HL Deb 29 January 1952 vol 174 cc915-21

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am reluctant to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, even for a moment, but he will be aware that there is a very important Statement to be made upon recent events in Egypt. A Statement has already been made in another place, and I think it would be the desire of this House that your Lordships should have it as soon as possible. I am sure that the noble Lord will acquit me of any discourtesy if I intervene temporarily to make a similar Statement now.


Of course, I most willingly give way.


My Lords, the Statement is as follows. From the earliest days of the tension in the Canal Zone, His Majesty's Forces in that area have at all times done their utmost to avoid conflict with the Egyptian authorities. The increase of terrorist activities, however, supported in many cases by detachments of the auxiliary Egyptian police, compelled His Majesty's Government to act if the security both of the Canal Zone and of the British base and of our Forces was to be preserved.

I should like, if I may, to give the House some account of the nature of the activities of these auxiliary police. This force was not introduced into the Canal Zone until after the late Egyptian Government had denounced the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 in October last. It was supposed to be charged with the task of assisting the regular police to preserve law and order. In fact, its energies were mainly directed to intimidating Egyptian labour employed by His Majesty's Forces, and latterly to conniving at, and taking part in, terrorist activities against our Forces, many of which resulted in the deaths of British soldiers. Urgent representations were made to the Egyptian authorities on several occasions, both by His Majesty's Ambassador in Cairo and by the British military authorities in the Canal Zone, about the activities of these auxiliary police. His Majesty's Embassy addressed at least four written Notes about this to the Egyptian Government, on November 24, on December 5, on December 15, and on January 19. On four occasions, also, His Majesty's Ambassador made oral representations to Egyptian Ministers, and General Erskine several times brought these activities to the attention of the local Egyptian authorities. We urged that these companies, which had never previously been armed with rifles, but only with staves, should be disarmed or withdrawn.

The late Egyptian Government paid no heed to these representations. It is, on the contrary, only too clear that, so far from wishing to prevent armed clashes with the British Forces, they were actively concerned to provoke major incidents. Our requests to the Egyptian authorities to disarm the auxiliary police were without effect. This produced a critical situation at Ismailia, in view of the military measures which had to be taken there to round up the terrorists. The British Commander, therefore, had no alternative but to disarm the auxiliary police. The latter had explicit instructions from the then Egyptian Government to resist, and consequently General Erskine had no option but to use force. In this, and indeed throughout, he had the full support of His Majesty's Government. In the course of this action one officer and three other ranks of His Majesty's Forces lost their lives, and thirteen others were wounded. The unconfirmed figures of Egyptian casualties are 42 killed and 58 wounded. This tragic event, which we all deplore, has brought sorrow to many homes, both in Britain and in Egypt. It has, however, done nothing to diminish the determination of His Majesty's Government to maintain their rights under the Treaty of 1936 until such time as a new Agreement to replace that Treaty can be reached.

On Saturday last a serious outbreak of rioting took place in Cairo. I deeply regret to have to inform the House that in the course of these riots at least eight British lives were lost, including that of the Canadian Trade Commissioner in Cairo. I am sure the House will wish me to express its profound sympathy with their relatives, no less than with those of the soldiers who have been killed. At the same time the House will wish me to express a sense of horror at the atrocities which the former Egyptian Government were unable to prevent and which were the direct consequence of their policy of inciting the population to acts of violence. I regret also to have to report that very considerable damage was done during these riots to British and other foreign property in Cairo. Order was restored only after the Egyptian Army had been called upon to intervene. His Majesty's Ambassador addressed a Note to the Egyptian Government on January 27, informing them, on behalf of His Majesty's Governments in Canada and in the United Kingdom, that the Egyptian Government will be held fully responsible for all loss of life and property, and that the rights of His Majesty's Governments in that connection are fully reserved. Meanwhile, we take note that the new Egyptian Prime Minister has declared that his Government's first task will be the restoration of law and order and the protection of life and property, foreign as well as Egyptian.

At this point, my right honourable friend made the following observations about the present state of Anglo-Egyptian relations. One of the worst features of recent events in the Canal Zone is that unscrupulous men have sought to turn what no doubt in some cases is genuine national sentiment into terrorist activities against our troops. We have always believed that it should be possible to find a solution of the difficulties between this country and Egypt which satisfies the legitimate national aspirations of the Egyptian people and at the same time does not jeopardise the security of the free world. In a Note to the Egyptian Government on November 6, 1951, we stated that His Majesty's Government were willing, as their predecessors had been, to enter into negotiations at any time for a revision of the Treaty of 1936; under the procedure set forth in Article 8 and Article 16 of that Treaty. In a speech which my right honourable friend made in another place on November 19, he repeated that offer; and it still stands.

