24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (291)
Political party activity in Egypt this century came in spells, short and long. The maiden experiment between 1907 and 1914 ended with the outbreak of World War I during which British occupation authorities tightened their grip on the country. The general belief has been that party activity was revived in 1922. But Al-Ahram sheds light on a political movement called the Egyptian Democratic Party operating in the four years that followed the end of the war in 1918. This interval constitutes the missing link in political party life which continued until shortly after the 1952 Revolution. The missing link -- the Egyptian Democratic Party -- is the subject of this instalment of the Diwan chronicled by Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *
The missing link
It is commonly known that political party activity, which began in Egypt in 1907 with the creation of the Nationalist Party, the Umma (Nation) Party and the Constitutional Reform Party, ground to a halt with the onset of World War I. By 1914, the Nationalist Party leadership, headed by Mohamed Farid, was scattered in exile while its rank and file still in Egypt was forced underground to escape from official repression. The Constitutional Reform Party disappeared with the death of its founder, Sheikh Ali Yusef, editor of the newspaper Al-Mu'ayyid, in 1913. At about the same time, the Umma Party disintegrated when Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid resigned as editor-in-chief of Al-Jarida, the official voice of the party.
Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed Mohamed Farid Hafez Ramadan
Historians also contend that political party activity did not resume until 1922, with the founding of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party against the backdrop of the rupture between supporters of Adli Yakan and Saad Zaghlul. The Nationalist Party at this time was in the process of regrouping and would not reconstitute itself until May 1923 when its steering committee met to elect Hafez Ramadan as party chairman. The Wafd, which emerged in 1919 as a political front coalescing around the nationalist leader, Saad Zaghlul, head of the delegation demanding Egyptian independence in the peace negotiations in Paris, did not establish itself as a political party until 26 April 1924.
However, Al-Ahram and its contemporaries in the national press put paid to the commonly held impression that the entire period from 1914 to 1922 was a period of political party stagnation. Rather, these newspapers depict a portrait of intensive efforts to revive political party activity. While it is natural to conclude that the years of World War I (1914-18) and the attendant martial law inhibited organised public political activity, the same cannot be said of the turbulent four-year interval that followed.
Indeed, in his book entitled The Liberal Constitutionalist Party, 1922 to 1953, Dr Ahmed Zakariya El-Shalaq argues that political party life had begun to sprout again, if slowly, shortly before the end of the war. At this point, the followers of Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid, who had formerly voiced their political orientations in Al-Jarida, formed a group calling itself Al-Sufur (The Unveiling). Consisting of a collection of enlightened youths, recently returned to Egypt after having completed their education in Europe, the new group manifested lived up to its name in both form and substance. It adopted a magazine, owned by Abdel-Hamid Hamdi and named after the group, as their new forum. Inspired by an array of liberal and socialist ideas to which they had been exposed abroad, they were united in their opposition to the old conservatives who clung tenaciously to the reins of control within the Nationalist Party. The names of some of the members of Al-Sufur are sufficient to convey the potential energies and talents it possessed. Dr Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Mansour Fahmi, Taha Hussein, Sheikh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq and Mahmoud Azmi would all leave a major imprint on Egyptian political and intellectual life. While El-Shalaq confesses that during the war most of their writings were apolitical and consisted of "short stories, literary critique and philosophical contemplations of a social rather than a political turning," they frequently met to discuss political matters, a fact corroborated by Heikal in the first volume of his Memoirs on Egyptian Politics.
Yet, if martial law inhibited overt political party activity, so too did other factors. Many nationalists, for example, feared that party rivalries would undermine national unity. The fear, which haunted Egyptians for lengthy periods of time, also explains, in part, the shaky start of political party activity. The origins of political parties in Egypt are different from their Western and older counterparts. In the West, political parties emerged naturally as an expression of social conflicts. Because they represented different interest groups their party platforms acquired important value and party leaders came to be held accountable for the extent to which they abided by and implemented the party agenda. Plurality and diversity, therefore, were considered virtues that contributed to the enrichment of political life.
