The promotion of Fascist ideology among the Middle Eastern populations, and in particular in Egypt and Palestine, was driven by political priorities rather than ideological imperatives insofar as propaganda was carefully employed to expand the economic and military capacity of Fascist Italy.
While the Italians in Palestine were a few thousands (mostly Italian jews), the size of the community in Egypt had reached around 55,000 persons just before World War II, forming the second largest expatriate community in Egypt and greatly influencing the local society. The expansion of the colonial Italian Empire after World War I was even directed toward Egypt by Benito Mussolini, in order to control the Suez Canal.
So, the Italian "Duce" created in the late 1920s/early 1930s some sections of the National Fascist Party (NFP) in Alexandria and Cairo, and many hundreds of Italian Egyptians become members of it. Even some Italo-egyptian intellectuals, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (founder of the "Futurism") and the famous poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, were supporters of the Italian nationalism in their native Alexandria and promoted the Italian influence in Egypt. Furthermore, some egyptians were influenced by the ideals of the fascism promoted by the NFP sections in Egypt, like the founder of the "Muslim Brotherhood" Al-Hasan Al-Banna. As a consequence, during World War II the British authorities interned in concentration camps nearly 8,000 Italian Egyptians with sympathy for Italian fascism, in order to prevent sabotage after the Italian Army attacked western Egypt in summer 1940. However until 1941 the king Faisal of Egypt (famous for his pro-Italian attitude & sympathies) always successfully blocked those internments.
Consequently many young arabs were influenced by Italian fascism. The most famous were Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, two important presidents of Egypt after WWII. Sadat was active in many political movements, including the "Muslim Brotherhood", the fascist "Young Egypt", the pro-palace "Iron Guard", and a secret military group called the "Free Officers", which sought to liberate Egypt from British influence with help from the Axis powers. He spent much of World War II in jail for aiding Italy & Germany in their efforts to force the British from Egypt. Nasser was a member of the fascist organization "Young Egypt" for 2 years just before WWII. When the Italo-german troops of Rommel attacked Egypt in 1941, Nasser -then a young officer of the Egyptian Army- declared that he was ready for a "revolt" against the British empire in case the Axis reached the Nile delta.
Indeed in the summer of 1942, when Rommel's Afrikakorps stood just over 100 kilometers from Alexandria and were poised to march into Cairo, Sadat, Nasser and their buddies were in close touch with the Italo-german attacking force and —even with Muslim Brotherhood help— preparing an anti-British uprising in Egypt's capital. A treaty with the Axis including provisions for recognition of an independent, but pro-Axis Egypt had been drafted by Sadat, guaranteeing that “no British soldier would leave Cairo alive”. When Rommel's push east failed at El Alamein in the fall of 1942, Sadat and several of his co-conspirators were arrested by the British and sat out much of the remainder of the war in jail.
For about five years, from the end of 1933 to the end of 1938, political life in Egypt saw the rise of paramilitary youth groups known as the "Green Shirts", founded by the fascist Young Egypt Society ("Misr al-Fatah") that was created in October 1933 by the attorney Ahmed Hussein, and the "Blue Shirts", founded by the Wafd nationalist (and half-fascist) Party for its younger members. Mussolini openly supported the Green Shirts, who were said to be even connected to the main adviser of king Faruk, the Italo-egyptian Antonio Pulli until his forced resignation on February 4, 1942.
After 1939 grew in importance the secret military organization called Free Officers ("Al-Dubbat al-Hahrar") that even worked with the Italian secret services (SIM) to create manifestations & revolts in Egypt against the British rule, mainly in summer 1942 (read Italian SIM and Egypt fascists during WW2, in Italian language ). Indeed when the Axis troops reached El Alamein in summer 1942, the Italian & German secret services -according to the British Intelligence service- promoted huge demonstrations in the main Egyptian cities, where crowds of thousands of Egyptians screamed "Away the British empire" and "Welcome Axis" and a popular revolt was feared by the Allies. As a consequence in 1942/43 nearly 6000 egyptian officers (like Sadat) were interned for security reasons in concentration camps by the British military for some years.
In Palestine the Italian influence was not strong as in Egypt and was practically limited to radio propaganda in arab language from the famous "Radio Bari", even because Mussolini had a good relationship with the Zionist Revisionist forces. Indeed the military Navy of Israel was initially created in the late 1930s by Italy thanks to Maurizio Rava, an Italian jew who was a fascist leader and a colonial governor: the Betar Naval Academy was a Jewish naval training school established in Civitavecchia, near Rome, in 1934 by the Revisionist Zionist movement under the direction of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, with the agreement of the same Mussolini.
