Aziz Ali al-Masri

(1879 - 1965) 


From The Arab Awakening, George Antonius, G P Putnam's Sons, 1946; and  Arab Contemporaries: The Role of Personalities in Politics,  Majid Khadduri,  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md.,1973. 


Born in Cairo, Aziz Ali al-Masri entered the military academy in Constantinople and then the staff college, graduating with distinction in 1904. He was posted to the staff of the Third Army in Macedonia. There he joined the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P) (Young Turks)and was one of the officers who led the military revolution in 1908 and took part in the march on Constantinople in April of the following year. His adherence to the C.U.P. had been prompted as much by his Arab national ideals as by his devotion to the welfare of the Ottoman Empire; and when he realized, in the months that followed the counter-revolution of of 1909 that the C.U.P.'s policy was to oppose the one and mismanage the other, he began to look around for more worthwhile allies.


His influence was far greater than his rank implied, for he had, at one time, lectured at the staff college and during those months won the hearts of the coming generation of army officers. In the service he had shown character, dash and judgement; and being single-minded and resolute in his patriotism, was readily accepted as a leader by men older than himself. He founded Al-Qahtaniya with its program of dual monarchy in which Arab aspirations were to be reconciled with loyalty to the Ottoman Empire.  Later he would leave the organization and found a new one with similar objectives.


In 1910 he was sent to Yemen on active service, scored a triumph by inducing the Imam to reconcile his differences with the Supreme Porte, volunteered in Libya where he covered himself in glory, leading the Arab resistance to Italian aggression, and returned to Constantinople in 1913 , only to witness the slow extinction of Arab hopes in the months that followed the Paris Congress. At the Ministry of War he found disorder and corruption, an envious belittlement of his successes in Africa, and a disposition on the part of the C.U.P. to order the wholesale transfer of Arab officers stationed in the capital – including himself – to outlying provincial garrisons. He resigned his commission in disgust.


Early in 1914, Aziz Ali  carried into execution a plan  which had been maturing since the days of al-Qahtaniya, when the discovery that the society harbored an eaves-dropper had killed his interest in it. He founded a separate organization with a similar program. The new society was called al-'Ahd, and its objects were those of al-Qahtaniya expressed in soldierly parlance. 


The C.U.P. may have had wind of the formation of al-Ahd when they ordered the arrest of Aziz Ali, but they had no certain knowledge, and the charges against him made no mention of his connection to secret societies. His trial began in camera on the 25th of March 1914, before a military court of discipline. He was accused of having committed the wildly improbable  crimes of embezzling army funds, of surrendering Cyrenaica to the Italians in return for a bribe, and of having tried to set up an Arab kingdom in North Africa. By that time, the commotion aroused by his arrest had spread far afield. In Egypt, his land of birth, the indignation vented itself in a general chorus of protest. Mass meetings were held, a vehement press campaign broke out, a committee headed by the Rector of Al-Azhar was formed, and deputations visited Lord Kitchener, the British Agent in Cairo, to ask for British diplomatic intervention.


Early in April, it became known that Aziz Ali had been secretly condemned to death. The agitations became more vociferous and wherever Arab officers gathered oaths were take  to avenge his death in blood. Fortunately, Kitchener moved the Foreign Office to act.  There was general relief but the agitation against the injustice of the trial continued. On the 21st of April , Aziz Ali was pardoned and set free. On the following day he set sail for Egypt and received an enthusiastic welcome on his arrival. His trial had shaken the Arab world more profoundly than any single act of Turkish tyranny, and greatly hardened the Arab will to freedom, for it had moved the masses as well as the thinkers.


Aziz Ali al-Masri served briefly as Sharif Husayn's chief of staff when the Arab Revolt broke out in 1916. He directed the Cairo Police Academy from 1927 to 1936 and was inspector general of the Egyptian army in 1938. In 1939, he was named chief of staff, but was dismissed from that post in 1940 at Britain's insistence. He deserted the Egyptian army and tried to reach the Axis forces in the Libyan desert but was caught and court-martialed in 1941. After Aziz Ali had helped the Free Officers prepare for the revolution of 1952, they named him ambassador to Moscow in 1953 and considered making him president in place of Muhammad Naguib, but he retired in 1954. Fiercely nationalistic, Aziz Ali was hampered in his career by his political idealism, which got the better of his discretion.