Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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A Diwan of contemporary life (323)

illustration: Makram Henein
Political parties in Egypt had their roots in the nationalist movement born in opposition to the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. Political party life before World War I grew around one major group, the Nationalist Party led by Mustafa Kamel. Political pluralism in the modern sense came in the post-war years, starting with the formation of the Wafd Party headed by Saad Zaghlul who led the 1919 anti-British revolution. Other prominent parties followed, mainly splinters from the Wafd. There was a big difference between political pluralism in Egypt and its counterpart in the West, notes Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * in this instalment of the Diwan series dealing mainly with the creation of the Liberal Constitutional Party in 1922. In Egypt, political parties revolved around their leaders in the personality cult tradition, whereas Western parties grew around political, social and economic platforms

The personality cult

At 8.30am on Monday, 30 October 1922, hundreds of prominent Egyptian figures made their way to the main reception hall of Shepheards Hotel in response to an invitation issued by former Prime Minister Adli Yakan, the arch-rival of Saad Zaghlul. Al-Ahram reports, "The government had taken every precaution necessary to maintain security and order around the hotel and in the streets leading to it. Police vans patrolled the area and reserve forces were brought in from the Ezbekiyya police station. Fortunately, no incidents occurred to necessitate police intervention. The Ezbekiyya police commandant and one of his officers personally supervised the patrols around the hotel."

Al-Ahram's correspondent on the scene stood at the entrance to the hotel watching the proceedings. He recounts that Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha and other hosts of the meeting stood at the entrance to welcome the arrivals, foremost among whom were former Mufti Sheikh Bakhit, His Eminence El-Sayyid Abdel-Hamid Bakri, His Excellency Midhat Yakan Pasha, and others.

The occasion for the reception was the declaration of the formation of the Liberal Constitutional Party, "the largest Egyptian political party after the Wafd". If this party, referred to by some as the "Adli Yakan party", continued to maintain this status until 1937, its formation and relative sway should be seen within the context of the development of political party life in Egypt in general.

In the West, it is generally understood that political parties emerge through the convergence of interests of certain sectors of society, keen to influence government policy or, perhaps, to assume control of government in order to further their interests through power. The same cannot be said, in general, of the emergence of political parties in Egypt, or for that matter other nations subjected to colonial hegemony. In these countries, political parties were, first and foremost, a forum for indigenous nationalists of various ideological hues and material interests, but bound together by the desire to rid their country of colonialist hegemony. Given the primacy of the objective of independence, the concept of political party plurality, so cherished in the West, would not be so highly valued by colonised peoples. While for Western peoples the concept represents the optimum means to secure diverse interests and to bring prosperity to the largest possible segment of the populace, for national liberation movements its apparently inherent divisiveness gave colonial powers a ready handle to prolong their occupation.

In the West, the fortunes of a party grew or declined in accordance with their ability to serve the interests of their constituencies. While the charisma of political party leaders may play a role in mobilising popular support, it is not the ultimate criterion for a party's survival. The immensely popular Winston Churchill, brought his Conservative Party to power during World War II, but in spite of this, his government lost to Labour leader Clement Atlee, who had little charisma to speak of.

The same cannot be said of political parties that emerged in Egypt under British rule. Here, another corollary of the overriding priority of independence was that parties coalesced behind the magnetic personalities of their leaders, rather than around competing ideological platforms. This was the case with Mustafa Kamel, leader of the Nationalist Party, which he founded before World War I, Saad Zaghlul, founder of the Wafd Party following the 1919 Revolution, and Mustafa El-Nahhas, Zaghlul's successor to the Wafd Party leadership. To a large measure, the popularity of these leaders emanated from their ability to defy the colonial authorities.

