ottoman officers and insurgents moved west toward Aleppo to join Ibrahim Hananu in his fight against France. Yasin al-Hashimi, Ramadan Shallash, and Sacid al-cAs, among others, joined Hananu and maintained close contact with Kemal and his forces nearby. A few of Faysal’s most loyal ex-Ottoman officers, especially Nuri al-Sacid and Jacfar al-cAskari had followed him into exile and worked with Britain to find a role for their patron, but most went elsewhere and actively fought the emerging colonial settlement.

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