Furthermore, Mussolini in 1934 sought to gain favourable support for Italy's intervention in Ethiopia, and appealed to Zionists by offering them a solution to the Jewish question, in which Italy would set aside a certain amount of territory from conquered Ethiopia to be a homeland for Jews. Mussolini claimed that territory from conquered Ethiopia would make an ideal homeland for the Jews, noting that there were large numbers of "Falasha" (black jews) already living there who identified as Jews. However Zionist leaders rejected this proposal, saying that they would only live in the Holy Land in the Levant. Mussolini viewed this as an offensive snub, and responded in frustration saying "If Ethiopia is good enough for my Italians why isn't it good enough for you Jews?". Afterwards Mussolini's relations with the Zionist movement cooled, and he did not maintain his tentative to increase the Italian presence/influence between Palestine's jews.
However during the 1930s the italian secret service SIM was always connected to the muslim "Mufti" of Jerusalem (Amin al-Husseini). After Mussolini's alliance with Hitler, the local arab fascists started to be helped even with some money support. Indeed Italian involvement (read Mussolini's help to the arab revolt in British Palestine (1936 - 1939) ) in the Arab Revolt in Palestine, from 1936 to 1939, was an attempt to destabilize London's position in the Middle East. In 1941 there was even a meeting in Rome between the Mufti and Mussolini, when he took refuge in Italy after escaping from the Middle East.
The following are excerpts from a book written by Manuela Williamsand and titled "Mussolini's War of Words: Italian Propaganda and Subversion in Egypt and Palestine, 1934-1939":
"....In the 1920s, the Fascist regime attempted to establish its presence in the international arena by targeting primarily the numerous Italian communities overseas. The "fascistizzazione" of Italian society went hand in hand with the process of expansion of Italian culture abroad and the gradual centralisation of Italian diplomatic and cultural institutions such as the "Direzione Generale delle Scuole Italiane all’Estero and the Fasci all’Estero", which were brought under the umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.14 In 1927, new reforms were introduced to tie Italian nationals living overseas to the metropole, which led to the creation of the "Direzione Generale degli Italiani all’Estero" and of the "Comitato per l’Espansione della Cultura all’Estero"; however, the vigorous drive towards the rapid fascistizzazione and ideological mobilisation of Italians abroad carried the risk of sowing division within the Italian communities and alienate them from the political and social environment in which they had until then prospered. At the heart of the cultural, political and economic expansion of Fascist Italy was the "Società Nazionale Dante Alighieri", established in Rome in 1899 to disseminate the Italian language and culture overseas. Throughout the 1920s the Dante Alighieri society was gradually incorporated into the propaganda machine of the regime, although it would be fair to say that despite the initial resistance of the Dante Alighieri, the relationship between the society and the government was based on collaboration and common nationalist ideals; such strong nationalist component furthered «the rapid identification of the objectives of the society itself with those of the regime».
In the 1930s, the organisation of propaganda overseas received new impetus as the regime became increasingly keen to proclaim the international and universal nature of Fascism. The process of expansion of Italian propaganda overseas, which would no longer target Italian nationals but engage foreign audiences in a bid to overturn prejudices and stereotypes that had marred perceptions and understanding of the Fascist regime, was mainly driven by Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1932, Mussolini took over the interim direction of the Ministry and reformed its structure: as a result, five distinct sections emerged based on a subject-area division: Political Affairs – that since the 1887 Pisani-Dossi reform had retained clear primacy – Economic Affairs, Treaties and Private Affairs, Personnel, Italians Abroad and Schools.