When new parties were formed, they emerged from cliques that had formed around the dominant party. The founders of the Liberal Constitutional Party had all been members of the Wafd before they fell out with Zaghlul. The same applies to ex-Wafdists Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Nuqrashi, who, in the thirties, founded the Saadist Party, presenting themselves as the true heirs to Zaghlul, in opposition to the Wafd Party leader El-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid, secretary-general of the Wafd and close friend of El-Nahhas until rivalries drove them apart, too. Not surprisingly, the platforms of these splinter parties contained only very minor differences from the platforms of the party they emerged from. Indeed, one suspects that this feature is what prompted one contemporary to the creation of the Liberal Constitutional Party to describe that event as a manifestation of "partisanship" rather than political party plurality.

It is important to note that the first splinter party that broke away from the Wafd had little outside competition at the time of its formation. Most of the political parties that had come into being before World War I had been consigned to history. Only remnants survived of the largest and most important pre-war party, Mustafa Kamel's Nationalist Party. Its appeal was virtually insignificant; its veterans vaunting old laurels and touting principles of a bygone age, such as adherence to the nearly defunct Ottoman sultanate.

We note, too, in the political party arena, the faint appearance of the Free Independent Party. Formed specifically in order to meet and negotiate with Britain's Milner Commission in the wake of the 1919 Revolution, its creation was widely perceived as a thinly veiled British attempt to split nationalist ranks. As Wafd secretary Abdel-Rahman Fahmi wrote in his memoirs, such was the resistance to the nascent party that "its foundations collapsed and it died in its cradle".

Of more consequence, however, was the Egyptian Democratic Party created by a group of disciples of Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid, founder of Al-Jarida, a newspaper which closed down with the onset of World War I. Party members included such intellectual figures as Mansour Fahmi, Mahmoud Azmi, Ibrahim El-Shurbagi, Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Aziz Mirhom, or as Al-Ahram put it, "an elite of educated young Egyptians who had received their higher academic degrees in Europe". With the appearance of cracks in the Wafd, the members of the "elitist" party split in their affiliations. While one faction rushed to demonstrate solidarity with the Zaghlul-led Wafd Party, the other, the largest of the two factions, joined the growing numbers of those who had become disaffected with Zaghlul's leadership and moved to create an alternative party -- the Liberal Constitutional Party.

Given the political party climate in Egypt in general and the suspicion with which attempts to create alternative parties were viewed, in particular, the inception of the new party was certain to engender bitter animosity. In Al-Ahram of 13 June 1922 -- five months before the official announcement of the creation of the Liberal Constitutional Party -- the headline, "Odious news" heralded the opening volley in the battle over the new party. The article was intensely vehement in the charges it hurled against the founders of the new party, accusing them of working as proxies for the British. What is curious is that its author, Wahid Bek, had himself formerly been notoriously pro-British. Before the war he was known for his animosity to the Nationalist Party, which he had termed "the microbe of extremism" and whose members he described as "a group of rogues". In June 1907, he called for the establishment of the National Free Party whose manifesto favoured a continued British presence in the Egypt on the grounds that the country's development could benefit from a British guiding hand.

Ahmed Maher
Ebeid Barakat
Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, front row centre with followers at Saad Zaghlul's Mausoleum; Dawood Barakat; Ahmed Maher; Makram Ebeid
Clearly, by the 1920s the man had radically changed his stripes, for now he was staunchly opposed to the creation of new political parties. Appealing for unity of ranks, he wrote, "Today is the day for one nation, not the day for political parties." And, in a subsequent article in the newspaper he wrote, "The entire nation must stand as one, work together as one, beat with one heart. The hand of God is with the solidarity of the group. We shall not have a free party, but a nation of the free. I shall have no word or deed other than as a member of the whole, as one of the sons of this single nation."

The response to Wahid Bek's article was quick in coming. Four days after it appeared, Al-Ahram featured a letter signed by "a member of the forthcoming party". Naturally, the author was quick to remind readers of Wahid's earlier political leanings. He was also amazed at the haste with which Wahid accused the new party of being a British proxy, particularly as the party had not yet published its manifesto.

