Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 - 31 May 2000
Issue No. 483
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (339)

About six decades after the establishment of a rudimentary system of parliamentary representation in Egypt, a new law was enacted in 1923 which led to the birth of the country's first genuine legislature. It was a bicameral house consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The new electoral law was passed one year after Britain, then occupying Egypt, issued the famous 28 February Declaration proclaiming Egyptian independence. Election fever gripped the country from 30 April 1923, when the law was promulgated, to 12 January the following year when the final stage of the voting took place. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram


Democracy is born

On Saturday 12 January 1924, the representatives of the Egyptian electorate made their way to the polling stations in order to elect Egypt's first truly popularly elected parliament since the introduction of the parliamentary system 58 years previously.

The description, "truly popularly elected parliament," is appropriate. The Constitution of 1923 was the basis of the electoral law. Article 1 of that law stipulated, "Every Egyptian male has the right to elect the members of the Chamber of Deputies upon fully attaining the age of 21 as reckoned in Christian calendar years and to elect the members of the Senate upon fully attaining the age of 25 as reckoned in Christian calendar years."

By contrast, the first Egyptian parliament, called the Majlis Shura Al-Nuwwab, or Consultative Council of Deputies, was established by decree of Khedive Ismail in 1866. In addition, the law regulating the elections of that council restricted the right to vote, in the countryside, to "elders of distinction" and, in the cities, to "dignitaries and notables."

It is surprising to note, too, that although a more democratic electoral law was promulgated in deference to the growing nationalist movement in the early 1880s, this law placed a major financial restriction on the right to vote. According to its first article, "Every [male] Egyptian subject has the right to vote on the condition that he has fully attained the age of 21 and that he pay to the government, whether through taxes or established duties, the sum of 500 piastres per annum." Following the British occupation in 1882, a similar financial restriction was maintained in the electoral laws promulgated under the organic laws of 1883 and 1913, thus continuing to exclude a significant portion of the populace from the right to vote on the basis of financial means.

Saad Zaghlul
Saad Zaghlul
Yahia Ibrahim
Yahya Ibrahim
The 1924 parliamentary elections were also the first to be conducted on a political party basis. Although political parties existed well before the outbreak of World War I, both the occupation authorities and the government were strongly averse to codifying any relationship between the parties on the one hand and the executive and legislative authorities on the other. Thus, for example, neither Mustafa Kamel nor Mohamed Farid, the leaders of the Nationalist Party, the largest and most influential political party during that period, were able to use the party as a platform for entry into the cabinet or the parliamentary assemblies. Another instance of the absence of an institutionalised link between political parties and government occurred with the formation of the Umma (national) Party in 1907. When the founders of this party, many of whom were members of parliament, moved to steer the debates along party lines, this move was immediately quashed by the speaker of the house.

Another feature that set the 1924 elections apart from previous parliamentary elections was that they were the first to take place after Egypt obtained legal independence in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922. Nevertheless, the electoral law promulgated under the post-independence constitution followed its predecessors in at least one major respect, which was to hold parliamentary elections by indirect popular vote in two stages. Under the decree of 1866, village elders were considered "appointed by the will of the people." The electoral law of 1882 was the first to introduce the system of a delegate representing a certain number of citizens and he would elect the representatives to the Chamber of Deputies. This was essentially the system put into effect under the 1923 Constitution.

If in 1866 and 1882 the rationale for holding two-tier elections was that it was easier to influence the direction of balloting through a relatively small number of delegates than through direct popular vote, this rationale gained in strength at the time of the 1924 elections. Above all, the adversaries of Saad Zaghlul believed that direct elections would bring him and the Wafd Party which he headed to power given the enormous sway the popular nationalist leader had in the Egyptian street. After all, they dubbed Zaghlul the "leader of the rabble." As a result, the electoral law of 1923 provided that every 30 eligible voters would elect a delegate who in turn would elect the members to the Chamber of Deputies. Moreover, every five members of the Chamber of Deputies would elect another delegate who would cast the ballot in the senate elections, thus introducing a three-tier system in the elections for the higher chamber in the legislature.

Because of the many features that distinguished the 1924 parliamentary elections from its predecessors, the events of 1923 and the beginning of 1924 form a unique and important chapter in the history of parliamentary life in Egypt.

The story opens on 30 April 1923 with the publication in the official gazette of the new electoral law. At this signal, the electoral race was off to an exhilarating start. Al-Ahram reports that, virtually overnight, fliers of every description flooded the country, proclaiming the virtues of candidates who nominated themselves for office. The tendency of the candidates was to promote themselves as personalities rather than present any clearly identifiable platform, a phenomenon which Al-Ahram noted, for it commented, "They boast in flowery language of loyalty to the nation, dedication to its independence, sincerity, honesty and other such virtues, while not omitting to vilify their rivals." It deplored this form of campaigning and attributed it to a certain mentality that was fostered by writers in the press, "who cast allegations of infidelity against their adversaries, rendering it commonplace for all who wish to win the affection of the public to adorn themselves with the opposite virtue (fidelity).

