The Empire and the century/Lord Cromer in Egypt
LORD CROMER IN EGYPT
By SIR ELDON GORST, K.C.B.
The story of the Empire would not be complete without some account of England's work in Egypt during the twenty-two years that have elapsed since the British occupation of that country. Much has been written on the subject of the marvellous development of Egypt's material resources during these years of British rule, of the improvement in the moral and physical condition of the population, and of the progress effected towards establishing a sound and stable system of government. It is not here proposed, nor would space permit, to describe in detail this branch of the subject The condition of a country in which, within some twenty years, the revenue has, in spite of very considerable reductions of taxation, risen from nine to twelve millions, in which the value of the imports has doubled and that of the exports increased by 50 per cent., in which the production of cotton—the principal crop—has also doubled, speaks for itself. A few dry facts of this character are more eloquent than pages of glowing description, and bear ample testimony to the results obtained from applying with intelligence to a country endowed with many natural advantages the elementary principles of sound administration.
The first point to which a general survey of the situation directs attention is the change which has quietly and almost imperceptibly come about in the external position of Egypt and in her relations to the Empire. It is well to recall what that position was in the early days of the Occupation. The presence of a British force in Egypt was viewed with disfavour, if not with actual hostility, by most of the Powers of Europe. Continental opinion openly derided the sincerity of the motives which were, the justification of our intervention in the internal affairs of that country, and which led us to persist in that intervention when France, at first our partner in the business, drew back and refused to go further. In a word, Europe was jealous of the predominant position which we were acquiring in the Valley of the Nile, and was bent on opposing, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, the work which England had undertaken. Nor would it have been easy to find a more convenient field for the exercise of that opposition than was offered by the existing state of affairs in Egypt. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy, with a mutinous army, a poverty-stricken population, and a helpless Government; it was threatened by a fanatical uprising of its distant provinces; it was so bound hand and foot by international fetters that it could not move without the assent of the Powers of Europe—if ever a task was surrounded with what seemed insuperable difficulties, it was that upon which we embarked on the day when the British soldier set foot on Egyptian soil. In addition to the hostility displayed by the Powers towards our Occupation, public opinion in England, both official and non-official, viewed the undertaking with indifference, if not with actual antipathy. There was a general feeling that we were assuming responsibilities with little present profit and much prospective risk, and even the ardent Jingo of those days shook his head dubiously over the new departure. It was neither the wisdom of the statesman nor the passion of the multitude that led us into our Egyptian venture, but sheer force of circumstances. On no occasion has the nation been more unwilling to go whither its destiny called.
The first few years of the Occupation were not calculated to dissipate the forebodings with which Great Britain had entered upon her task. The abandonment of the Soudan to dervish tyranny, with the crowning disaster of the fall of Khartoum and the sacrifice of its brave defender, General Gordon, the innumerable embarrassments, diplomatic and administrative, arising out of the local situation in Egypt, were not circumstances upon which a patriotic Englishman cared to dwell. Loss of valuable lives, loss of money, loss of prestige, seemed at one moment to be all that we should derive from the situation, and it is hardly surprising that the very name of Egypt was for some years anathema equally to the politician and to the man in the street. Not only did the country constitute a very weak spot in our diplomatic armour, where we could easily be attacked by any ill-disposed Power, but our Occupation appeared to be an absolute bar to the maintenance of cordial relations with our nearest neighbour across the Channel. In view of these considerations, British statesmen were sincerely desirous to bring our intervention in Egyptian affairs to an early close, and several attempts were made in that direction during the first few years after 1888. Circumstances were, however, stronger than policies, and all such efforts were doomed to failure.
It would be difficult to imagine a more complete contrast to the state of affairs as it then existed than is presented by the Egypt of to-day. In the space of some twenty odd years—a brief period in a human life, and hardly appreciable in the life of a nation—the external position of Egypt and her relations to the British Empire have undergone as complete a revolution as the internal condition of the country and its population. Europe has recognised that the task upon which England so unwillingly entered must not be impeded or thwarted by the prospect of a premature evacuation, and that so long as we are responsible for the good government of the country, we have the right, and indeed the duty, to insist upon being given a free, hand for the execution of our programme. Diplomatic intrigue is no longer the fashion in Cairo, nor is it now possible for other countries to utilize the so-called international status of Egypt as a means of putting pressure on the British Government. Last, but not least, the occupation of the Valley of the Nile is no longer a stumbling-block in the way of the establishment of intimate and reciprocal friendship between England and France, and it may even be said that the recent adjustment of long-standing grievances in regard to that country has of itself tended to bring the two nations closer together. Egypt has, then, ceased to be a point of weakness to the Empire and a source of danger to the world, while the material progress of the country, made under circumstances often very unfavourable, and the reconquest of Khartoum and the lost provinces of the Soudan, are facts which may afford legitimate gratification to all sections of the British race.
