From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*
Issue: 12 February 1998
Looking through the pages of Al-Ahram for the first month of the year 1948, the modern reader blessed (or damned) with hindsight cannot help but pick up on the countless portents of impending disaster.
The great expectations nourished during the first two years following the end of the Second World War among the peoples of the ex-colonies, and in particular by the Arab people, were beginning to turn sour. The November 1947 UN resolution stipulating the partition of Palestine, Britain's announcement that it was going to pull out of Palestine by May 15 1948, the escalation in violence between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine, and the prospect of war looming over the region, all combined to alter the priorities on the national agendas of the Arab countries, especially Egypt and Iraq where the struggle for national independence had been resumed with a new impetus following the end of the war.
In both Iraq and Egypt the national struggle prior to November 1947 had been focused on one goal: evacuation and independence. Throughout the years 1946 and 1947, successive Egyptian governments struggled to negotiate -- without success -- an agreement with Britain which would have replaced the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Meanwhile, civil disturbances erupted periodically in most of the country's major cities and towns calling for independence, inevitably leading to the downfall of one government and the formation of another, each of which hoped it might succeed where its predecessor had failed.
Thus when Al-Ahram announced on its banner of January 16, 1948 that an Anglo-Iraqi treaty had been signed the previous day in Portsmouth, included in the coverage of the event was a Reuters analysis describing the treaty as a model to be emulated in the Egyptian case.
On January 18, in the lead story of the front page, Al-Ahram's special correspondent in London revealed that sources close to the British Foreign Office had disclosed to him that "the British government considers that the Anglo-Iraqi treaty establishes a precedent to be followed by treaties with the other countries of the Middle East and is a model for those treaties to follow."
Later in his story, Al-Ahram's correspondent added: "Top officials in the British government think that it is possible to persuade the Arab countries to understand and appreciate Britain's policy in Palestine, and that more solid Anglo-Arab treaties can be erected on the ruins of the old policy."
In anticipation of the end of Mandate rule in May, Britain was trying hard, during the first two months of 1948, to reach agreements with the Arab countries that would bind them in to what was officially termed "A Middle East Regional Defence System". The news item below the banner of the issue for January 18 revealed that preparations were underway in London for drafting treaties similar to the Anglo-Iraqi treaty with Saudi Arabia, Trans-Jordan and Yemen. Along with Egypt and Iraq, these countries together represented five of the then seven independent Arab states which had formed the Arab League in 1945 (the other two being Syria and Lebanon).
The next day, Al-Ahram's front page was again dominated by news of the embryonic treaties and of how the Jordanians were expected in London the following week, while Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia might make the journey at the beginning of February. On January 20 a news item on the front page revealed that the Anglo-Iraqi treaty was not faring well back home in Iraq. However, members of the Iraqi delegation who had initialed the treaty, and who were still in London, assured Al-Ahram's correspondents that some opposition back home was to be expected and was unlikely to change the course of events.
On January 21 the two main banners on Al-Ahram's front page declared: "Attack across the Lebanese borders on a Kibbutz near Acre", and "A bomb targeting Ghandi misses him but injures nine who were with him." With the exception of the Ghandi drama, which was fast approaching its tragic close, and which had been closely followed by Al-Ahram since the day (January 14) the Mahatma had begun his fast in protest at the sectarian disturbances which were then shaking the sub-continent, the front page was almost exclusively devoted to matters Palestinian.
The main story dealing with the attack on the Jewish Kibbutz included a statement by Abdel-Qadir Al-Husseini, the leader of the Arab troops in Palestine. According to Al-Husseini, "Palestine was at a crossroads," and his fighters "[would] spare nothing in their organised struggle for their rights, though they [would] avoid the treacherous means the Jews resort to in the battlefield, since the history of the Arabs and their traditions and morality forbid treachery." Husseini concluded his statement by saying: "We still need arms and equipment, and the duty of the Mujahdeen is to fight on the battlefield, while any other matter is the concern of the Supreme Arab Authority."