The centralization of Italian propaganda and cultural diplomacy was supported by La Farnesina (the Italian Foreign Ministry) and culminated with the creation of an office for overseas propaganda, under the aegis of the Press Office of the Head of the Government, led since 1933 by Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law. The propaganda apparatus that began to emerge in 1934 was the brainchild of Ciano, who had been inspired by the establishment of the German Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda in March 1933. The newly created overseas propaganda section was initially located within the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with which it kept close relations over time. The strong interdependence between foreign policy and overseas propaganda was also emphasised by the presence of Galeazzo Ciano head first of the Ministry of Press and Propaganda (established in 1935 and renamed Ministry of Popular Culture in 1937) and then of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The strategies adopted by Italian propagandists overseas aimed to provide the most suitable response to local socio-political conditions, and mostly rested on the existing consular and community structures. The activities of the Italian communities overseas have been the subject of recent historical research. In particular, the role of Italian immigrants to the United States and the extent to which they were actively promoting Fascist policies, culture and values, have received considerable attention. Efforts were made to accelerate the process of fascistizzazione of the Italian immigrants and the second generation of Italo-Americans. The Fascist regime engineered the systematic penetration of the numerous cultural and leisure organisations of the Italian community: the Ordine Figli d’Italia, Società Nazionale Dante Alighieri, the Italian Library of Information in New York, the Italy-America Society, the Italian Historical Society, the Casa Italiana at Columbia University among the most renowned. Membership of community institutions was particularly high among the socalled prominenti, a class of successful Italo-American professionals and businessmen that became one of the most important and effective conduits of Fascist propaganda, although once Mussolini fell out of favour in America, the prominenti did not hesitate to denounce Fascism as quickly as they had embraced it.Cannistraro highlights the importance of the immigrant communities «as points of leverage and reference for Italian interests abroad – that is, an Italy lobby in foreign countries».19 Establishing a modus operandi that would be perfected in the Middle East, from the late 1920s Italian propagandists weaved a network that rested on cultural institutions as well as some Catholic parishes and that was dedicated to the promotion of Fascist ideals among Italian immigrants; the outcome was what Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini termed as a «Fascist transmission belt».Propaganda activities would be ultimately coordinated by Italian consular offices, and in particular by the local cultural agent. Italy would thus attempt to influence international perceptions and affairs through soft power as well as diplomatic manoeuvring and military agreements.
The Italian communities overseas were particularly keen to promote the image of a triumphant Italy. For example, in August 1935, when Ciano arrived in Port Said, British sources reported that approximately 3,000 Fascists travelled from all over the country to the town. A crowd of 20,000 people, including those resident in the area, invaded Port Said: «Those who travelled by car scattered coloured leaflets bearing fascist slogans in the streets. Some were in uniforms [...]. They were noisy and aggressive [...]. The demonstration has not done any good to Italian name. The overbearing behaviour of the Fascist contingents has disgusted local people».In Egypt Italian nationals appeared particularly proactive and vociferous; Italian diplomats and intelligence agents and their Egyptian contacts relied on the infrastructures and support of a broad Italian community settled in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said. Italian communities in Egypt had enjoyed a degree of prosperity and amicable relations with their Muslim neighbours at least until the Abyssinian crisis, when suspicion and resentment towards Italy’s aggression rapidly spread among the Egyptian population. The size and internal structure of the Italian community in Egypt offered a solid base of support to the regime’s propagandists.
Italian census data revealed that in 1936 18,548 Italians lived in Alexandria, some 17,300 in Cairo and around 600 in Port Said. Community life was centred upon a number of cultural, political and recreational associations such as the Fascio, the Società Nazionale Dante Alighieri, the Circolo Italiano Dopolavoro and the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti, all controlled by the government in Rome. These organisations – whose members often operated behind the scenes on behalf of the Italian authorities – did not always appear directly involved in promoting Fascist political propaganda or other activities designed to undermine the internal stability of Egypt and the relations between the Egyptian government and its British counterpart.The Italian authorities appeared extremely proud of the status and achievements of Italian residents in Egypt. At the end of 1936, The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – assessing the activities of Italian nationals in the upper Nile valley – claimed that the «solid, close and patriotic Italian community in Egypt was still providing an outstanding example of the achievements of Italian citizens abroad under the direction of the [Fascist] regime». The social profile of the Italian population of Egypt was rather diversified, including skilled workers, clerks, professionals and entrepreneurs. Some had achieved positions of responsibility within the structures controlled by the Fascist government, others had attempted to enter the high circles of the Egyptian political establishment. A small influx of Italian doctors and foreign doctors holding an Italian degree into the Sudan began in 1934, raising concerns that foreign professionals could be used by the Italian authorities to penetrate social and political circles in the Anglo-Egyptian condominium