What, then, have been the causes of this rapid and complete transformation both in the internal and external situation of Egypt? By what means has a problem which seemed at the outset fraught with innumerable difficulties, and which contained all the elements of an acute international quarrel, been honourably and unobtrusively solved within the space of a few years? These are questions of vital import to those whose concern is the welfare of the Empire.
First and foremost, our work in Egypt has been successful because for once we have not only put the right man in the right place, but have left him there. 'Egypt is the gift of the river,' said Herodotus more than 2,000 years ago, and, without exaggeration, it might be said that the Egypt of to-day is the gift of Lord Cromer. His has been the master-hand which has brought the country out of a condition of bankruptcy into a position of financial prosperity which may well be the envy of many larger and richer communities, and which has changed anarchy and rebellion into the rule of law and order. His cooperation and support were, as Lord Kitchener himself would be the first to admit, vital factors in the successful campaign which resulted in the reconquest of the Soudan, and the restoration to Egypt of her lost provinces. His skill has steered the Egyptian bark through many diplomatic perils and dangers which often threatened shipwreck, until it has at last been brought into the calm waters of the Anglo-French agreement. During the earlier years of the Occupation there have been many occasions when an Egyptian conflagration seemed on the point of bursting out, but the crisis has always been averted by the sagacious and patient statesmanship which has been the keynote of Lord Cromer's policy. It is quite as much by what he has averted as by what he has effected that Lord Cromer has earned the gratitude of his countrymen, and contributed to the cause of peace. The system of government which has grown up in Egypt under Lord Cromer's inspiration may be described as a benevolent despotism—the best form of government, in the opinion of many philosophers, when you can get it. Most historical despotisms have been either inherited or obtained by violence, and the present case is one of the rare examples where power has been earned by merit. Strength of character, firmness of purpose, patience to wait for the opportunity, and courage to seize it when it comes—the exercise of qualities such as these have gained for Lord Cromer the confidence not only of the country which he represents, but also of the country over which he rules. Personal power that is not so acquired and not so justified can never be expected to produce good results.
Given the man and the power, the next question is how the one will use the other, and here we come to the second principal cause of the success of England's government of this Oriental people. The great aim which Lord Cromer and his English assistants have ever had before them has been the promotion of the welfare of the Egyptians, and the prosperity of their country. They have studied the needs of their adopted land, and endeavoured to supply them without any suspicion of partiality in favour of British interests in cases where the latter might appear to clash with those of Egypt. And by so doing they have best served the true interests of the country of their birth, and have kept alive her ancient reputation for sincerity and single-mindedness amongst the weak and down-trodden populations of the earth. At first the Egyptian man in the street viewed with ingrained suspicion our most harmless proceedings, and was constantly imagining—very often at foreign suggestion of a not wholly disinterested character—some secret design in the simplest proposals. Now his confidence has been gained, and whatever view he may take of the measures adopted under British initiative, he is at all events ready to admit that they have been put forward in absolute good faith. That the existence of this feeling of confidence enormously facilitates the work of reform in Egypt goes without saying, and the first care of those who are engaged on that work has always been to avoid anything which might tend to enfeeble it. Further, not only has the Egyptian learnt to appreciate the motives underlying our reform policy, but experience has shown him that the measures themselves are beneficial. Under the new order of things, the daily life of the fellah or agricultural labourer has undergone a complete revolution. He no longer groans under taxation greater than he can bear. The arbitrary extortions of the tax-collector are no more enforced by the whip. The petty tyranny and oppression of the local official, from the policeman to the irrigation officer, have disappeared. The law and the court of justice have ceased to be regarded as evils even greater than all the rest. The equality of all, both rich and poor, before the law; the abolition of vicarious punishment; the suppression of unsound and burdensome taxes; the increased supply of the water by which alone his crops can be matured—these are priceless advantages which even the Egyptian peasant must recognise as due to British control. There can, indeed, be no doubt, firstly, that he does appreciate this fact; and, secondly, that he would resist very strongly any attempt to restore the former state of affairs. Whether it is possible to go further and to say that he is proportionately grateful to those to whose efforts the change is due is a question to which the answer is more doubtful In spite of the unquestionable talent of the Anglo-Saxons in ruling Oriental peoples, the two races are at the opposite poles of humanity, and can seldom be united by any very strong bonds of sympathy. No dominant race can expect to inspire affection in the peoples over whom it rules, but the Englishman has, as a rule, succeeded in inspiring the two next best feelings—respect and fear. Curiously enough, the Eastern races have generally exhibited a marked preference for Anglo-Saxon masters as compared with those of other nationalities. The reason, perhaps, is that, though we are very slow at understanding them, they easily understand us, and quickly acquire the comfortable feeling of knowing exactly where