The initial campaign frenzy proved excellent fodder for ridicule. The first to seize upon the ill-disguised vanity of the candidates was the famed "Prince of Wit," Mohamed Fikri Abaza. Under the headline "A candidate's speech" he wrote:

"In the name of God, the Beneficent and Merciful. Praise to God the Lord of the Universe. The electoral law has been promulgated and, accordingly, gentlemen, you have been asked to choose your deputies. And, here I am, so make way. I shall tell you, gentlemen, of my modest self. I am but a poor servant of God. I am powerless except when armed with right and principle. I am he who derives his power from the power of the people, his eloquence from the eloquence of the people and his ingenuity from the ingenuity of the people. I am the servant of the people, the minion of the people, the son of the people.

"I am the conjurer, the reader of secrets. When I put on my turban you will know me. I am the one!"

Taking his cue from Abaza, a resident of Faqoos, Ali Metwalli, wrote an article which took the form of a parody of an advertisement for the Jobs Vacant column. The Al-Ahram management was evidently delighted by it, for they featured it prominently on the front page of the edition of 26 May. It read:

"Position of member of parliament vacant. Candidates must meet the following conditions:

His parents must be Egyptian peasants, regardless of religious affiliation; he must not be a resident of Cairo or any other city or provincial capital; he must ride third class on the national railway lines; he must have been summoned as a witness in a police investigation, detained in 'the pen' for a full day, released and summoned and detained again; he must be in debt to a Greek or Jew engaged in 'usurious' money trade; he must serve as case scout for lawyers; he must have had the honour of appearing in one or more criminal trials."

It was not long, however, before humour subsided and sobriety set in. One of the first anxieties to beset public opinion was that only a certain sector of the populace would monopolise the electoral process while the rest remained bystanders, or that local conflicts would play themselves out in the campaigns. Al-Ahram addressed this fear under the headline, "Now the people must have their say."

The editorial observed that the people of the countryside were divided in accordance to their loyalties to certain individuals. "People support this notable or that because he is the one who mediates with the district police commissioner, the directorate chief, the deputy and the inspector on their behalf. But, if local officials were just and accorded all citizens their rightful dues without need for mediation, things would proceed in the most apt and proper manner."

The article goes on to urge that the new parliament be composed "of the most upstanding, dedicated and knowledgeable of all social elements, and not of a single constituency or denomination. For what you, for example, might know, I might not know, and vice versa. Thus, if we combine my knowledge with your knowledge, together with the knowledge of others, we will have created a large, coherent body of knowledge that will come closer to the truth, if not the entire truth. Herein lies the secret of the success of consultation among the people."

It would appear that Al-Ahram's appeal for diversity in representation and open-mindedness was a cry in the wilderness.

In a subsequent editorial, the newspaper expresses its fear that the prevalent factionalism and partisanship would prevail over such considerations as the qualifications that should be present among the members of parliament.

With regard to the electoral process itself, the conditions for registering in the voter lists were difficult or impossible to meet. These conditions included being either a formerly registered voter or personally known to the polling board in their constituency. Another requirement was an attestation issued by the sheikh al-hara (an official who acted as a liaison officer between a small subsection of a precinct and the local police station). This requirement sometimes presented an insurmountable obstacle, at least to the inhabitants of Masr Al-Gadida (Heliopolis) who complained that their neighbourhoods had no sheikh al-hara to begin with.

In addition, many government employees found themselves unable to meet the office hours for registering. Their plight was voiced by an employee who wrote to Al-Ahram to say that when he went to the polling board in his constituency to register he was told, "Registration is only from 10.00am to 1.00pm." "These hours are only convenient to notables and pensioners," he complained. "As for workers, merchants, employees, indeed the greater majority of eligible voters, the morning hours for registration conflict with their jobs and businesses."

In spite of these encumbrances, there were widespread appeals urging citizens to register. In addition to the voter registration drives launched by the central Wafd Party committees throughout the country, several individuals took the initiative to appeal to certain sectors of the populace. Thus, we find in Al-Ahram a letter from an Al-Azhar student urging his colleagues to head to the nearest voter registration station "to perform that duty incumbent upon us." A government employee warned his colleagues against failure to register. In addition, many professionals, especially lawyers, virtually converted their offices into centres for encouraging registration. Al-Ahram observes that most of these were members of either the Wafd or the National Party.

Al-Ahram observed another phenomenon that marked a precedent in the history of the electoral process in Egypt and, indeed, was probably never repeated. This was the spontaneous emergence of private societies to protect candidates and voters from arbitrary treatment by the authorities. The formation of these societies was prompted by such instances of government heavy-handedness as that reported in Al-Ahram on 18 October 1923, to the effect that the authorities in Damanhour prohibited a campaign rally in support of one Ahmed Hafez Awad, editor-in-chief of Al-Mahrousa.

One example of these societies was The Society for Free Elections. Based in the Abdeen district in Cairo, its secretary, Ibrahim Muharram, issued a policy statement declaring the impartiality of the society and attesting that it was not affiliated to any political party. The purpose of the society, he stated, was "to work towards the realisation of free elections, as they are properly understood, and to combat the illegitimate ways of obstructing the freedom of the voters."