Italy and the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s
The history of Italian propaganda activities in the Middle East dates back to the end of the First World War. In the aftermath of the war, the newly born Fascist movement seemed to sympathise with the nationalistic aspirations of the Middle Eastern peoples with which it shared suspicion and resentment towards the British and French colonial systems. The Fascist leadership established close relations with Arab nationalists whose initiatives were soon championed and amplified by the Italian press, generating among British officials fear of a possible collusion between Italy and the Islamic activists.In the late 1920s, having consolidated his power Mussolini appeared prepared to undertake a more active role in the international arena and sought to build and consolidate an empire, occupying those few territories in North and East Africa that still remained independent. Central to the Fascist ideology and political programme was the notion of empire initially conceived as economic and “spiritual” expansion of the proletarian nation. Towards the end of the 1920s the imperial vocation led the regime to become engaged in the Balkans and in Africa aiming eventually to assert Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean and secure access to the Oceans.Italian foreign-policy makers soon realised that to achieve a position of power in the mare nostrum, Italy had to seek an alliance with forces that could challenge the British imperial and mandatory system from within. The most interesting aspect of Italy’s complex Middle Eastern policy was the unlikely partnership between an aspiring colonial power and an anticolonial movement. In other words, anti-colonialism became in the hands of the regime a tool for colonial expansion. In order to further its political and economic interests in the Middle East and Levant, Italy needed to ensure the friendship and compliance of the Arab nationalists, who in turn would gain the protection of Mussolini’s government, the necessary diplomatic and political leverage, and financial and military support, to force British and French colonial administrators to withdraw from the region. In Syria, for example, the nationalist Misak Party was keen to reach an understanding with the Fascist regime, which would lead to the recognition of an independent Syrian state under a constitutional monarchy, while the Italian government would provide for the security of the Syrian coastline. The alliance between Fascist Italy and Arab leaders would be forged by propaganda. The main task awaiting Italian propagandists was to erase the violent colonial record of Italy in North Africa and Ethiopia, and to promote the image of Mussolini as the champion of modern Islam. However, the response generated by Italian propaganda in the Arab world did not necessarily match the objectives of Fascist foreign policy makers. Suspicion towards the real aims of Mussolini’s policy in the Middle East and resentment at his colonial undertaking in Africa remained widespread, eventually leaving the success of Italian propaganda confined to limited factions of the nationalist movement. The initial thrust consisted mainly of cultural propaganda aimed at strengthening Italian ties with the Arab peoples «by praising Italy and the Fascist system.The Italian government organised a number of initiatives, along with the sponsorship of Arab press, distribution of Italian publications, the foundation of schools and hospitals, the creation of a news agency in Cairo and the institution of Radio Bari, which began to broadcast programmes of music and news in Arabic in March 1934. The aim was originally to restore Italian prestige after the Senussi massacre and the dramatic events in Libya, but the outbreak of hostilities in Abyssinia produced a sudden change in the propaganda campaign orchestrated by the government in Rome. Attacks on British policy in the Middle East became more frequent and direct; attempting to encourage Arab unrest in a region where Britain’s presence was strongly resented, the Italians were hoping to keep British troops engaged in security duties and therefore prevent them from intervening in the Ethiopian war.
Italian cultural propaganda in the Middle East and North Africa dramatically increased in the early 1930s, and targeted mainly students and the Arab nationalist intelligentsia. The considerable variety of publications sent directly from the Ministry of Popular Culture to Italian embassies, consulates and representatives abroad was instrumental in promoting the messages of the Fascist regime. The production of a wide range of books, journals and periodicals increased noticeably with the outbreak of hostilities in East Africa and was primarily designed to praise the achievements of the Fascist regime and emphasise Italian role in the international, and more specifically Middle Eastern, political arena. Academic and cultural institutions also opened to a larger Arab membership, Italian schools organised trips to Italy for Arab students, while the Italian government encouraged and promoted the creation of a Confederation of Oriental Students in Europe based in Rome. The Confederation was launched in December 1933 with great pomp in Rome, where 600 Asian students (including a large Egyptian contingent) were hosted by the Gruppi Universitari Fascisti. Mussolini’s speech was delivered in Italian and English then translated into French and German. The Duce reminded his audience that under the auspices of the Roman empire East met West, and the emerging union of cultures became central to the development of Western civilisation. Such fusion of Eastern and Western values was kept alive by the Fascist regime and would acquire renewed importance during times of political and social instability: «Today Rome and the Mediterranean, with the Fascist spiritual rebirth, are reclaiming their “unifying mission”».However, Mussolini’s attempts to win Arab support were not always successful: Italian manoeuvres were still regarded with suspicion in some Arab circles such as the Arab Youth Committee of Geneva, which boycotted the rally organised in Rome by the Oriental Students in 1933 and denounced it as «an instrument of Italian imperialism».