they are. Two other facts have greatly helped to cement the good feelings that exist between the rulers and the ruled in Egypt. The one is the care which has been exercised by the Anglo-Egyptian officials as a body to conciliate the prejudices, as well as the interests, of the people. Differences of religion, of thought, of social and family habits, have all contributed to make this no easy task. After years of study the Oriental still remains an enigma to his Western brother, and the workings of his mind are a perpetual surprise. Mistakes have often been made where they were least anticipated, but in the long-run patience and observation have prevailed, and we have learned how to avoid treading upon the Egyptian's toes. The importance of this result for the due accomplishment of our work is not to be overestimated, for nations, like human beings, are much more sensitive to that which hurts their feelings than to outward injuries. The other fact which has sugared the pill of foreign domination to the dweller on the banks of the Nile is that the Egyptian element has been utilized to the fullest possible extent in the work of administration. 'English heads and Egyptian hands' has from the first been Lord Cromer's motto, and it has been vigorously applied in practice. From the Minister of the Khedive in Cairo down to the humblest clerk in the provincial administration, the great mass of the bureaucracy is native, A few carefully-chosen Englishmen direct the machine from behind the scenes; but the first lesson they are taught is the necessity of acting with tact and discretion, and of keeping as much as possible in the background. The government of the country is carried on in the Khedive's name, laws are passed by the Egyptian Council of Ministers, orders are signed by the Ministers of His Highness and executed by Egyptian officials. The situation is summed up by the fact that only one Englishman—the financial adviser—permanently attends the meetings of the Council of Ministers, and even he has no vote. When, in future ages, Macaulay's New Zealander digs up the official archives of the Egyptian Government he will hardly find any trace of the names or existence of Lord Cromer and the small band of Englishmen who have assisted in the regeneration of the country.
The third principal reason for the success which has attended British rule in Egypt is that there has been little or no interference on the part of the authorities at home. For once in the history of the Empire a really free hand has been given to the man on the spot. The four great bogies which have damped the ardour and tied the hands of some of our greatest pro-Consuls—the Home Government, Parliament, the Press, and Public Opinion—have in their mercy left Egypt severely alone. In this instance they have obeyed the behest 'not to speak to the man at the wheel,' with the result that the ship has been brought to the haven by a plain, straightforward course. Doubtless it has taken time to arrive at this desirable consummation. Slowly but surely the man and his work have gained the confidence of his fellow-countrymen, till Lord Cromer's name has become a proverb for single-minded policy and honest administration. The advantage to Egypt and her hard-working population has been great. The European, after years of study amongst the people of the East, finds difficulty in arriving at even a moderate understanding of their customs, habits of thought, and prejudices. It is not, therefore, surprising that the intervention of those who have no such specific knowledge generally produces more harm than good. Good intentions cannot supply the place of knowledge of local conditions and racial peculiarities, and Egypt has lost nothing by having been saved from the invasion of the faddist and the doctrinaire politician. This attitude of non-intervention in Egyptian matters on the part of the British public has been gradually transformed into a generous recognition of the value of the work accomplished under Lord Cromer's direction. Only those who serve the State in foreign lands can rightly estimate the immense advantage to the Anglo-Egyptian Administration of the knowledge that its actions were meeting with the approval and support of the British nation. As a general rule, the British public is nervously suspicious of any information with an official taint; when the best men have been selected to watch over the interests and carry out the policy of the country in other parts of the world, public opinion usually seems to think it has done enough. It neglects their advice and recommendations, and prefers to listen to the ignorant criticism of irresponsible globe-trotters, or the suggestions of interested parties who have axes of their own to grind in secret. From obstacles of this description the work of the English in Egypt has been singularly free. From the first the British people and the British Press seem to have realized that they could place the fullest confidence in Lord Cromer's execution of the great task that had been confided to him. In moments of difficulty and crisis—and there have been many such in the last twenty years—it has been of inestimable advantage to Lord Cromer and his coadjutors to feel that they had behind them the support and encouragement of their fellow-countrymen at home, and that their labours and motives were not being misconstrued by their own people.
Doubtless one of the chief reasons why Egypt has been especially favoured in this connection has been that our local administration has lain outside the battleground of political parties in this country. Neither side has had any interest in unduly extolling or unduly depreciating the work upon which Great Britain was engaged in the Nile Valley. There being no party advantages to be gained, the subject of Egypt has not recently formed part of the polemics which rage between the 'ins' and the 'outs,' and the results of the Occupation have been appraised merely on their merits. The conversion of public opinion, which was at first distinctly unfavourable, has thus been allowed to follow a natural course, unimpeded by extraneous influences, until the moment has arrived when the efforts made for the regeneration of Egypt offer no further scope for controversy.