On 25 August 1922, after having opened its pages to the opinions of its readers, Al-Ahram declared its own point of view on the new party. Under the headline "Our need for systematised institutions: On the commotion over the formation of a new party" the newspaper came out firmly in favour of political party plurality. The existence of a diversity of political parties, it argued, was not inimical to national unity. This had nothing to do with the political party in question, which in all events had not by that time declared its platform. Rather, it wrote, "Political parties are the mainspring of life in nations where the individual is weak when alone but strong when together with his brothers. Without the existence of distinct groups as manifestations of popular opinion how is it possible to give it a concrete image? Indeed, how else can we gauge what opinion is and how can we monitor the activities of those who govern us and express our support?"

To the claim that the multi-party system is synonymous with national disunity, the newspaper counters that this is the argument of those who seek to monopolise patriotism to the exclusion of others. "As long as the nation belongs to all its inhabitants and as long as freedom is the right of every citizen it is everyone's prerogative to declare what they believe to be best for the nation. Then, ultimately, the nation can choose the most appropriate course, after having separated truth from demagoguery and after having tested claims with sound argument and proof."

Finally, Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief, who most likely wrote this editorial, indirectly criticised the tendency of Egyptian political parties to organise themselves around charismatic personalities. Political parties, he wrote, "should be based on sets of principles, for these principles live on and thrive in the life of the nation until they are no longer appropriate, at which point new sets of principles will take their place".

Soon Al-Ahram began to focus its attention on the very party that stirred the controversy. On 25 August, it relayed to its readers an article from the British Daily Telegraph, which said, "Preparations are under way in Cairo to form a new, powerful Egyptian political party to be headed by Adli Yakan Pasha and Hussein Rushdi Pasha as his vice-chairman. The Egyptian government has given the party approval to issue a newspaper, which is to be called Al-Zaman. Observers are keenly awaiting the new party's platform, particularly as pertains to its position on the status of Great Britain in Egypt." Al-Ahram also relayed a London Times item, which speculated that the new party "will adopt the policy of former Prime Minister Adli Yakan, which is to fulfill his nation's aspirations for a constitution and to conclude a true and lasting agreement with Great Britain that will serve the crucial interests of both countries. Considerable hopes are pinned on his success."

Of course, the support the British press demonstrated for the new party was certain to detract from its appeal at home. Aware of this dynamic, Al-Ahram opened its pages to advocates of the Liberal Constitutional Party. Indeed, at one stage during the run up to the official inauguration of the party, it seemed that virtually every issue carried a letter to the editor supporting the new party.

One reader, writing on 28 August, wrote that the emergence of the new party was admittedly the product of the rift within the Wafd. However, he added, the matter now transcended the question of rivalries over leadership to earnestly address the avenues towards independence. "In other words," he writes, "the altercation brought purely positive results. This is not a case where one party supports the British and the other the Egyptian cause." The writer, Hassan El-Sheikha, adds, "The strategy of Adli and his colleagues is well-known. He has previously engaged in what he described as arduous and in depth negotiations with the British. And, it was he who relinquished the seat of power when that round of negotiations proved futile and held no hopes for the benefit of the country." El-Sheikha concludes, "Anyone who understands the finer workings of politics and the intricacies of our circumstances would not deny the advantages to our country of having more than one political party, headed by men who have no other aspiration but to serve Egypt's present and future interests."

Abdallah Bek Sherif was a member of the Daqahliyya provincial directorate council. His letter, which appeared in Al-Ahram three days later, brimmed over with enthusiasm for the new party. The Liberal Constitutional Party, he wrote, "is founded upon the most solid principles, the highest probity and the noblest aims. It is certain to inspire confidence and faith through its unimpeachable policy, which is thoroughly consistent with the character of its leader, who is known for his integrity, astuteness, sense of honour, dedication and resolute commitment to steering the country down the most appropriate path. We can only bid welcome to the new party which promises to continue the struggle towards the fulfillment of our aspirations."