In Egypt, shackled by colonial control, the emergence of political parties was a manifestation of the nationalist, anti-colonialist movement. Consequently, if the parties differed slightly in their tactics, their ultimate goal was the same: independence. Towards this end, a united front had far greater relevance, given the circumstances, than the notion of diversity. Thus, in the first period of political party experience (1907 to 1914), the Nationalist Party accused other emerging parties of weakening the anti-British resistance. Similarly, in the period from 1922 to 1952, the Wafd viewed other emerging parties as agents of the royal palace or as dissenting splinters.
The fear of weakening the unity of the national front was no less powerful during the three-year period that followed the 1919 Revolution. It is not surprising, therefore, that, towards the end of 1919, one Al-Ahram writer should take to task the founders of the Independent Liberal Party. He wrote, "This party was formed at a time in which the nation still desperately needs to assemble all political parties and orientations under a single banner. This party was only created to destroy national unity and divide the nation into rival partisan groups." Suspicions of the motives of that party's leaders increased when it was discovered that they were in favour of cooperating with the Milner Commission. The commission, formed by the British following the 1919 upheaval to examine the causes of the rebellion, was unanimously boycotted by the Egyptian people. The need for unity was stressed again following the death of the Nationalist Party leader Mohamed Farid. In the face of rumours to the effect that some Nationalist Party members had censured the Wafd for having alienated the late leader, his successors in the Nationalist Party issued a statement appealing for "unity at the helm".
Thus, while one would logically expect the period between the end of World War I and the founding of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party in 1922 to be devoid of political party activity, Al-Ahram and other representatives of the national press at the end of 1919 have a surprise in store for us. The surprise is the emergence of a party which created quite a stir in the political arena at that time and which constitutes the missing link in the history of political party life in Egypt.
The first reference to the new party appeared in Al-Ahram of 14 September 1919. The new group -- the Egyptian Democratic Party -- had just sent Al-Ahram its platform along with a promotional announcement to be published in the newspaper. The lawyer Fikri Abaza, who had begun writing regularly for Al-Ahram at the time and who would eventually become a highly influential figure in the Egyptian press, attacked the new party on the familiar grounds that it threatened national unity. "This political force can only work to the detriment of other political forces at a time when the country sorely needs to consolidate its efforts," he wrote.
The party had a 10-point platform. It called for full "external and internal" independence; "the fullest possible delegation of power by the people to an historical parliamentary body that will accurately represent the popular will"; "the unification of the laws within the boundaries of Egypt and the universalisation of its application therein"; equality in rights and duties; the freedom of speech, expression and assembly; compulsory and free primary education for boys and girls; the moral and material elevation of the working classes and support for the unemployed; the development of the national wealth in a manner beneficial to all inhabitants; and the recognition of the right of all peoples to self-rule. According to Abaza, the party's platform was "an exact replica" of that of all other political parties, the only exception being the last two articles which the party's founders borrowed from US President Wilson's "highly inspired" 14 points. Such inspiration, Abaza remarks, "is commensurate, at least, with that great president's stature, lofty principles and kind-heartedness." He jibes, "Do the founders of the Democratic Party expect us to view them in the same esteem with which the world holds President Wilson?" And he concludes that as long as the Democratic Party has offered nothing new, "its existence is meaningless".