It is the aim of His Majesty's Government to reach agreement on arrangements for the adequate defence of the Canal Zone which would meet Egyptian aspirations. We fully accept that this is by no means an Anglo-Egyptian interest, but one in which we have an international responsibility. In these last weeks there have been many violent episodes, with their accompanying loss of human life. The memory of them, bitter though it must be in both countries, should not prevent us from looking and working towards a better future. It remains our hope that passions will cool and that it will then be possible to reach a settlement in which each side will respect the security of this region.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House will wish me to thank the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for making that Statement here at the earliest possible moment. I do not think it would be to the advantage of any of us to attempt to debate it now or to elucidate it by means of question and answer. The whole situation is absolutely deplorable. Without blaming anybody, we shall all agree to that. The only possible solution to this problem, I think, is a solution by agreement. That means tolerance and good will, and all these tragic events to which the noble Marquess has referred are tragic just because, by exacerbating feeling, they make it more difficult to bring about that atmosphere of tolerance and good will in which an agreement by consent is feasible. I also express my sympathy with the relatives of all those on both sides who have lost their lives as a result of this struggle.

Whilst we do not want to debate this matter to-day, we shall certainly require to debate it at a very early date. I understand that in another place there will be a debate on foreign affairs next week, and I hope that at a very early date the week after the noble Marquess may be able to arrange a debate in your Lordships' House. There are not only these Egyptian matters to discuss; there are also matters with regard to China and the Far East which are causing some of us great anxiety at the present time, and we should very much like to have an opportunity of dealing with those flatters also. It is only on the understanding that we can have such a debate at an early date, when we can go into these matters thoroughly, that I propose to say nothing further to-day.


My Lords, I am sure all sides of the House will desire to join in thanking the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for having communicated to your Lordships this Statement which has been made by the Foreign Secretary in another place. I agree with the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition that no one would desire now to discuss these matters, and I also agree with him that, especially after this long Recess, your Lordships' House would desire on a very early occasion to have a full debate on foreign affairs, in which the question of China and other questions would be discussed. My noble friend Lord Elibank has a Question on the Paper for Thursday dealing with the subject of China, but I have no doubt that he would be willing to postpone that and allow that subject to be merged in the wider discussion. I would only add that I welcome most cordially and specially the concluding paragraph in the Statement that has just been read. The Statement ends not on a note of indignant protest, such as would have been fully justified, but on a note of conciliation, and repeats that His Majesty's Government are still ready and anxious to enter into negotiations with the Egyptian Government with a view to finding a solution that may satisfy the legitimate national aspirations of the Egyptian people and at the same time not betray our own international obligations. We may hope that during the short interval between now and the holding of our debate on foreign affairs the new Egyptian Government will have shown a more conciliatory spirit in that regard than has hitherto prevailed.

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, with great respect to the two eminent Leaders who have just addressed your Lordships, I do not think there is any objection, in precedent, to asking questions of fact when an. important Statement is made such as that we have just heard from the noble Marquess the Leader of the House. On the question of fact, following precedent I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether he cannot add a little to the information about the rioting in Cairo. He mentioned the regrettable loss of British lives, and also the loss of an important Canadian official. But, if the Press reports are true, a great deal of other property was damaged (with, I believe, other loss of life), which was not British but foreign property—American, Swedish and so on. Indeed, it is a fact that a purely Egyptian club, known to many noble Lords, was also attacked. Other Governments are concerned. I am asking for facts, because we cannot always believe what we see in the newspapers, which tend to exaggerate. His Majesty's Government have all the facts. Are not other Governments concerned besides ours and the Government of Canada? Is there any proposal for joint action by those Governments whose nationals have suffered in these events?

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I might say a few words, first of all on the question I have been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. I hope he will not press me to go into too much detail. The noble Lord is right in saying that there was a great deal of damage to property, and not merely to British property. Indeed, if he would refer again to my Statement he will note that I said: I regret also to have to report that very considerable damage was done during these riots to British and other foreign property in Cairo. That bears out the reports the noble Lord has seen. I cannot give the noble Lord greater detail at the present time; nor can I tell him what other Governments are doing. I need hardly say that His Majesty's Ambassador has made the strongest representation, as I explained in my Statement.

With regard to what was said by the noble and learned Viscount who leads the Opposition and the noble Viscount who leads the Liberal Opposition, I should like to thank them for their very wise and moderate words. I do not think it would help the situation very much if we had an exchange of questions and answers this afternoon. On the other hand, I entirely agree with them that it is most desirable that we should have a debate at the earliest possible moment, both on this question of Egypt and on any other matters relating to foreign affairs that noble Lords may wish to raise. I understand the position is that early next week there will be a debate on foreign affairs in another place. It has been our custom in recent years to await such debates so that we may read what is said in them. That means it would not be practicable for us to have a debate on foreign affairs until the following week. I believe I am right in saying that there is a fairly free day on Tuesday, February 12. If it is convenient to noble Lords opposite, I suggest that we should table for that day a general debate on foreign affairs, when these subjects or any other points relating to Egypt may be raised.


My Lords, I think it will be most convenient if we can get that date. It is about the earliest day we can arrange after the debate in another place.


My Lords, I quite concur.