6 - 12 July 2000
Issue No. 489
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (345)
Up until 1924, over 30 governments had come and gone in Egypt. Without exception, all were anointed by royal decree. But cabinet No 32 was to be unique, the first born out of a genuine constitution. Though it lasted barely nine months before it crumbled at the hands of the British high commissioner, the government was for the first time seen as being for, not against, the people. Dubbed in fact "The People's Government," it was a cabinet of reform, led by a son of the revolution who sought to distance himself from previous entities which had entered into pledges the nation had no say in and, if anything, opposed. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* writes on a government put together without the king's men
Royal no longerThe 32nd cabinet in Egyptian history was formed on 28 January 1924. It had a difficult birth and stormy life, and it died before nine months were out. At hand to deliver the lethal blow was British High Commissioner Lord Allenby who, backed by a military show of force, delivered to the prime minister an ultimatum which included such degrading conditions that the latter had no alternative but to hand in his resignation.
In spite of this short-lived and tempestuous period, this government occupies a special place in Egyptian history. It was Egypt's first constitutionally formed government. All of its 31 predecessors had been brought into being by royal decree from the occupant of Abdeen Palace, and, moreover, they had to meet the approval of the British authorities. In a lengthy article in its 21 January edition, Al-Ahram reviews the history of the government system that was introduced in 1878 under the Khedive Ismail. The first cabinet, it writes, "was no more than a collection of senior officials that would never have dared to act counter to the orders issued to them by the palace." The Council of Deputies was "a body of notables who convened upon the summons of the khedive with the purpose of rubber-stamping his orders."
The government that was formed against the background of the Orabi revolution was equally incapacitated, but for different reasons. This cabinet was drawn between the pull of two diametrically opposed forces: "the military officers who had rebelled and sought to assume the reigns of government -- a task doomed to failure since the military was not created to intervene in politics -- and European financiers. Neither did the military men permit the representative body the freedom to dispose of affairs of government wisdom and acumen, nor did the financiers loosen the reigns on parliamentary life to allow it to steer the ship of government safely to shore. As a result, the ship sank and our country was submerged under foreign occupation for 40 years, during which time there took effect the policy epitomised in Lord Granville's famous telegram: 'Either the most senior Egyptian official submits to the will of the lowest British official, or he resigns.'"
The 32nd government was brought into being under radically different circumstances. It was formed under the constitutional provision that the party that gained the majority in parliament through free elections would then be charged with forming the cabinet. Because of this provision, this was also the first cabinet to fall under the close scrutiny of the parliamentary body from which it emanated. Although the supporters of Saad Zaghlul obtained an overwhelming 90 per cent majority in the house, that did not prevent the remaining 10 per cent of National Party representatives from mounting an active and effective opposition. Indeed, they frequently succeeded in cornering Zaghlul in the embarrassing position of having to choose between his role as prudent statesman in his conduct of relations with the British and as zealous revolutionary party leader, impatient to put into effect the principles he advocated before assuming the mantle of prime minister.
Yehya Pasha Ibrahim
Finally, this was the first government to be headed by an energetic leader of the revolution and a masterful, charismatic politician who, during its brief existence, lifted the heavy bureaucratic pall that shrouded all previous cabinets. Moreover, while this prime minister showed all deference to King Fouad, he did not believe the British high commissioner had the final say in the shape and substance of the Egyptian cabinet. Such an attitude was certain to cause the storm clouds to gather even before the new government took its first breath.
There was a 16-day hiatus between 12 January 1924, when the results of the parliamentary elections were to be announced, and 28 January, when the new government was to be formed. These were the final days of the government of Yehya Pasha Ibrahim, who had overseen the promulgation of the new constitution and the holding of the parliamentary elections. Ibrahim had agreed with King Fouad to remain in power until the new parliament convened which, King Fouad believed, would give him ample opportunity to fill the crucial ministerial posts with his appointees, while simultaneously giving Prime Minister Ibrahim enough time to designate the five Senate members he was permitted to appoint under the new constitution.