Two days later, Al-Ahram offered itself as a platform for the reaction to Abaza's attack. The response came in the form of a letter bearing the pseudonym, "A democrat", suggesting that the writer was a member of the new party. That he mentions, in the opening paragraph, that Mansour Fahmi had begun laying the groundwork for the party several months previously suggests, as well, that the writer was well placed within its leadership. The writer contends that the concept of a democratic party is not alien to the Egyptian people. "The best testimony to this can be found in the rapidity with which it was founded and the speed with which it has begun to act to serve the public welfare," he argues. Evidence of this commitment, he continues, could be seen in the party's "adamant political protests in the defence of the Egyptian cause." The democrat objected to Abaza's contention that the new party made no new contribution to Egyptian political life and that its platform was no different from that of other political parties. "Egypt is still a fertile cradle conducive to the growth of other parties, a development which is beneficial to the nation. The emergence of these parties will not detract from the parties that already exist, particularly if they have something new to offer and are able to attract large numbers of the populace which the other parties have been unable to recruit into their ranks for the service of the public welfare." The democrat concluded by pointedly asking Abaza, "Who really incited you to criticise the Democratic Party?"
On 19 September, Fikri Abaza makes an important revelation. The founders of the Democratic Party were the very members of the "Al-Sufur" group along with a number of other Western-educated intellectuals: Mansour Fahmi, Mahmoud Azmi, Ibrahim El-Shawarbi, Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Aziz Mirhom, party secretary and spokesman. Abaza describes them as "an elite of educated Egyptian youths who completed higher educational studies in Europe." In obvious reference to their mouthpiece, Al-Sufur magazine, he adds sarcastically, "After returning to Egypt they began to involve themselves in 'artistic' activity, amusing us on the pages of the newspapers with their literary productions and entertaining us from the podiums with their pearls of wisdom. However, their activity never reached beyond the scope of purely abstract economic studies." As a result, their political record "contains not a single entry, whether in their favour or against them."
Political expertise, Abaza goes on to argue, demands lengthy practice in the crucible of experience. "Among the youthful founders of the new party is not a single tested politician well-versed in the internal affairs of his country. Nor do they have the backing of a magnanimous benefactor who can be relied upon in times of need, or for that matter a person of stature and influence whose power is to be feared." As for the founder's principles, they are "excessively modern and do not conform at all with the traditions and customs of this nation." Abaza advises the party founder -- meaning Mansour Fahmi -- to set the minds of the Egyptian people to rest by making an explicit declaration that "he will not attempt to disseminate these principles." Finally, Abaza turned to the "democrat's" charge that he played puppet to clandestine instigators. He wrote, "I challenge him [the democrat] to reveal that alleged hidden instigator or to apologise, in which case I promise to pardon him fully."
Because Abaza had also ridiculed the "democrat" for concealing his identity, the latter, in his response, disclosed his name. He was none other than Dr Mahmoud Azmi, a member of "Al-Sufur", whose next response to Abaza appeared in Al-Ahram of 20 September. While generous enough to praise the wit of his critic, he was not about to yield ground. He was not one, for example, to espouse the idea that "the construction of new palaces must inevitably require the destruction of the old." However, Abaza "has that obsession with the old that comes from the love of monopolising public affairs, although we would have expected him to embrace modern precepts based on tolerance and forbearance." Perhaps this was one reason, Azmi suggested, why Abaza had such a narrow outlook on the activities of political parties. Yet, contrary to Abaza's belief that parties focus only on political issues, their task was also to engage in "economics, education and other aspects of society and civilisation." He also took the occasion to remind Abaza, and Al-Ahram's readers, that the Democratic Party was the only party to "empower the Egyptian delegation (Wafd) to represent it in advocating the major cause of Egypt." Addressing finally Abaza's charge that the Democratic Party stood for nothing new, Azmi countered that what really set the political parties apart was not so much their declared principles, but rather their records of action. "It is through their practical deeds that one distinguishes between the Nationalist Party, the Umma Party and the Reform Party and it is such standards that distinguish the Egyptian Democratic Party."
As it observed Mahmoud Azmi and Fikri Abaza spar, the Al-Ahram editorialship abandoned the caution with which it received the new party and began to adopt a more sympathetic stance, devoting much space to its news. In its 20 April 1920 edition, the newspaper gave prominence to a letter addressed to the prime minister in which the Democratic Party demanded "the lifting of martial law, the abolition of censorship and the release of political detainees."