Even the news item that day on the newly-initialed Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, reporting an escalation in the anti-treaty demonstrations in Baghdad, linked those demonstrations to the events in Palestine. Al-Ahram's special correspondent in Baghdad reported: "Informed circles here say that Iraqi anti-Zionist sentiments have had a major influence on the escalation of the demonstrations in Baghdad in protest against the new treaty between Iraq and Britain." He continued: "As is well known, some Palestinian Arabs have voiced their rejection of a new alliance between Iraq and Britain at a time when the Arabs in Palestine are being killed."
The Al-Ahram correspondent concluded his report by stating: "It would seem, to judge by the demonstrations in front of the American installations in Baghdad, that the [UN] partition resolution has played a leading role in stirring up feelings."
On the second page of the same issue of January 21, under the headline "An Act of Royal Generosity", we read that "His Majesty the King [Farouk] expressed the supreme wish that no parties be held or festive decorations be put up on the occasion of the Royal Birthday (February 11), out of respect for the present conditions in Palestine". Al-Ahram commented, "no doubt this generous royal sentiment will be received with the greatest appreciation in Egypt and throughout the Arab countries. May God keep the Great Farouk a treasure and bastion of Arabism."
On January 23 the main story on the front page carried the official Arabic text of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty, while a Reuters report from Baghdad below the story, headlined "A dangerous Iraqi decision" declared that "A statement by the Royal Palace said that Crown Prince Abdel-El-Ilah had invited a number of former prime ministers, dignitaries and representatives of the various political parties to exchange views about the new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty". The report reveals that after five hours of deliberations the meeting concluded that "the new treaty does not fulfill the national aspirations of Iraq" -- and the rest is a forgone conclusion.
On January 25 Al-Ahram's banner blared: "Iraqi Treaty in the Hands of Fate", while below the main story was a UP report from Damascus, headlined "A proposed Arab Charter banning Arab countries from entering into agreements with any of the major powers".
According to the report, "informed sources in Damascus said that the Lebanese government has proposed to the Saudi Kingdom that an Arab charter preventing any Arab country from signing a pact with the four major powers should be signed, and that an envoy carrying the reply of king Saud is expected soon in Damascus." The report continued: "It is common knowledge that if King Saud answers in the affirmative, the Lebanese government will present a similar proposal to the Egyptian government."
News of the demonstrations in Iraq continued to dominate the front page the following day, while the banner of January 28 announced the resignation of the Iraqi cabinet and the killing of dozens of people as the demonstrations drew to a bloody close. The main banners for January 29 announced "End of bloody demonstrations in Iraq", "Call for the formation of a government representative of the people", and "Participation of 300,000 Iraqis in a procession mourning those who were killed during the demonstrations".
On January 30 the banner carried the news that the task of forming a new cabinet had been entrusted to the Shi'te leader Al-Sayed Mohamed Al-Sadr, over an interview with him in which Al-Sadr said that his main concern was with "the national feelings of the Iraqi nation and the Arab interest, as well as with the future of the Arabs in the light of developments in the world arena."
On the same front page of January 30, Al-Ahram's correspondent in London filed a report to the effect that a "top British official, who is a well informed source on Iraqi affairs, said that the recent crisis in Iraq could be attributed to two factors. First, the question of Palestine, which every Iraqi perceives to be an Iraqi question. Second, the mishandling of the situation by the Iraqi delegation in London, as well as by the Iraqi authorities inside Iraq, who showed weakness in dealing with the psychology of the mob."
Al-Ahram's correspondent ended his story by saying that the British official "threatened that if Arab officials did not act firmly then the whole Middle East will turn into an inextricable problem over the coming few months, because of the question of Palestine, and cooperation between the Arabs and Britain may fall victim to that decline" -- prophetic words if ever there were.
When the news that the Mahatma Ghandi had been assassinated while on his way to pray for peace was announced the following day, it resonated with a funereal tone encompassing far more than the death of one man in India. As violence continued to escalate in Palestine, the news of Ghandi's murder announced on the banner of the front page of Al-Ahram of 1 February sounded like a requiem for all the great hopes of decolonisation.
Those few months following the end of the Second World War, when India was the model looked to by all the peoples of the imperial colonies as they tried to invent or imagine a new independent future for themselves, seemed to have been buried alongside the man who more than anybody else incarnated the ideals of tolerance and peace.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.