Accordingly, Ibrahim issued an official statement to Al-Ahram on 16 January. "From the first moment I declared that I would not run for the Council of Deputies in keeping with my pledge to maintain absolute neutrality," Ibrahim said. "On one occasion a delegation of voter delegates from the Al-Sanafin constituency called upon me to run as their candidate. I refused outright and when they persisted I informed them that they were free to elect whomever they wished according to the dictates of their conscience. This, in itself, constitutes the clearest proof that this government has maintained the most scrupulous neutrality in the course of these elections and that I have made no attempt whatsoever to influence the voters." If the prime minister's statement was a face-saving device, it was also intended to serve another purpose: to justify the continued occupancy of his post until the end of the period agreed upon with King Fouad.
In order to gain more time, King Fouad undertook a five-day tour of the Suez Canal and Sinai beginning on 20 January, a period that happened to coincide with a visit Allenby had undertaken to Sudan. While Fouad was pursuing that ploy, confidential British documents revealed that the king had simultaneously sought to rally the assistance of the high commissioner in implementing his plans. Evidently, Fouad had informed Mr Carr, the charge d'affaires for the high commissioner during his absence, that before he left Allenby had promised to keep Yehya Ibrahim in office until the new parliament convened. Carr searched the office of the high commissioner for any reference to such a pledge, but could find nothing. He was, therefore, forced to inform Ibrahim that the high commissioner's office had no desire to intervene. Moreover, he informed Zaghlul as well that the high commissioner's office did not wish to involve itself in any manner in the issue.
Perhaps this incident explains the famous statement the Wafd Party leader issued to a Reuters correspondent, demanding Ibrahim's resignation. The people of the country, he said, have already made their opinion on the matter incontrovertibly clear -- the prime minister had been soundly defeated in the elections and the Wafd candidate had won. Having been thus exposed, Yehya Pasha had no choice but to resign. In its 19 January edition, Al-Ahram blazoned in boldface, "The Egyptian Cabinet Resigns. Egypt Awaits the New Cabinet." Later, historians would dub the new cabinet "The People's Government" although at the time Al-Ahram described it as "The Independent, Constitutional Government." Independence and a constitution were the two primary demands of the Egyptian nationalist movement at the time.
But virtually every aspect in forming the 32nd cabinet was encumbered by controversy; even the question of who was to fill the premiership. Many of Zaghlul's supporters believed that he would be more powerful and effective if he remained the dynamic national leader and that he should entrust one of his close associates to form the new government. Clearly Al-Ahram thought this was the strategy because it comments, "The most likely candidates as prime minister are Nasim Pasha and Mohamed Said Pasha, both of whom are ministers with extensive experience and know-how and are close friends of Zaghlul Pasha. Zaghlul himself prefers to continue to exercise his authority outside of the cabinet."
If this thinking was prevalent prior to the elections, it was less so in the flush of victory, especially a victory of such overwhelming proportions. A government emerging from such a massive base of popular support would certainly enjoy much more leverage and freedom of movement than one based on a more fragile base of support. Also, whatever Saad's stature, he was still only human. He had tasted power in government before when he served as the minister of education and then of justice, from 1906 to 1912, and it is, therefore, not inconsistent that he should allude in his memoirs that he was favourably disposed to grasping the opportunity to realise a long-cherished dream. He writes, "The onus will fall on my shoulders sooner or later and, as long as this is the case, it makes no sense that the post should fall to someone else." Were he franker with himself, he might have substituted "post" with "honour."
On 19 January, "His Excellency Prime Minister Saad Pasha Zaghlul was honoured to be received by His Majesty the King in Abdeen Palace, and remained in the presence of His Majesty for an hour and a half, during which time he was accorded all due respect." As soon as Egyptians read this formal announcement in their morning newspapers they realised that Saad Zaghlul was on the verge of making a final decision.
The following day, under the headline, "The Wafd and the Government," Al-Ahram said the many letters and telegrams addressing the famous Wafd leader that had flooded its offices were still divided over whether Zaghlul should become prime minister. It said that quite a large body of Zaghlul's supporters hoped he would remain "a mentor and leader to the people's parliamentary deputies so as to better safeguard the interests of the nation." Still, those who urged Zaghlul to accept the post were in the majority and, moreover, were more influential, counting among them "prominent politicians and senior government officials who belong to the Egyptian Wafd Party and a great number of parliamentary deputies."
According to Al-Ahram, this latter group was of the opinion that the rules and customs of constitutional systems require that the leader of the majority party assume the head of government. It continued, "For a party president, whose leadership won through the electoral process unanimous support never before obtained by another politician in a free country, to decline that position constitutes a deviation from these rules and customs. Such deviation is inappropriate and is not in keeping with the conditions the nation brought into being after a long and bitter struggle."