Later, in September of that year, Al-Ahram showed itself open-minded to the suggestions the Egyptian Democratic Party conveyed to Saad Zaghlul, the head of the delegation that had just begun negotiations with the Milner Commission in London. The negotiations "over the bases of agreement between Egypt and Great Britain" addressed three issues: the recognition by Great Britain of Egyptian independence, the transfer of certain concessionary rights to Britain and an alliance between Egypt and Britain.
Over the next two days, Al-Ahram published the Egyptian Democratic Party's suggestions on these issues. With regard to the first issue, it was the party's opinion that "recognition of Egyptian independence take the form of a declaration conveyed by Britain to the government of Egypt and foreign governments, in the manner in which it conveyed its declaration of its protectorate over Egypt in 1914. This declaration should explicitly state that the government of Britain terminates its protectorate status in Egypt."
The question of foreign concessions in Egypt was a thorny issue as much for the British as it was for the Egyptian nationalists. At the time, London was negotiating with other European governments in the hope of persuading them to relinquish their rights under the capitulations system to Britain. The Democratic Party objected vehemently to these negotiations as they implied that "these nations do not have the right to relinquish these rights to Egypt directly without the approval of Britain." That was wrong and unacceptable, the party maintained, "because Britain is undertaking these negotiations today on the basis of the protectorate that it declared over Egypt in 1914 and that was ratified in the treaty of Versailles in 1919."
Finally, with regard to the question of an Anglo-Egyptian alliance, the Egyptian Democratic Party advised that Egypt should not enter into negotiations on it until other outstanding bilateral issues were settled. Among these issues were "the linkage of Egyptian currency issues to the British Ministry of Finance, the question of British and foreign government employees and the measures that had been taken under martial law."
Over the following months, Al-Ahram continued to allocate considerable space to the Democratic Party's perceptions on the progress of negotiations with Britain. Of particular concern was the "constituent assembly" proposed by the party to review the agreements signed by Egypt and Britain and to draw up the country's new constitution. In the opinion of Al-Ahram, the Democratic Party's views on such issues were extremely relevant to the national interest. This political grouping was pictured as no less committed than the Wafd to securing national rights. "No one can doubt the patriotism that fills the hearts of its esteemed members," commented Al-Ahram on one occasion. It was also the opinion of the newspaper that the party offered a unique vision on the pressing concerns of the nation. It advocated, for example, that a popularly elected constituent assembly should be charged with drawing up and ratifying the new constitution. The Egyptian government was not to follow its advice, opting instead to form a 30-member commission appointed by royal decree to draft a constitution. The heavy-handed manner in which the commission was formed earned the wrath of Saad Zaghlul who referred to it as the "rogues commission".
Perhaps the most disturbing incident for the members of the Egyptian Democratic Party was the division within the ranks of the Wafd that led to the resignation, in the spring of 1921, of some of its most influential members: Mohamed Mahmoud, Hamad El-Basel, Abdel-Latif El-Mekabbati, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid and Mohamed Ali. This was a prelude to the formation of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. Most of the young intellectuals in the Democratic Party had a natural affinity for the splinter group. Many, such as Heikal in particular, had received their political and journalistic training at the hands of Lutfi El-Sayid in his Al-Jarida newspaper, the school that continued to represent Egypt's social and intellectual elite. The rupture in the Wafd precipitated a popular demonstration in support of the Wafd and Saad Zaghlul. The members of the Democratic Party were quick to condemn the demonstration in which "Egyptians are spilling Egyptian blood" and in which "the sons of Egypt who are striving for freedom are attacking the sons of Egypt who are equally striving for freedom." The party's statement concluded with an appeal for calm.
The Democratic Party's stance on the rupture in the Wafd marked the beginning of its own decline. In all events, the party's influence had never extended beyond Cairo and as many of its members were being attracted to the new party being formed by the Wafdist splinter group, it is little wonder that it should disappear in 1923. Its short life represented the missing link in the history of Egyptian political party activity.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.