Cultural and educational exchanges had always been regarded as a key area for the activities of Italian propagandists. This was acknowledged by British officials in the Middle East who had urged the government in London to co-operate with its regional counterparts in order to establish regular exchange programmes for parties of teachers and students who wished to visit the United Kingdom during the summer vacation. The Italians had successfully and ruthlessly exploited their connections with education institutions in Egypt and Palestine providing special discounts for parties interested in visiting Italy; for example, the equivalent of £10 per person would cover a return ticket from Palestine as well as two to three weeks staying in Italy. Undoubtedly, the Italian government’s longstanding ability to manipulate education and leisure for propaganda purposes proved to be invaluable. In 1939, the British Foreign Office expressed anxiety about the inroads made by Italian and German agents into Egyptian schools and universities, where young people had been offered free travelling to Italy and Germany in order to study and understand the Fascist and Nazi movements and their achievements; British officials anticipated that many of the young Egyptians might return home «ardent admirers of the totalitarian states […] and would thereafter act as German and Italian propaganda agents». On the eve of the outbreak of the conflict in Europe, the Foreign Office appeared uncertain about the friendship of the Egyptian people and fearful of losing control of an area that was vital for the defence of the empire.
Although the geopolitical map of Italian propaganda activities covers a vast area, from South America to South East Asia, the examination of Egypt and Palestine offers a clear insight into patterns of propaganda and strategies of information adopted by the Fascist regime. Throughout the 1930s, as the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestinian land grew in intensity, the Italian government adopted a distinct position in support of Arab claims. The directions of Italian policy in Palestine were not based on racial antiSemitic prejudices, but on political and strategic considerations: in the eyes of the Italians, a powerful and independent Jewish community in Palestine, and eventually a Jewish state, would provide a solid and permanent base for Britain in the Mediterranean. Italian endorsement of the Arab cause became even more explicit as a clear division of camps gradually emerged both in Europe and in the Middle East. Thus Italian propaganda bluntly presented the Axis coalition as the saviour of the Arab world. Despite Italian outright support of Arab nationalist demands, Italy’s prestige in the Arab world had been seriously undermined by the war in Abyssinia. Italian officials complained that the Palestinian press had expressed strong disapproval of Italian policies in East Africa. However, officials in Rome were quite certain that, after their initial rejection of Italy’s military campaign in Abyssinia, Palestinian Arab nationalists would come to realise that an alliance with the Fascist regime offered them the best prospects of future independence. All this was cause for concern in London, where British Foreign Office and intelligence officials believed that Italian activities in the Middle East – of which they claimed to have seen substantial evidence – were also part of Mussolini’s war plans, intended to keep Britain ‘fully occupied in her Mandated Territories’ during the hostilities.
Looking at Palestine in the critical years 1935 and 1936, it is possible to observe that the operational pattern adopted to conduct propaganda in that area rather differed from the one that had characterised Italian activities in Egypt. This seems to reflect a Palestinian social and political environment that was crucially distinct from the Egyptian, and in which Italian agents had to deal with markedly different circumstances and actors. First of all, the existence of a British mandatory government removed the opportunity for Italy to find precious allies and sympathisers in the higher or middle spheres of the administration. Second, political interactions in Palestine were rather complex and fraught, based on the development of competing interests of the Arab and Jewish communities, and on the ‘policy of equilibrium’ adopted by the British mandatory authorities. Having already presented Italy as the champion of the Arab people, Mussolini – despite a brief flirtation with the Zionist Revisionist forces – lent his support to the demands of the Palestinian Arab community against the much resented mandatory government, and an even more despised community of Jewish newcomers, seen as the guarantor of British perpetual presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Like in Egypt, the Italian community appeared broadly cohesive and proactive; many Italian firms, and in particular engineering firms, were directly subsidised by the government in Rome; managers and employees of companies of international reputation, such as insurance brokers Lloyd Triestino and the Banco di Roma, seemed «unceasing in their efforts to disseminate Italian and Fascist propaganda».33 However, the main vehicle of Italian propaganda against British policy in Palestine was information, distorted information according to British sources, disseminated not only through press and radio broadcasts, but also books, pamphlets, leaflets, cartoons, and all types of visual and verbal communications. Pamphlets like Ce que fait l’Italie pour l’Islam et l’Afrique, outlining in the text and emphasising with images that Italy cared about the moral and physical welfare of the Muslim populations by building schools, mosques, hospitals, community centres in its African colonies. Or more gruesome publications like What the League of Nations does not want to see containing pictures illustrating atrocities allegedly committed by Abyssinians against Italians and their supporters. More pamphlets found their ways into Arab households in countries like Egypt, where young Fascist men began to distribute propaganda material in French and Arabic, such as Abyssinia and Slavery, which depicted atrocities and violations committed by the Abyssinians not only against the Italians, but also against local Muslim communities. Four Palestinian newspapers were also believed to be the recipient of funding from Italian agents; among them, «Al jami’a Al Islamiya» was regarded as the most open to Italian bribe and inclined to amplify the messages of Fascist propagandists.