As this debate was taking place in Egypt, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Wafd met to review the situation. During the meeting Zaghlul voiced his objections to the most likely candidates for prime minister should he refuse to assume the post. Tawfiq Nasim, he charged, was under too much influence of the palace, Mohamed Said Pasha was too difficult to deal with and Mazloum Pasha was too influenced by Mohamed Said. The only solution was for Zaghlul himself to assume the task of forming the new government.
Al-Ahram dispatched one of its reporters to interview Tawfiq Nasim. Nasim told the reporter that he hoped "the revered leader" would assume the post. Saad Zaghlul, he said, was "at the vanguard of the nation and he spearheaded the national revival. As such, he should stand at the helm of the government and steer it towards the service of the nation and the throne, illuminating the course to rectitude and benevolence." He added that if it was praiseworthy that Zaghlul had "endured the strains and hardship of lifting the nation and defending its cause, it will be all the more laudable that he continue this service under new circumstances and in a new capacity, bringing with him his sincere resolve that will never be swayed by the difficulties of the task before him." Nasim, with a nose honed by a lengthy political career, obviously knew which way the wind was blowing.
Prince Omar Tousoun was less cunning. In an interview with the Al-Ahram correspondent, who was sent to Alexandria to meet the prince, Tousoun said, "Prudence demands that His Excellency Saad Pasha and all the people elected to represent them in the parliament should have nothing whatsoever to do with forming the government." When the reporter pointed out that this notion conflicted with constitutional provisions, the prince responded that that was true in any country save Egypt. "In our country the matter needs closer scrutiny." He added that what compelled him to adopt this view was that were the popularly elected deputies to form a government at this time they would be tacitly legitimising the Declaration of 28 February 1922, in accordance with which Britain unilaterally recognised Egyptian independence but with some major caveats.
On Friday 25 January, a reception for the "leader of the nation," hosted by the parliamentary deputies in Shepherds Hotel, left no more room for speculation. It opened with several speeches delivered by prominent Wafd members. Mohamed Said Pasha's address suggested that Zaghlul's three alternatives had stepped aside as soon as the Wafd leader had made clear that he had decided to become head of the government. "I believe I speak on behalf of all my fellow deputies when I take this happy occasion to ask him [Zaghlul] not to hesitate in accepting the premiership so that he may lead the country in this new era with the same determination with which he brought it to the success we see today," Said said.
When he rose to the podium, Saad Zaghlul delivered what turned out to be his acceptance speech. After speaking at length about his commitment to serving the nation and about the responsibilities incumbent upon the parliamentary representatives, Zaghlul discussed the principles that would guide his government. He was not obliged to implement the pledges previous governments had made to the British, pledges in which "the nation had no say and indeed, opposed," he said. He vowed, however, to reform government, which "for many years has been subjected to various experiments and various systems, fought over by diverse authorities and controlled by fluctuating whims." Towards this end he promised to introduce important legislative amendments. However, the most striking aspect of his speech was his highly optimistic assessment of the possibilities of realising national aspirations for full and unqualified independence. What augured favourably was that, for the first time in its history, Britain was ruled by a Labour government headed by Ramsey McDonald, a well-known sympathiser for the Egyptian cause. Of course, Zaghlul's optimism was misplaced, for British politicians are notorious for changing their positions once they take up residence at 10 Downing Street.
In any event, on 28 January, 48 hours after the reception at Shepherds Hotel, King Fouad entrusted Saad Zaghlul with the task of forming the government. The news was on the front page of Al-Ahram the following day. "Government resigns. Saad Pasha to form new cabinet!" In spite of its jubilant ring, the headline was to herald a new round of troubles.
Perhaps problems were unavoidable. This was the first time the prime minister had a major say in forming his government. Prior to 1882, the khedive was the ultimate authority in the matter, and following the British occupation, the composition of the government was fought out between Abdeen and Dubara palaces, generally in favour of the will of the latter, the headquarters of the British high commissioner. In other words, until now, the will of the people had never been a part of the equation. Thus, on this occasion, when Zaghlul selected his cabinet and submitted his list to Abdeen Palace, he had to fight tooth and nail to defend his choices.