The administrative system by which Egypt is ruled is unlike anything to be found elsewhere in the world. It has been evolved partly by the accidents and circumstances of the moment, and partly by the practical administrative genius of the great man in whose hands the destinies of the country have been placed. It is full of absurdities and paradoxes, but it has yielded good results, and it may not be without interest to indicate very briefly some of its chief peculiarities.
The first point to be remarked is the very personal character of the Egyptian system. Most modern bureaucracies are constructed on the same principle as the automatic safety appliances utilized on railways. They are intended to be, as far as possible, independent of human error. Innumerable checks and controls are invented with a view of reducing to a minimum the chance that mistakes may be made. The departmental consultations which take place before even a sample issue is decided are no doubt a preservative against hasty and ill-considered action, but they also have a tendency to weaken the feeling of personal responsibility. Moreover, the leading-strings which keep the average human being on the right path are a terrible hindrance to the efforts of the earnest reformer; the machine ends by absorbing the human elements that ought to work it, and operates in the direction of discouraging individuality and initiative. It would, therefore, be wholly unsuitable to the needs of a new country.
The Egyptian Administration is a plant of too recent growth to have contracted the defects which characterize bureaucracies of long standing. It has developed under the care of a few master-spirits, who have strongly impressed their individuality upon their work. The survival of the fittest is the brutal rule of Egyptian official life, and, indeed, as regards the English in the Egyptian service, such a rule was an absolute necessity. Their number being very limited, and the power of those in high position very considerable, whether for good or evil, it was essential to give very short shrift to those who were not efficient.
It may be objected that a system which requires specially-qualified men to work it stands self-condemned. Demand has, however, a tendency to create supply, and the present case has been no exception. Not only are young men of talent attracted to a service in which seniority plays second fiddle to merit, but the responsible nature of the work with which, from the first, they are entrusted, forms the character and develops the intelligence of those who can survive th6 test. They acquire experience while still young and active in mind and body, and are consequently less susceptible to what may be called the 'sleeping sickness' characteristic of bureaucracies in general. It follows that in the questions of importance that are dealt with by the higher officials routine and red-tape play a comparatively minor part. The business of the Government is largely carried on by personal communication, and thereby the delays and misunderstandings produced by departmental correspondence are avoided. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and occasionally Anglo-Egyptians have been known to indulge in acrimonious official correspondence in bad French over some trivial dispute which a five-minutes' interview would have set right; but such practices are discouraged by the powers that be, and are dropped at an early stage.
There are some manifest advantages in the Egyptian system—or want of system, as some would perhaps call it It produces men, and it can effect improvements. The daily work of administration is carried on in a businesslike manner, and does not oppose obstacles to progress and reform. Its lack of rigidity is especially suitable to the needs of the Oriental community for whose benefit it exists. These are great merits, but there is, of course, the other side of the medal. In the first place, the predominance of the man over the machine causes the latter to work erratically whenever the former is changed. The mechanism is so responsive to the touch that an unskilful hand can quickly produce disaster. The human element is of necessity subject to frequent variation, and no two men, however equally versed in the art of government, take the same view either of ends or means. Consequently, there is at times a want of continuity in the methods adopted, owing to the fact that the personal factor has a tendency to overshadow tradition and precedent. New ideas can be put into execution and administrative experiments tried with greater facility in Egypt than elsewhere. But new ideas are not necessarily good ones, and experiments sometimes end in failure. The very ease with which new projects can be launched is sometimes the cause of their being adopted without due consideration or sufficiently thorough study, and occasionally it is found that a false road has been followed, and that the steps taken must be retraced.
The natural and proper remedy for the defect here pointed out should be found in an enlightened and disinterested criticism of the measures which the Government are proposing to adopt. Unfortunately, such criticism does not at present exist in Egypt. In England we suffer from a plethora of discussion combined with a poverty of results. The reverse is the case in the land of the Pharaohs, and neither in the institutions of the country nor in the Press can there be heard at present the voice of an honest and well-informed public opinion. The want of local restraining influences of this kind is much felt by those who have at heart the welfare of the Egyptians, and who would be only too thankful for some trustworthy barometer of the wishes and feelings of the people. Time alone can repair this deficiency by the gradual spread of education and by the regular evolution of some simple system of local self-government which will help the people to a more complete understanding of public affairs.
The story of Great Britain's work in Egypt and of what has been accomplished under Lord Cromer's inspiration and guidance is in many respects an object-lesson which may not be without utility to our countrymen both at home and across the seas. The circumstances of the case were no doubt peculiar and not likely to be reproduced elsewhere. Special difficulties had to be met by special remedies. But, in the main, it may be said that the qualities to which Egypt owes her regeneration and the Soudan its release from barbarism are the very same which created the British Empire in the past, and which are equally indispensable for its preservation in the future.