Information was the most effective medium used by the Italian government and its agents for propaganda purposes. Information through press and other printed publications, however, had a limited target of recipients, an elite who was not only literate but also highly educated. Large sections of the Arab populations, particularly in Egypt and Palestine, would have remained oblivious of the message of Italian propagandists if in the 1930s radio broadcasts had not become one of the main instruments of domestic and international propaganda. The key to the success of radio broadcasts was simple: the radio relied upon spoken words leading to a more personal and direct approach compared to that of other media; it was capable of reaching the masses, regardless of their geographical location, social status, education or ideological affiliations; and finally, lacking adequate jamming devices, radio transmissions were extremely difficult to silence.The success of Radio Bari with its broadcasts in Arabic was not overlooked by the British government of Palestine. In November 1935, British officials estimated that over 10,000 licences had already been issued in Palestine, where Bari broadcasts had become increasingly popular in Arab cafes. Radio Bari was created in 1934 by Galeazzo Ciano, at that time director of the Under-secretariat for Press and Propaganda. Initially, Arab programmes were broadcast three times per week and reached the Italian colony of Libya as well as the French and British territories of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine and part of the Red Sea region. They consisted mainly of Arab music, a favourite among listeners, news, likely to reach a wider audience in an area of high illiteracy, and finally talk shows.The language used during the first news broadcasts was classical Arabic, which was understood only by a minority of educated listeners. Fearing a sharp decline in audience, Radio Bari began to employ Egyptian and Palestinian speakers who could be followed by a wider Arab audience.
Already during the summer of 1935, Radio Bari was broadcasting every day and had expanded the length of its well-received programmes. By the end of 1935, Radio Bari broadcasts were becoming increasingly popular, especially in Arab cafes. Arab broadcast news contained a section dedicated to international events, mainly related to Italy and, after the creation of the Axis, to its allies Germany and Japan.
Interestingly, the broadcasts in Arabic appeared to be very discreet about the Italian empire, often leaving out of the bulletin news coming from Somalia, Ethiopia or other regions where Italian policies could be opened to criticism. Reports of events in the Middle East were considered interesting as long as they underlined the contrast between the positive role played by Italy and the repressive measures adopted by Britain and France. As a result, «areas such as Egypt, Palestine, where the relationship between Western Democracies and Arabs was strained, were the ones that hit the headlines». To promote Italy’s diplomatic endeavours and the values and ideology of the regime, Italian propagandists also relied on personal contacts. Among them, most prominently features the Syrian nationalist writer Emir Shakib Arslan who in the 1930s began promoting an alliance between Italy and nationalist forces in Syria and Palestine, and his friend and collaborator Ihsan al-Jabiri, as well as Haj Amin al-Hussaini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who in the 1930s gradually shifted towards more amicable relations with the Axis powers. In 1934 al-Jabiri and the Mufti were believed to have distributed 30,000 Italian lira to Scout groups and Nazi and Fascist organisations in Palestine.Italian propaganda in Palestine kept its momentum for a few years, exploiting the situation of political and social unrest that was undermining Britain’s presence in its own mandate, in particular at the outbreak of the Arab rebellion of 1936. Eventually, the pressure brought by the intensifying Fascist campaign in the Middle East and the Levant forced the Italians and the British to look for a settlement over the major object of their contention: the Mediterranean sea. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of January 1937 was a first step in this direction. Furthermore, in April 1938, after long on and off negotiations, Rome and London signed the Easter Agreement in which both parties agreed that any form of hostile propaganda would be «inconsistent with the good relations which is the object of the present agreement».Italy’s subversive activities in Palestine seemed to have waned as a result of the agreed settlement. Broadcasts from Radio Bari were reported to have softened their tone, although part of the local press – backed by Rome - still maintained a fairly violent opposition to the mandatory government. By the end of 1940, Italian activities in Palestine were not as preponderant as they had been: Italy had broadened the scope of its overseas propaganda and was simultaneously engaged in various geographical areas. Italian embassies in Portugal, South America, Iran, in the Indian subcontinent and the Far East were by then providing the logistic support for Italy’s promotional activities.
