Our man in Cairo

June 26, 1998

POLITICS AND DIPLOMACY IN EGYPT. The diaries of Sir Miles Lampson, 1935-1937. By Miles Lampson. Edited by M. E. Yapp 1,044pp. Oxford University Press / British Academy. Pounds 95. - 0 19 726155 8.

The history of the British presence in the Middle East is replete with the names of "great" men who administered the Empire there after their own fashion. They run from General Gordon to Glubb Pasha, through Lord Cromer, Lord Kitchener and T. E. Lawrence. (There is only one woman, Gertrude Bell, in the role.) Each contributed his share to keeping the area in passable working trim before and during what Elizabeth Monroe called "Britain's moment in the Middle East". The British demesne stretched from the small sheikhdoms of the Gulf to the capital city of Cairo, and the whole was held together through a patchwork of agreements, treaties, colonies and protectorates. Egypt, through size and position, merited some form of imperial status, yet, apart from the years of the First World War, it lay only under forms of British influence. Cromer, Sir Eldon Gorst and Kitchener were mere consuls; Sir Miles Lampson (later Lord Killearn), who followed them, was, first, High Commissioner and then Ambassador.

Although the ultimate source of British power was the military forces, because of the rather indefinite position of British authority, influence on Egyptian policy had to be exercised through personal pressure on king and politicians. All Egyptians of the time believed that the final word lay with the British - as did the British themselves - but any agreements often involved lengthy and tortuous negotiations. The historians of Egypt are fortunate in having at their disposal detailed documentary evidence of how these negotiations took place. For the earliest period under Lord Cromer, there are the daily letters home of his assistant, Harry Boyle; for the period of Lampson, 1933-46, we have his own personal diaries. (All the Boyle and Lampson material is held in the Private Papers Archive of the Middle East Centre of St Antony's College, Oxford, and is available for consultation by bona fide researchers.) Sir Miles Lampson arrived in Egypt in 1933 as High Commissioner, after seven years in China as Minister to Peking. His chief responsibility was to fulfil British policy as determined by Whitehall. Much depended on personality, and Lampson was a towering figure who was not averse to bullying his Egyptian interlocutors. It so happened that his first main task was to oversee the negotiation of a new treaty with Egypt which was signed in 1936. This ostensibly gave Egypt greater independence and Britain a breathing space at a time when fears were growing of the spreading fascist influence in the Mediterranean. The material selected for publication - from forty years of diaries - covers in detail the years immediately before and after the signing of the treaty: the period which also included the death of the experienced King Fuad and the succession of the youthful, untried and finally disastrous King Farouk.

M. E. Yapp has provided a full and meticulous edition of the diaries with footnotes, introduction and detailed index. This is to be welcomed by historians of modern Egypt (and of British foreign policy) who do not have access to the originals. The British Academy is also to be congratulated on sponsoring such a monumental work, though the fact that its Oriental and African Archives Committee has now been disbanded probably means the end of similar undertakings.

Lampson obviously relished exercising authority in Egypt. Page after page of the diaries is filled with detailed descriptions of lengthy meetings and conversations. Though he was an authoritarian figure, Lampson seems to have enjoyed the cut and thrust of political intrigue, and to have been attracted to some of the more devious Egyptian figures. When administration became a chore, he would escape in social and sporting activities. Most days he would hold lunches or dinners, usually only with European guests. Being a British gentleman, he spent much of his leisure time outdoors with a gun in his hand. One Saturday in January 1937, he went out to shoot and reported that "the result was a most perfect evening, and I ended up with 22 duck (practically all Widgeon) and 11 snipe - as nice an evening's shooting as I ever remember to have had. Back latish . . . for a hot bath and dinner, and so to bed after a perfect afternoon." He also played golf, loved horses and racing, and took Arabic lessons. Yapp characterizes Lampson as someone who did not live for his work but "was certainly not a lazy or negligent man". To keep a daily diary for forty years demonstrates his assiduity.

If Lampson did not much like the Egyptians, it cannot be said that they cared for him. His size made him seem a bully to them, and he is remembered, rather like Cromer, for being domineering. He certainly set out to dominate the young King Farouk, whom he described as a "very nice outspoken lad". He assured the King that the British "were honestly his friends and with no ulterior motives or axes of any kind to grind". It is unlikely that Farouk even at such a tender age would have believed him. During the same interview Lampson "took an opportunity of rubbing in at one moment that he must beware of Italian blandishments".

While these published pages cover the important events of 1936, Lampson's "finest" hour came during the war in 1942, when he was worried that Egypt was "not only unfaithful to the Alliance but actually working against it and thereby assisting the enemy". He demanded the abdication of Farouk unless he was willing to appoint a new prime minister more favourable to Britain. Lampson set out for the Royal Palace with (according to his diary) "an impressive array of specially-picked stalwart officers armed to the teeth". He "brushed aside" the chief chamberlain and "entered the King's presence without more ado". Farouk had no option but to concede and appoint a new prime minister. Britain promised not to interfere further, and Lampson signed a letter to this effect with, as he admitted, "my tongue in my cheek". He confided to his diary that night that he "could not have more enjoyed" the whole affair. Egypt never forgave him. In 1956, President Nasser extracted his revenge. He said on nationalizing the Suez Canal that "Lord Killearn and we all know Lord Killearn - stood up in the British House of Lords and began insulting Egypt . . . . In March I met the British Ambassador at my house and told him . . . we would not accept an insult . . . uttered by MPs and Lords - in particular Lord Killearn." The ducks had come home to roost.

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