Another such society called itself The Society for the Defence of the Rights of Public Elections in Menoufiya. The society's chairman, Abbas Taha, sent a statement to Al-Ahram deploring the "propaganda" being disseminated even before the candidates' lists were finalised, a practice which "provokes confusion, anxiety and suspicion" among the voters.

Mustafa Kamel
Mustafa KamelFikri Abaza
Fikri Abaza
Another remarkable feature of the 1924 elections was that all of Egypt seemed caught up in "election fever." Indicative of its grip on the country was the play, "Elections," staged by the Amin Sidqi theatre troupe and lauded in a letter to Al-Ahram as "vividly portraying the current social climate generated by the electoral campaign activities, for which artistry it merits the highest praise."

Against this climate the electoral process began on 27 September 1923 with the election of the delegates and ended on 13 January of the following year with the announcement of the names of the deputies of Egypt's first post-independence parliament.

Yet, before the process got under way, a significant event occurred. On 18 September 1923, after having spent nearly two years in exile in the Seychelles and Gibraltar, Zaghlul arrived in Alexandria. Because of frequent news reports of his failing health while in exile, Egyptians had come to believe that the famous leader of the 1919 Revolution would never return home alive. It is little wonder, therefore, that the nation's attention would be turned to the homecoming hero. And such were the crowds that turned out to greet him in Alexandria, in Cairo and along the route in between, that it was commonly felt that, as a Wafdist rallying cry put it, "if Saad nominated a stone, we would elect it."

According to The Near East correspondent in Cairo, the return of Zaghlul was not the only boon in favour of the Wafd Party. It was also the best organised party, unrivalled in this respect by the other two major parties that had entered the elections: the National Party and the Liberal Constitutional Party. As the correspondent wrote, "They [the Wafdists] are unique in their zeal for the elections. While the National and Liberal Constitutional parties have not held rallies, disseminated pamphlets or undertaken any other form of promotional activity, the Wafd has been unflagging in its determination. It has set up 30-member committees in every electoral constituency, obtained pledges from the elected delegates to support its candidates and distributed brochures to the delegates explaining the balloting process." It comes as little surprise, therefore, that with the publication of the results of the voter delegates on 3 October 1923, the victory of the Wafdist candidates appeared a foregone conclusion.

The electoral law did not set a specific interim period between this phase in the elections and the balloting by delegates for the members of parliament. Undoubtedly because of the Wafdists' significant lead, the government of Yahya Ibrahim Pasha seized upon this loophole to delay setting the date of the second round of elections. The interval, which ultimately exceeded 100 days, gave the Wafdists' rival parties a respite in which to rally their forces so that, at least, the elections would not end in a complete disaster for them. On the one hand, they moved to garner support among the voter delegates. On the other, they began to argue that the first round of voting was not sufficiently representative due to poor voter turnout.

Zaghlul took advantage of an interview with a French newspaper to counter this contention. When asked about voter turnout, he responded, "More than 70 or 80 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote, and, considering the shortcomings in the registration process those who did not turn out to vote can be forgiven."

It is interesting that, while some British newspapers took the line of the rival parties, The Manchester Guardian supported Zaghlul's point of view. In its edition of 16 October it wrote that the electoral system was designed specifically to pressure the electoral delegates to vote for the Liberal Constitutional Party led by Adli Yakan. "However, these plans were thwarted in their entirety when the Zaghlulists [Wafdists] emerged from the battle victorious, after 85.5 per cent of the electorate cast their votes."

Eventually, the government succumbed to popular pressure and set Saturday 12 January 1924, as the date on which 38,000 delegates would cast their ballots for the members of parliament. Al-Ahram, along with the rest of the country, appeared to be holding its breath until that day. On 8 January, it began the countdown with the headline, "The conscience of the nation reveals itself in four days," a formula it repeated over the following days until finally it blazoned, "The elections are due today -- the day of the nation." Under this latter heading, the newspaper describes the "critical moment" in which the delegates cast their ballots. It goes on to comment, "These delegates for every 30 voters are entrusted with the good and welfare of the country, indeed with its very life now and in the future. They have been apprised by every writer and spokesman of the responsibility that rests on their consciences. Now that the bell has sounded this momentous hour, the hour of the final verdict, the entire nation can do nothing but pray to God that the delegates of the nation be moved by wisdom and probity."

On 13 January, Al-Ahram proclaimed in bold headlines "The results of the parliamentary elections in Egypt -- The members of the Chamber of Deputies as reported by telegraph and telephone from the correspondents of Al-Ahram -- A landslide victory for the Saadists [Wafdists]."

Perhaps the most surprising outcome was that the Wafdist candidate, Ahmed Effendi, beat Prime Minister Yahya Ibrahim Pasha for the seat representing Al-Sannafin constituency in Sharqiya. Moreover, particularly alarming to the opponents of the Wafd was that this party won 192 seats out of a total of 214 seats, or an approximately 90 per cent majority in the new parliament. Of the remaining seats, the Liberal Constitutional Party won nine and the National Party won four. One of the latter was the member of parliament representing Bilbeis in Sharqiya, Mohamed Fikri Abaza, the "Prince of Wit."


Dr Yunan

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

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