During the interwar years Egyptian politics critically shifted from traditional – moderate and West-friendly – values to the adoption of more militant and pan-Arabic models, which gradually re-shaped Egyptian national identity and brought Egypt right to the heart of the Arab world. The escalating tension between nationalist forces and British representatives together with the emergence of a pan-Arab orientation within the nationalist movement created favourable conditions for the Italian government to promote a closer alliance with some Egyptian political and intellectual circles. During the interwar years, and in particular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Egyptian national consciousness moved from values based on a glorious pharaonic past to the adoption of a shared Arab and Islamic identity. The Arabisation and Islamisation of Egyptian national identity had profound repercussions on Egyptian society and politics and offered new opportunities to Italian propagandists: nationalist forces began to look up to the Axis regimes and borrow their ideological blueprint, as well as political and cultural models.
Italian agents like the journalist Ugo Dadone were instrumental in establishing contacts with radical nationalists. In June 1935, the "Agenzia di Egitto e Oriente" (AEO) was created; on the surface, this was a news agency but behind the scenes the AEO provided local support to the propaganda activities of the Italian government. In particular, it was tasked with developing close relations with the Arab press by offering financial backing to Egyptian newspapers and by bribing journalists.
The Agenzia had its headquarters in Cairo and was placed by Galeazzo Ciano under the direction of Ugo Dadone, previously editor of the «Giornale d’Oriente». Dadone’s directorship of the AEO lasted until 1938 when, as Italy started reorganising and scaling down some of its operations in Egypt, the Agenzia was closed and its functions absorbed by the local branch of the Agenzia Stefani, the official news agency of the Fascist regime. Dadone left for Rome and then Germany, where he would conceivably ease the transfer of propaganda initiatives in the Middle East from the Italians to the Germans, at a time when the Third Reich, initially reluctant to challenge Britain’s presence in the region, had opted for heavier involvement in Arab politics. Dadone’s importance within the Fascist overseas propaganda machine was not downplayed by British officials: «Signor Dadone would, with all the information he has been able to collect in the Near East, no doubt be regarded at Italian headquarters in Rome as an expert of anti-British propaganda». Dadone and his collaborators scoured the political landscape of Egypt in search of support from the more vociferous and militant quarters. Among the youth nationalist organisations approached the Young Egypt movement, for example, was asked to lend its voice to an anti-British campaign during the Abyssinian crisis. In order to ‘inflame Egyptian public opinion as much as possible against Great Britain’, the Italian consular authorities suggested that the main points of the propaganda campaign should be: a) Egyptian application for membership of the League of Nations; b) the restoration of Egyptian rights in Sudan; c) the abolition of the Capitulations; and finally the recognition of Egyptian right to protect the Suez Canal.
The effects of Italian manoeuvres soon became visible. Attracted to Fascist antiparliamentarian ideas and to the financial support promised by the Italian government, the Young Egypt society gave its contribution to the pro-Italian and anti-British campaign orchestrated in Rome. For example, ignoring the wave of indignation that had swept over Egyptian public opinion after the invasion of Abyssinia, at the end of October 1935 members of the Young Egypt movement sent a petition to King Fuad, demanding that Egypt should remain neutral towards the Abyssinian dispute. However, it should be remembered that Young Egypt was by no means representative of the views of mainstream nationalists. Recent scholarly research into 1930s Egypt, has successfully demonstrated that Egyptian public opinion was by and large unreceptive to the allures of the European revisionist powers and the ideological and political constructs of fascism and totalitarianism.
Italian propaganda in Egypt gathered momentum following the increasing tension in East Africa. The Italians, concerned by the mounting hostility expressed by most Egyptian press, began to explore more affective ways to increase the profile of Fascist Italy to the detriment of Britain’s influence in the upper Nile region. Galeazzo Ciano took direct interest on the matter and suggested that existing publicity outlets, and mainly press activities, should be strengthened. In particular he proposed the creation of a news bulletin under the aegis of the Italian Legation in Cairo, which in form and contents ‘would meet the special demands of public opinion in Egypt’. The new organ would make use of material provided by the Italian publication «Giornale d’Oriente» and by intercepts supplied to a wireless receiving set «to be installed in a suitable place with due secrecy». Overall, supported by a well-connected network of agents – and the role of Italian secret services in North Africa deserves special treatment – co-ordinated by the Italian Consular offices and relying on the infrastructures of the Italian community in Egypt, Fascist propaganda carefully attempted to exploit domestic political feuds and nationalist sentiments emerging among Egyptian political and intellectual forces.
