HC Deb 30 April 1928 vol 216 cc1337-9
Mr. MacDONALD (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he can make a statement as to the present position in Egypt?


Yes, Sir. For some time past a Bill for the regulation of public meetings and demonstrations has been before the Egyptian Parliament. This Bill is designed to alter the existing law, which has been in force for five years, and has enabled the Egyptian authorities to maintain a fair state of public order without hardship to individuals, or any undue restraint of public liberties. The new Bill would greatly weaken the hands of the Executive, paralyse the police, on whom it would inflict far heavier penalties for any error of judgment in carrying out their duties than it proposes for those who are responsible for disorder, and would seriously jeopardise the public peace and the lives and property of foreigners. This is the view taken by the police authorities, both British and Egyptian, and it is shared by the foreign communities themselves. In this connection it is noticeable that, when proposals were made in 1924 which would have had a similar result in weakening the hands of the police authorities, the late Zaghlul Pasha himself opposed them as contrary to the public interest.

His Majesty's Government, who, under the Declaration of 1922 are ultimately responsible for the safety of foreigners, cannot ignore these dangers. The riots in Alexandria of 1921, in which nearly 20 foreigners were killed and over 60 wounded, will be remembered, and only a few weeks ago an excited crowd, which had been stirred up for political purposes, attacked and damaged the property of foreigners at Tantah.

In these circumstances, the Assemblies Bill, and some other projected legislation possessing similar features, have for a considerable time caused His Majesty's Government grave preoccupation. Serious but friendy warnings in regard to the Bill have, on their instructions, been addressed by Lord Lloyd both to the present Prime Minister and to his predecessor, Sarwat Pasha. But it, unfortunately, now seems evident that the Egyptian Government have resolved to proceed with the Bill, and, upon the instructions of His Majesty's Government, Lord Lloyd at 7 p.m. last night delivered the following final warning to Nahas Pasha, the Egyptian Prime Minister: YOUR EXCELLENCY, I have the honour to inform you that since the presentation to Your Excellency of my note of 4th April His Britannic Majesty's Government in Great Britain have watched with increasing concern the growing evidence of the intention of the Egyptian Government to proceed with certain legislation affecting public security. This legislaton as Your Excellency must be fully aware not merely from the verbal communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 19th instant but from previous similar communications made both to Your Excellency's predecessor and to yourself before and after the date of the aide-memoire which I had the honour to present to His Excellency Sarwat Pasha on 4th March last, is covered by the reservation reaffirmed in my note of 4th April. 2. I am now instructed by His Britannic Majesty's Government to request Your Excellency as head of the Egyptian Government immediately to take the necessary steps to prevent the Bill regulating public meetings and demonstrations from becoming law. 3. I am instructed to request Your Excellency to give me a categorical assurance in writing that the above-mentioned Measure will not be proceeded with, Should this assurance not reach me before 7 p.m. on 2nd May, His Britannic Majesty's Government will consider themselves free to take such action as the situation may seem to them to require.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

May I ask, arising out of the answer, whether there is any truth in the statements appearing in the papers this morning that a portion of the fleet has been ordered to Egypt from Malta?


I would prefer to add nothing to the answer I have already given. I hope the House will consider that sufficient.


Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the advisability of publishing as a White Paper this Bill relating to public meetings and so on, so that we may be very accurately and fully informed as to what really are its provisions?


I have not previously considered the matter, but I will do so.


Might I suggest, by way of supplementing what was said by the Leader of the Opposition, that if the Paper is published, perhaps, at the same time, there might be a statement showing in what respect it differs from the existing law, so that we shall be able to consider it?


I think if I publish the Paper I must probably publish it with a despatch of my own commenting upon it and drawing attention to some of its features.


Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House as to who is the judge—the Egyptian Government or the British Government—whether the new law is capable of preserving law and order in Egypt or not; and, in that White Paper which he so kindly consents to publish, will he also put the Egyptian point of view and the reply of the Egyptian Ministers as to how far they consider the new law efficient for the purpose?


I cannot compile either a White Paper or a Blue Book while standing at this Table. I must consider what material is necessary for the information of the House, and that I will do. As regards the question of who is responsible for the interpretation of the rights and obligations of His Majesty's Government, under the Declaration of 1922 the answer is plain—His Majesty's Government.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Egyptian Government and the Prime Minister of Egypt totally dissent from his interpretation of the effect which this Public Meetings Act will have upon order in Egypt?


Yes, Sir. I am aware of that fact and I regret it. It has made it more necessary for His Majesty's Government to take action in the matter.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say when the White Paper will be published?


I have only been asked for it this moment, and I have made no preparation for such a Paper, but I will give my attention to it as rapidly as I can.

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