A third Al-Ahram reader, signing his letter with the initials A W, argued that channelling public opinion through organised political parties "promises to end the cacophony of diverse views and whims". A fourth writer, Butros Butros Gad, agreed, adding that the political parties enabled "the people to learn about those who nominate themselves to serve them".

Against the background of such encouraging support, the party's inaugural ceremony was held in the Shepheards Hotel. Al-Ahram accorded full coverage to the event in its 31 October edition. It is important to note that, although "700 notables, influential figures and intellectuals from the capital and the provinces" were invited to the reception, only some 300 attended. Also, one cannot help but observe that the reception made no attempt to appeal to the populace at large. Its meeting in Shepheards contrasted sharply with the meetings of the Wafd which were generally held to accommodate the masses in large tents and open spaces, rather than in the capital's most luxurious hotels which the average Egyptian would have hesitated to enter. In addition, the heavy presence of police patrols, not to mention the personal supervision of these patrols by the police commissioner, did little to convey an image of populism. These heavy security arrangements would have obviously suggested official sanction of the new party. How starkly this contrasted with Wafd rallies, which were as often as not held in spite of the authorities and which frequently ended in violent clashes with the police.

On the other hand, given the status of the hosts and invitees, a certain element of pomp and splendour would be expected in this reception to officially announce the new party. The list of the 26 candidates for the board of directors alone contained nine pashas, 14 beks, a doctor, a former mufti and the naqib al-ashraf, or head of the descendants of the Prophet. In other words, there was not a single 'effendi', the title distinguishing a member of the educated middle class from which constituted the backbone of the 1919 revolution.

Adli Yakan's opening address listed justifications for establishing the new party, as though defending it against the criticism that assailed it in most of the nation's newspapers, apart from Al-Ahram and Al-Muqattam. Firstly, he reminded his audience of what he described as the "great success" Egypt scored with the promulgation of the Declaration of 28 February 1922. This declaration "brought an end to the protectorate, recognised Egypt as an independent, sovereign kingdom and paved the way to the resolution of the outstanding issues between Egypt and Great Britain through negotiations in which the ultimate say in their results will be in the hands of the Egyptian parliament. All this must be considered a political success achieved by the nation through its struggle to realise its highest aspiration". He, himself, had a hand in this success by virtue of his negotiations with Lord Curzon, as did Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat, who refused to form a government for 66 days, thereby forcing the British to promulgate the declaration.

"The constitutional system is the only appropriate way to govern a nation as venerable as our nation," he said by way of suggesting that the presentation to the nation of a constitution was another laurel to be attributed to his party. In this context, too, he subtly struck out at the Wafd. Alluding to that party's leaders as "men with political passions," he appealed to "people with a sense of responsibility to guard against their every attempt to undermine the benefits of constitutional rule, particularly at this juncture at the outset of our constitutional system when we will be contending with the vital issue of our national self-determination".

After reaffirming the importance of political party plurality, "which is the optimum system possible to keep principles alive," Adli outlined the 18 principles upon which his party was founded. For the most part, these principles were either a reiteration of statements issued by Wafd leaders or of the tenets of the pre-World War I Umma Party. In all events, few would have cause to disagree with them. The first two principles called for the end to the British occupation and full and unqualified independence, crowned by the entry of Egypt into the League of Nations. Three principles emphasised the party's commitment to the constitutional system and to enhancing the mechanisms of parliamentary representation. The seventh and eighth principles were dedicated to social causes, such as combating illiteracy and improving health services, while the remaining 10 concerned themselves with economic and financial affairs.

Al-Ahram was unrestrained in its praise for the new party's platform. Its principles were "noble" and "certain to fulfill the aspirations of the nation". It goes on to comment that "the honourable men who drafted the principles were scrupulous in ensuring that they reflected their worthy aims". So saying, Al-Ahram declared its party affiliation, or its partisanship as subsequent events would bear out.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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