The means employed by the Italian government to open new channels of communications with broader sectors of Egyptian society as well as the Palace and parliament were very varied. Attempting to engage in a dialogue with the Egyptian educated urban class, the Italians began to implement an educational programme that would expose Egyptian students to the history and culture of Fascist Italy. Starting from primary education, the Italian authorities were offering a wide range of incentives to pupils interested in Italian history and culture. The two Italian elementary schools in Cairo, for example, provided special subsidies and support to children coming from non affluent backgrounds: shoes in winter, sandals in summer, aprons, books and stationery, together with free meals, were given to poor children to encourage them to register with schools run by Italian authorities. In the only Italian secondary school in Cairo, all subjects – mainly vocational or art-related – were taught in Italian, while books on Italian history and literature were distributed as a reward to the most deserving students. Following strict Fascist traditions, every morning pupils entering the school had to greet the Head Teacher with the Fascist salute. Egyptian universities were also targeted by the Italian propaganda machine. Italian staff at the Faculty of Arts of the Egyptian University in Cairo liaised directly with Italian Ministries in Rome, and actively promoted cultural exchanges by providing financial support to Egyptian students who wished to undertake short-term courses at Italian universities.
Anglo-Egyptian relations deteriorated in the winter of 1935 and through 1936, when unresolved constitutional issues created a state of tension in urban areas between the Palace and middle class youth. This opened new opportunities to Italian propagandists like the Colonial Attaché of the Italian Legation, Patrizi, who in the autumn and winter of 1935 frantically worked to document public demonstrations, fuel resentment and prove that Britain was to blame for the state of unrest in Egypt. The British government laboured to provide an adequate response to Italian propaganda and subversion. Fuelled by the events in East Africa, relations between Rome and London reached a critical stage. British representatives in Egypt called for a more coherent and decisive line of action, which needed integrating into an overarching counter-propaganda and counterintelligence strategy. Italian activities in Egypt continued undisturbed until 1937, when the Gentlemen’s Agreement between Rome and London softened the tone and intensity of Fascist propaganda; however, the British government proved to be somewhat slow in co-ordinating its cultural and information policies designed to mend the broken relations with its Egyptian counterpart and with the leadership of the nationalist movement. This set the trend for the interaction between British, Italians and nationalist forces in Egypt right until the outbreak of the Second World War, when Egyptian and Arab forces fought for the last times to defend Britain and the empire...."
It is noteworthy to pinpoint that Italo Balbo (governor of Italian Libya) in the summer 1940 died in "strange" circumstances: his airplane was shot down by mistake by Italians in the first days of the Italo-british war in WWII north Africa, while flying toward western Egypt. He was in contact (probably in the oasis of Siwa, where he was going) with members of the arab fascist organization "Young Egypt", who were ready for a revolt -and a possible military coup- in Egypt.
In early 1941 the retired Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army, Field Marshal `Aziyz al-Masriy, along with two Egyptian Army officers: Husayn Dhuwl Fuqar Sabriy and `Abd al-Mun`im Ra'uwf, had attempted to reach the Axis lines aboard an Egyptian Royal air force. A few miles north of Cairo the plane experienced engine trouble and crashed landing on an orange grove in the province of al-Qalyuwbiyah. For a while the three eluded the authorities, but after a while they were caught and brought to trial in May 1941 for having attempted to reach the Axis lines in the Western Desert and thus defecting technically to the "enemy". Security conditions in Egypt remained dangerous for the British in those months. Read for details: The forced abdication of the king of Egypt in February 1942.
In 1942 while the Italian "136th Infantry Division Giovani Fascisti" occupied the oasis of Siwa in western Egypt (see original video of the Italian conquest of the Siwa oasis in June 1942 ), a tiny Egyptian puppet government-in-exile was set up at Siwa (video images of Siwa city hall with Egypt flag during italian occupation, that lasted until November 1942).
Probably this puppet government was the only real & concrete consequence of the Italian influence in Egypt during the late 1930s.