Heading his team were Mohamed Said, Tawfiq Nasim and Ahmed Mazloum. According to the brief biographies Al-Ahram furnished its readers, Mohamed Said, a judge by profession, served as minister of interior under Boutros Ghali, then followed Ghali into the premiership from 1910 to 1913. He served again as prime minister in 1919, resigning when the Milner Commission arrived in Egypt. In the 1924 elections, he was elected parliamentary deputy for Alexandria. Tawfiq Nasim was also a judge and also served twice as prime minister, resigning as premier from his last term in March 1923 in protest against the high commissioner's opposition to his policy on Sudan. Finally, Mazloum Pasha had served as minister of justice in the government of Riad Pasha and as minister of finance under Mustafa Fahmi Pasha until 1908 when the government resigned. Five years later, he served as speaker of the legislative assembly.
Observers at the time must have wondered what made Zaghlul take on board three men known to have been on good terms with the palace. It was suggested that they were frequently instrumental in smoothing over difficulties in the relationship between Zaghlul and King Fouad, a role for which Zaghlul intended to reward them. More probable is that the relations between the four went back a long way. Zaghlul had served in the government headed by Said and then as the deputy speaker of the legislature under Mazloum Pasha. Additionally, Said, Nasim and Mazloum were the only candidates King Fouad accepted without reservation. Zaghlul would have a more difficult time persuading the king to accept his other candidates. Fouad, for example, rejected Ali El-Shamsi Bek because he had supported the troublesome Khedive Abbas Helmi II. He rejected Murqus Hanna Bek as minister of justice "because it is inappropriate to appoint a Copt to that position in a Muslim country." Zaghlul conceded to these points and crossed El-Shamsi off his list and nominated Hanna as minister for public works.
While Fouad accepted this compromise, he rejected the candidacy of another Copt, Wassef Ghali, because custom had it that there should only be one Coptic minister. "It might anger the people to depart from this tradition." Zaghlul refused to accept this excuse. He refused to discriminate between Muslim and Copt, he said. Moreover, he was responsible before the Egyptian people and both Hanna and Wassef had a proud history in the service of the national struggle.
According to Al-Ahram, Murqus Hanna, who obtained his license in law while in France, returned to Egypt to take up a post in the judiciary and then resigned to practice law independently. In 1919 he was elected to the Wafd Central Committee, then as head of the Lawyers Syndicate. "He and three of his colleagues from the Wafd were sentenced to death by a martial court, although the sentence was reduced to seven years hard labour. When he was released, the lawyers syndicate re-elected him as their head in recognition of his services.
Wassef Ghali had been an active advocate of the Egyptian cause in Europe. "He continued to fight on behalf of the Wafd, then joined Saad Zaghlul, continuing the struggle until he was arrested, along with the other Wafd members, sentenced to death and then eventually released."
King Fouad also objected to Zaghlul's proposal that Naguib Effendi El-Gharabli be minister of justice. "He is not of sufficient stature to fill a ministerial position," the king argued. In fact, El-Gharabli had a modest law practice in Tanta. When the 1919 revolution broke out, he joined the Wafd and was also sentenced to death along with Ghali and Hanna and then pardoned. In 1924, El-Gharabli was elected as the parliamentary deputy for the Sandibast constituency but this was not his only victory. King Fouad was ultimately forced to yield to Zaghlul's determination to have this man in his government.
On 29 January, Al-Ahram published the official documents regarding the formation of the new government: the royal decree charging Zaghlul with the task of selecting the members of his cabinet and Zaghlul's response. The decree and response had more in common with an exchange of gunfire.
King Fouad formulated his decree with the customary references calling for Zaghlul's fealty and allegiance to the throne. Zaghlul fired back, "The elections of the members of the Council of Deputies has demonstrated clearly that the people are united in its commitment to the principles of the Wafd. These principles aim towards the fulfillment of the imperative that the nation enjoy its natural right."
Added Zaghlul, "For centuries, the people have seen their government as a bird sees the hunter, not as soldiers see their leader. They have thought of their government as a formidable adversary, constantly contriving to trick them, not as a trusted agent working towards the fulfillment of their welfare." Saad Zaghlul promised to change the Egyptian attitude towards government. He may not have succeeded in this, but he had planted a very powerful idea.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.