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THE NEUTRALISATION OF THE SUEZ CANAL'
Neutralisation of Egypt - Neutralisation of the Canal - The word
neutrality-Circular of January 3, 1883-The Suez Canal Commission of 1885— The Commission dissolved - The Wolff Convention-Signature of the Canal Convention-Its application.
At one time, politicians in search of an idea flattered themselves with the belief that the solution of the Egyptian question was to be found in neutralising Egypt. Why, it was sometimes asked, should not Egypt become an
“ Oriental Belgium”? A point is already gained by the advocates of any political idea when they can label their pet theory with an epigrammatic ticket of this sort. The mere appellation gives their proposal the appearance of involving some sound and statesmanlike principle. Catchpenny phrases exercise a good deal of influence in the government of the world. In the Sturm und Drang of public life in this busy century, large numbers of people who are engaged in politics are often too much occupied with other matters to inquire carefully whether the particular phrase in question embodies, as may at first sight appear, the elements of a sound policy based on the true facts of the situation, or whether, as is not unfrequently the case, it is a mere tinsel covering beneath which some glaring fallacy may
The proposal to neutralise Egypt belongs to the latter of these two categories.
Its tinsel covering consists of an argument, which may conveniently be stated in the form of a syllogism thus : The most serious aspect of the Egyptian question is that it may, under contingencies which are easily_conceivable,_bring about a rupture between France and England. The principal element of danger consists in the two facts that England would resent a French occupation, whilst France resents a British occupation of the country. Therefore, the danger will be removed and all risk of a rupture will disappear if both France and England agree that neither of them shall occupy Egypt.
This appears at first sight a compact and plausible chain of argument. Unfortunately, it is fallacious, for the main question to be decided is not whether both England and France shall abstain from occupying the country, but whether, inasmuch as some foreign occupation is necessary, the occupiers shall be French or British. The analogy between Belgium and Egypt breaks down on this essential point, that whereas Belgium is inhabited by a highly civilised population capable of self-government, the population of Egypt is for the present incapable of governing itself on principles which would commend themselves to the civilised world. This bald fact, namely, that a foreign occupation was, and still is necessary in order to prevent anarchy in Egypt, and, therefore, in order to obviate the resuscitation of an Egyptian question which would be a source of constant trouble to Europe, has been frequently forgotten by those who have from time to time discussed Egyptian affairs. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is true, and, moreover, that it is of a nature to quash all ideas of neutralisation, Oriental Belgiums, and similar phantasies.
Most responsible and impartial authorities who have studied the Egyptian question appear so far to have arrived at the conclusion stated above. It is true that Article V. of the Convention of May 22, 1887, provided that the Great Powers were to be “invited to sign an Act recognising and guaranteeing the inviolability of Egyptian territory”; but this was immediately followed by a provision which enabled Turkey and England to occupy the country in case any foreign occupation should become necessary. For all practical purposes, it may, therefore, be said that the idea of neutralising Egypt, in the true sense of the word, has never got beyond the stage of academic discussion.
It has been otherwise with the question of neutralising the Suez Canal. This subject attracted the attention of the Powers of Europe in 1882, notice having been more particularly drawn to it by the fact that, during the period which preceded the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, Lord Wolseley used the Canal as his base of operations. Before proceeding to state what was done in this matter, it may be as well to describe what, in this particular instance, was meant by the word neutrality.
In the words of Lord Pauncefote, an excellent authority on this subject, the word as applied to the proposals made in connection with the Suez Canal, "had reference only to the neutrality which attaches by international law to the territorial waters of a neutral state, in which a right of innocent passage for belligerent vessels exists, but no right to commit any act of hostility.”
The definition of the term is important. Lord Granville was evidently apprehensive lest the mere use of the word “neutrality” should carry him farther than he intended. With commendable prudence, therefore, he directed that, in dealing with this subject, its use should be avoided and
that the words “freedom or “free navigation” should be substituted in its place.
Some three months after the battle of Telel-Kebir, Lord Granville addressed a Circular to the Powers in order to give them “full information on all matters, which were immediately connected with the peace, security, and social order of Egypt, and on which, accordingly, they (i.e. the British Government) had thought it their duty to advise the Khedive as to the best mode of exercising his governing power.”
In this Circular, a prominent place was given to the arrangements which it was proposed should for the future be adopted in connection with the free navigation of the Suez Canal.
The question was then allowed to sleep till early in 1885, when, at the instance of the French Government, it was decided to assemble a Com. mission in Paris composed of representatives of the Great Powers, as well as of Spain and Holland, in order to discuss the question of neutralising the Canal. The British Government would have preferred “that all the Maritime Powers who applied should be permitted to send delegates,” but to this proposal the French objected. The purpose for which the Commission was convoked was to “establish by a conventional act a definite system for guaranteeing at all times and to all Powers the free use of the Suez Canal.”
The first meeting was held on March 30, 1885, the proceedings being opened by M. Jules Ferry, the French Prime Minister.
M. Billot, the Director-General of the French Foreign Office, then assumed the presidency of the Commission, but the real work was delegated to a Sub-Commission, over which M. Barrère, the second French representative, presided. It is needless to describe the proceedings of the
Commission in detail. It will be sufficient to say that the object of the majority of the Powers was to internationalise rather than to neutralise the Canal, and that the British Government were opposed to the adoption of this course.
The British delegates were obliged to fight the ground inch by inch. Although they made some concessions, they were unable to come to terms with their adversaries. Eventually, after some ten weeks of wearisome discussion, a draft Treaty was drawn_up representing the views of the majority. It is unnecessary to dwell in detail on the points at issue between France and her allies on the one side, and England, supported to a certain extent by Italy, on the other. It will be sufficient to say that they were of a nature to exclude, for the time being, the possibility of any common understanding.
On June 13, the Commission held its last sitting. A few days later, Mr. Gladstone's Ministry fell. The question of neutralising the Canal was again allowed to sleep for a while. Shortly afterwards, Sir Henry Wolff started on his mission. The question of the free navigation of the Canal formed the subject of negotiation at Constantinople, with the result that an Article (III.) on this point was inserted in the Convention of May 22, 1887. Briefly it may be said that this Article embodied the views which had been maintained by the British delegates in Paris in June 1885.
Although the Convention of May 22, 1887, was not ratified by the Sultan, the idea of neutralising the Canal was not allowed to drop. It was one to which the French attached great importance. Eventually, after some lengthy negotiations, which need not be described in detail, a Convention, the text of which is to be found in Egypt, No. 2 of 1889, was signed on April 29, 1888. The British